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SanctionPA works to make girls wrestling official in this ‘wrestling state’
Photo: Mea Abbott (left) is among the girls who are competing on the first girls high school wrestling team at Athens High in Pennsylvania. (Matt Patton photo)
By Pat McDonald
Pennsylvania is one of the country’s top states for high school wrestling — arguably the best — and now there is a major push in the state to grow and officially sanction girls wrestling.
“SanctionPA” is a grassroots organization that is helping communities and school districts across the state add girls wrestling programs. This group is also facing the same dilemma that other wrestling states like Ohio and Iowa faced before each state announced the past two months that girls wrestling would be officially sanctioned by next winter.
The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) has said that for the sport to be officially recognized there have to be 100 school districts with a girls program. As of now, there are 31 official girls teams in Pennsylvania — enough to be called an emerging sport — but officials at SanctionPA believe they are at the beginning of a major boom.
“It was really tough trying to get those first 25 schools, but we feel the momentum coming … I think the jump from 25 to 50 or 50 to 75 is going to take off quick, particularly if we can get some of these pockets (in the state) to start pushing the girls program forward,” said Chris Atkinson, who is the director of girls wrestling for PA USA Wrestling and a member of SanctionPA.
SanctionPA Chair Brooke Zumas credited Atkinson and Joe Stabilito, Sr. of Pennsylvania USA Wrestling with kicking off the push to sanction girls wrestling in the Keystone State.
“It was really a continuation of the work that they put in. We just brought more people to the table, so Chris and Joe have really been working hard on this and it was mostly all on their shoulders,” said Zumas, who noted that girls wrestling has grown by 85 percent in PA over the last year.
The PIAA has extremely high standards when it comes to adding a sport. Unlike other states which sanctioned girls wrestling with a simple vote, if the sport is going to become official in Pennsylvania there needs to be a coordinated effort and strong numbers.
“Finally, (in 2019-20) we realized PIAA is not going to budge, we need to change direction. That’s when Brooke got involved, that’s when Pat Tocci (Senior Director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association) got involved. That’s when we started recruiting others around the state and we really formed SanctionPA at that time,” Atkinson said.
“We have to sanction 100 schools, that’s the requirement from PIAA, so let’s just start chipping away at that because (that requirement) is not going to go away. That’s what we have to do, and we rolled up our sleeves, we started right back at the grassroots and we started working forward from there.”
One thing that helps is the fact that for a high school to have an official program, it only needs approval from the school board and needs to have a designated coach. Some of the current 31 programs in the state have just one girl officially on the roster, but it’s a start.
“From the PIAA standpoint (one) girl truly does meet the definition of a team. You just need to be able to score team points and one girl can score team points (at a tournament),” Zumas said. “You don’t form a team because you have girls wrestling, you can, but you also form a team because you believe in the sport and growing the sport and you want to recruit more girls to wrestling. There’s that growth mentality. No matter what you’re starting with, it’s OK.”
Zumas noted that some schools have started a girls wrestling program without any girls already on the roster.
“We have had several teams form that when they got that board approval there were zero girls who had been in the wrestling room. We constantly try to communicate that the number of girls that you had in your wrestling room when you only had a boys program is not representative of the girls that might be interested in girls wrestling. A lot of coaches will say ‘well, nobody is interested.’ That’s not necessarily what that means,” Zumas said.
Athens Area High school in District 4 started a girls program this year and has a small but dedicated group that includes some who wrestled with the boys program and others who decided to try it because the school now has an official girls team.
“I don’t think a lot of us would have done it if we had to go with the boys,” said Athens junior Braelynn Wood, who tried wrestling for the first time this year.
Zumas is proud that SanctionPA is helping the girls in Pennsylvania’s wrestling community get the same chances as the boys.
“I think it’s huge. It’s huge for them. It’s huge for the sport. We love this sport, why would you not want to grow it as much as you possibly can?” she said.
Atkinson admitted that it has been frustrating at times as the PIAA hasn’t exactly cleared the way for getting girls wrestling sanctioned.
“We’re getting there. It’s obviously discouraging to us … Pennsylvania is the top state in the country for amateur wrestling and a lot of us in the community, we would have hoped for more support and we would have hoped for the road to be easier,” said Atkinson, who pointed to New Jersey as a state that quickly approved the sport.
Atkinson is working hard to convince coaches and administrators from across the state that girls wrestling is here and eventually it will reach every wrestling room in the state.
“I’ve been saying it for years, you may not support girls wrestling just yet, but you’re going to,” he said. “You’re either going to have a daughter or that girl is going to walk into your room and it’s going to happen someday soon because it’s been happening in rooms all over the state.
“You need to be ready, and if you’re a responsible wrestling coach, you owe it to that girl to give her the same opportunities that you would any boy on your team,
“We’re a couple schools from pulling the trigger away from a landslide. I really feel like we’re going to make that jump to 50 and 75 (programs) really quickly if we can get some coaches out of their own way and start moving forward — stop making excuses.”
(Pat McDonald is the executive sports editor of the Morning Times and Daily Review newspapers in Bradford County, Pa. He has covered wrestling for 20 years in Pennsylvania, New York and Maine. He serves on the board of directors of the Maine Amateur Wrestling Alliance and runs the Rumble at The Ballpark tournament each summer in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)