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Girls wrestling grows; now recruits, develops new coaches
Photo: Assistant coach Kaitlin Hatcher (center) and head coach Jake Munson (right) congratulate Olivia Bonnema of Solon High School at the 2022 Iowa Coaches and Officials state tournament. Next year, the state is sanctioning girls wrestling.
By Mike Finn
Count Jake Munson among the Iowans who welcomed the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union announcing in January that the state’s organizing body would officially sanction girls high school wrestling in 2022-23.
“What word would I use to describe my feeling? I would say it was overdue,” said Munson, who has spent the past two years coaching a Solon High School girls team that had just wrestled in what will be the last non-sanctioned Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association state tournament.
“Girls wrestling has been at the international level for some time. I’m glad this opportunity is coming. I have two daughters, age 7 and 9, who are both involved with youth wrestling. I’m just excited to see what the future holds.”
Iowa became the 34th state to officially sanction girls wrestling, a sport that has simply exploded in the past five years. Before 2018, there were just six states that officially provided a postseason state tournament for girls.
But it hasn’t been easy convincing state associations that girls wrestling is here to stay. The IGHSAU said there had to be at least 50 high schools in the state that created a girls team before the Union would sanction the sport. That happened on Jan. 22 at the IWCOA tournament in Coralville, where participants spelled out the word, “SANCTIONED2022” before the 700 girls participated in the event which was in its fourth year.
Among those wrestlers and coaches was Munson, a former boys wrestling coach who was asked to start a girls team at the Southeast Iowa high school, a similar theme to around the country where some boys coaches are doing double duty in also coaching girls teams.
“Having a boys’ program and a school administration that is on board has really helped us,” said Munson, whose program features 15 high school girls, 20 middle school girls and 40 girls between kindergarten and sixth grade. “There are a lot of schools still trying to figure out what this is going to look like. I can’t say enough good things about those who helped us get this off the ground.”
So far, there have been enough men to coach these girls. The question is when there will be more women as coaches. The reality is that women’s wrestling has not been around long enough to develop coaches among their athletes … or there were few opportunities to coach.
That is one reason that Munson added 25-year-old Kaitlin Hatcher, who is also a science teacher at Solon High, to his coaching staff that also includes Zack Becicka, a former high school wrestler who runs many of the practices at Solon.
Hatcher, meanwhile, was never a wrestler, but has proven to be very valuable to the head coach. Munson is hoping Hatcher’s presence in practice and in girls’ wrestling corners will inspire both wrestlers and other teams with a blueprint that could be followed.
“Zach and I were coaching (in 2020-21) and were looking to add a third coach,” recalled Munson. “We thought if we could add a female as a coach, it would make an impact in our room and in our recruiting. We were looking to get an educator and someone from within the school that many of these girls would know and feel comfortable (with).
“Kaitlin is a young teacher, who a lot of the girls relate to. She does a great job as a relationship-person. She also played volleyball and had a little bit of a wrestling background when she served as a wrestling cheerleader.”
Munson understood Hatcher may not be able to help the girls with wrestling moves. But, he believes she is helping in areas that he cannot.
“There were gaps in our program that we did not recognize that Kaitlin naturally knew how to fill,” he said. “There may be some male coaches out there who could also do it better than I did, but Kaitlin was able to cultivate some of those relationships.
“She has learned the sport, technique wise, the same as many of our girls. In practice, she would ask us many questions and she was the one who was willing to be vulnerable and raise her hand and ask, ‘Can you show that again?’ or ‘Why do you do it that way?’
“I think some of our girls related to that. Kaitlin was on a state championship volleyball team so she knew what it was like to be part of a successful team and was able to relate that to our girls.”
Hatcher, who also graduated from Solon, realized her task in the sport, but welcomed the opportunity.
“I’m not going to lie,” she said. “When I went into the wrestling room for the first time, it was intimidating. How was I going to coach in a sport that I’ve never actually done myself? I told Jake if I was going to do this, I needed to be all in and I was upfront with the girls about my history.
“I told them, ‘you girls are going to have to teach me as much as I’m going to try and teach you the other side of the sport and life. It was a really fun season, getting to learn a lot of techniques from and alongside some of our girls.”
Hatcher also believes her personality helps her communicate with the girls in actual competition.
“I think I’m a very loud person in general,” she laughed. “It started this season before I had a lot of knowledge and started with me just rooting the girls on from the corner. I started repeating what other coaches would say and I picked up on that. As I learned more in practice and worked with some of the girls specifically on something, I picked up on some of the personal aspects too.
“I think a lot of that comes from being a teacher where we focus on relationships with our students and getting to know them as much as a person as a student or a wrestler.”
Munson made a point that many other teams are also getting women involved as coaches.
“You are seeing many more women coaches at our events and we need to keep growing it,” said Munson, who welcomes the idea of coaching associations, state and national, providing clinics for coaching newcomers.
Mike Moyer, the executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, is aware of the demands that are being placed on developing coaches for girls in wrestling. He welcomes both women and men to get involved with the NWCA Coaching Leadership Academy.
“The academy is essentially an opportunity where we bring in the best of the college coaches and for two days it’s idea sharing,” said Moyer, who added that the NWCA can pay for some young coaches to attend. “We generally get between 25 to 30 women coaches and quite frankly we would welcome even more women coaches.”
Wrestle Like A Girl, the national organization that has been pushing state organizations to sanction girls wrestling, is also getting involved in developing coaches.
“WLAG has been hosting clinics for the past few months, including two clinics with multiple-time World champion Aisuluu Tynybekova of Kyrgyzstan in the fall of 2021,” said Julia Salata, who also serves as WLAG’s manager of collegiate development at a time when women’s college wrestling is growing. “We also assist local and regional club teams with sourcing female clinicians for their girls and women’s camps.
“We plan to host several more female-led clinics in 2022 and continue to help women’s clubs find female clinicians moving forward.
“As part of our state-sanctioning efforts, we have done educational webinars in several states. An important component of each webinar is reiterating the importance of having a female coach on staff and recruiting female alums to come back and get involved in coaching, as well.”
Munson, who also served as an interim principal at Solon where he teaches at-risk students, agrees that good teachers learn to be good coaches.
“With these programs in their infancy, we don’t necessarily need coaches who know the ins and outs at an NCAA Division I level. We need people who can teach kids the fundamentals of wrestling and get girls started on their journey and it’s fine that coaches are also part of that journey.
“I’m also an educator and I always think that instead of hiring a science expert and teaching them how to teach, I’d rather hire a teaching expert and teach them science.
“I’d rather have a teacher and teach them wrestling, rather than hire a wrestler and have to teach them how to communicate.”