PA getting close to sanctioning girls HS wrestling

Updated: February 21, 2023

Photo: The number of high school girls wrestling in Pennsylvania like Zalika Roberts (top) of Gettysburg High and Abigail Sneath of Central Mountain High has grown by 500% over the past three years. (Chris Atkinson photo)

Editor’s Note: On Feb. 14, 2023, SanctionPA announced that the goal of 100 girls high school programs — the number required by the PIAA before it would consider sanctioning girls high school — had been met. The following feature, which appeared in the February issue of WIN Magazine, gives you a background on the effort it took to reach this goal … and of hopefully making girls high school wrestling in Pennsylvania official later this year.

By Mike Finn

Brooke Zumas has always had a love and strong vision for the sport of wrestling and the impact it has on people, whether it was simply sitting alongside her dad watching Lehigh wrestling matches as a child or later photographing some of the nation’s top events in wrestling.

Fortunately for Zumas and a growing number of girl wrestlers in the state of Pennsylvania, Zumas eventually put her camera down and helped people within the Keystone State to share an even bigger vision and dream: officially sanction girls high school wrestling in Pennsylvania.

“I think we could have over 125 programs by the start of next season,” said Zumas, who has served as one of the leaders of “SanctionPA” for the past three years.

That would be a remarkable number, considering there were many in the state who were unhappy when the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association’s made the decision that there must be at least 100 high school wrestling programs before the PIAA would consider making girls wrestling an official sport. 

In 2019, Zumas was approached to be part of the leadership team of a new group being formed to support the Keystone State’s wrestling community as they attempted to get girls wrestling sanctioned.

“Pat Tocci (formerly of the National Wrestling Coaches Association) reached out to me in December 2019 and said, ‘Can you help move girls wrestling forward in Pennsylvania?’ I jumped in and we formed a task force in March of 2020. It took off and we have never looked back.”

By 2019, over half of the United States’s high school athletic associations had already determined that girls wrestling was here to stay. The traditionally-wrestling-rich state of Pennsylvania had not made that move and the PIAA set its highest bar ever in terms of the number of programs needed for a sport to be sanctioned.

“The PIAA was not going to just start a championship. They have specific criteria. We decided the PIAA gave us a roadmap,” said Zumas. “We might not like it, but we knew what we needed to do, so we said, ‘Let’s go do it.’ ”

And as of Feb.10, 2023 there were 98 girls-only high school programs around the state and Zumas believes the 100-program threshold will be met before the PIAA meets again this summer to decide on changing girls wrestling from “emerging-sports” status to making it an official sport in time for a sanctioned state championship in 2024.

Boys wrestling has always been big in Pennsylvania. There are currently 472 boys high school teams in the state. It usually is the state with most NCAA Division I All-Americans and has more college programs than any other state, a list that includes Penn State, which has won nine NCAA championships since 2011 and is ranked No. 1 this season.

As one might imagine, in a state like Pennsylvania where wrestling is held in such high regard, there were plenty of girls who also felt that wrestling tradition despite very few opportunities to compete. Zumas still remembers how she was introduced to the sport.

From left, Chris Atkinson, Joe Stabilito, Dan Heckert, Chris Haines, Kevin Franklin, Shelby Hoppis, Leah Wright and Brooke Zumas
make up the leadership group called SanctionPA, who are trying to help
girls high school wrestling become an official PIAA sport in Pennsylvania.

“I grew up in the Lehigh Valley and my dad was a huge wrestling fan,” said Zumas, now 38. “We went to Lehigh matches all the time. While I was a child, wrestling was always my favorite sport and my dad would put me through drills in the basement. But in my mind, girls did not wrestle.”

She joined a women’s-only club at Lehigh and even got an offer to train at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, while she earned her master’s and doctorate. But she eventually found other ways to enjoy the sport, first through photography and later as a coach for both boys and girls in her home state.

Those connections made her the perfect person to spread the need for girls wrestling, starting at the 2020 boys state tournament, where SanctionPA unveiled its plan, especially at a grass-roots level.

“We knew in order to get it done, it could not be from the top down,” she said. “The way it was going to happen was for schools to show their interest and then the PIAA acting on that interest.

“We had to educate schools, coaches and athletic directors. We would send emails because they truly did not know the process. For example, how many girls does it take to form a team? What are the logistics? How are competitions going to look? What will a schedule look like? We tried to find the gap of understanding and address the gap. Every month, it’s a little bit different.”

SanctionPA was also fortunate to have someone like Jon Mitchell involved. Mitchell is a long-time wrestling coach and current athletic director at J.P. McCaskey High School in Lancaster, Pa., which became the first Pennsylvania school to announce in 2020 it was starting a girls program. As a boys coach in 1999, he put a team together to compete in an unofficial girls state tournament.

“He’s been connected with wrestling for a long time and a big proponent of girls wrestling,” Zumas said. “He really was the first person to — as he says — to step off the curb. Other schools were trying to process what this means; adding a sport that is not sanctioned by the state association. Jon was an incredibly knowledgeable athletic director with a wrestling background.”

Mitchell said he is not surprised of the interest in girls wrestling in his state.

“I think it’s a synergy,” said Mitchell. “Once you get that critical push forward, people jump on board. When the PIAA said this is our number (of programs to earn sanctioning), I knew our (McCaskey school) board is about diversity and inclusion. If I can’t get it done here at McCaskey, it’s not going to happen anywhere.

“We’ve been able through SanctionPA to promote this on social media and people are seeing those numbers climb and when they see it happening in other areas, it can happen there.”

SanctionPA has dealt with skeptics, but many also have come around to understand and applaud this movement. One is Gene Waas, a highly-respected wrestling leader in the PIAA’s District 11.

“I was always behind girls wrestling, but I never thought it would catch on,” Waas said. “But at our Christmas tournament at Bethlehem Catholic, where I am the tournament director, we had a girls division with 45 wrestlers and it was the most exciting two hours of the entire tournament and people were going crazy. There were 13-11 scores, headlocks. I called Brooke up and said, “This is here to stay.’”

Zumas mentioned that Pennsylvania has fed off the success of other wrestling states like Iowa, whose participation doubled this past year — from 1022 to 2379 — after the state announced the sport would be sanctioned for the first time during the 2022-2023 season. Pennsylvania is just one of 13 states that have yet to sanction girls wrestling.

“I think there is a camaraderie between all the states because we are all fighting separate battles, but the same war,” Zumas said. “I think there is a uniting factor. The tricky part is that we are all fighting different battles with totally different rules and your strategy could be completely different from state to state.”

SanctionPA’s efforts certainly have captured the interest of others around the country.

“There are two methods to grow high school girls wresting at the state level,” said Tela Bacher of :Wrestle Like A Girl”, which has helped promote women’s wrestling on both the high school and college level.  “the first way is the “If You Build It, They Will Come” method–where a state sanctions girls wrestling and assumes girls will join. This method has proven to be extremely effective with an average of 190 percent growth the first year of state sanctioning.

“The second method requires the growth of girls wrestling then rewards with state sanctioning. This second method is more difficult and PISAA required an unprecedentedly high bar of 100 school programs before sanctioning. The Pennsylvania Sanctioning group lead by Brooke Zumas has climbed this mountain of requirement like champions. Pennsylvania girl wrestlers deserve to have their own state championship and thanks to this group and others who have leaned in. A sanctioned State Championship for HS Girl Wrestlers in Pennsylvania is within striking distance.”

Since SanctionPA began, the number of high school girl wrestlers in Pennsylvania has gone from 200 to 1000 and there have been multiple girls wrestling events across the state this winter, including an upcoming unofficial state tournament in March.

For the likes of juniors Sylvyn Parham of Parkland High in Allentown, Pa., and Gisele Ramirez of Souderton (Pa.) High, they are looking forward to competing as seniors in an officially-sanctioned tournament in 2024.

“I was previously interested in this in middle school but I was shy. But, later a friend invited me to a practice and I fell in love with it,” said Parham, who has been wrestling for a year and a half. “Wrestling gave me a tremendous amount of confidence. The community of wrestling has been so open and nice and ready to support us. I also enjoy the hard work. It has made me mentally tough. I feel empowered.”

While Parham said she had run cross country and track before getting into wrestling, Ramirez did not compete in any sport before she got into wrestling a few years ago. 

“They had rolled out the wrestling mats for gym (class) and did a trial class,” recalled Ramirez. “I just thought it was fun and I really liked it. I thought I would try it out for a year but fell in love with wrestling. I actually broke my ankle my second practice, but still came to every practice and watched and took notes and shared with my dad, who wrestled, what I learned in practice.”

There appears to be no limit on how big girls wrestling in Pennsylvania can get. When asked if she was disappointed not having those opportunities growing up, Zumas shared a different perspective.

“I feel excited for them and so glad it is happening,” Zumas said. “When you are young, it’s hard to think about who came before you. We like to tell them they are pioneers and trailblazers. I don’t know if they are able to put themselves through the lens of history in the way that we do.”

Thankfully, the vision for this has been in place for a select few in the state of Pennsylvania for a lot of years.