Growing number of schools ready for official NCAA sanctioning of women’s wrestling

Updated: April 11, 2023

Photo: The North Central College women’s wrestling team celebrated after it won the 2023 NCWWC national championship, March 4, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The NCAA Div. III school near Chicago has an enrollment of about 3,000 students and still hopes to hold its own against bigger schools once the NCAA is expected to make women’s wrestling a sanctioned varsity sport. (Justin Hoch photo)

By Mike Finn

Joe Norton, the head coach of the North Central women’s wrestling team in Naperville, Ill., actually wanted to be a sports journalist before the former college wrestler became a coach.

With that in mind, Norton had a headline in his mind after the Cardinals claimed the National Collegiate Women’s Wrestling Championships team title, March 4, at the Alliant Energy Power House in Cedar Rapids, Iowa

“North Central Dominated,” was the coach’s opinion … and the Cardinal women certainly backed up their coach’s beliefs when 15 wrestlers from this NCAA Division III school earned All-American honors. That included three champions: Madison Avila (101 pounds), Jaslynn Gallegos (116) and Yelena Makoyed (170), who became the first wrestler from the school to win three national titles.

The NCWWC tournament was created three years ago, shortly after the NCAA announced women’s wrestling had earned “emerging-sports” status … leading the NCAA member schools like King and McKendree — which finished second and third to North Central — to compete in this event.

But there were two things that made this year’s event historic. One, it was held at a neutral site for the first time and the finals drew over 2,000 fans. Two, it took place a couple days after an annoucement that there were now enough programs for the NCAA to eventually award varsity status to the sport in the next few years.

Julia Salata, who represents the Wrestle Like a Girl organization, was in Cedar Rapids to help announce the move to an officially sanctioned sport.

“Logistically speaking for this to work, the sports sponsorship data will be submitted by all the institutions in July,” Salata said. “In September, the recommendation will be made to the committee on women’s athletics to make women’s wrestling a championship sport. It’s not a matter of if, but when.”

Salata pointed out the NCAA will vote on the proposal next January and that the process usually takes about 14 months to put a championship together. That means there is a chance that the first NCAA women’s championships could take place in March of 2025, but most likely 2026.

Most of the schools competing in this event were smaller schools. But there were a few Division I schools like Sacred Heart and Lock Haven, which finished seventh and 11th in the 2023 NCWWC team standings.

Matt Lackey, a former NCAA champion from Illinois, heads up the Lock Haven program that produced three All-American. He liked what he saw at the Alliant Energy Power House.

“This event definitely had a championship feel to it,” Lackey said. “It definitely feels like an NCAA championship.”

Lackey also said a future NCAA-sanctioned tournament will add credibility to what these schools are trying to accomplish.

“It allows the sport to keep growing at the pace that it is,” Lackey said. “It will bring out a certain among of equity, inclusion and fairness and puts women’s wrestling on the same plane as the men.”

“I think we are going in the right direction,” said Sacred Heart coach Paulina Biega, who had five All-Americans. “I hope the growth and momentum will keep going. I would like to see more Division I schools start programs. I think we are lacking on that spectrum. We’ve got people behind this, including people outside wrestling supporting us.”

Many hope more NCAA Power 5 Conference schools will eventually start a women’s team and join the University of Iowa, which will start competing next winter. The Hawkeyes are expected to compete in the 2024 NCWWC event that will return to Cedar Rapids at the end of next season.

The Iowa women, led by Hall of Famer and Olympic bronze medalist Clarissa Chun, were actually in the stands watching this year’s touranment and are expected to be strong against the smaller schools like North Central, which has an enrolment of 3,000 students.

Norton, who used to coach the North Central men’s program before heading up the women’s team, welcomes the challenge.

“We want to beat them and we are going to tell our girls that they can hang with them,” Norton said. “All but one of our girls returns next year and this group can compete with that (Iowa) team. Our girls don’t care who they are wrestling and expect to win every time they step on the mat. We expect to go toe-to-toe with Iowa.”