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With emerging sport status from the VHSL, high school girls wrestling in Virginia takes 'a great first step'

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Louisa County’s Taylor Waddy started wrestling at a young age, squaring off against mostly boys.

Waddy and other female wrestlers in Virginia will have more opportunities to compete against each other in the near future.

The Virginia High School League is on the verge of adding girls wrestling as a sanctioned sport in the Commonwealth. In September, the VHSL Executive Committee voted to designate girls wrestling as an “emerging sport” starting with the 2022-23 season. The sport now has three years to meet the 50% + 1 member schools that currently have wrestling for the sport to be sanctioned by the VHSL.

According to VHSL numbers submitted to the National Federation of High Schools, approximately 271 schools in Virginia fielded a boys wrestling team during the 2021-22 season, with 131 of those schools having at least one female on the team.

Under the proposal, a girls team is considered if there is at least one female who makes it through the hydration testing and makes it onto the school’s master eligibility list. There would have to be at least 136 schools with females on their rosters for the VHSL to move forward with the sanctioning of girls wrestling. If those requirements are not met, the three-year process would have to start over.

VHSL executive director Billy Haun said the move to designate girls wrestling as an emerging sport has been a long time coming.

“We’ve had wrestling folks talking about girls wrestling for four or five years,” Haun said. “We talked about making this an emerging sport a few years ago and some of the wrestling folks wanted to wait another year and then we got hit with COVID and that put it on hold.”

The push for girls wrestling was spearheaded by several schools, including Culpeper County, Meridian and Brentsville District, who have a long-standing tradition for having female wrestlers in their programs.

Culpeper County wrestling coach Alex Csontos and Virginia Women’s Wrestling started the push back in 2016. Csontos worked with former Spotsylvania athletic director and Virginia Wrestling Association state chairman Bill Swink, along with Virginia Women’s Wrestling director Sara Bahoura, Riverside High School coaches Matt Erice and Aubrey Burkett-Erice, Riverbend High School coach Mark Roberts and athletic directors at a number of schools to bring the plan to fruition.

“We’ve gotten our first big step done,” Csontos said. “Along with hanging an unlimited number of girls events around the state now, this emerging sport proposal also gives the women a VHSL invitational state tournament. This would be the first year that it would be recognized by the VHSL as an official championship, even though it’s still an invitational. Previously, we were not allowed to call it a VHSL championship event because it was not a sanctioned sport yet.”

In Central Virginia, girls wrestling has been on the rise the past several seasons. Louisa County had several female wrestlers last season and Coach Roger Stewart’s program now has approximately 20 girls competing at the junior varsity and varsity levels.

Waddy was a regular for the Lions’ co-ed team last season enjoyed a lot of success. In the five competitions against female opponents, she was unbeaten (14-0) and is recognized as one of the top prep female wrestlers in the country.

“The vote of VHSL making women’s wrestling an emerging sport is very exciting,” Waddy said. “Virginia Women’s Wrestling has been working very hard to get women’s wrestling sanctioned and this is a big step in the right direction. To me, this ruling means I will have more opportunities to compete and face new opponents. I am also really looking forward to an official state tournament this coming year.”

Waddy was one of several wrestlers selected to speak at the “Wrestle Like a Girl” event in Washington D.C. earlier this year.

“I felt that it was an awesome opportunity and I was very glad to get to speak on behalf of the female wrestlers in Virginia,” Waddy said. “Based on most of their responses, they appeared to be supportive of the idea.”

Waddy has been wrestling against boys since she started in the sixth grade and admits it has been an “okay” experience.

“Once I made it to high school, they became naturally stronger and I can’t compete with most of them,” Waddy said. “I definitely felt a disadvantage and a high risk of injury wrestling high school boys.”

She’s excited about the opportunity for more girls competitions and a VHSL sanctioned invitational tournament.

“I feel that most people were okay with them happening and I know all the girls wrestlers were very glad they were available,” Waddy said. “The only downside was they sometimes conflicted with the boys’ matches and were pushed to the side by some coaches.”

Orange County, Monticello and Fluvanna County also had female wrestlers on their rosters last winter and are part of the growth of the sport.

Orange County wrestling coach Bryan Seal said that he’s had at least one female wrestler on his team for the past four years. Following the onset of COVID-19, the participation numbers dipped a bit, but have bounced back this year.

“We have quite a few incoming freshmen that have been involved in our booster program, so we have every reason to believe our numbers are going to grow, especially with our future plans,” Seal said. “Our plan is to offer wrestling to girls as a separate practice, but still as a part of our co-ed wrestling team. As we’re in the infancy stages of this development, we hope to meet with Orange County administrative team to receive their blessing on a partial girls wrestling schedules, as part of our team.”

During the first year of the three-year emerging sport window, the VHSL will hold a girls invitational state championship Feb. 24-25, 2023. The tournament will offer 11 weight classes and girls can participate in a total of 12 co-ed or female only events during the season.

During the 2023-24 season, the VHSL girls championship will expand to the NFHS 12-weight-class model. In year three, the goal is move to a tournament that matches the boys regional and state championship dates, using regional qualifiers for advancement and host it at the same venue of the team’s respective classification.

“Virginia and other states have a lot of girls wrestling and the numbers seem to be growing,” Haun said. “We have a few teams that could field a separate girls and boys team right now. It is growing quickly in high schools across the country. Girls wrestling at the college level is growing as well. I think it was important for our girl wrestlers. If there are enough girls wrestling, we should recognize this as a VHSL sanctioned sport.”

For Csontos, he believes this is an important decision

“Personally, I feel this is a great first step for Virginia,” he said. “We’ve gotten to know where we can start building women’s teams, not just a few girls, here and there at a handful of schools. We can show women in high school now that they have a chance to win a state title in wrestling without having to compete against men, which was a big deterrent for the girls that I’ve talked to over the years.”

Csontos remembers watching some of the best girls in the nation compete in his program, including the likes of Jesse Kirby, Lei Nails, Bri Csontos and Trinity Berry, who achieved All-American or international success on the mat. He said that despite their success, their accomplishments weren’t fully appreciated.

“They were looked down upon by guys who said that they weren’t good because they couldn’t make the guys state tournament,” Csontos said. “No matter how good these women were, they were always held up to a measuring stick that didn’t exist for any other VHSL female sport.”

The Culpeper County coach also believes the decision could spark much-needed growth in the sport.

“I think it will save the sport,” Csontos said. “It’s no secret that wrestling, in general, has been losing athletes for years, so along with trying to recruit more guys, women’s wrestling has opened up so many people’s eyes to show what a great sport this is. I think it will greatly increase our visual exposure to parents as their kids are growing up and offer a place where their kids, boys and girls, can both go to a practice and not have to think about if wrestling is a boys only sport.”

Waddy agreed.

“I have a really good feeling this sport is going to take off and participation numbers are going to go through the roof,” she said. “All of the other female wrestlers I’ve talked to love that they will not have to wrestle guys as much or feel like they are not truly a part of the team.”

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