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PIAA – and area teams – ready to welcome girls wrestling

In May, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) Board of Directors’ voted unanimously to accept sponsorship and jurisdiction of girls wrestling for the 2023-24 season at the high school and junior high level.

It was a historic move for a sport that has grown exponentially – with the 100th school to approve girls wrestling coming in February of this year, a milestone the PIAA established for it to consider sanctioning the sport. By the time is was approved, there were 111 official teams.

Last year saw Panther Valley’s Brenda Banks capture regional and state titles as a freshman, and placed fourth at the US Marine Corps Junior National Wrestling Championships for Team PA.

Lehighton, Panther Valley (which uses a co-op with Marian), Palmerton and Tamaqua are among 16 District 11 schools - and 187 across Pennsylvania - competing in girls wrestling.

And while they don’t have a team, Northwestern Katie Brensinger has been stellar for the Tigers, capturing a regional title and placing third at states a year ago.

The excitement and enthusiasm are undeniable.

Palmerton approved its girls program in June, something head coach Justin Petersen has been eager to see come to fruition.

“Since we’ve been pushing it, the growth of it, and seeing them all have fun with it and enjoying it and having new friends that are doing it, has been awesome,” said Petersen. “And also, one of the biggest statistics when I was presenting this to the board that I thought was important was, a big percentage of the girls that come out for wrestling are first time athletes ... it’s a lot of girls that aren’t involved, who are now involved.

“Since I’ve been coaching, the main thing for me is that I love this sport. I love what it can give young individuals moving forward in their lives. That’s the main thing. And to get more kids involved with it, means more kids will get those same things from it, those characteristics, those skill sets. I always want more kids involved because of that. We were big advocates for girls wrestling from the get-go.”

That inclusion at Palmerton includes girls wrestling coach Josh Rake, a teacher at the junior high in the school district, who will work to keep the program growing from the ground up.

“It was a long journey,” said Rake. “Petersen and I have both been advocating for girls wrestling for a while now. I’ve been encouraging girls to try out for wrestling and become a part of it. And not a lot of programs have a head girls coach, so that was very helpful in terms of being able to schedule matches and things like that. It’s just been a long journey of recruiting girls and reaching out to other sports that might be interested ... girls that might play field hockey, getting them involved, they’ve been a big help with us as well.

“We just started, obviously, but we’ve had a lot of the girls come into our open mats, open practices, for months now, so it’s been good.”

Senior Gretchen Schaible was the only girl on the Bombers’ roster the last two years. The team now features sophomores Cassidy Merkel and Lea Schaible, juniors Skylar Benninger, Maddy Bennyhoff, Jade Kuhns and Faith Rudalavage and senior Samara Elliot. The future also looks bright with seventh graders Lila Faust-Sanseverino, Izabella McFarland, Makenna Ringler and Nickayla Tomsic in the fold.

“It’s great,” said Rake. “I’m so excited. I think this is a long-time coming to have girls finally have fair, equal competition against other girls. It is a great thing, a great step in the right direction for the sport. I’m excited to see it grow, I’m excited to see it become what it is going to become. There are still a lot of unknowns right now, but we can tell already all of the tournaments that we’re reaching out to are packed with numbers, which is amazing.

“We’re wait-listed for one tournament, other tournaments are 20 teams deep. It’s amazing. So it’s definitely a huge step in the right direction. It’s going to take some time to work itself out and be what it’s supposed to be, but it’s a good start so far.”

Lehighton’s Maggie Pagotto advanced to states a year ago after a third-place finish at regionals. In grades seven through 12, the Indians have nine girls in their program, five middle school (which had none last season) and four high school (which only had Pagotto and Layla Bravo).

“All our girls are going to be rostered with our girls team so that they’re eligible for the girls postseason, which means they can’t wrestle in any boys meets,” said Indians head coach Floyd Brown. “They’re strictly wrestling against girls and that’s it, whereas last year we had Madgie and she would wrestle on our boys team throughout the year and she would step in and she wrestled a couple of varsity matches. But she was also able to do any girls tournaments last year. This year, she will just be wrestling against girls, at least that’s the we’re going to do it.

“Some people may roster their girls on the boys team, depending on what they want to do. But we’re trying to build a girls team. So they’re wrestling only girls, and they’re practicing with other girls at this point.”

When it comes to matches, the dual meet schedule will now include matches with those teams that have girls programs, something that will begin for Lehighton and Palmerton when the schools meet on Dec. 4.

“We’re keeping our same schedule, so when we wrestle another school that has a girls team, we would have a boys JV, girls varsity, and then boys varsity,” said Brown. “Those would be the three meets, in addition to middle school. So we would run it like that.”

The girls tournament schedule has continued to evolve, and one of the biggest events is nearby with the Coal Cracker, which moved its girls tournament from Lehighton to Jim Thorpe last year to accommodate massive growth in just its second year,

At last year’s Coal Cracker, Pleasant Valley’s Juliette Trout captured the 106-pound title at the 36-team event as an eighth-grader. Lily Decker, another talented Bears’ wrestler, also qualified for states last year as a sophomore with a third-place finish at regionals.

“We’re looking forward to eventually getting a girls team,” said Olympians head coach Dan Heaney. “We like having the girls Coal Cracker. It’s a nice tournament and it’s one of the few bigger girls tournaments, so it’s turning out to be quite an event. I think this year it’s gotten bumped and a day added to it, rather than it being just on Saturday; it’s Friday and Saturday. So it’s just showing the growth of the teams that were already in place last year. A lot of the teams that came last year brought three or four girls, and now they’re bringing 10 girls. So the numbers are up quite a bit, so that’s encouraging.”

Maximizing mat time and opportunities is something that each program knows will be paramount throughout the season and moving forward.

Tamaqua will be hosting a duals tournament on Dec. 16 with that aim in mind.

“We have that full, but then people started saying, ‘Well, what about girls?’” said Blue Raiders coach Jim McCabe. “So then we tried to get a certain amount of girls and we can run a tournament in the other gym and make sure we get them five matches. It doesn’t have to be a dual meet; we’ll just try to get as many matches as possible. And that’s where we’re at right now, is trying to find opportunities for the girls to wrestle.

“You look at the girls that wrestled last year, some of them had 30 matches, because we went to a lot of matches on a Sunday, and the PIAA is allowing those tournaments to occur again on a Sunday, because a lot of the head coaches are coaching the boys, and Saturdays are filled. So we’re going to continue to go to those Sunday matches. And that’s where we’re at and that’s what we’re looking to do, is maximize opportunities for the girls.”

The momentum is positive and the focus is forward. For girls wrestling in Pennsylvania, the time is now.

So what are some of the questions that will come with incorporating a new sport for this season? SanctionPA has an extensive and informative FAQ which is a great resource for those seeking information for girls wrestling at the junior high and varsity levels.

Here are just a few examples:

• How many classifications will there be for girls wrestling?

There will be one, so it won’t be split into 2A and 3A as the boys teams are.

• What are the weight classes?

Girls wrestling will follow the NFHS 13-weight classes for girls: 100, 106, 112, 118, 124, 130, 136, 142, 148, 155, 170, 190, 235.

• Can a girl be on both a boys team and a girls team?

No. Under PIAA rules, a student-athlete cannot be rostered on the boys and girls team at the same time in any sport. A girl will need to be rostered on either a girls team or a boys team. If a girl chooses to wrestle on the boys team (with principal approval) when there is also a girls team at her school, then that girl cannot participate in the girls postseason.

• When is the postseason?

The PIAA will sponsor a girls individual state championship, beginning in March 2024. It will be held with the boys in the Giant Center, March 7-9 for the boys he first time.