IHSA will start girls wrestling state tournament in 2021-22 season

Illinois is the 25th state in the country to sanction the sport.

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Richard’s Mia Palumbo practices with her coach and father, Rob Palumbo

Richard’s Mia Palumbo practices with her coach and father, Rob Palumbo

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

Mia Palumbo made history two years ago. She’s glad other girls soon will be able to do the same.

The first girl to win a match at the boys wrestling state finals was excited by the Illinois High School Association’s announcement that a girls wrestling state series will begin in the 2021-22 school year. Illinois is the 25th state to sanction the sport.

“It’ll definitely bring more females to wrestling,” Palumbo said, “Many females are at a disadvantage wrestling guys. ... It takes a lot out of our body.”

Though girls have been competing alongside and against boys for years, they’ve had little success in the state series. 

Palumbo and Dunbar’s Quiovany Santos were just the third and fourth girls to qualify for state when they advanced in 2018. Palumbo won a pair of matches there and came up one victory shy of a state medal.

It might take till 2022 and the debut of the new state series before another girl contends for an IHSA medal.

Palumbo sat out her sophomore season rehabbing a hip injury and dropped out of this year’s state series after winning a regional in order to prepare for the since-canceled World Team Trials. She doesn’t plan to compete in high school as a senior, preferring to train for college.

Meanwhile, other girls will have one more season under the current system — matching up against boys in the IHSA state series before competing in the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association’s girls state tourney, which launched in 2017. 

Maine East’s Kate Cacho, a recent grad who will continue her career at North Central College, echoed Palumbo’s enthusiasm for the IHSA decision. She recalls when she was a freshman and the Blue Demons had just two female wrestlers.

“We talked to our friends and tried to convince them to try out,” Cacho said. “We started our own little family.”

By this past season, Maine East had 10 girls competing, enough to stage a dual with Morton alongside the boys’ final home meet on family appreciation night.

Bogan coach Lloyd Jimenez coached Santos at Dunbar and started a girls youth program in Chicago. He foresees exponential growth in the sport thanks to the IHSA decision.

“There were over 400 girls [competing at the prep level] two years ago,” Jimenez said. “This year, it might have been closer to 600-700. It’s going to double. I’ll say there’s going to be 1,200 girls in 2021-22.”

Maine East coach Austin Bautista is equally bullish on the sport’s upside.

Cacho’s college recruitment is “something that wasn’t imaginable a couple years ago,” he said. “[Girls wrestling] just continues to grow. There’s a lot more awareness there’s other sports besides basketball.”

The achievements of Palumbo — who ended the season rated No. 1 nationally at 106 in USA Wrestling’s girls prep rankings — and Cacho, among others, helped to fuel interest in the sport.

“She brought a lot of light and eyes to the sport competing as a female against the guys,” said Rob Palumbo, Mia’s father and an assistant coach at Richards.

Cacho also saw her status as a role model when she was surrounded by young girls asking questions after competing against boys in a summer tournament.

She’s also taken advantage of the opportunity to sell the sport by talking to girls during gym class.

“I think they are more open to it,” Cacho said.

That only figures to become more the case when girls see a clearer path to a state title in two years.

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