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Girls wrestling is an ’emerging sport’ in Illinois high schools

Kate Cacho, a sophomore at Maine East High School, wrestled for the gold medal at Maine East's all-girl tournament Saturday. | Madeline Kenney/Sun-Times

Lizeth Torres went behind her parents’ backs to join the eighth-grade wrestling team. She worried her parents would stop her because they didn’t like the idea of girls wrestling boys.

For two weeks, Torres went to wrestling practice after school. She wanted to tell her parents, but the timing never seemed right.

One day when she got home from practice, her parents cornered her.

“What were you doing?” they asked.

“Wrestling,” Torres nervously replied.

After some pushback, Torres, now 18, went on to be a pioneer for female wrestlers at Maine East High School — and the school’s first-ever female captain of the wrestling team as a senior.

There are many other girls who face similar fears — worrying if their parents and peers will accept their decision to wrestle.

Wrestling is one of the fastest-growing sports among female high school participants in Illinois. So much so, the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) called it an “emerging sport” at its April meeting. As of now, boys wrestling is sanctioned by the IHSA, and girls are allowed to compete with and against boys.

Between the 2014 and 2015 season, an additional 100 girls joined their high school wrestling teams, according to numbers provided by IHSA. The number has since sustained, and last year, there were roughly 350 girls wrestling in IHSA competitions.

Torres, who was hired as an assistant wrestling coach at Maine East after graduating in May, saw the growth of the sport first-hand. When she first started wrestling in 2013, there were only two other girls on her team. As a senior last season, she had seven female teammates.

IHSA executive director Craig Anderson said he doesn’t have an answer for the increase of female participation, but it reflects a national trend.

Over the last two years, there have been more than 3,000 additional female wrestlers nationwide, according to National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS) participation surveys. Last year, there was an all-time high of 14,587 female wrestlers, according to NFHS 2016-17 participation survey.

Six states have sanctioned state competition for high school girls wrestling: Alaska, California, Hawaii, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.

Anderson said the IHSA is monitoring the increase in female wrestlers, but he doesn’t believe the numbers are large enough yet to hold a separate girls state meet.

While the IHSA is holding back on hosting an all-girl state meet, the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association (IWCOA) held the first girls state competition at its freshman and sophomore state competition series in March.

Torres placed second in her 106-pound weight class at state.

After last season’s success, the IWCOA has added two more sectionals for girls to qualify to state bringing the total to five qualifying sectionals.

If girls place at the state tournament, it gives them an opportunity to be nationally ranked.

Anderson said he sees the benefits in having girls compete against girls rather than them being grouped with boys.

“I’m very aware of girls competing at high levels in Illinois,” Anderson said. “It’s more of a norm that girls struggle against guys. … It makes more sense among the equality of competition.”

Torres said if the IHSA hosted a state-sanctioned meet “girls [wouldn’t] have to prove themselves to other male coaches or boys.”

“Girls against girls is like having boys against boys,” she said. “It’s more of an even playing field. Girls are working really, really hard to wrestle guys.”

High schools such as Maine East are adapting to having more female wrestlers.

Two weeks ago, Maine East hosted the first girls-only dual meet. And on Saturday, the high school brought in roughly 30 female wrestlers and held a girls tournament alongside a boys sophomore wrestling tournament.

Torres said it’s exciting to watch the sport grow.

“Women are showing off that they’re even with the guys. They’re not weak. They know what they’re doing,” Torres said. “Wrestling motivates girls to do their best and to try their best, and to show other people that they can do what guys can do.”

Kate Cacho, a sophomore at Maine East who placed fourth at IWCOA state last year, said she hopes to break the stigma about female wrestlers.

“We’re learning that it’s not just a guy sport,” Cacho said. “It can be a girls sport, too. We can work just as hard as them.”

Follow me on Twitter: @madkenney