The story began with a reporter profiling Lebanon, Mo., and talking with head coach Randy Roark, who led the Yellowjackets to Missouri’s first-ever girls state wrestling championship last February. The point of the story was as states add girls wrestling, not only are girls swarming to the sport, but the boys’ teams are gaining participants, too.
Greg Stahl, the assistant executive director for the Missouri State High School Activities Association, said he couldn’t agree more. Stahl spent part of Friday at the Wonder Woman Tournament in Columbia, where about 500 girls were assembled to wrestle last weekend.
“I was in a meeting three years ago talking about girls wrestling,” said Stahl, who’s wrestled and coached and been a referee for the sport for 30 years. “One thing that has promoted the sport is there’s a very good chance many of the girls wrestling today had older brothers who wrestled and from the time they were in elementary school to high school probably saw their older brothers wrestle in tournament after tournament. They might have liked it and now they have a chance to do it.”
And in Missouri, the girls like wrestling a lot.
During the 2017-2018 school year when girls still were competing against the boys, there were 169 females in wrestling. During their first season wrestling against themselves in their own state tournament in 2018-2019, the number of girls swelled to 956. That number increased 39 percent to 1,573 girls who’ve been certified this school year.
Stahl said while that increase shows how popular girls wrestling has become in Missouri, not all of the wrestlers stick with the sport.
“Those numbers, while they’re data and trackable, the reality is at the beginning of each season a coach takes a list of names to their athletic director and a month down the road, we know for a fact that not all the kids stick it out,” Stahl said. “There’s no way to know how many females there are in practice rooms each day.”
An optimal performance calculator is used by state officials to monitor weight management information. Stahl can see through that database a truer number. All wrestlers have a weight assessment and the last time Stahl looked, 1,460 girls were wrestling in Missouri.
“The difference in those numbers is a good representation of how many girls are no longer there,” he said.
Stahl said he disagrees with one of the points made in the Wall Street Journal article – that the addition of girls saved the sport in general. Missouri saw an increase in boys competing in the sport this year, just not at the meteoric rise of the girls. Following a slight dip from 6,469 to 6,468 boys between the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 school years, the number increased to 6,728 this year.
“Do I think girls wrestling is bringing out some boys? Yes,” Stahl said. “I think boys are seeing girls doing a physically demanding sport and saying, ‘Maybe I want to do that.’ There’s a lot of discipline in wrestling. I know that it was more physically and mentally demanding on me than any sport I ever competed in.”
Success helps breed involvement in many areas of life. It’s hard to say what impact De Soto’s Jaycee Foeller had on recruiting girls to wrestling after she won the 167-pound state championship last season. Foeller capped off a 35-0 season with what will always be remembered as a first in the county’s history.
Northwest has the largest contingent of girls wrestling in the county with 35 this year. Head coach Ron Wilhelm has been an enthusiastic supporter of bringing girls into the fold. Wilhelm said he agreed 100 percent that girls are saving the sport.
“We were seeing (boys) participation go down steadily for a few years in a row,” Wilhelm said. “This has rejuvenated our sport on so many levels, including for the coaches. I feel 25 again.”
Hillsboro wrestling head coach Matt Mitchell said he believes the eight-team dual tournament the Hawks are hosting on Jan. 18 will be one of the largest for girls in the state. Northwest, Hillsboro, Lebanon, Lindbergh, De Soto, Mehlville, Normandy and Washington will all take part in the dual tournament. Hillsboro also will host the District 1 girls tournament.
“Our girls are excited about it and we’re excited to promote the sport,” Mitchell said.
In its infancy last year, state officials decided girls wrestling’s one class would send three wrestlers from each weight class at districts to the state tournament. That was cause for much consternation among the girls, coaches and parents. That problem was rectified and like the boys, there will be four district qualifiers this season. There are 12 weight classes for the girls and 14 for the boys.
In Stahl’s position, you don’t make plans a month before, you start making them years before. Under the current rate of growth, Stahl and the wrestling advisory committee made up of coaches from around the state, will start planning in March the future expansion of girls wrestling.
“We knew we’d go through a learning curve and there are a few growing pains,” Stahl said. “If there’s one right now, it would be what are we going to do in two or three years if that number keeps growing up to the 1,800 mark?
“Right now, we’re doing one class. Compare it to boys with four classes at about 1,600 kids per class. What happens when the girls get to 1,800 and we split into two classes? That will cause difficulty for the state championships. Right now, the boys and girls are on the floor of the Mizzou Arena in front of the wrestling community. There’s no way we can do that with two girls classes. We can’t wait until December 2021 to make that call.”