VALLEY CITY, N.D. — Just over 50 female wrestlers from seventh through 12th grade took the mat at the Fargodome last month for the girls high school state wrestling championship. It marked five years for the non-sanctioned tournament.
If history repeats itself, that number will increase sharply next year, when the state holds its first sanctioned state tournament for girls wrestling. The North Dakota High School Activities Association Board of Directors unanimously voted Tuesday, March 30, to sanction girls wrestling.
The sport’s first season as an NDHSAA-sponsored activity will be the 2021-22 school year. Girls wrestling will join the winter sports slate. The Board reviewed data from states that had sanctioned girls wrestling, and those states saw a big increase in participation once the sport became sponsored.
“I’ve talked to 15 or 20 states that have sponsored wrestling, and they see anywhere from a 300% increase to a 600% increase that first year from when they don’t sponsor it to when they do,” said NDHSAA assistant director Kevin Morast.
North Dakota had about 80 girls participating in the sport last season, up from about 20 in 2015-16. The sport’s growth in the state has been slower, but that’s expected to change.
Conversations to officially sponsor the sport began a couple years ago, with the process beginning a year and a half ago — the required timeframe for sponsoring a new activity.
“This was something that has been coming for a long time,” said James Porter, the women’s director for North Dakota USA Wrestling. "I feel that this is great for the girls in North Dakota."
Twelve schools must be willing to sponsor the activity for the NDHSAA to approve a new sport.
“We’re easily doubling that in terms of where we’re at for girls wrestling,” Morast said.
There’ll be an individual state championship next year for the girls, which will be held the same weekend and at the same venue as the boys. As of now, a dual tournament will have to wait.
Morast, who is also the wrestling liaison, anticipates there won’t be a team dual side until they can grow the numbers to such that several schools can at least get close to building a full team.
Central Cass and South Border clashed in the first-ever all-girls wrestling dual in North Dakota earlier this year. It was something Squirrels head wrestling coach and activities director Travis Lemar never envisioned for the sport.
“I think our numbers will grow exponentially,” Lemar said of sanctioning. “I think one of the biggest hurdles for girls in the sport of wrestling is not having their own division. I think that can hold a lot of girls back, because they don’t want to wrestle boys. Now having their own division, it opens up the door for a lot of girls in the state of North Dakota.”
Lemar coaches the Central Cass girls squad every morning before school, and the boys after school. When he was in the process of putting together a team, the feedback had heard from some of the girls was that they were interested in joining, but didn’t want to practice with the guys.
“We had a spot open up on our varsity boys team late in the year, and the only one that could potentially fill it was one of our female wrestlers,” Lemar said. “I asked her and she said, ‘No. I could maybe do a forfeit or something, but I’m not wrestling boys.’ I said, ‘That’s totally understandable.’”
“With that now being taken away, I really think the future is bright and endless for these girls in the sport," Lemar said.
With Tuesday’s approval, North Dakota joins a growing number of states moving to sanction the sport. According to the National Wrestling Coaches Association, North Dakota will be the 29th state to hold a sanctioned state championship.
Porter, who also sits on the NWCA as the North Dakota women’s wrestling state chair, said it was “great” for girls in North Dakota.
“It’s one of the fastest-growing sports,” Porter said of women’s wrestling. “With the NCAA recognizing it as an Emerging Sport and having it sanctioned at all three levels, as well as NAIA and others, it’s going to give our girls an equal opportunity to compete for scholarships now that will become available.”
Women’s wrestling was added to the NCAA Emerging Sports for Women program in Division I last summer. It was already approved at the Division II and III levels.
Morast will be meeting with a committee in April to put together regulations and work out logistics. The NDHSAA will work with the National Federation of State High School Associations in coming months to determine weight classes.