QUINCY -- One of the fastest growing sports in the nation has the Illinois High School Association taking notice.
Last week, the IHSA Board of Directors approved a recommendation to begin an individual girls wrestling state series beginning in the 2021-22 school year.
"Participation in high school girls wrestling has grown significantly over the past few years, and we expect this announcement will only help increase that momentum here in Illinois," IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson said.
Quincy is no stranger to the girls wrestling scene, with both Quincy High School and Quincy Notre Dame boasting girls on their varsity roster last season. While the girls have proven their ability to compete with their male counterparts, Blue Devils wrestling coach Phil Neally said it will be beneficial for the girls to have their own space.
"It's good from the aspect of fairness, giving them their own path to get to the state championships," Neally said. "They put that time in, now they get to choose their own path to get to the state tournament."
Quincy Notre Dame wrestling coach Adam Steinkamp has seen the numbers swell for girls wrestling in Illinois first hand, both as a coach and as a parent with his daughter, Catherine, currently owning 61 varsity wins in three years with the Raiders.
"The numbers on high school teams in Illinois have doubled from 400-something to over 800 in the last two years, and its only going to continue," Steinkamp said. "I go back to 2002 when I first started coaching a youth program here in Quincy, the Quincy Cyclones, and you could travel anywhere in the state and rarely saw girls on the mat. Now, you can go into any (Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation) event and you will see 30 to 40 girls competing on a given weekend anywhere.
"The numbers are getting better and coming up through the grade school level."
For the last four years, the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association has hosted a girls state championship at the conclusion of the season, but Neally said that didn't fill the gap that the new state series will.
"It's just not the same thing," Neally said. "It's after the season is over with, they have to find a place to workout and have somebody there. This definitely puts it on the right path."
Putting the state series off until the 2021-22 season wasn't ideal for many coaches, but given the logistics behind setting up the tournament Steinkamp understands the delay, even if it means Catherine won't get the opportunity to compete in her final year.
"Anybody that has been to the boys state tournament, you understand the excitement when that tournament takes place over in the State Farm Center in Champaign," Steinkamp said. "It's not something that's just thrown together, so I understand if they need to take a year to either add it to that event, make it a different weekend or line up a venue."
When and where the girls state tournament will take place has yet to be decided, but Anderson said the IHSA will take the 2020-21 school year to iron out the details.
The benefits won't end with high school competition either. Many colleges are putting together women's wrestling rosters to compete, and a state series will provide girls more chances to be seen by college recruiters.
"There are 15-plus colleges in the United States that have female wrestling programs," Neally said. "My daughter is going to Central Methodist to play softball, and they are starting a wrestling program there and have female and male wrestling programs. That gives kids opportunities."
That chance to get a foot in the door might not exist if not for the growth of girls wrestling.
"It's something that small that can change somebody's life, as far as putting them in the direction maybe they never thought they can go," Steinkamp said.
Even in the midst of a global pandemic that has kept coaches and athletes from training like they typically would during the summer, the excitement around this decision is palpable.
"We started our offseason stuff since they've relaxed some of the rules, and we have had like five girls showing up consistently all the time that are going to be in our program," Neally said. "To be showing up in the offseason like that and getting themselves prepared is awesome for our program."
For many advocates of girls wrestling, this move is just the beginning.
"As a coach, I've been talking to parents saying, ‘Hey, this is coming. Just be patient,'" Steinkamp said. "Now there is something tangible you can throw out there and get kids excited. The next thing you know, we are going to turn around in five years and think, ‘Oh, this is a new thing? Look at all these girls competing.'"