The number of female youth wrestlers in South Dakota has steadily grown, but many coaches believe the biggest spike is yet to come.

Women’s wrestling becoming an Olympic sport in 2004 and colleges adding it has helped it gain notoriety, yet South Dakota still doesn’t offer high school girls wrestling.

South Dakota has built up solid numbers of girls wrestlers, with 160 competing this year at the state youth tournament — a 19 percent increase over last year — and girls competing in national competitions for South Dakota. And while high school participation numbers for girls have improved in the last 10 years, the potential is likely capped if girls are left with no choice but to wrestle boys.

“Other states are putting their foot forward and finding out what works for them,” Pierre coach Shawn Lewis said. “We’ve kind of sat around and watched their states do their action. It’s not just a South Dakota trend, it’s a nationwide trend the last 5-to-10 years.”

According to USA Wrestling, as of November 2018, there are 14 states with sanctioned girls high school wrestling.

In the last year, formal talks about following the nationwide trend and making girls wrestling a sanctioned sport have grown. South Dakota High School Activities Association Assistant Executive Director John Krogstrand has also watched nearby states add girls wrestling at the high-school level. However, he said South Dakota won’t make it a sanctioned sport for the upcoming school year, though 2020-21 or 2021-22, “certainly are possibilities.”

“There seems to be pretty significant support for girls wrestling, but it’s a matter of where would we be able to come up with the numbers to make it practical or feasible for the addition,” he said. “And when we do potentially move forward with girls wrestling as a varsity sport and a varsity championship (it’s important) that we do it right and we’re able to find competitors and increase weight divisions.”

South Dakota girls are able to wrestle in high school, but there isn’t a separate girls division, forcing them to wrestle against boys. The topic was discussed at the SDHSAA’s wrestling advisory committee meeting in February, which is where it will go through if steps are taken to sanction the sport.

In potentially adding girls wrestling, Krogstrand didn’t rule out any possibilities, including an exhibition during the boys state wrestling tournament week. Having an exhibition has been common in other states, such as North Dakota doing so this year before making it a sanctioned sport next season.

“We’re willing to look at all of our possibilities. I think there’s support for it, but it’s figuring out the way to do it correctly,” Krogstrand said. “... Some other states had the numbers and were in better position to more readily bring a girls division in.”

Missouri had over 700 female participants at its exhibition two years ago, but offers tips to South Dakota. It waited to see how many athletes came out to the initial weigh-in before setting up weight classes.

South Dakota AAU wrestling has tinkered with the weight classes the past couple of years to increase participation, too. It now categorizes wrestlers by grades rather than by age and also combined weight classes to provide more matches at tournaments.

“By increasing that competition and giving girls more matches, we’re seeing more and more girls wrestling,” said South Dakota Wrestling Coaches Association Executive Director Chris Sayler. “Because there’s that opportunity to wrestle instead of showing up, getting a medal and going home.”

Increasing in popularity

Sayler, of Freeman, sees the growing interest in girls wrestling as another way to promote the sport, and he’s doing more than providing extra matches for youth wrestlers.

He hopes to form the first South Dakota AAU girls wrestling team in time to bring a 10-to-12 wrestler squad to the Disney Duals in Florida in 2020. South Dakota brought three boys teams -- an all-star team and two developmental teams -- this year.

“I think girls are starting to see there’s more opportunities out there,” said Sayler, who noted the growing numbers at the SDWCA/AAU state tournament. “It’s just another way to grow the sport.”

The SDWCA/AAU state tournament saw a 26-girl-wrestler increase from 2018 to 2019, with 160 competing this season. South Dakota USA Wrestling had 15 female athletes this year, but two of them competed for North Dakota at the Junior National Duals in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June due to South Dakota not having a girls team.

“We see a huge drop off from the younger age groups to the older age groups,” said SDUSAW State Chairman Ray Ringstmeyer, a Winner native who now coaches in Hot Springs and who noted a stronger presence from West River schools. “I think these girls fail to see a future with our current wrestling culture.”

The numbers have still increased at the high-school level, though are considerably lower than the AAU ranks and have plateaued in recent years.

Despite not being a sanctioned sport, 35 female wrestlers competed across 15 South Dakota high schools in 2017-18 season, according to the National Federation of State High School Association’s annual participation statistics. It was the second straight year 15 high schools have had a girl wrestler on their roster, which included Mitchell senior Edana Mahrt.

High school girls participation peaked in 2015-16 when 73 girl wrestlers made up 5.2 percent of the state’s high school wrestling population. Even with numbers declining since then, this is the fourth consecutive year the state has seen at least 30 female wrestlers. South Dakota had just three female wrestlers at the start of the decade (2009-10 and 2010-11).

“I think it’s becoming more acceptable where back when I was growing up, there was maybe one or two girls,” Lewis said. “Now, the girls movement is gaining enough where there’s enough girls almost now to sustain girls wrestling.”

Even with sustained numbers, especially at the AAU youth levels, Krogstrand described them as “fleeting.”

“The challenge is so many of our girls athletes that wrestle in the elementary school level don’t continue with the sport much past that because they realize there’s not an opportunity to participate as a high school athlete, unless they do that in the boys division,” Krogstrand said. “I think the challenge with saying ‘Here’s our numbers,’ is we lose so many of them that any of them we have is almost a little bit bias, inaccurate or fraudulent.”

Lewis admits it might take a couple of years after making girls wrestling a sanctioned sport to reach “solid participation.” However, others think the sport would take off quickly once girls no longer need to wrestle boys.

“I think in creating their own division, it’ll promote itself,” said SDWCA President Travis Carpenter, who coached Mitchell for 13 seasons before resigning earlier this year. “It’ll be a little more competitive for them.”

McCook Central/Montrose coach Scott Andal, who is also on the SDWCA board added: “Girls who wrestle in high school know they have to compete against boys, A few more (girls) every time, but what’s holding us back, if we had enough to sanction it and have their own division, then the numbers would take off quickly.”

A parent’s perspective

The inability to potentially not be able to wear the high school’s singlet is a drawback even high school coaches can’t overlook.

Andal’s soon-to-be third-grade daughter, Landry, has been wrestling since kindergarten. But he doesn’t know if “she’s going to keep pursuing it,” once organized basketball starts.

Lewis’ daughter, Abbigail, who will be in the fifth grade, is in the same situation. She took a two-year break from wrestling but has since restarted with the possibility of girls wrestling becoming more likely.

“We want her to be able to wear her school colors,” Lewis said. “We told her that unless she was able to wear a Pierre singlet and compete on a high school wrestling team, we’d rather her do other things.”

The growing sport is also important for parents who prefer their daughter to solely wrestle other girls. While girls wrestling boys has become accepted, some parents, such as Andal and Lewis, prefer to have their daughters in girl divisions.

Andal said Landry wrestled against boys occasionally during her first two years, but he tries to have her compete against other girls. The same for Lewis, who always registers Abbigail into girl divisions, even when given the option to wrestle boys.

“Before, they felt, ‘If we’re going to get any matches, we have to wrestle boys,’ ” Andal said. “Now with things changing, I’ve noticed more and more people try to keep their daughter in the girls division and that’s it.”

The growth of girls wrestling at the youth ranks has been easy to spot for Andal. In Landry’s first year at the SDWCA/AAU state tournament, she was part of a two-girl bracket, but has wrestled in a full 16-girl bracket in each of the past two years.

As a coach, Andal said MCM doesn’t forfeit when facing an opposing girl wrestler. Carpenter echoed the sentiment, saying that’s been a dying strategy. Still, adding girls wrestling would provide them with a more competitive environment, especially at the older levels.

“I really don’t think as far as talent, strength and speed-wise, you see any difference when they’re younger,” Lewis said. “But definitely when you go through puberty, there’s some major changes -- muscular-wise -- that doesn’t necessarily make sense. You might have some of your best girls being able to compete with guys, but your average girl probably is not going to be able to compete with your average man based on strength.”