Many coaches didn’t know what to expect when the South Dakota High School Activities Association made girls wrestling a sanctioned sport for the 2020-2021 school year.

How many girls would give it a shot? Would they stick with a new sport for an entire season? How would practices look?

There was more uncertainty than answers. While not all teams had a girl join the wrestling team, for the schools who do have wrestlers, the participation and dedication has been surprising.

There’s been early-morning practices and teammates oftentimes wrestling each other at tournaments due to the overall lack of numbers. But in the first year -- one some coaches didn’t expect to have any girls join their team -- it sets the groundwork for expanding the sport in the future.

“What I’m hoping is that trickles over to more schools,” Canton coach Jeremy Ask said. “I hope more girls watch us or happen to be at events and see us and say, ‘Oh my gosh. Holy cow, Canton has a bunch of girls. I should give this a try.’ ”

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Canton, a school with a rich wrestling history, had never had a girl make it through a full wrestling season. Ask has been a coach since 2001, and he only recalls a handful of girls who showed interest in the past.

Now, it’s an anomaly with 16 girl wrestlers. Ask expected less than five girl wrestlers to join the team, and figured they’d fit them in when the boys practiced. Instead, Canton has more members on its girls wrestling team than its varsity basketball team. Pierre is the same way with 19 girls on the girls wrestling team.

The wrestling culture around the community played a factor for many of the girls. And even though they practice at 6 a.m., it hasn’t led to a decline in participation. Canton continued to draw interest even when the season started, as it built a strong foundation with nine freshmen and two middle schoolers.

“I think wrestling has been such a big part in Canton’s history, being a part of that is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Canton senior Emma Neu said. “That really gets us sparked up to do that. We’ve been doing basketball since second grade, and some of the girls wanted to try something new. And wrestling is new.”

Lyman is a more accurate depiction of the participation around the state, though. Coach Chad Johnson has seen girls in the AAU ranks, but never on the varsity level. He didn’t expect there to be much interest on his team, let alone three wrestlers around the same weight who often run into each other at tournaments that typically feature around five wrestlers in each weight class.

The Raiders don’t have a separate practice, but their trio only wrestles each other. Like Canton, they focused on the fundamentals and teaching techniques to start.

“I didn’t know if we’d have any to start with. And when they started, I wasn’t really expecting them to be there very long because wrestling is a different lifestyle,” Johnson said. “… The girls end up wrestling each other, but they’ve done a great job sticking with it and picking up a lot of things. They’ve grown so much in the last month that it’s really impressed me how they’re picking things up.”

Why this year?

This year marks the first time many girls thought about wrestling, and it’s in large part due to having their own sport. The guarantee of being able to wrestle girls is appealing. In many cases, it’s what swayed their decision.

“That was the deciding factor right there,” Canton senior Rachel Mastalir said. “Because I knew I’d have a better chance of getting wins than going up against boys who have more muscle than I do.”

Mastalir had thought about wrestling in the past, but the physicality of the sport and going against boys drove her away. When the SDHSAA sanctioned girls wrestling, she jumped at the opportunity.

She remembered watching her older brother being drowned with support from Canton’s fan base. Mastalir didn’t want to be in the student section cheering anymore, rather desired to feel the support while she was on the mat.

“As part of Canton’s student section, it’s always been so fun to watch them wrestle,” she said. “I was like, ‘That would be so fun to be down there or anywhere wrestling and having the students and the fans backing you so heavily.’ ”

Canton's Carlee Laubach goes for a pin during a match this season. This is the first year girls wrestling is a sanctioned sport by the South Dakota High School Activities Association. (Courtesy photo)
Canton's Carlee Laubach goes for a pin during a match this season. This is the first year girls wrestling is a sanctioned sport by the South Dakota High School Activities Association. (Courtesy photo)

Wrestling against boys has never been an issue for Tina Shields, who wrestled in AAU in sixth and seventh grade when she attended Cheyenne-Eagle Butte. The Lyman sophomore was intimidated at first, but as she wrestled boys at tournaments when no girls were there, she enjoyed the challenge of trying to out-skill her stronger opponents.

She never fell out of love with the sport as she switched to basketball. Shields didn’t know if it wasn’t against the rules for girls to wrestle before this year (it wasn’t). Now, with the addition of girls wrestling, she went back to the sport she favored.

“I’ve always liked wrestling. I didn’t have a problem with it,” Shields said. “I wanted to use it as an outlet. I think wrestling is pretty cool how you can do different techniques and different movements can cause reactions. It was an outlet for me to go to.”

But for many, wrestling boys simply wasn’t an option they wanted to pursue. In elementary school, Neu wrestled boys in practice in Canton’s AAU program, but soured on the sport as it became “awkward” to wrestle against boys.

“I don’t think I would have ever joined if it wasn’t a big girls movement that everyone kind of went out,” Neu said.

She’s not the only one. With the formation of the sport, some girls had the same mindset as Lyman junior Quincy Taylor, “Why not?” She wanted to try something new, and convinced her friend, Kennadee Shook, to also join to make sure she wasn’t the only girl on the team. Neither thought about wrestling before this year.

“Since I’m in high school and you only get to do it once, I thought it was a good opportunity,” Taylor said.

The future

Ask and Johnson both see this year as a stepping stone for the future of girls wrestling. When asked about the future, they hope to one day see a coach dedicated solely to the girls team, their own schedule and more weight classes.

This year, the girls team tags along with the boys team and if other schools at a tournament have girl wrestlers, they find matches. It takes a lot of communication, and can lead to few matches or teammates squaring off.

“Because there’s a big group of girls doing it, that’s creating more interest in the high school,” Ask said. “It’s being talked about and girls are excited about it.”

As far as weight classes for the state tournament, the SDHSAA modeled Missouri’s state tournament. It didn’t set weight classes at the start of the year, rather it will have four weight classes with approximately 25 percent of all wrestlers falling into each class. Then, it will decide the eight qualifiers in each weight class.

Ask said he’s already noticed an increase in participation in the youth level this year. And it’s not just the coaches who expect to see the numbers at the high school level increase, too, as girls now have an avenue to continue with the sport past middle school.

“I think more girls will want to try it,” Shook said. “Will be more comfortable doing it if there’s other girls in it.”

Taylor added: “I think we’re just the first three that were going to do it here. I think next year there’s going to be more and more.”

Canton showed how much wrestling culture can impact participation. But for a program who touts “strength in numbers” on the boys side, their 16 girls are just a starting point.

“We all want our program to be as successful as the boys program is,” Mastalir said. “We know it’ll take a few years, but that’s where we’re hoping to get the program to be.”