The Kansas State High School Athletics Association’s decision to sanction girls wrestling in April was nearly unanimous, with 63 of 65 votes in favor of Kansas becoming the 15th state to add the sport.
Because of how lopsided the voting ended up being, one may presume that the approval came with relative ease; this is far from reality. In fact, McPherson High School head wrestling coach Doug Kretzer said it took “about five or six years” for his idea even to make it to KSHSAA’s desk.
Kretzer, who has three sons and one daughter, Mya, who wrestled. He realized firsthand the difficulty of getting girls matches against their own gender from coaching his daughter.
“We always really thought we were going to be a wrestling family, but when she decided to wrestle, it started out with us just trying to find her competition against other females initially,” he said, “and it was tough.”
Local coaches weigh in
Wrestling coaches Robert Gonzales of Manhattan and Jared Weatherhead of Riley County said KSHSAA’s decision to make girls wrestling into a state championship sport has opened the doors for the sport of wrestling to grow tremendously in the next couple years.
“I think it’s going to take off,” said Weatherhead, who is entering his first year as Riley County’s head wrestling coach. “If you look down the kids’ program already it seems like — especially since women’s wrestling in college took off, there has been a lot more girls wrestling.”
Joe Knecht, the USA Wrestling women’s director for the state of Kansas, agreed. He travels with the women’s national wrestling team and said there’s been steady annual growth at the youth level.
“At those events we see a similar type of trending where there’s 30–33% growth each year,” Knecht said. “So much so that tournament directors for those large national events have had to look at ways to optimize mat time so the tournaments don’t run longer. (They’re also looking at) adding mats to wrestle or possibly bigger facilities.”
Although KSHSAA approved girls wrestling to be its own sanctioned sport starting next year, it has granted a two-year transition period in which girls will have the option to compete on their school’s boys’ team or girls’ team for the regular season.
Per the rule change, if a competition offers only a boys division, girls will have the opportunity to compete in that division. However, if both a boys and girls division is offered, girls are required to wrestle in the girls division.
Regardless, Weatherhead said he doesn’t expect much to change from a coaching standpoint with more girls on the roster.
“I’m not going to change a thing,” Weatherhead said. “They are used to wrestling boys anyway and we’re going over the same moves. In high school we’re restricted from freestyle, like college uses, so it’s just folkstyle.”
Gonzales also said he isn’t expecting a lot to change, but hinted at the possibility of hiring a female coach in the future.
“All of the men on our staff are comfortable coaching young ladies,” Gonzales said. “We have coached young ladies in the past. Do I expect in a couple of years to have a female coach? I would want us to have a female coach, and I would like to help with that and help our men’s program. But at the same time, I think all of us involved in wrestling, we don’t want to hire just a woman for women’s sake. We want to hire the best female or male wrestling coach that will help our ladies get better.”
Although Weatherhead and Gonzales both said they expect girls wrestling to grow in their respective schools, neither have immediate plans to separate their team by gender.
Weatherhead said he thinks the separation of girls and boys wrestling programs in high schools largely will be dependent upon the size of the school.
“I think it depends on the size of the school, maybe,” Weatherhead said. “At 5 or 6A schools where they have a lot more kids out, that might be something they can think about. But, I don’t think like a 3, 2, or 1A school will have to worry about that too much. I think we can just go about practice the same time and have one coach.”
‘I think we can do this in Kansas’
Kretzer said traveling across the United States with Mya to national tournaments, he began to recognize the prominence of girls wrestling.
A national girls high school ranking developed by USA Wrestling, FloWrestling, ranked Mya as the ninth-best high schooler in the 127-pound girls division in February.
“We started to actually see how many girls were wrestling nationwide and how high (a) level female wrestlers were who were kind of chasing that national level competitive set of skills,” he said. “(Mya’s) eighth-grade year, we started really talking about it, you know, ‘I think we can do this in Kansas and I don’t see why not.’”
That progressive thought led Kretzer to begin pushing for Kansas to start sanctioning girls wrestling, first speaking with Shane Backhus, McPherson’s activities director.
“I bounced it off to my AD, and he was receptive to it from an administrator standpoint,” Kretzer said. “He couldn’t see any reason why it would make sense to say no. He and I just started to push. He really put a lot of it on me, saying, ‘OK, figure it out. I’ll be a resource for you.’”
From there, Kretzer reached out to KSHSAA assistant executive director Mark Lentz. He informed Kretzer of the first step required to accomplish his goal.
“We have a board policy that basically says there has to be an established 24 schools participating in an activity before we can or even consider having a postseason,” Lentz said.
Kretzer also connected with several coaches from other states to try and find out the schematics behind their respective states approving the sport. One Alaska coach, Mike Kimber, presented Kretzer with the proposal used to spur the Alaska School Activities Association to ratify it.
“I used some of their information and built a proposal and took it to (Backhus) and he said, ‘I like it,’” Kretzer said. “Then, using his administrative mind, someone who deals with KSHSSA, we made some modifications and tweaks.”
Next, Kretzer reached out to the Kansas Wrestling Coaches Association — or KWCA — and shared his vision. He encouraged several coaches from around the state to recruit girls to wrestle in their communities.
At a KWCA clinic in October 2016, Kretzer, his daughter, and his son Kaden sat down with KWCA vice president Doug Vander Linden and discussed the potential of girls wrestling in Kansas. Instantly, Vander Linden was keen to the idea.
“I talked with Doug. I talked with Mya for a bit, then I had the chance to kind of get Kaden off to the side,” Vander Linden said. “Kaden was a middle school coach talking about what he was doing with girls wrestling and what he saw. Right off the bat, what resonated in me was I could relate to exactly what all three of them were talking about in terms of why girls wrestling (made sense). I could see in Mya what every kid I’ve ever coached, boy or girl, was wanting to pursue in the sport.”
With Vander Linden on board, Kretzer decided to take it to the next level, presenting the proposal he and his AD drafted to a KWCA board meeting. Kretzer said the KWCA executive board “overwhelmingly supported” the initiative.
The KWCA noticed several benefits to sanctioning girls wrestling.
Vander Linden said the KWCA saw the potential of growing college wrestling by adding girls at the high school level while staying true to Title IX rules.
“What happens to the university when I bring 10 scholarships on for women’s wrestling?” he asked. “Can I now bring on, if I have the operational budget, 5 or 6 scholarships for men’s wrestling and still stay proportional? Absolutely.”
Vander Linden also pointed out that adding girls wresting could prevent future controversies at the state championship level.
In 2014, the top-seeded 113-pound wretler, Stephen Tujague of St. James Academy, forfeited the first match of the state tournament after being matched up with a female, Payton Reynolds.
After forfeiting the match, Tujague ended up making a run through the consolation bracket, winning the rest of his matches to claim third place. Had girls wrestling been a sanctioned sport, Tujague might have had a shot at a state title.
Nate Naasz — then KWCA’s vice president, now the organization’s president — said another thing that stood out to the KWCA was a statistic on participation season to season.
“It’s about a 10,000-student dip from girls participation from fall to winter, then it went back up in the spring,” Naasz said. “We really felt like wrestling can take a huge step in filling that void of participation on the girls side.”
After the meeting, Naasz called Kretzer.
“He asked if I would be on their board, if I would come on their board as a new position that never existed: the women’s chairman position,” Kretzer said.
Vander Linden said the KWCA added Kretzer to the board to show its commitment to the campaign.
“We basically decided to add that position to the board to make a verbal, political (statement),” Vander Linden said.
Kretzer also met with Knecht.
“We connected with some of our national level stuff and we just started kind of kicking some ideas around and that’s how it got started,” Kretzer said. “I worked up the proposal and emailed it to him, asked him what he thought. We kind of went back and forth on stuff.”
Knecht said Sally Roberts, the founder and executive director of the “Wrestle Like a Girl” organization, also helped in numerous ways.
“From Day 1 of them learning that we were pushing to sanction girls wrestling within the state, they were on board helping us,” Knecht said. “Providing information, data from other states, even proposals other states have done. (‘The organization) was a good partner in continuing to help grow the sport nationally and within the state.”
Kretzer also credited Roberts for her assistance.
“Her and I have had — oh man, I don’t know — 20 or 30 conversations,” Kretzer said. “She’s been a huge advocate, too, pushing from the national side.”
Kretzer also expanded his network by starting a Facebook page, dubbed “Kansas24.” The “About” section of the page detailed the overarching goal of the campaign, which states that it wants “to push for female wrestling state championship in Kansas! Twenty-four teams are needed to apply for sanctioning and provide our girls an opportunity.” The page has nearly 900 followers and more than 850 likes on Facebook.
More than 80 schools in Kansas had female wrestlers on their teams last season.
‘It could be done’
Kretzer did some more recruiting by hosting a meeting in McPherson, inviting “any girl who wants to, or is even interested in” wrestling in high school.
“In McPherson we said, ‘Listen, we want to prove to the rest of the state that if you aggressively recruit girls, you get them to come out, they practice and work hard. You girls here in McPherson can show the state that it makes sense,’” Kretzer said. “I had 13 girls go out for wrestling that year. We went from one or two to 13 girls.”
While McPherson’s girls wrestling team grew exponentially, Kretzer and Backhus still had trouble finding girls competition.
“And my AD, he was full-force, you know, ‘If we can find girls competition, we’re going to send them,’” Kretzer said. “‘And so, the best thing to do is, let’s just host our own. Let’s just add a girl’s division at our home tournament.’”
Twenty-six girls competed, including all 13 members of McPherson’s team and 13 more from out of town.
“We had four, five, six round-robin brackets and boom, there it was,” Kretzer said. “We had a girl’s competition in (Kansas) and proved that it could be done.”
Kretzer’s efforts ended up growing the sport, and on Feb. 11, 2017, McPherson hosted the first unofficial girls state championship.
“We ended up getting 36 schools to participate, (with) 56 girls at the event by the end of the year,” Kretzer said. “Come to find out, there were 112 girls wrestling in the state and we wanted to get every one of them, but we got half.”
Girls wrestling continued to grow after that. In 2018, the number of high school girls wrestling in Kansas grew by 193%, from 112 girls competing to 215. Last year, 376 girls wrestled, spread across the aforementioned 80-plus schools.
Though its popularity was on the rise, in order for girls wrestling to become a sanctioned sport, Kretzer’s proposal had to first pass through a Kansas Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, or KIAAA, meeting.
Kretzer, Vander Linden and the other members of the KWCA sent their long-crafted proposal to the KIAAA in the spring of 2017.
The proposal failed.
“The big schools weren’t getting it. They weren’t seeing it.” Vander Linden said. “We passed the majority, but we didn’t pass the 5A and 6A requirement.”
Motivated to make the proposal strong enough to pass, it was back to the drawing board for the KWCA.
“We took 2017 and 2018 and really worked on educating all coaches, ADs, principals using mass emails, spreading the word — how it would work, what it would look like,” Vander Linden said.
The following year a revised version of the proposal was sent to the KIAAA. This time the proposal passed with a 90% majority and all classifications approved. Even after receiving approval from the KIAAA, Gary Musselman still had his doubts.
“As they were getting ready to do some things, Gary came back and said, ‘Well, I’m just not sure the principals are on board, so the only way to get the principals on board is to take this to the regional meeting, which won’t happen until the fall of 2018,’” Vander Linden recalled Musselman, then KSHSAA’s executive director, saying.
Eventually, the proposal made it past the regional meeting, clearing way for KSHSAA’s approval on April 30 at its board of directors meeting. After three years, the KWCA’s persistence had paid off.
“We stayed the journey,” Vander Linden said. “Sometimes you don’t win in the second period. Sometimes you got to win late in the third period. Sometimes you got to win in overtime.”
Kansas joined Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Washington as the 15th state to sanction the sport.
Although KSHSAA approved girls wrestling to be its own sanctioned sport, it has granted a two-year transition period in which girls will have the option to compete on their school’s boys’ team and girls’ team for the regular season.
Girls wrestling continues to grow, not only in Kansas, but nationally. Soon after Kansas becoming a sanctioned state, New Mexico, Maryland and Arkansas followed.
During the upcoming winter sports season, the Tony’s Pizza Event Center in Salina will host the first official KSHSAA-sponsored girls wrestling state championship. The event will take place one day before to the boys’ tournament.
One of the people who was key to pushing for the sport from the beginning won’t get to experience Kansas high school girls wrestling to its full effect, though. Kretzer’s daughter, Mya, graduated in May and will continue her wrestling career at Baker University in Baldwin City.
“I’m sad to say, in my heart, my head it was a year late,” Vander Linden said. “I really wanted to see if Mya would have been one of the first Kansas girls state champions. Mya has some huge huge things ahead of her collegiately and nationally.”