ROCK ISLAND, Ill. -- Augustana will add women's wrestling to its varsity athletic lineup beginning with the 2021-22 school year, it was announced today by director of athletics Mike Zapolski. The addition of women is wrestling pushes to 26 the number of intercollegiate varsity sports offered by Augustana. This will give the Vikings 13 women's sports and 13 men's sports.
"Wrestling is becoming an increasingly popular sport for girls nationwide, and our goal is that Augustana will become the small college destination for young women who want to excel at a high level academically and continue to compete," said Zapolski. "We are perfectly situated geographically to attract quality women's wrestlers from Illinois, neighboring Midwest states plus other locations such as California and Texas."
This will be the seventh varsity sport added since Zapolski became the director of athletics in June of 2008. Women's lacrosse and men's lacrosse were announced in 2010 and added in 2012 while men's volleyball and women's bowling started competition in 2018 after the decision was made in 2016 to add them. In February of 2019, Augustana unveiled plans to add women's water polo and then men's water polo, both of which will begin play in 2021-22.
Tony Willaert, who recently completed his third season as the head coach of the men's program, has been tabbed to start the women's program.
"Augustana has been discussing the idea of adding women's wrestling for some time, and, institutionally, we believe the program will attract new students to the College," said Zapolski. "Coach Willaert has done a solid job rebuilding our men's wrestling program the last three years, and is eager to be engaged with the launch of a women's team. Similar to our other recent programmatic additions, Tony will have the next 15 months to recruit in advance of our first competitive season in 2021-22."
Willaert, who took over for Eric Juergens as the head coach prior to the 2017-18 season, came to Augustana after a stint as the head coach at his alma mater St. John's (Minnesota). He is excited about the opportunity to lead the fledgling women's wrestling program.
"I'm really excited to get to work recruiting for our new women's program. Our local area has seen a lot of growth with girls wrestling so this will give us a great base for our recruiting efforts," said Willaert, whose first two Viking teams finished 30th and 20th in the NCAA Division III National Championships, respectively. "I know we can develop a solid base over the next couple years and compete on the national level right away."
Women's wrestling will compete in the winter with the same time-frame as the men. Official practice will begin on October 10 each year with the competitive season going from November through March. The NCAA considers it an "emerging sport". The Women's Collegiate Wrestling Association (WCWA) governs women's wrestling and has overseen the national championships since 2008.
Augustana is at the front end of a growing trend across the nation with the addition of women's wrestling.
"The National Wrestling Coaches Association would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to the Augustana College administration for its extraordinary leadership in establishing our 37th new NCAA affiliated women's wrestling program in the nation," said Mike Moyer, Executive Director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association. "Intercollegiate wrestling has a very high percentage of first generation college bound students so this new program will provide an opportunity for countless young aspiring female student-wrestlers to obtain a college degree who otherwise might not otherwise attend college."
Moyer acknowledges that Augustana's announcement helps the sport move closer to an NCAA championship meet. "Further, this announcement moves us one program closer to reaching 40 NCAA member schools that sponsor women's intercollegiate wrestling programs which is the minimum cut point to qualify for an NCAA sanctioned championship," said Moyer.
The 2020 WCWA conducted its national championship on March 6-7 of this year at Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan. Similar to the men's program, the women will have a total of 10 weight classes: 101, 109, 116, 123, 130, 136, 143, 155, 170 and 191.
Terry Steiner is the head coach of the United States women's national team and he had this to say about the announcement. "Wrestling is a great teacher of life skills. Augustana has always been an institution that has given young adults a great opportunity to succeed in life well beyond their college years," he remarked. "Augustana adding a women's wrestling program is only going to enhance the overall college experience. It will give those student-athletes first-hand knowledge of overcoming obstacles, dealing with adversity, and finding a way to succeed. Women's wrestling is growing at unprecedented rates across the United States. We are excited to welcome Augustana to the wrestling family."
Currently, the list of regional NCAA Division III schools that sponsor or are planning to sponsor women's wrestling include Adrian, Augsburg, Aurora, Carthage, Fontbonne, Iowa Wesleyan, Lakeland, North Central, UW-Stevens Point and Westminster.
Augustana, and Willaert, will get a preview of what is to come in the women's wrestling world this summer when the College is scheduled to host Team Illinois Women's Wrestling. That will be in late July prior to Team Illinois heading to the national championships in Fargo, North Dakota.
"Thanks to Mike and our administration at Augustana for giving me this opportunity," said Willaert. "It's going to be a lot of fun coaching Freestyle again! When I was in Minnesota, I was heavily involved with Minnesota/USA Wrestling by owning a club and regional training center as well as coaching on the national team staff in Fargo. Last summer, I coached with Team Illinois for Freestyle. It'll be great to be involved with the girl's team too."
Lee Roy Smith, the Executive Director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, pointed out that female wrestlers are now benefitting across the country from the life-lessons learned by their male counterparts for nearly 100 years.
"We are thrilled that Augustana has committed to a women's wrestling collegiate program so that young women will have the opportunity to experience the tremendous benefits that men have received for over a century," he said. "The many values derived from the sport of wrestling equip participants with a work ethic and spirit of resilience that female athletes can depend on for a lifetime."
The men's wrestling program at Augustana has been a traditional power in the College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin and the Vikings have won 37 league titles.