Yesterday, news made the rounds of social media stating that Mississippi had finally sanctioned wrestling at the high school level. For boys, that would make it all 50 US states that currently sanction the sport. It sounds like a reason for celebration; however, it's not entirely accurate.
Earlier today, I spoke with Lonnie Tillman, an Associate Director with the MHSAA (Mississippi High School Activities Association), Mississippi's governing body. He was accommodating in answering my questions surrounding this news regarding high school wrestling in the state.
The MHSAA has already sanctioned wrestling, but to this date, they haven't sponsored a state tournament or a postseason. Tillman says wrestling "has always been sanctioned by the MHSAA." He was unable to estimate what "always" entails, but adds the program at Ocean Springs had been in operation for over a decade. The city sits on the Gulf and is located about 60 miles west of Mobile, Alabama and an equal distance east of the Louisiana border. The school will travel to both states to wrestle. The only other known program in Mississippi is the Mississippi School for the Blind, which is located in Jackson.
If you were to check out the MHSAA website, there is a tab for wrestling, along with other sanctioned sports; however, there's no additional information.
After a meeting in early June, the organization has agreed to sponsor a statewide "Invitational" tournament. Tillman stressed that this is not a "true" state tournament and no state titles will be awarded by his organization. It's unclear exactly how the tournament will run. Tillman estimates that it could have some form of a North vs. South theme. The invitational will take place during the 2021-22 school year.
Some other good news is that a girls state tournament will be offered, with the same caveats as above. Girls wrestling has not been sanctioned in Mississippi as per the information provided by Wrestle Like a Girl.
The Mississippi wrestling community has been told that they will need a third of the member schools to participate in wrestling for a true state championship to be held and awarded. Tillman has been told that at least 14 or 15 additional schools plan on fielding teams in the 2021-22 season. Currently, the state has about 240 high schools. That would require a total of 80 schools to pledge to offer the sport.
Multiple members of the MHSAA confided that facilities seem to be a considerable issue with starting the sport on a statewide basis. A significant percentage of schools in the state were built 30-40 years ago and with only one gymnasium. Aside from basketball; cheerleading, dance, and volleyball also fight for those spaces. While many high school wrestling teams face hurdles like these, these spatial issues are significant concerns for athletic directors and school board members who must approve funding for a new wrestling team.
They also stated that the lack of a wrestling culture in-state has hindered its growth. There are very few Mississippi residents that hail from other states, so it's difficult to garner interest in a sport that has never existed in-state and even more of a task to find able coaches. One of the organizations at the center of this push, the Mississippi Wrestling Foundation, is working to change this and help the sport grow in-state. Tillman has noticed interest in wrestling increasing in the Tupelo and Oxford areas.
Overall, this is good news for the Mississippi wrestling community. There are more high school teams on the horizon and an opportunity to compete in a postseason, even if not "official" in the eyes of the administrators. Seeing the possibilities of a postseason will make adding the sport more of a chance for all schools without a team.