Ava Bayless at the 2020 UWW Junior Nationals (photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) board of directors voted to sanction girls wrestling on Wednesday afternoon, making Pennsylvania the 38th state to do so. This vote came after advocacy on the part of many individuals, schools and organizations to meet the PIAA bylaws threshold of 100 member schools forming girls teams to be considered for sanctioning. Wrestling is one of the fastest growing sports for girls in the country, and Pennsylvania is no different, with a 146% increase in girls competing in wrestling from the 2020-21 to the 2021-22 season, according to nonprofit organization SanctionPA.
SanctionPA has been leading the charge alongside Pennsylvania athletes to get girls wrestling sanctioned, and this vote solidifies many years of work and advocacy, according to the chair of SanctionPA, Brooke Zumas.
"The conversation around sanctioning has really been going on for decades, arguably," Zumas said.
Zumas explained that rather than try to fight to change the PIAA bylaw that set the 100-team standard, the group took on the mindset to cultivate the growing girls wrestling culture that was already happening in Pennsylvania.
"We took a collaborative approach and communicated with schools, and provided education," said Zumas. "And at times that was frustrating, but ultimately, by following that roadmap, by building school programs, what it also really did was create this really strong foundation that we now have. So in some way, it helped us to build what was needed to make this sport really sustainable and successful in the long term."
Efforts like this did not go unnoticed in the Pennsylvania wrestling community as Joe Jamison, Director of Wrestling for Ursinus College's Men's and Women's wrestling teams, pointed out.
"A lot of people would have said the 100 teams is not gonna happen anytime soon and threw up their hands, but that's not what they did," Jamison said. "As wrestlers, I'd like to think that's what we all do. We put our nose to the grindstone and we get it done."
Coach Jamison has had the opportunity to see the level of wrestlers in the state of Pennsylvania firsthand and says he thinks the number of opportunities and depth of talent will only increase with this vote.
"I think over the next three to four years, the talent is just going to continue to get deeper, qualifying for state will be more challenging. It's just gonna become a hotbed. That's just the culture of our state," Jamison said.
Zumas echoed this sentiment when talking about how much of an impact this vote could have on female athletes in Pennsylvania.
"I think that the PIAA vote will first increase the number of teams sponsoring girls wrestling. Two, it will increase the number of girls wrestling across Pennsylvania. Three, it will make the sport more supported in the long term because it will provide a continuation from elementary school all the way through high school. There's gonna be incredible individual impacts on each student-athlete that participates," Zumas said.
Many current and former Pennsylvania high school athletes showed support for this vote on social media and how this vote will shape the wrestling experience for girls competing. Ava Bayless, a former Pennsylvania wrestler who is now on Iowa's Women's Wrestling Team, says this vote will mean a lot to the sport and the athletes who now have a more official path in competition.
"Being recognized as a PIAA sport is huge," Bayless said. "Being a PIAA state champion is now realistic, and it's pretty amazing to think about how far we've grown in the past five years or so."
Bayless made the decision in high school to compete at Wyoming Seminary, a private boarding school with notable wrestling alumni. While Bayless says she had a great experience wrestling there, she expressed that it was not an easy decision, nor one everyone has access to.
"Having the option to wrestle other girls in a state with sanctioned wrestling is amazing and needed, because going to another school is not in everybody's abilities," Bayless said. "Knowing that girls in my hometown are able to come out and compete against other girls and have tournaments, full schedules, and the support of the PIAA is really, really important."
Pennsylvania is always in the conversation about top states for wrestling talent, however, that conversation typically centers around the high school boys programs or college men's programs. Bayless says that this winning mentality in wrestling will only continue within girls wrestling programs.
"The girls are just gonna rise to the occasion," Bayless said. "Pennsylvania is on the national stage, we are putting girls on world teams and national teams, college teams. I think having an actual state championship, and the other goals this vote will accomplish is really gonna make our state stronger."
2023-24 will be the first sanctioned season for girls wrestling in Pennsylvania. The first girls state championships are slated to run the same weekend in March as the boys tournament at the Giant Center in Hershey.