As the wrestling postseason begins, many girls in the area are hoping their time will soon come to stand atop a podium and earn a state-sanctioned medal in a female-only postseason.
“Once a girls wrestles, they don’t want to stop,” Highland assistant coach Steve Marks said. “It drives them to be like, ‘I can do this. I’ll get past it.’ We tell our wrestlers, ‘If you can wrestle, you can do anything.’”
The Indiana High School Girls Wrestling state championship is hosted by Hamilton Heights. The event and its two regionals took place for the third season this month.
Chesterton's Madeline Rearick won the 98-pound title. Crown Point's Alexie Westfall won the 120-pound championship. Portage's Kaylee Adams was third at 113 pounds and Destiny Nugent was fifth at 195 for River Forest. Bishop Noll had two fifth-place finishers in Natalie Ramirez (145) and Tsi-tsi-ki Range (182). Lexi Wright finished sixth at 145 pounds for Chesterton.
Highland had two girls on the podium on Jan. 11. Sophomore Leah Bishop was second at 138 and senior Gabby Marks placed third at 182 pounds.
Both come from wrestling families. Marks is the daughter of Highland assistant coach Steve Marks.
“I always felt like beating on people was pretty cool,” Gabby Marks said. “I get mad sometimes.”
Steve Marks said his heart broke when his daughter lost to Bloomington South’s Gracie Lawson 2-0 in the semifinals.
“She took it hard. I’ve never seen her take a loss as bad as this one because she really, really wanted it,” he said. “As a dad, I’ve never been prouder. I never told her, but as she was wrestling I choked up. I was hurt because she lost because I knew how hard she was training and how she came back from a concussion to focus on state.”
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, there were 16,562 girls wrestling nationally in 2017-18. That’s a 13.5 percent increase from the year before.
“It’s kind of like having a team full of my brothers,” Bishop said. “It’s a way for a girl to step out of her comfort zone, to meet a whole group of people that you probably wouldn’t have noticed before at the school. The guys respect us and they know we’re different but they treat us the same as the guys.”
Highland's female wrestlers hope to eventually build a girls roster in the model of Penn, which has over 20 girls wrestlers.
“With more and more girls wrestling, it’s more of an opportunity for us to fall in love with the sport even more,” Gabby Marks said. “We can have more motivation and passion about the sport.”
The IHSAA doesn’t sanction girls wrestling.
“I think it’s imperative that the IHSAA sanction it,” Highland assistant wrestling coach Doug Robbins said. “The more that we can grow it at this level, the more that we can grow it at the college level and that’s going to, in turn, give the girls a better opportunity to get a free education and maybe even compete for the Olympics.”
The girls tournament was the brainchild of Hamilton Heights coach Gary Myers. He had a girl on his team for four years, he said, who consistently lost to the boys but never quit and always worked hard. He never forgot her.
At a clinic in July 2016, he saw two female wrestlers in his room. He approached them with the idea of wrestling other girls. They beamed.
Myers went into the school’s athletic office later that week and the ball was rolling.
“(When I was in high school) as a wrestler, I fit in. I didn’t win a lot of my matches my first year but I really fit in,” Myers said. “For these girls, they fit in. They feel at home there.”
Myers said the tournament grew 40 percent in the number of wrestlers and schools participating from the first to the second year. The growth was 40 percent again from last season to this one, he said. Each of the state’s two girls regionals had over 80 wrestlers.
“I think a ton of girls are interested in wrestling,” Myers said. “I think it’s going to grow more than 40 percent next year.”
Wrestling’s annual state announcer since 1982, Kevin Whitehead, lent even more credibility to the girls state finals this year.
“The (girls) state tournament was huge,” Robbins said. “It leveled the playing field for the girls. Now, they have something to look forward to at the end of the season because often, unless you’ve got an exceptional athlete as a female wrestler, they’re not often going to crack that varsity lineup.”
As the girls side of the sport and its state postseason continue to grow, so will hope.
“As a girl, you’re chances of making it to state with the guys is low,” Bishop said. “Being able to to have a place where I know I can do well and I know I can compete in, against people that are built like me, it’s great. It’s a huge motivation to work for girls state.”