Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Brad Cochi/ BoCoPreps.com
Brad Cochi/ BoCoPreps.com
Clarissa Batrez is a wrestler, not a girl who wrestles.
Her father and older brother both wrestled so Batrez was raised in a wrestling environment all her life. Batrez speaks glowingly of the sport and loves that it gives her a competitive avenue through which she can channel her “inner power” and natural aggression.
The Erie High School freshman isn’t always as crazy, however, about all the extra stuff that comes along with being a young female athlete in a male-dominated sport. Wrestling against boys, being the only girl at weigh-ins, those are just a couple of things she considers to be extra and only serve to distract from what she and others are attempting to accomplish.
Batrez just wants wrestling to be wrestling.
Fortunately for Batrez and female wrestlers like her in Colorado, her home state now has a pilot program for girls wrestling that’s rounding into form this January. If things keep progressing, there’s a good chance Batrez will have the opportunity to wrestle for a sanctioned state title before she graduates high school.
“I think it’s awesome,” Batrez said. “It’s a lot better because wrestling with the guys is really hard and there are a lot of problems. I feel like having girls-only wrestling puts us on an even playing field. If you think about it, you don’t really see girls in this sport so I got really excited about seeing the girls league.
“I love the sport of wrestling and in girls wrestling, it’s a little less about being seen as a girl or kind of just as an easy win. It’s more about just being seen as a wrestler.”
Batrez is one of several girls who will wrestle as members of the first St. Vrain Valley School District team that is, and will continue to be, open to any SVVSD girls wrestler. After a regular week of practicing with the Erie boys team, Batrez entered the Mead wrestling room Jan. 11 for Mead’s first girls-only practice and shared the experience with four other SVVSD girls — Cloey Bonge (Silver Creek), Sara Gomez (Mead), Jenna Joseph (Longmont) and Kassandra Reyes (Mead).
Pilot programs like this one are popping up all over Colorado but could soon be much more.
Alongside fellow pilot sports unified bowling and boys volleyball, a girls wrestling proposal was presented to the Colorado High School Activities Association’s Equity Committee this past Thursday. It was a critical step in the sport’s ongoing quest for CHSAA sanctioning.
Girls wrestling must now go before the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee and the Classification and League Organizing Committee. If all three committees recommend that the proposal proceed through the sanctioning process, girls wrestling will be eligible to go before the Legislative Council during the upcoming April meeting and be voted on to officially become a CHSAA-sanctioned sport for the 2020-21 school year.
In just a few short years, girls wrestling in Colorado has come a long way.
Frederick High School hosted Colorado’s first girls-only wrestling tournament on Jan. 14, 2017, as an exploratory step towards CHSAA possibly adding girls wrestling in the future. Over eighty wrestlers from 42 schools competed in the seven weight-class event. Last year’s end-of-season girls tournament, which was not a CHSAA-sanctioned state championship but was essentially just that, had already grown to feature roughly 200 wrestlers spread across 10 weight classes.
With participation numbers increasing by triple figures in each of the past two years, Ernie Derrera, the CHSAA assistant commissioner who oversees wrestling, said roughly 325 girls from 114 different schools are wrestling in Colorado right now.
The interest has become clear to Derrera, as has the need to provide female wrestlers with more opportunities.
“It’s grown a lot in the past few years,” Derrera said. “It will be interesting to see how those numbers are affecting everything else in terms of participation numbers in other sports we have during the winter. Are we seeing girls that are just wrestling? Or are they coming away from swimming or basketball to wrestle? By and large, I think we’re seeing that most of these girls that are wrestling or are experimenting with wrestling weren’t doing another sport beforehand.
“We’ve been watching the numbers for a long time in (youth) wrestling and those numbers have always been strong with girls. And they’ve grown. We’ve always had girls wrestling in our state but it seems like when they get to the middle school level, and particularly at the high school level, those numbers drop off drastically. My theory was that they just didn’t want to wrestle boys, or their parents didn’t want them to wrestle boys, whatever the reason may be. But they definitely wanted to wrestle.”
As a joint effort last February, the Continental League and Centennial League provided girls wrestling with the required league sponsorship for it to become a pilot program and it was approved. Recognized but not sanctioned, and also remaining unsanctioned at the national level by the National Federation of State High School Associations, girls wrestling became a pilot program for the current two-year cycle.
Colorado’s growing interest in girls wrestling mirrors a national trend.
“The growth has just been amazing,” Joan Fulp, co-chair of USA Wrestling’s Girls High School Development Committee, said. “In 2012, we had 8,235 girls wrestling according to NFHS data. This past year, there were 16,562, so it has more than doubled in those last seven years. This year, looking at the National Wrestling Coaches Association’s weight hydration numbers, we’re probably up over 18,000 and that’s without several states reporting. The basic thing is that numbers are increasing significantly nationwide every year.”
It took 20 years for the first six states to sanction girls wrestling at the high school level. Hawaii was the first to do it in 1998 and Texas followed in 1999. Washington sanctioned the sport in 2007, California added girls wrestling in 2011, Alaska in 2014 and Tennessee in 2015.
Six new states — Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey and Oregon — will hold an official girls wrestling state championship this school year. Girls wrestling has achieved emerging sports status with the Arizona Interscholastic Association and, of course, is a pilot program in Colorado. Plenty of other states are creating more and more opportunities for girls wrestlers.
“The momentum is real,” Fulp said, who added that she believes growing and promoting girls wrestling helps grow the sport as a whole.
Girls, or women’s wrestling at the collegiate and national team levels, has been around a lot longer than it would seem, even in states like Colorado where high school programs are new.
Women’s freestyle wrestling was added to the Summer Olympics in 2004 and Colorado has produced Team USA wrestlers. A Denver native and graduate of Bear Creek High School, Adeline Gray went on to be become a four-time women’s wrestling world champion and reached the quarterfinals at the 2016 Summer Olympics. At that same Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Helen Maroulis became the first American to win Olympic gold in women’s freestyle wrestling.
Even at the high school level in Colorado, it has become a regular occurrence for a female wrestler to reach the state tournament at the Pepsi Center. Golden’s Brooke Sauer did it first in 2006. Soroco’s Lauryn Bruggink became the first girl to qualify in back-to-back seasons and also the first to win a match at state, winning her first and second consolation matches as a sophomore in 2010. In her third time qualifying for state, Grand Valley’s Cody Pfau was the first to win a non-consolation match when she won her first match of the tournament as a senior in 2012.
Wrestling at Jefferson this season, Cayden Condit has a good chance to become the first female wrestler to place at Colorado’s boys state championships this February. Other Colorado girls like Kaden Campbell and Jaslynn Gallegos are ranked nationally by USA Wrestling’s Future Olympian Rankings.
Starting in this pilot season, female wrestlers will have to declare whether they will wrestle with the boys or girls-only for the postseason. For the girls-only postseason, Eaglecrest and Mead will host two regional tournaments on Feb. 2, out of which the top four placers in each of the 10 weight classes will then qualify for a state tournament on Feb. 9 at Thornton High School.
There are 13 girls tournaments listed on the CHSAA wrestling home page for this season, but the opportunity to host a regional will be unique for MHS.
The Mavericks’ first coach will be Brian Bianco, a former collegiate wrestler who currently is a boys assistant coach. As much time as he has spent in the wrestling world, coaching an all-girls wrestling team is new to Bianco and so is organizing a district-wide program.
If girls wrestling is sanctioned in Colorado, there are challenges that many new programs will likely face as they are founded and constructed. But the idea of adding CHSAA-sanctioned girls wrestling has a lot of people excited, and it appears they’re ready to take whatever steps necessary to make it a reality.
“I graduated high school in the 90’s and there weren’t a lot of girls wrestlers then but now there is,” Bianco said. “There’s been a big boom in the past 10 years and now it’s in the Olympics. There have been girls wrestling for a long time and it’s cool to be able to start a program in the St. Vrain and see where we can take it.”