Stefana Jelacic

Stefana Jelacic, right, of Mesa Mountain View High, wins the 112-pound freestyle title at the Junior National Championships in Fargo, North Dakota. Arizona girls wrestling now is an “emerging sport.”

The Arizona Interscholastic Association’s Executive Board has added girls wrestling as an “emerging sport” sport for the upcoming high school winter season.

The designation of emerging sport means the AIA can hold off on officially sanctioning girls wrestling. It’s the same process beach volleyball went through before being fully sanctioned this past spring.

Girls may continue to practice and compete with boys teams, but they are may participate in girls-only tournaments, as well. The board approved the addition at its May 21 meeting.

Their move has been met with applause across the Valley wrestling community.

“Myself and a lot of other coaches thought this was a really important need in the state,” said Basha High wrestling coach Michael Garcia. “We have a lot of youth wrestling girls that are competing every Saturday in USA Wrestling tournaments. Those numbers continue to grow.”

Girls wrestling has grown exponentially, with eight states recently recognizing it as a sport. Oregon will launch girls wrestling competitions next year.

It’s a sport that certainly has enough interest in Arizona.

“I think it’s very important for us as a state to be one of the frontrunners in getting these girls opportunities at the next level. You can definitely tell that there’s a demand at the college level for girl wrestlers,” said Zach Bartlett, Hamilton High wrestling coach.

David Gonzalez, Desert Vista’s wrestling coach, was instrumental in this process. Like his counterparts, the longtime coach knew high school girls needed this outlet.

Along with Garcia, Gonzalez submitted a proposal to make girls wrestling a permanent part of high school athletics. Their vision is finally coming to fruition.

“It’s something we have been working on for a long time,” Gonzalez said. “The girls are wrestling, whether it’s against guys or girls. Now that it’s out there, I think you are going to see it grow like wildfire.”

All three coaches say they’ve had several girls participate in wrestling alongside the boys over the past few years. But with the AIA’s new ruling, females will truly get their chance to shine on the mats.

“For my first four years at Hamilton, there was zero interest from girls,” Bartlett said. “You could tell that there was a new interest in wrestling this year. I had six girls on the team this year. I expect numbers to increase from there.”

Garcia added, “Ideally, they deserve their own season and workout times. That’s the goal – full girl teams competing.”

For Darren Johnson, wrestling coach at Perry High, girls challenging boys on the mat has been the norm for some time.

Camp Verde High hosts an all-girls wrestling tournament each year, which is not sanctioned by the AIA. It’s a showcase that Johnson’s girls have frequented the past two seasons. And as the event got more popular, Johnson was convinced that the sport could thrive statewide.

“I’ve had three girls I’ve taken up to that tournament at Camp Verde. It was to make up for the lack of an event for them,” said Johnson. “I’m always looking for ways to get girls involved in something.”

Another reason why high school girls wrestling could succeed is because the sport has received so much acclaim in the Olympics.

First introduced to the games in 2004, women’s wrestling has quickly become commonplace throughout the United States, but proper training at the high school level has been scarce.

Emerging sport designation gives Arizona the chance to blossom into a training hotbed for female wrestlers. As Bartlett had hoped, the state is taking initiative in implementing this ever-growing activity.

“I’m not so sure why it took us so long to get to this point. Girls participation is up. I think this is something the sport needs. We need to make sure we’re creating opportunities for that interest,” Bartlett said.

New doors have been opened for high schools girls looking for scholarship opportunities or even a spot on an Olympic roster.

It’s a monumental step for Arizona athletics and USA wrestling.

“I’ve seen the girls evolve and I’ve been on a lot of different committees,” Desert Vista’s Gonzalez said. “The AIA wanted it to happen. They just needed the particulars in place. It has a good chance of staying. We have our ducks lined up.”

Contact Brian Benesch at 480-898-5630 or bbenesch@timespublications.com. Follow him on Twitter @AZBenesch

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