A League of their Own
Taking the future of girls’ sports to the mat
By Kate Morgan

Born into a family of wrestlers, Mia Bruno, 16, loved grappling with her father on the living room floor as a kid. But the Kingsway High School junior never seriously considered taking up the sport because, well, there was no such thing as a girls’ wrestling team.

That was reality until this year when girls’ wrestling was added to the official roster of New Jersey high school sports. One of 40 girls who signed on to Kingsway’s team this year, Mia took to it right away. Still, she was surprised to finish the season ranked the fifth best wrestler in the state. Knowing that wrestling is still thought of as a “boy’s sport,” she says, was a motivator that pushed her and her teammates during their first year together.

“In all honesty, every girl out there wants to be the one who works harder and proves herself,” Mia says. “It’s like, I’m going to prove to myself – and you – that I can do this.’”

It’s almost hard to believe it’s been just a little more than 50 years since a female runner named Bobbi Gibb crashed the Boston Marathon, opening the floodgates for women to take part in sports considered the domain of men. But since then, the sports world has changed dramatically, even at the high school level. In October, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) voted unanimously to add wrestling as a girls’ sport.

“We’ve always had those handful of girls who wrestled on the boys’ teams,” says Larry White, executive director of NJSIAA. “Over the last five years or so, we’ve seen those numbers grow. This year, interest really just exploded, and we said, ‘Ok, maybe this is the time.’ The timing was right, the stars aligned, and we went for it.”

Among 12 states offering wrestling to girls at the high school level, New Jersey is the first in the Northeast to make it official. Although boys wrestling has teams split into eight districts of competition, for the inaugural season, the girls’ teams competed in two regional leagues only: North and South.

At a Southern region tournament in early February, nearly 300 girls registered to wrestle, including the 40 from Kingsway Regional High School, says Athletic Director June Cioffi.

“To have 40 girls come out for wrestling in the first year is crazy,” Cioffi says.

“Girls have always been able to wrestle at Kingsway, they’ve just had to be on the boys’ team. When they wrestle against a guy, it’s really not great for either of them. But this year, suddenly, there were other girls to wrestle and it just took off.”

Cioffi says many of Kingsway’s athletes play soccer or field hockey in the fall and lacrosse or softball in the spring. “We have some amazing female athletes here who didn’t really have anything to do in the winter except maybe run or lift,” she says. “Now, they’ve found a sport they love.”

Mia had always considered soccer her sport. When the newly appointed girls wrestling coach came calling, she was game to try, but unsure that she would be any good, she admits. And although family members were supportive, they too were skeptical about her chances. That didn’t last long.

“My dad wrestled all his life, and came from a family of wrestlers,” she says. “But the very first week he said, ‘I don’t think you’re going to make it.’ I don’t think he’s ever been as proud of me as he was at the state championships.”

The Kingsway athletic department is already getting calls from college recruiters interested in standout wrestlers, Cioffi says. “It’s another avenue opening to them, an opportunity that wasn’t there six months ago.”

At Kingsway, a regional school in Gloucester County, the prospect for girls to be sports pioneers may be in the DNA. Two years ago, the school started a girls’ golf team. At first, there were only a handful of players. Now, Cioffi says, tryouts for the team are more competitive, and they’re competing against eight other teams in the Olympic conference.

“The floodgates are open,” she says. “Girls wrestling is here and it’s not going anywhere, and who knows what’s next.”

Over the next few years, White says he anticipates wrestling’s popularity among high school girls will increase exponentially. At the tournament, he says, he got goosebumps watching younger girls get inspired.

“In between matches, those mats were filled with young girls,” he says. “Whether they were just running around or doing flips on the mats or grappling with their sisters or brothers, they were out there engaging in this sport. It was like yes, it’s starting, right here and now.”

White says he can remember a time when sports opportunities for women were extremely limited. In the ’60s, right around the time Bobbi Gibb was gearing up for her marathon run, White recalls Penns Grove High School – his alma mater – starting a girls’ tennis team.

“At the time, all there was for girls was basketball and field hockey,” he says. “My sister, who was two years older than me and my biggest sports influence, played both. When they started the tennis team, she’d never even picked up a racket before, but she was determined to play. She went on to be Penns Grove’s top player.”

White hopes the success of girls wrestling will start a conversation about young women competing in other sports traditionally restricted to boys at the high school level.

“Right now, I think we’re just opening a door, and we’ll see how many more doors there are behind it,” he says. “We have quite a few young ladies now playing ice hockey. We’ve started to get a lot of inquiries and people asking when we’re going to start talking about all-girls ice hockey squads. That may very well be the next one we vote on.”

There are also a number of girls across the state suiting up for Friday night football. While all-girls football teams may still be years away – after all, you need at least 11 players to field a team, and at least double that for a dedicated defense and offense – White says he wouldn’t be shocked to see that down the line.

“It’s like anything,” he says. “It takes time. You need the pioneers who defy what everybody’s saying: ‘It’s not a girl’s sport. You can’t do this.’ Then finally, you have that girl who says, ‘I don’t care.’”

On March 3, in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, NJSIAA officials crowned 10 state champion female wrestlers for the first time in New Jersey. It was a moment for the history books, White says. For female student athletes, it was only the beginning.

“Once this starts happening and other girls see it, it grows and grows,” he says. “We see these girls here now, out on the mat competing right next to the boys at Boardwalk Hall and, well, now there’s no turning back.”

May 2019
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