Unlike several neighboring states, Idaho doesn’t hold a separate state tournament for its female wrestlers. So a few high school coaches started their own.
Pocatello High will host the first Idaho Girls Wrestling Invitational at 10 a.m. Saturday to serve as an unofficial state tournament for the state’s growing number of female wrestlers. The tournament signed up 56 wrestlers from 30 schools as of Friday afternoon, and all head to Pocatello to crown the state’s best and prove the sport’s viability in Idaho.
Idaho’s girls currently must compete against boys at the state level. So Pocatello coach JB Plato said the goal is to follow in the footsteps of several states that recently sanctioned a girls wrestling state tournament by showcasing the sport with exhibitions or unofficial state tournaments.
“We wanted to make sure for girls … that have been there and have pioneered the sport for women in Idaho, that we step up and do what’s necessary to get them their sanctioned sport,” Plato said.
The tournament is open and free of charge to any female wrestler who is part of an Idaho high school team. Participants receive the same perks as those who qualify for the official state tournament in two weeks, including a free state championship sweatshirt, individual medals and team trophies.
But winners get an extra keepsake from the all-girls tournament — a championship belt.
“It’s like a UFC, WWE belt that goes around their waist,” Plato said. “They get to sit there and raise it, throw it over their shoulder as the first all-girls Idaho champ.”
USA Olympic Team member Tamyra Mensah-Stock also will attend the event and host a clinic afterward. And Blackfoot High grad Lana Hunt will speak about her first year wrestling for the University of Providence in Great Falls, Montana.
Girls wrestling has taken off nationally in recent years. Twelve states crown official state champions, including six for the first time this winter. Another 14 host exhibition or unofficial girls state tournaments with varying degrees of support from their state governing bodies, according to the USAW Girls High School Development Committee.
Neighboring Washington, Oregon and California all crown official state champions.
“You look at a lot of these Western states that we’re real close to, it’s due time,” Plato said. “It’s definitely due time.”
USA Idaho Wrestling planned to hold an unofficial state championship after the season but ran into scheduling conflicts with North Idaho College. Instead of waiting until next year, Plato and Aberdeen coach Jordan Johns scrambled to found a tournament of their own in a month.
Annie Foster, the women’s director for USA Idaho Wrestling, said they want to reward all the female wrestlers who battle through a long season and rarely get to face an opponent of their own sex.
“The girls come in every day — just like the boys — and they wrestle and they do what they need to do,” Foster said. “They fundraise, they go through all the practices and weight lifts, they weight manage all throughout the year. And let’s be honest, unless you’re (Post Falls’) Brelane Huber, you’re really not going to get to state.
“So after all their hard work, they have no event at the end of their year to shine. That’s kind of why we wanted to have an end-of-the-year event. Let’s get all of our girls together and give them an opportunity to shine on their own, apples to apples.”
The tournament functions like any other event under the rules of the Idaho High School Activities Association. But Ty Jones, the executive director of the state governing body, cautioned against calling it a state championship. The only official state champions are crowned at Pocatello’s Holt Arena on Feb. 22-23.
“It may seem like it’s not a big deal, but it’s a big deal to us because we’re in charge of the state championships,” Jones said. “We are all for any type of event that gets kids involved. In this case, it’s a good thing because we hope it gets more girls out for a sport.”
Idaho wrestling coaches have pushed for a state-sanctioned girls state tournament as the sport has grown. The number of female wrestlers in Idaho more than doubled last season from 40 in 2017 to 93 in 2018, according to participation data from the National Federation of State High School Associations. Their ranks continued to swell this year. Final participation numbers aren’t available until after the season, but 132 girls were certified this season.
Their growth comes amid more and more tournaments and opportunities for Idaho girls. Columbia High hosted Idaho’s first and only state-sanctioned all-girls tournament, the Jaybird Memorial, last season. The Idaho Girls Wrestling Invitational will be the state’s ninth all-girls tournament this year.
The ranks of Washington’s female wrestlers exploded after state sanctioning. Washington had 208 female wrestlers in 2006. After hosting its first official state tournament in 2007, it had 1,222 last season, a 487 percent increase.
Jones said the IHSAA’s board wants to continue to see growth in Idaho before adding another sanctioned state tournament.
“We are watching it closely,” he said. “There are other states that are adding it. So as our numbers go up, it becomes a stronger possibility.”