Less than nine months after the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association sanctioned girls wrestling as an official sport following a unanimous vote, Lebanon County is already seeing a major jump in participation.

Members of the Lebanon girls’ wrestling team line up for the beginning of a recent dual meet.

Last season, before the PIAA’s action, Lebanon High School had five female wrestlers on its squad, said Vaughn Black, who coaches the Cedars’ boys and girls wrestling teams.

This season, there are 13.

The elevated interest level should come as no surprise, given that Pennsylvania has long been a wrestling powerhouse. The state regularly produces some of the best high school male wrestlers in the country, and Penn State has captured 10 of the past 12 NCAA Division I team championships.

So when the PIAA finally got around to sanctioning girls wrestling – the 38th state to do so – the reaction among many in the sport was, “It’s about time!”

This means the 2023-24 school year is the first in Pennsylvania to run the sport with full sponsorship, as well as state championships the same weekend as the boys tournament at the Giant Center in Hershey.

At the Lancaster-Lebanon League championships Jan. 27-28, ELCO freshman Kylie Trostle lost a hard-fought 2-1 match against McCaskey’s Journie Rodriguez at 112 pounds, the reigning state champ, to claim second place.

ELCO’s Kylee Trostle, who finished as the runner-up in the 112-pound weight class at Lancaster-Lebanon League Girls’ Wrestling Championships, is recognized as one of Lebanon County’s top female wrestlers.
Lebanon Cedar Isabella Poole Martinez captured a bronze medal in the 100-pound weight class at the Lancaster-Lebanon League Girls’ Wrestling Championships on Saturday, Jan. 27.
Lebanon’s  Yilia Fernandez Gonzalez shows off her strength in a recent bout.

Fellow freshman Isabella Poole Martinez, competing for Lebanon, won a bronze medal at 100 pounds; sophomore Joby Long, of Northern Lebanon, took fourth at 118 pounds; and Lebanon junior Yilia Fernandez Gonzalez earned a fourth-place medal after she wasn’t able to take the mat for the third-place 148-pound bout.

According to the PIAA, girls wrestling participation in Pennsylvania jumped by over 80% in the year prior to the PIAA’s decision to sanction it, and over 400% in the five years before the vote.

This is the first new sport approved by the PIAA since competitive cheerleading in 2012.

High school girls wrestling nationwide went from 31,654 participants in 2021-22 to 49,127 in 2022-23, a growth rate of more than 55%, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

As recently as 2017, only six states had sanctioned girls wrestling. Today, it is the fastest-growing high school sport, with at least 44 states approving it.

Women’s wrestling is considered an emerging sport by the NCAA, in line to become a full-fledged sport with a championship tournament in 2026. It was added as an Olympic sport in 2004.

Cedar Crest Falcon Lily Harchuska ties up with an opponent during a recent bout.

Girls gain confidence

Girls high school wrestling includes 13 weight classes, from 100 pounds to 235 pounds.

Vaughn Black told LebTown that one reason wrestling appeals to females is that winter sports, beyond basketball, are kind of sparse. “There’s not a whole lot out there.”

It’s also one of the few sports “that doesn’t rely heavily on God-given talent,” he said. Girls of different sizes, with different body types, can wrestle.

Lebanon’s Yilia Fernandez Gonzalez (left) and teammate Isabella Poole Martinez represented their school and Lebanon County very well at Manheim Township High School on Jan. 27, during the initial contesting of the Lancaster-Lebanon League Girls’ Wrestling Championships.

As they improve through training, practice and competition, they gain confidence, said Black, the Lebanon High coach for 11 seasons, where he wrestled as a student.

The wrestling team historically had one or two girls, and they would wrestle alongside the boys, he said. If there was an open spot in the lineup, a girl would fill it. Girls would also wrestle in tournaments for girls.

In the 2023-24 academic year, 182 schools are competing in girls wrestling, the PIAA said. Of those schools, 47 are from District 3, which includes Lebanon County.

Cedar Crest wrestler Dakota Dengler has her hand raised to signify victory at the end of a recent match.

Northern Lebanon’s school board just sanctioned the sport in December. With its first group as an official team, Northern Lebanon includes eight girls on its high school squad plus two middle-schoolers, said head coach Rusty Wallace. His assistants, Gerry Bressler and Kevin Feagley, travel with the girls to tournaments.

Those participation numbers are only going to grow, he told LebTown. Tournaments keep popping up as the sport catches on.

“There have always been girls (going out for) wrestling,” Wallace said, so statewide approval was long overdue.

After the Lancaster-Lebanon League boys and girls wrestling championships, qualifiers head to District 3 Sectionals on Feb. 16 at Mechanicsburg and Susquenita high schools.

Following that, the PIAA Regionals will take place March 2 at Penn Manor High School, and the state championships March 7-9 at the Giant Center in Hershey.

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Paula Wolf worked for 31 years as a general assignment reporter, sports columnist, and editorial writer for LNP Media. A graduate of Franklin & Marshall College, she is a lifetime resident of Lancaster County.