Fast-growing girls wrestling set for first CIAC sanctioned championship invitational

The CIAC Girls State Wrestling Invitational will take place for the first time as a CIAC sanctioned event on Saturday and Sunday, coinciding with the State Open.

Girls wrestling numbers have trended upward in Connecticut in recent years, even while many schools have seen overall program numbers fall after COVID led to the cancellation the 2020-21 season.

“There is definitely growth, but it is still co-ed,” Amity wrestling coach Todd Patterson said. “I think we had around 100 overall girls wrestling two years ago, it is closer to 150 this year. And that is while team numbers are down because of COVID.”

Girls wrestling has been one of the largest growing sports nationally in recent decades, which is often attributed to the introduction of female wrestling to the Olympics in 2004 and the growth of MMA fighting. In 2001, the number of girls wrestling in high school was around 3,400 and rose to nearly 17,000 by 2019.

Prior to 2018 only six states had sanctioned state championships, but the number has since climbed to 32 states.

Connecticut became one of those states in 2020 as the first official high school girls wrestling championships took place alongside the boys State Open. This year, the event will officially be sanctioned by the CIAC.

“Two years ago, in 2020 was the first girls tournament,” girls wrestling tournament director, David Nowakowski said. “We view those winners as state champions. It is a growing event, but I wouldn’t refer to this as the first state championship because nothing has really changed besides the nomenclature.”

The tournament will crown 10 individuals from different weight classes as champions on Sunday. Finals are scheduled to begin at 12:15 p.m.

“The biggest difference this year is the number of girls who placed last weekend at the divisional state tournaments,” Nowakowski said. “We had six girls qualify for the State Open, which is by far more than ever before. In fact I think it exceeds the sum total of all prior girls who have placed in years past.”

At 106 pounds, Taylor McCormick (Somers), Hoshena Gemme (Old Lyme) and Lilliana Fraize (South Windsor) all qualified for the State Open. McCormick finished third in the Class S meet with Gemme finishing fifth. Fraize placed sixth in Class L.

Calli Gilchrist (McMahon) was the sixth-place finisher at 113 pounds for Class LL, Esther Ribeiro (Bethel) came in sixth in Class M for the 120-pound class and Julianna Morris (Pomperaug) finished sixth in Class L at 132 pounds. All six girls have opted to compete in the girls’ tournament rather than the State Open.

Six wrestlers were nationally ranked for girls at the beginning of the season: Gilchrist (20th), Morris (4th), and Amity’s Camryn Brown (21st at 127 pounds); Bristol’s Ella Nichols (5th at 152 pounds) and Plainville’s Dakota-Marie Dinielli (11th at 152 pounds).

Sarah Yap of Stamford, Brown, and Nichols will all look to defend the state titles they earned in the 2020 tournament.

“I would like to give a lot of credit to the USA Wrestling community and Sarah Jadach from Derby,” Nowakowski. “She was heavily involved in making this happen as well as promotion that helped elevate the girls to this level.”

Jadach’s father Buster is Derby’s longtime Hall of Fame coach who has more than 600 career wins,.

Many of the significant developments within the state for girls wrestling can be linked to a group of individuals at Amity as well.

When Amity athletic director Ernie Goodwin, head athletic trainer Kim Pearce and Patterson met, they were unaware they would form ‘the perfect storm.’

“I just think we are in a unique situation where our athletic trainer, me, and our athletic director wrestled, while our coach is super supportive of girls wrestling and pushes for it,” Pearce said. “I just think we have the perfect storm.”

Pearce was hired as an Amity athletic trainer in 2015 after having wrestled at Oxford High School and for the men’s team at Springfield College.

When she arrived at Amity, there were no female wrestlers on the team. That changed quickly.

“I became the athletic director at Amity in 2014, and in 2015 we got a new athletic trainer, Kim Pearce,” said Goodwin, who wrestled in college and coached for 20 years. “She was all about women’s wrestling and did a really good job of trying to recruit girls for the Amity team.”

Pearce wasted no time, recruiting the team’s lone female competitor in her first year.

“Even my first year working here I got a girl to join the team, and she was our only girl,” Pearce said. “Even that year when we went around the state, there would only be a handful of girls depending on the school. Since then, it has exploded.”

The Amity team has rostered a female every year since, and the growth and increased respect has been evident across the state.

“There are a lot more girls that you see in programs that have never had female wrestlers,” Patterson said. “It is no longer how it was when a boy used to cry when he lost to a girl. The kids understand that these girls are good wrestlers. It is great to see.”

In the regular season girls and boys still compete against each other, but in 2020 there was a significant change to how the postseason would work for female wrestlers.

“We have had a girl on our team since 2016, so we were going to New London and wrestling at a girls state tournament put on by USA Wrestling,” Patterson said. “It was run alongside a youth tournament, so that is a testament to how far it has come.”

In 2020, the girls state tournament was relocated to the Floyd Little Athletic Facility, where the girls would compete on the same stage as the boys.

“They had one two years ago, but it just wasn’t sanctioned by the CIAC,” Patterson said. “They had the Opens on mat two and the girls on mat one wrestling at the same time.”

One of the significant pioneers for the change was Goodwin, who is a member of the state committee.

“I wrestled at Windham High School, and we had one of the first girls to ever wrestle in Connecticut on our team, Jenn Ottiano,” Goodwin said. “She ended up taking fifth in the Class M State Meet, she was that good.”

With similar backgrounds and mutual respect for girls wrestling between Pearce, Goodwin and Patterson, ideas began to flow.

“Kim Pearce being a very big advocate was feeding me stuff all the time,” Goodwin said. “She would show me a picture of the California state finals where Mat One was the girls and Mat Two was the boys and I thought that was a fantastic idea, so I brought it to the committee, and they agreed.”

Ten girls from different weight classes were crowned state champions that year, and Pearce was the one to hand out the medals.

“When I was in high school the State Open was the tournament where you see the best wrestlers in Connecticut and are in awe,” Pearce said. “Back in 2020 when they had the girls tournament coincide with that, it was a surreal experience because I saw it back when it was a rarity for girls to wrestle. I don’t even think the girls now comprehend how big of a moment it was, it has evolved so much. Back then I wouldn’t have even thought that it was possible.”

This year, the CIAC is taking it a step further.

“This year it is officially recognized as CIAC state championships, which is awesome,” Goodwin said. “We talked about it in our CIAC meeting, and they asked me to do a presentation on it with Ted Oczkowski and Roy Wentworth. The three of us together spearheaded it and the committee brought it to the board of patrol who immediately adopted it. It was pretty much the whole committee that got behind us and moved it forward.”

This year the girls champions will receive the same medals as the boys and will officially be CIAC champions, though the 2020 champions will be recognized in the record books by the CIAC.

“You think about all the little girls who go to potentially watch their brothers compete and see the girls doing it,” Pearce said. “They will see that they can do it too and may go out for the team. That was the coolest part of it.”

This season Amity has five wrestlers competing, as does Shelton. Other programs such as NFA have had 3-5 in recent years.

“I think it is awesome that we have five girls,” Pearce said. “I would like to say (Amity is) one of the trendsetters because I am biased, I work here. But at the same time there are so many organizations and schools pushing for it right now in Connecticut, I don’t think it would be fair to single out one.”

While this perfect storm of Goodwin, Patterson and Pearce has been influential, Pearce contributes much of the success to an overarching societal change.

“The biggest shift to promote girls wrestling is the societal shift,” Pearce said. “When I was growing up it was like, ‘girls can’t do that.’ But now there is a big shift encouraging girls to be strong, to be fierce and to be powerful, and that has gone a long way in propelling the sport forward.”

While progress state-wide has been undeniable, Patterson and others envision a future for girls wrestling on a larger scale.

“There aren’t a lot of girls hockey players, so they have co-ops throughout the CIAC,” Patterson said. “I think if we get to that point, we are going to see the flood gates open.”