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Under the PIAA, girls wrestling programs have new rules but the same life lessons

For incoming Wyoming Seminary senior Tiffany Stoshak, wrestling teaches her about life.

Wrestling makes Hanover Area senior McKenna Nay feel tough.

The sport gave Delaware Valley sophomore Tori Depew a confidence boost.

"I used to not open my mouth at all and now I'm talking everywhere I go," Tori said. "I walk like I'm six foot tall.”

The executive board of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) unanimously approved adding girls wrestling as a sport that they govern on May 17. The PIAA gave girls wrestling emerging sport status in February 2022. To be sanctioned, 100 schools across the state had to provide wrestling programs to female athletes. They had those numbers by March. Pennsylvania is now the 38th state in the country to sanction girls wrestling.

Coaches around the region and advocates said it’s a long time coming. Girls wrestling is the fastest growing sport in the country, said Brooke Zumas, president of Sanction PA; the nonprofit works to grow participation in the sport.

The door to competitive wrestling was closed off to female athletes, she said, adding for years it wasn’t viewed as a real possibility for them.

"As soon as people have opened those doors girls have been willing to walk through it," Zumas said. "They're excited to try this sport."

Administrations and school boards around the region have been supportive of adding the sport. Locally, around 12 schools have girls wrestling teams, including Wyoming Seminary. Their team is number one in the country.

Although the team won’t be governed by the PIAA, coach Erin Vandiver said sanctioning the sport allows more female athletes to compete. Wyoming Seminary is a college preparatory school and competes in the Prep League.

Sanctioning also means more opportunities for local and regional competitions, she said.

“This sport is for anybody and just realizing that, giving girls a chance to try it has just ... taken off exponentially," Vandiver said.

On Wyoming Seminary's last day of school — Thursday, May 18 — the girls team practiced with the boys in the school's Great Hall. Vandiver gave them a run down of practice as they laced up their wrestling sneakers on the floor covered in a firm wrestling mat. The team, much like the others around the region, started practice by jogging. The wrestlers walked on their hands and dove headfirst into flips before practicing takedowns and technique.

Vandiver grew up in Western Pennsylvania. She started wrestling on boys teams when she was 5 years old. She finished her competitive athletic career in 2008 as a member of the resident team at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. She was an assistant national team coach until 2017 when she moved back to Pennsylvania to start the team at Wyoming Seminary.

"I wanted these girls to have something that I didn't ... they've earned it, they deserve it," she said. "I wanted to give them a place to train on a girls team year round.”

A few girls were signed up for the team before Vandiver was hired. The first year, she had 24 girls on the team. Last year, they had their most, with 36 athletes.

Before practice Wyoming Seminary girls wrestling coach Erin Vandiver, center, talks with wrestlers Alex Alli and Cloe Charlesworth.
Aimee Dilger
Before practice Wyoming Seminary girls wrestling coach Erin Vandiver, center, talks with wrestlers Alex Alli and Cloe Charlesworth.

Wrestlers from the Sem team are on the USA wrestling team and competed at the Pan American Wrestling Championships.

Madison Wellen, of Gettysburg, is graduating from Wyoming Seminary. Next year she will study biology at D'Youville University in Buffalo, New York, and wrestle on their newly formed girls team.

She stuck with wrestling because she likes the challenge the sport provides. She said it's been an honor to wrestle for the number one girls team in the country.

"I wrestled with boys until I got here," she said. "It's not always fun.”

She said it made her stronger.

"I'm hoping a lot of other girls get to see that now," Madison said. "Sanctioning is a big step ... I've been waiting for it forever.”

Vandiver said girls get everything from wrestling. They get confidence, the building blocks for life, scholarships to college and opportunities to travel the world.

"It takes discipline," she said.

At Delaware Valley High School in April, the girls team practiced picking each other up and then flipping their teammates over their shoulders. The girls were thrown, rolling onto a thick mat so they didn’t hurt themselves.

It was Tori's second year on the wrestling team.

“I love winning. I love like getting my hand raised," she said. "It just feels good.”

After a match, she feels accomplished.

“I'm proud of myself, because not many girls do it," Tori said. "I want more to do it because ... it's just a great thing.”

Delaware Valley coach and English teacher Evan Bates wrestled at Port Jervis High School and in college. He trained in jiu jitsu which led him to coach wrestling.

“This is a different sport for girls," he said. "I still argue wrestling is the toughest sport … And for girls, I think it's 10 times harder."

Bates said their 100 pound wrestler can throw their 170 pound teammate.

"There's a different type of wrestling strength," he said.

Wrestling is both an individual sport and a unique team sport, Bates said. After a match, the girls fall into the arms of their teammates.

“It creates a really close bond because you're constantly throwing each other," said sophomore Olivia Montanino.

Hanover Area's McKenna and Madison from Sem feel the same way about their teams.

“It's very family oriented, like everyone, all the boys support the girls, the girls support the boys," she said.

Madison said when she steps out onto the mat she’s thinking about the match. But then she’ll look back and see her team screaming for her. She realizes she’s got to do it for them too.

"I have this whole team behind me and I love it," she said.

Starting a girls wrestling team at Hanover Area went from an idea to a reality in two weeks, said coach Dave Griffith. Beginning next year, Griffith, the boys and girls coach, will just coach the girls, including his two daughters, Chloe and Gabriella.

Initially they had 17 girls sign up for the team.

"My message to them and even the boys team is you know wrestling isn't for everybody, all I ask is you give it a try," he said. "If you like it, we will absolutely help you achieve your goals.”

Without sanctioning, the teams have had to improvise with how they compete. During the 2022-23 school year Delaware Valley participated in 11 tournaments, dual meets and wrestled in exhibitions, said Bates.

"For the last two years, it's been like, kind of whatever you can creatively ... come up with," he said.

Many local female wrestlers have made it to state and regional championships.

This year was Hanover Area freshman Kaidence Ankner’s first time competing at districts. She placed second.

"It's a big challenge," she said. "It's not an easy sport."

Andrea Boronow is a sophomore at Delaware Valley. This year she made it to states.

“And when I won that, it was unbelievable," she said.

While at the competition, she was around girls who she said could just beat her up.

"I started from basically nothing to I'm competing with girls that have like been to nationals," Andrea said.

 Wyoming Seminary's Cloe Charlesworth and Love Daly practice wrestling moves.
Aimee Dilger
Wyoming Seminary's Cloe Charlesworth and Love Daly practice wrestling moves.

With sanctioning, comes new rules and Sanction PA is there to help, said Zumas.

“We want to make sure people are very prepped to understand that and the rules that they may need to adhere to as early as next year as this coming season," she said.

Girls wrestling is sanctioned beginning July 1, according to the PIAA.

Zumas is anticipating that girls will no longer be able to wrestle on boys teams and that junior high and high school teams will have to be split. Girls will also have to be affiliated with a school to compete at regional and state championships, she said.

"It's all exciting stuff ... it would be better to adjust sooner rather than later," she said.

Zumas grew up in the Lehigh Valley. Wrestling is her favorite sport. She’d run drills with her dad in their basement. She joined teams later in life and professionally photographed the sport before coaching.

“Wrestling, compared to many other sports, provides an incredible framework of work ethic, of confidence," she said. "It is just a very powerful and meaningful place for girls to be."

Vandiver said the sport pushes your limits but it’s for everybody.

“We say wrestling is life, once you've wrestled, everything else is easy," she said. "And up to this point in my life I believe that ... wholeheartedly.”

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.