Girls Wrestling coming to South Dakota

Staff Writer

Girls wrestling coming to South Dakota
By JEREMY HOECK Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan
YANKTON, S.D. (AP) — If you were to ask Nevaeh Leonard what sparked her interest in wrestling, she wouldn't have to wait long to respond.
There are two factors, according to the sophomore-to-be at Yankton High School.
First, watching her brother once wrestle for the Bucks caused her to want to give it a try. And second?
"The one on one competition," Leonard told the Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan.
For six years, she's worked hard at her craft, and those around Leonard have seen first-hand how dedicated she's become, according to YHS head coach Riley Smith
"In the wrestling room, she's eager to learn, always looking to improve and always asking questions," Smith said. "I know her work ethic has made an impact on some of our other guys."
Last season as a freshman, Leonard wrestled primarily on Yankton's junior varsity team, although she did see four matches at the varsity level.
All of those matches came against a male.
That will change this upcoming season for Leonard, as well as every other female wrestler in South Dakota.
The South Dakota High School Activities Association (SDHSAA) approved last month the formation of a girls division in wrestling, effective for the upcoming 2020-21 school year.
Coaches who were contacted by the Press & Dakotan said they were excited about the opportunity for female wrestlers, and so too was Leonard.
"Immediately what came to mind is getting a fairer shot at making the state tournament," she said.
During the 2020-21 season, the girls wrestling division will feature one classification and four weight classes. The top-eight participants in each weight class will qualify for the state wrestling tournament, and the girls division will be contested at the same event as the boys divisions.
The decision to add a girls division provides an opportunity to grow the sport, according to Parker head coach John Silvernail.
"I really hope we as coaches in South Dakota see this as an opportunity," said Silvernail, a Yankton native.
"I am hopeful that females will have opportunities at tournaments and ultimately a culmination at the state tournament."
Yankton's head coach agreed.
"I think it's a great thing for the sport of wrestling and for the state of South Dakota," Smith said. South Dakota becomes the 25th state to sanction girls wrestling.
Will it open the door for more interested female wrestlers?
That's the hope, according to coaches and officials.
"In every other state that has implemented girls wrestling, they've seen tremendous growth in participation numbers over the first several years," said SDHSAA Assistant Executive Director John Krogstrand.
That should be the case in South Dakota, as well, according to Silvernail.
"I am not sure on overall participation right now, but like any other 'new thing,' we will get females out for wrestling," he said.
"I think it is awesome for our smaller schools too. We know the more students that are participating, the better the school environment will be."
For those girls who have either already wrestled or are thinking about it, the new opportunity should result in continually climbing numbers, according to Leonard.
"I definitely think so," she said. "They probably won't be as nervous now, because otherwise they'd be jumping right into wrestling against boys."
A decade ago, John Donovan had his first experience coaching a female wrestler, and the way the Chamberlain High School head coach remembers it, "she was good; really good."
That female wrestler, who had transferred from Missouri, defeated a seeded male opponent and eventually advanced all the way to the finals of a tournament.
It was an experience Donovan said changed the way he viewed having a female wrestler take the mat against a male opponent.
"Sometimes it's a no-win situation, because everybody has a different take on it," Donovan said. "I had a different take until I coached a girl."
Now, with the opportunity provided for a female wrestler to compete against other females instead of taking the mat against a male, the number of females in the sport should start to climb, according to Donovan, the president of the South Dakota Wrestling Coaches Association.
"I've had some girls in the past who wanted to go out, but had no desire to wrestle boys," Donovan said. "They wanted to compete against girls.
"To me, that's fair."
The prospect of having to compete against a male proved to be nerve-wracking, according to Leonard.
"There are a lot of nerves before the matches," she said.
Given the number of states that had already sanctioned a girls wrestling division, Donovan said the South Dakota Wrestling Coaches Association knew it was only a matter of time before South Dakota did the same.
According to the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA), women's wrestling is one of the fastest growing sports at the scholastic and collegiate levels.
"A lot of people are getting into it," Donovan said. "Our U.S. freestyle teams are having great success in the women's divisions, and a lot of colleges are starting women's wrestling."
In Leonard's case, she said she "definitely" plans on pursuing wrestling through the remainder of her high school career and then hopefully into college.
In addition to the collegiate opportunities that wrestling can provide a competitor, it also provides life lessons that they wouldn't otherwise receive, according to Silvernail.
"I am proud to say that wrestling has done a great job of molding young boys into men, and I know it will be the same for our upcoming females," he said.