CARPENTERSVILLE – Dundee-Crown senior Jacqueline Garcia wanted to wrestle, but said she “never had the guts to do it.”
Growing up, she and her friends would mess around after school, pretend they were wrestling in the WWE. Garcia moved to the Dundee-Crown district before her freshman year and didn’t know anyone at her new high school.
Now a senior, Garcia and her friend Lizbeth Munoz made up their minds that they were going to try wrestling. The decision has paid off. Garcia’s fourth-place finish at sectionals last weekend qualified her for the third annual Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association girls state championships this weekend in Springfield.
“I really enjoy wrestling others and learning something new,” Garcia said. “Even though some days we go really hard, at the end of the day, I do enjoy it.”
Garcia (who competes at 138 pounds) is one of two Dundee-Crown girls to qualify at sectionals, along with junior Brisia Castro (117). Four other D-C wrestlers entered this weekend’s tournament as alternates: Melanie Pulido (101), Valerie Rice (111), Arly Perez (111) and Munoz (164).
They are six of the nine girls representing McHenry County schools at IWCOA girls state, which begins Saturday and runs through Sunday.
“We had eight total [girls wrestlers],” coach Rick Moreno said. “The other two went to track. Six decided to keep going. Usually we’d have like one girl come out. Last year we had four; this year is the most we’ve had.”
Moreno is the junior varsity coach at D-C and is the primary coach for the girls. A wrestling coach for 29 years, Moreno has watched firsthand the rise in girls wrestling participation.
“It’s going to grow,” Moreno said. “Next year, I talked to [varsity coach Tim Hayes], when the season starts I’m going to post more signs up for the girls, more pictures of the last couple years so that they see it’s not always girls wrestling boys.”
Moreno said he hasn’t recruited girls at D-C. It has mostly been through word of mouth, with girls persuading their friends to try it.
According to the IWCOA, 246 girls competed across four sectionals last weekend. That is an 80 percent increase over last year’s sectionals, according to the IWCOA.
In 2018, the IHSA added girls wrestling to its list of “emerging sports.” The IHSA approved a bylaw amendment in December that sets season limitations for girls wrestling, opening the potential for a girls wrestling state series in the future.
This will be the third season the IWCOA has organized its girls wrestling state championships. The organization facilitated 11 regular-season tournaments for girls throughout the state this year.
Nationally, girls participation in the sport continues to rise. In 2017-18 (the most recent year with available data), the National Federation of State High School Associations reported 16,562 girls wrestling across the country, up 13.5 percent (about 2,000 wrestlers) from a year earlier and up from a total of 5,527 girls wrestlers 10 years earlier.
Those numbers are undoubtedly low. The NFHS reported zero girls wrestlers in Illinois, among other states.
Meanwhile, high school boys wrestling participation in Illinois dropped 3.4 percent, according to the NFHS, between 2016-17 and 2017-18.
Castro, a junior, joined the D-C wrestling team this year.
“My first day, I was very nervous,” Castro said. “I was pushed to the side a lot. I felt very intimidated. Sooner or later, when I started getting better and actually paying attention, actually doing the exercises, I actually ended up liking the sport.”
Moreno said that, at first, boys don’t want to work with the girls. With more and more girls in the program, D-C doesn’t come across that problem as much anymore.
“Last year and mostly this year, the boys are stepping up and helping the girls,” Moreno said. “[The girls are] excited to make it to state.”
IWCOA local girls state competitors
Melanie Pulido, fr., 101
Valerie Rice, fr., 111
Arly Perez, so., 111
Brisia Castro, jr., 117
Jacqueline Garcia, sr., 138
Lizbeth Munoz, jr., 164
Natalie Majer, so., 101
Teni Ajayi, so., 164
Hannah Strauss, jr., 138