WHSAA sanctioning long time coming for girls wrestling

CHEYENNE – Meadow King’s passion for wrestling was born in the stands and confirmed on the mat.

King was in junior high when she found herself taken aback by how worked up she got cheering for her older brother, Wyatt, during his matches.

“I had tried so many sports, but I hadn’t found one that gave me the feeling in my chest that wrestling did when I was watching my brother,” the Cheyenne Central sophomore said. “I thought, ‘If I get that feeling when I’m just watching, I can only imagine what it would be like if I was out there myself.

“I started going to practices, and it snowballed. It’s been amazing.”

King has been wrestling ever since. Not only does she wrestle for Central, she spends the off-season competing at national tournaments for various Wyoming Amateur Wrestling Association girls teams and training with the Bear Cave club in Greeley, Colorado.

King has earned All-American honors wrestling against girls, but knows her chances of winning a Wyoming state title were still quite slim as long as the only opportunity girls had to represent their schools was by competing against boys.

“I want a title, but I won’t get it unless we get a girls division,” King said. “I’ll be proud of what I accomplished, but I would have liked to see how far I could go in an all-girls bracket.”

King and her peers won't have to wait much longer. 

There are enough schools that have said they’ll sponsor girls wrestling that it was approved for sanctioning by the Wyoming High School Activities Association board of directors Wednesday.

The sport will start with the 2022-23 season. 

A committee will iron out the details about the format of the regular season and postseason, WHSAA associate commissioner Trevor Wilson confirmed in a text to WyoSports on Wednesday afternoon.

Now that Wyoming has joined 32 other states in sanctioning girls wrestling, those who have spent the better part of three decades championing girls in wrestling say the move is overdue, but no less welcomed.

“Better late than never,” said Don Tolin, who threatened to sue the WHSAA in 1998 if his daughter wasn’t allowed to wrestle at Casper’s Kelly Walsh High.

Sarah Tolin grew up in a wrestling family. Her parents, Don and Vickie, coached, officiated and were heavily involved in Casper’s youth clubs. Her younger brothers, Josh and David, both wrestled. Her older sister, Cece, never showed much interest in getting on the mat herself, but felt at home at tournaments and in the wrestling room and was willing to help any way she could.

Sarah regularly got on the mat and helped her brothers warm up during tournaments around the state but had never expressed a desire to don a singlet herself. That changed in 1995.

The Tolins were driving home from Wheatland’s youth tournament when Sarah told her family she had been thinking about wrestling for quite some time and decided she wanted to give it a go. The Tolins talked it over during that 90-minute drive. Their first stop when they arrived in Casper was a sporting goods store, where they bought Sarah a pair of wrestling shoes.

Sarah wrestled for Centennial Junior High and eventually qualified for national tournaments. She had conversations after placing at one of those national events that charted a path for the future of the sport in the Cowboy State.

“Most of the girls she was competing against were still wrestling boys on their high school teams,” Don said. “They told her she couldn’t wait for the national tournaments to roll around and expect to do well. They told her she had to keep wrestling during the year.

“The only way to do that, at the time, was to wrestle against boys.”

The WHSAA didn’t have rules allowing co-ed participation at the time. Don had preliminary conversations with then-commissioner Larry Klaassen, who cautioned that the Tolins were likely to meet heavy resistance. On letterhead from Don’s law office dated Sept. 8, 1998, he laid out Sarah’s history and accomplishments in wrestling and explained that she had the support of Kelly Walsh head coach Tim Wilcox, who had coached her in junior high.

Don wanted to make clear to Klaassen and the WHSAA that Sarah’s desire to wrestle wasn’t fleeting. The letter also threatened legal action if the WHSAA’s board didn’t sign off on Sarah wrestling that season.

“As parents, coaches and wrestling officials, we have probably heard most of the arguments why girls should not wrestle boys, but respectfully do not agree with their premises, and further believe the WHSAA’s gender-based prohibition is improper, discriminatory and clearly violates the laws and constitutions of Wyoming and the United States,” the letter reads. “We are hoping we don’t have to litigate this matter in court, as it will be extremely costly and time-consuming for everyone involved.

“However, we are confident the courts will fully support our position and award us attorneys’ fees and costs.”

The Tolins were invited to make a presentation in front of the WHSAA board. Eventually, the board said Sarah and other girls could petition to compete on boys teams. The petitions were decided on a case-by-base basis. Many people viewed girls wrestling as a passing fad, Don said.

“There were people who hoped it was like the hula hoop,” he said. “They hoped it would arrive in a flash and then disappear.”

At best, the response to Sarah wrestling was tepid. Despite her background, there were teammates and their parents who thought she didn’t belong or were worried she might supplant them on the varsity roster. There were opponents who refused to wrestle her for religious or moral reasons.

As expected, the Tolins had people ask how they could subject their daughter to the risk of injury or inappropriate touching.

“If someone touched her in a way that wasn’t natural for wrestling, she took care of it and they walked off the mat a little gingerly,” Don said. “She knew how to take care of herself. She never saw wrestling against the boys as a sexual thing or anything inappropriate.

“She wasn’t a ‘girl wrestler,’ she was a wrestler.”

Sarah – who died in 2005 – competed for Kelly Walsh as a junior and senior. She continued to wrestle after high school. Sarah spent a year at Casper College before transferring to Neosho County Community College in Chanute, Kansas, where she wrestled for two seasons.

In 2002, Sarah was a silver-medalist at University Nationals and placed fifth at the University World Championships.

Jessica Brenton was a pioneer on her own side of Casper, becoming the first girl to crack Natrona County’s varsity roster. She encountered resistance, even a decade removed from Sarah Tolin’s fight to wrestle at the high school level.

“There were parents who made comments about how this was a boys’ sport and I shouldn’t be wrestling,” Brenton said. “I found support and people pushing me in the right direction, especially when I started going to national tournaments. (The Tolin family) always gave me support. … I want girls to have their own division so they don’t have to deal with what I did.”

Brenton, 29, is the Wyoming Amateur Wrestling Association’s women’s director. She took on that role shortly after wrapping up her collegiate career at the University of Winnipeg. Brenton wants to see women’s wrestling become as big in Wyoming as it is in Canada.

Only a few of the state’s high school coaches were receptive to a separate girls division when Brenton started emailing them to build support a handful of years ago. This year was different. A lot different.

“Most of the coaches I heard back from are all for a girls division,” Brenton said. “I didn’t expect that because there weren’t any schools that had expressed interest in sponsoring it when I talked to the WHSAA at the start of the school year.

“Now, we’ve got enough school boards that have OK'd it that it’s going in front of the WHSAA. Some of the biggest tournaments in the state had girls brackets. So many people have changed their minds about girls belonging on the wrestling mat.”

Moorcroft had girls brackets at its tournament the first weekend of this high school wrestling season. The following weekend, Cheyenne East’s Charlie Lake Invitational featured girls brackets. The Ron Thon Memorial Tournament in Riverton – which attracts nearly every school in Wyoming, regardless of classification – also added a girls division this winter.

The latter convinced Brenton momentum was firmly swinging in the direction of a girls division.

So did the inaugural Wyoming girls folk-style state tournament, which was held Feb. 27 as part of the Casper Showdown in Memory of Sarah Tolin. That event featured 81 girls starting with the under-6 division.

There are 230 Wyoming girls registered with USA Wrestling.

Central coach Kyle Brightman knows people will point to the limited number of girls wrestling in the state and say a separate division is unnecessary. However, he thinks the small number of girls wrestling in Wyoming is the reason a separate division is needed, and an important step toward the sport remaining strong in the state.

“We’ve seen in other states that have sanctioned girls wrestling that when women have their own division and only have to wrestle girls that they’re more apt to try it,” Brightman said. “There’s no awkwardness, there’s no biological differences. It’s more inclusive.”

Abby Vroman had no idea Brightman would convince her to wrestle when she approached him about being a team manager last fall. In fact, the freshman thought she had an easy out when Brightman broached the subject. She told him she never wanted to wrestle boys, and only stepped on the mat after Brightman assured her she wouldn’t have to if she didn’t want to.

“It’s not fair for girls to wrestle guys at the high school level,” Vroman said. “I was nervous for wrestling guys for that reason. It’s also weird for girls to wrestle guys.

“… A lot of girls I’ve talked to said they’re not wrestling because they don’t want to wrestle guys, and they don’t understand the sport. It’s male-dominated, so it’s hard to get girls involved and interested.”

Vroman – who also is a cheerleader at Central and has been a competitive gymnast – admits she didn’t expect to finish the season on the mat. Instead, she grew to love it so much that she had a change of heart and started wrestling boys in order to have more bouts. She has since competed in girls tournaments outside the high school season.

“Once you actually start wrestling, it’s not as awkward as I thought it was going to be,” Vroman said. “It’s all about the sport when you’re competing. I came to like the sport a lot more than I expected to when I started.”

Most girls who wrestle stop by the time they get to junior high. The ones who continue often crack the high school varsity lineup in the lowest weight classes. Middleweight wrestlers often languish down the depth chart because they’re unable to beat the boys on their team in those weight classes.

Senior Alleynah Ronnau spent her freshman season on East’s junior varsity squad before winning the varsity 106-pound spot as a sophomore and junior. She started wrestling when her family lived in Germany, and saw no reason to stop after moving to Cheyenne. Ronnau went 13-20 and reached the state tournament as a sophomore. During her junior campaign, Ronnau was 21-21, won the Southeast District title and qualified for state.

However, the muscle she put on through her dedication in the weight room vaulted her to the 120-pound weight class this season. She earned East’s No. 2 spot in that weight and again qualified for state, but finished the year with a 2-13 varsity record.

“I’m built differently than the guys I wrestle,” Ronnau said. “My muscle mass is spread out differently. Going up two weight classes this year was a big difference. It’s a big mental thing knowing you’re going up against guys who are a lot stronger than anyone you’ve wrestled before.”

Ronnau never backed down from the challenge, though. Instead, it served as a reminder of what attracted her to wrestling in the first place.

“I’ve always liked the challenge of the sport,” she said. “The challenge has kept me in this wrestling room for four years. It’s pushed me outside of the wrestling room, too.

“It’s helped me become a better student and learn how to manage my time a lot better. It’s something that will help me my entire life.”

Even though attitudes about girls wrestling have changed in the past 24 years, some parents still aren’t OK with their teenage sons wrestling girls and vice versa, Brenton said.

“Junior high is when everyone starts developing and guys turn into men and girls turn into women,” Brenton said. “A lot of parents don’t want their girls touched the way you have to touch someone when you wrestle them.

“And there are guys who don’t want to risk being beaten by a girl. It’s not a winning situation for anyone.”

Now that the WHSAA has signed off on girls wrestling, the season will most likely run alongside the boys, similar to girls and boys basketball, cross-country, golf, soccer, tennis and track. East coach Thad Trujillo said that makes sense for the first few years as the girls division finds its footing.

That move also makes sense because school districts and the state have been cutting back on expenses due to the state’s budget being crunched by declining mineral tax revenues.

However, Trujillo thinks wrestling eventually needs to adopt a similar model to prep swimming, where the girls compete during the fall season, and the boys season is contested during the winter.

“Coaches I’ve talked to in other states said (girls wrestling) really took off when it became a standalone season,” Trujillo said. “They can still be closely tied together, but you’d see a lot more involvement if they’re having their own practices with just girls in the room.

“I think that’s important because it gives the girls teams their own identity and own season instead of having the perception that it’s an add-on to a sport we already have.”