WELLMAN — Sports for Caitlyn Busch had been running cross-country and the dance team.
She needed a change.
“I heard Ben Meader talking about wrestling in math class, and it sounded fun,” Busch said. “I thought it would be a good way to get in shape.”
Busch got the change she was looking for and is now in her second year of wrestling for Mid-Prairie. Although the sport is not sanctioned by the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, participation on the mats is growing. Iowa girls have been joining their school teams in larger numbers so that competing against the boys has become a thing of the past.
Nationally, girls wrestling participation has nearly doubled from 2014 with more than 16,000 athletes competing during the 2017-18 season and 21,124 in 2018-19, the latest year that numbers were available, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Iowa High School Athletic Association member high schools had 93 girls participating in wrestling in 2018 when Ogden and Independence high schools made history by offering the first in-season girls’ divisions. There are enough females in the sport that they attend tournaments with girls-only divisions.
Because of the coronavirus causing restrictions on attendance during those tournaments, Busch has been able to better focus when wrestling.
“I can hear the coach instead of all the cheering,” she said. “When I’m out on the mat, I can zone out and just get into concentrating on the match.”
Mid-Prairie has 10 girls out for the sport this year. They are:
• Abbie Grout, freshman, 106 weight class, record of 0-0.
• Emil Harmston, junior, 120, 0-15.
• Ellie Brenneman, freshman, 126, 7-10.
• Bronwyn Brenneman, junior, 126, 11-3.
• Marissa Cline, sophomore, 132, 0-0.
• Caitlyn Busch, senior, 138, 7-8
• Brittney Pfeifer, sophomore, 145, 4-14.
• Madison Kelly, junior, 152, 6-11.
• Mia Garvey, sophomore, 160, 8-5.
• Sarah Meader, senior, 170, 16-3.
“Sarah had one match against a guy, but all of the rest of them have only wrestled girls,” Mid-Praire assistant coach Dylan Walther said. “We don’t do anything different or treat girls different in any way.”
There is a difference though. It is experience. Because of that, coaches focus on the foundational stuff when working with girls.
“Most of the guys have been through that multiple times,” Walther said. “A major difference, it’s that they struggle more when they’re on the bottom than guys do and, again, I think that is experience. This week we have worked a lot on getting out from under on bottom because that will be needed at state.”
The Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association will host an unofficial state tournament for the third consecutive year. The two-day tournament will be Jan. 22-23, with matches underway at 1:30 p.m. on Friday and 10 a.m. Saturday.
Meader, who placed sixth at state last season, had always wished there was a contact sport for girls. She ran cross-country, but making contact with other runners is frowned upon. She would love to play on an all-girl football team.
“I don’t know why, but I just like being aggressive,” she said. “The best part about wrestling is the mentality. We put all the work in during practices that are really hard, but then you get the reward of all that hard work.”
Even though Garvey’s father is the Mid-Prairie head coach, she didn’t try the sport until coach Walter asked her.
“Once I tried it, I liked it,” she said. “It’s the atmosphere that made me like it because everybody’s working hard and everybody else knows how hard everybody works. The team atmosphere is great.”
Sports never interested Bronwyn Brenneman because she is busy working on the farm. She shows cattle and sheep. Her sister Ellie talked her into joining the team.
“I’m hesitant about trying new things, but I get lazy over the winter, and this is something to do and once I started doing it, I have really enjoyed it,” she said.
The Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association held its first unofficial state tournament for girls in 2019 at Waverly-Shell Rock High School. There were 87 participants. Last year, that number was 350. This year, 450 are expected, and the event will be held at XStream Arena in Iowa City. The tournament will allow 10 weight classes — 106, 113, 120, 126, 132, 138, 152, 170, 195, 285. Medals will be available for the top six in each class.
The top three teams overall will be recognized, a maximum of 10 participants are able to score points for their team.
Waverly-Shell Rock won the team title last year, and Mid-Prairie was 10th. Each team was allowed to have 11 scoring wrestlers and the top nine teams all had 11. Mid-Prairie had five.
Garvey, Kelly, Busch, Meader and Rylee Vercande were the Golden Hawks at the tourney last year. Vercande (15-9 season record) finished third. Meader’s sixth place finish was earned with a 5-3 record in the tournament. She was 9-8 for the season. Busch’s state tourney record was 1-2 (2-7 season), Kelly was 2-2 (3-12) and Garvey 3-2 (7-12).
“I learned from state last year,” Busch said. “I will do better because I will be a lot more aggressive.”
“It was amazing to see all of the athletes competing,” Justin Garvey said. “They were the stars of the weekend. This is an amazing event that needs to become sanctioned.”
Mia Garvey has a go-to move — a high crotch.
“If I’m on the bottom, I like the power half, or a sit out,” she said
Bronwyn Brenneman has the second-best record on the team after Meader.
“My success is kind of surprising. I think it’s a mindset,” she said. “My dad and my brothers all wrestled so they give me lots of advice.”
“Coach Walter and coach Garvey both are really good with us and have lots of good advice,” Meader said. “Garvey is fun to work with.”
Some of that advice may be to attack, be the first person to take a shot because that is usually the winner. Whoever is bold and aggressive and fast will succeed.
“If you are wishy-washy hesitant, then you’re going to end up on your back,” Bronwyn Brenneman said.
Wherever one ends up, being a part of a wrestling team means there is a shared bond among its members, and it is what has helped grow the sport among girls.
“The team atmosphere is special,” Mia Garvey said. “Every one knows what its like to be in the pain of it.”