“Weighing In on Sanctioning”

What is Growth? How does it lead to sanctioning?

By Dr. TJ Zito, Jr

For the past two seasons, sanctioning girls’ wrestling has been a hot topic of debate dividing the girls’ wrestling community. As we dive into this blog, I want first to preface that we are all on the same team and want to ultimately work towards sanctioning girls’ wrestling.

We must look forward and not backward as the sport grows towards sanctioning. Many people expressed frustration and anger on Facebook, deciding whether girls’ wrestling had accomplished enough in Alabama to deserve sanctioning. It is time to let go of previous frustrations and leave the politics to the politicians. It is time to focus on joint efforts, creative strategies, and a new growth plan.

In multiple conversations with the state, the sanctioning conversation in two years will be determined by growth. Growth must be seen across the state, and new schools must declare to field girls’ teams. Not only must they declare, but they must be active with duals, tris, quads, scrambles, tournaments, etc. The pilot program is in place for two years; sanctioning will depend on growth.

The Coaches’ Committee, with district representatives, make recommendations to the state in their meetings. The state takes these recommendations and makes decisions for upcoming seasons. Each change, such as districting guidelines, is in place for two years. Adjustments are made in two-year increments. The girls’ wrestling pilot program is firm for two years, creating an opportunity to move towards sanctioning. Sanctioning will depend on the Coaches’ Committee and State noticing strong growth with new and existing programs. We need to be pushing for growth and not arguing sanctioning. Growth will be the key determining factor. Arguing for sanctioning without growing the sport will not lead to sanctioning. The state’s sanctioning plan is determined by growth and participation of both schools and girls’ wrestlers.

It is time to say, “Let’s go Grow” which steps up to the challenge. The state has provided a plan, and we must concentrate our efforts on reaching the growth goals. We should not hyper-focus on an exact number but an obvious visual of more participation with duals, tris, quads, tournaments, etc. We need to identify the wrestling schools that are not participating and encourage them to create new teams. Now is the time for us to step up and grow! Our social media, posters, and promotions should all encourage growth instead of making demands. Nobody is holding the sport back, and it is up to us as a community to achieve these objectives.

Heading into the 2022-2023 girls’ season, girls’ wrestling does not have many teams that can fill complete rosters. Although some teams have a handful of girls actively participating, they cannot fill an entire roster to match up in a dual with another school without forfeits. As we work to grow state participation, each program with only a handful of girls should challenge itself to grow an entire roster. Although this will be a difficult task for small schools (and I coach a private school in 5a), we must step up to the challenge.

If we can grow our existing teams to have complete rosters, we can increase full dual matches with other schools and grow tournament participation. Although we have many tournaments with filled brackets, many of those entries are from multiple participants at the same school. Complete rosters can help legitimize girls’ wrestling being a viable sport that can stand on its own two feet.

Lately, I have described the situation much like if your favorite restaurant started a second location. If the second location cannot grow its customer base and income, the second location will not be viable. No matter how good the food may be at the second location, the restaurant must be able to stand on its own two feet separate from the original restaurant.

I see girls’ wrestling being much like that second restaurant. Girls Wrestling will be legitimate when most existing programs can hold dual matches with limited forfeits. This will be a major challenge for schools like the small school where I coach. We often do not fill our boys’ team weight classes and initially used girls on our boys’ roster to avoid forfeits before this season.

I understand issues such as a lack of budget, not enough coaches, and changes that would be needed to accommodate a complete girls’ program. In times of financial hardship, we have seen the greatest innovations in our country. Amazon thrived and took off during the 2008 recession. We saw companies like Shipt and DoorDash thrive during the Covid Lockdown. As coaches and girls’ wrestling supporters, it is time for us to get creative in this time of need. Just like businesses grew when challenged, we can do the same.

We must step up our recruiting of girls. We must work to network with other sports such as volleyball, track, softball, and other sports to find athletes. Although many people are frustrated with flag football, it has terrific participation and can be a perfect place to find new athletes. We must also reach out into the classrooms and find art students, dancers, gymnasts, cheer, theater, and other creative individuals. I think we will find that many girls will consider wrestling to belong, make friends, and do something positive for the school. Many of the same reasons that boys join wrestling are also true for girls.

The big challenge this season will be finding match opportunities. As we (coaches) make schedules, ask coaches from the other schools how many girls they will have on their roster. Try to schedule as many teams with girls as possible to have Girls’ matches first, JV boys second, and the Varsity Boys wrestle third. Booking these style events can get many boys and girls wrestlers mat time, increase fans/revenue at the event, and create an exciting evening of wrestling. The schools can make money for their programs, and the matches will employ refs from the state, increasing our total girls’ match count. Creating revenue for all speaks volumes.

When I first heard this idea of having Girls, JV, and Varsity…. I thought it was ridiculous, crazy, and could never happen. I volunteered to emcee a match last year where I saw it done. Even though there is a big gap between my private 5a school and the powerhouse 7a school I emceed for, I saw the potential. I want that atmosphere for my school, and even if we have it on a smaller scale, I am committing myself to the growth goal.

At my school, I do not have the budget or an extra coach to split the roster and attend a girls’ tournament on the same weekend as a boys’ tournament. For the boys’ tournaments, we are booking ourselves to attend, and we are asking about their girls’ divisions. We are encouraging tournaments to hold girls’ divisions alongside the boys. Tournaments can add girls’ divisions bumping girls to common weight classes creating scrambles. The girls’ competition can be run round-robin style if there are not enough for traditional brackets. Creating an opportunity for girls gives them matches, increasing revenues for schools and ref fees. The girls will bring their family and friends, supplying the event extra audience. Adding a girls’ division is a Win-Win for the girls, teams, coaches, schools, refs, and the state.

I have heard the frustration in many coaches’ voices when I ask about how many girls they have on their roster. I have turned down some booking requests for tournaments, quads, tris, and duals where I cannot get our girls’ matches. I have to commit to our girls, and we have successfully found many teams that we can match up nicely on the boys’ and girls’ sides. It takes conversations, communication, and legwork to make it happen. It is frustrating because I really enjoy wrestling some of these teams that do not have girls. If we can do tri’s or quads with them and add teams with girls into the mix, then we can still find room to wrestle those teams without girls. As I said, preserving relationships with our existing friends on the mats that do not have girls’ teams will take creativity. We need to encourage them to add girls.

Shane Dempsey, MatBurn Media, with John Carroll Catholic’s Ava Koch 113lbs at Girls’ State 2022

Our program will host girls’ only scrambles around the city of Birmingham on traditional off-days for boys’ wrestling. Running on these traditional off-days, such as Friday evenings, can create new matches for girls. Many girls are nervous that they may not have enough matches and question if their practice time is worth it. We want to solve this issue by finding new ways to hold girls’ matches. We also want to help the parents who are sometimes driving an hour plus across the state for their daughter not to get a match. Proper booking and communication can prevent this from happening. A quick way to get girls’ wrestlers to quit is to book matches where they travel, their parents travel, and they do not compete. We must streamline our process and think outside the box for new matches.

To get girls extra matches, we noticed that the state has allowed this 2-year pilot program for girls to compete in unlimited non-AHSAA events. Groups such as the AYWO have stepped up efforts and will have K-12 girls’ divisions at their events this season. This allows for a unique partnership with clubs and parents that can assist with extra matches at these tournaments.

Listed above is not every answer to every problem. I am offering creative solutions to get girls’ matches, increase the number of referees hired, grow existing programs, and work to have new programs declared. We can all decide to be part of the solution or the problem.

If we do not implement changes and growth strategies immediately, we will be in the same boat in two years as we were last year. We will be messaging principals and athletic directors for votes and trying to convince schools without wrestling to vote for girls’ wrestling. I would rather put this work on the front end. Let’s message athletic directors and coaches to start girls’ programs this year. Let’s call our coaching friends and encourage them to add girls to their season. Let’s put the work on the front end and grow the sport past the state’s expectations and over-deliver.

If we want girls’ wrestling to grow, we need to partner with schools, the state, and each other to actively grow programs. We cannot fight about past voting efforts and politics, threaten lawsuits, or make demands.

The message no longer needs to scream, “let us wrestle.” Girls are wrestling. They are amazing. Alabama had three Fargo All-Americans this year. We need to change the message to “Let’s Go Grow” and “BamaGirlsWrestle” and use the hashtag #BamaGirlsWrestle. It is time to grow Alabama Girls Wrestling in quantity and quality. There is a difference between reaching the goals to sanction and demanding sanctioning. Demanding will not produce the desired effect, but a true growth in numbers will.

The goals have been laid out for us to achieve. Much like a sales quota, it is our time to step up and exceed the quota. Let’s redirect all of our arguing energy into growing more girls’ events, coordinating our efforts, and ultimately increasing the number of teams and girls participating.

The opening rounds of Girls’ State will be held at Thompson High School on Thursday January 19, 2023. The next day, on Friday, January 20, 2023, the finals will be held at the Birmingham Crossplex Bill Harris arena. Let’s rock girls’ state and bring that unmatched energy right into the finals at the Crossplex.

The Boys’ duals tournament finals will be held before and after the Girls’ finals. The finals is an excellent opportunity to show why Alabama’s Girls are unmatched for spectators! At the Crossplex….let’s put the “butts in the seats,” so to speak! Buying tickets and cheering hard for the Girls’ finals on Friday, Jan 20, 2023, will show the support we have for our community. We need to fill the Crossplex with our Girls’ fans, bring our Girls’ energy, and show everyone why the energy is unmatched!!!! We need to fill the arena with fans to show our support!

After this season, let’s carry all that momentum straight into the clubs for offseason, freestyle, and Greco. Let’s grow one-day camps, colleges visiting our girls, and create more girls’ opportunities. There is so much to be done! As much as we talk about quantity, we can rely on our partner clubs during the off-season to help build quality. Off-Season wrestling will help girls learn the necessary techniques to increase the level of competition in our state. Alabama has excellent club coaches, and I firmly believe that off-season work leads to in-season victories. As Shane Dempsey of Matburn says, Summer Work leads to Winter Wins. It is important to elevate Alabama girls’ wrestling to support the upcoming champions in our youth divisions.

I do not have all the answers, but I am willing to put my toe to the line and shoot for two. I may even throw for five.

I promised an old Hall of Famer to “Always Pay Wrestling Back.” He always tells me that what was once known as the oldest fraternity is now the oldest fraternity and sorority. We are one State. We are Boys’ and Girls’ Team Alabama. We are Wrestlers. Let’s do what wrestlers do and support each other. Let’s Grow Girls’ Wrestling.

“Let’s Go Grow- BamaGirlsWrestle”

Dr. TJ Zito, Jr