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Women’s college wrestling tournament in Cedar Rapids is precursor for eventual NCAA-sponsored championships
Women’s college wrestling has come a long way and only shows signs of growing
CEDAR RAPIDS — Sacred Heart Coach Paulina Biega recalled having few opportunities when she first wrestled at Missouri Valley College a decade ago.
Jason Moorman has led the King (Tenn.) University women’s wrestling program since its inception in 2009. He remembered just 13 schools among all college divisions, including the NAIA and NJCAA, and his first national championship might have been in Missouri Valley’s gymnasium.
Women’s college wrestling has come a long way and only shows signs of growing.
National Collegiate Women’s Wrestling Championships Executive Committee members announced Thursday, on the eve of the fourth annual NCWWC National Championships, 43 programs have met divisional rules, which allows the sport to be considered for an NCAA-sponsored national championship. The announcement comes just three years after achieving Emerging Sports status.
“It’s amazing because these girls deserve it,” said Biega, who was named NCWWC Coach of the Year in her second season leading the Pioneers. “One hundred percent. They work so hard.”
Moorman echoed those sentiments.
“These ladies deserve this so much,” he said. “I’m so proud of all the work. … I think of where we started. It’s pretty amazing.”
The University of Iowa became the first Power Five program to sponsor a women’s program. The Hawkeyes are training with some wrestlers competing unattached this winter. They officially begin competition next season and will be part of this event held in Cedar Rapids.
Thursday’s announcement added a boost to an already exciting event.
“We’ve been working toward this goal since obtaining emerging sports status back in January of 2020 and many years before that as well,” Wrestle Like A Girl Senior Manager for Women’s Collegiate Advancement Julia Salata said. “It is thanks to all this hard work that we’re able to make this announcement today and we’re very excited about that.
“To see it come to fruition in a relatively short period of time is pretty special. Again, just three years in emerging sports status so we’re very pumped. To continue moving forward, to continue growing and working in lock step with the rest of our programs, our stakeholders and to have our first NCAA women’s championships in the next couple of years.”
Teams and competitors from across the country will descend on the Alliant Energy PowerHouse for the NCWWC tournament on Friday and Saturday. The field consists of NCAA Division I, II and III varsity programs and action begins at 11 a.m. both days.
“Now that we have opportunities like this, it is taken more seriously,” King national champion and top-seeded 143-pounder Ashlynn Ortega said. “I think it excites a lot of people — parents, kids, everybody, coaches. I would say that contributes to a lot of it as well. Just keeping it growing for future generations, too.”
⧉ Related article: 2023 National Collegiate Women’s Wrestling Championships in Cedar Rapids: Schedule, format, top qualifiers
The NCWWC event has been held on campuses each of the first three years. This marks the first time at a neutral site and in a large arena. The PowerHouse will seat a little less than 6,000 for wrestling.
“Even moving nationals from Adrian last year to this huge arena where more people could attend, it just makes it seem more serious for us wrestlers,” North Central (Ill.) College two-time national champion and U.S. Senior World Team member Yelena Makoyed said. “I feel like it’s almost more respectful toward the wrestlers for their hard work, making it seem more like a serious thing.
“It’s like everybody contributing their little things, like the photography, the videography, media, wrestlers and coaches.”
The venue makes a difference to the competitors and this is a product of the swell in participation and programs. It can also be viewed as moving closer to being treated the same as their male counterparts.
North Central Coach Joe Norton noted that the NCAA D-III men’s championships were held in the same arena, while Colorado Mesa University’s Travis Mercado mentioned the NCAA D-II men’s championships will be here next week.
“This arena is awesome,” Norton said. “You can see it in the girls’ faces when they walked in (Wednesday) how much it means to be able to wrestle in a place like this.
“Once we get the NCAA-branded mats, it’s only going to be one more step to get the same treatment the men get. Our wrestlers work their tails off and they deserve everything the men get. We’re happy we are one step closer to getting it.”
The event has consistently grown over the four years, according to Flowrestling.com’s Kyle Klingman. In 2020, 19 teams were represented. The number grew to 21 the following year. Last season, 30 teams competed. Thirty-seven teams have qualified at least one wrestler this year.
Seven teams have double-digit qualifiers, including King and North Central which advanced the maximum of 15. More parity may be creeping into the competition. The increase in programs and the ability to fill lineups with talent has improved the product. One that might have an impact on the country’s international results as well.
“It makes college wrestling tougher,” Colorado Mesa’s top-seeded 123-pounder Marissa Gallegos said. “It’s going to make us tougher as a country. It’s going to help us to a team title against Japan. I hope that happens (soon).
“It’s creating more depth rather than people running through brackets. They‘re going to have tough matches. There is going to be a 2-1 finals. There is going to be a 9-8 finals. It’s going to be tough. I think that’s so much better because it is prepping us to compete internationally.”
The unique facet of the NCWWC is it includes wrestlers from all three NCAA divisions, something that doesn’t occur in men’s wrestling. It could seem daunting for a small school like Augsburg (Minn.) or Simpson College to tussle with a D-II counterpart like D-II power and three-time defending team champion McKendree (Ill.) University or D-I schools like Sacred Heart and Lock Haven.
Augsburg’s top-seeded 155-pounder Marlynne Deede said the divisions don’t matter as much. Smaller schools remain on the same plane as bigger ones.
“We’re still growing so much there hasn’t been much separation with the divisions,” Deede said. “It is kind of cool because where I come from at Augsburg we obviously compete against different schools than they do. It sets us apart from the other athletes. It’s cool because we get to compete on a much bigger stage.
“I don’t think there is as much difference yet. I think it will change over time.”