On the rise: Girls wrestling is growing in the state but is not yet ready to take off

Skyline wrestling coach Matt Keel congratulates Taja Showers after winning her Dec. 8 match with a pin against Millbrook's James Nelson. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Taja Showers is like other wrestlers in that when she’s on the mat, she’s battling for supremacy over the opponent standing across from her. During the high school season, however, the Skyline sophomore is fighting for a little bit more.

Such is the life of a female wrestler in a male-dominated sport.

Outside of the three-month window of the high school wrestling season, it’s different. Showers is given the chance to compete on an even playing field against other girls, whether it be in tournaments at the state, regional or national level. But throughout the months of December, January and February, Showers far more often than not is going head-to-head with her male counterparts in what she said is an ongoing battle for respect.

“It’s fun but sometimes it is really hard because you don’t feel like you fit in, like you don’t feel like you’re one of the guys,” Showers said on Tuesday afternoon. “I feel like I have a really good support system. The guys (on Skyline’s wrestling team) really accept me, (Hawks head coach Matt) Keel accepts me, all the coaches we have accept me, so it’s really getting easier.”

Showers, who is 20-21 with seven pins this season despite wrestling only four matches against other girls, is hardly the first girl to test her mettle on the wrestling mat, but her status as Skyline’s starting 220-pounder is representative of the upward trend of girls competing in the sport at the high school level.

Skyline's Taja Showers wrestles Millbrook's James Nelson in their Dec. 8 match this season. Rich Cooley/Daily

According to the most recent participation survey released by the Virginia High School League, 159 girls competed in wrestling across the state during the 2016-17 school year, nearly doubling the total of 83 that competed in 2012-13. Girls are still the vast minority in high school wrestling in Virginia – they made up only 2 percent of the 6,511 VHSL wrestlers last year – but their representation is growing.

“You can see it not just here in Virginia but you see it all over the place,” Warren County wrestling coach Matt Wadas said. “Obviously with girls wrestling being made an Olympic sport, it really sets the tone for our sport. I think USA Wrestling’s done a great job. They started with those new uniforms, and we’ve gotta change those old stereotypes of wrestling.

“I grew up in a period where if you were a girl and wanted to wrestle, you were shunned, you were turned away,” he continued. “I think we’re to the point where these girls wanna be athletes and wrestling’s challenging. I always say it’s one of the best sports to challenge every part of being an athlete, so why shouldn’t they be able to do that too?”

Wadas is one of many high school coaches across the state advocating for more opportunities for female wrestlers. Skyline head coach Matt Keel is another, and he took the initiative last season to create and host the first VHSL-sanctioned all-girls tournament, named the “Girls Championship.”

Culpeper County High School hosted the second VHSL-sanctioned girls-only tournament earlier this season. Keel said as many as six such tournaments were scheduled across the state this winter (he added that he wasn’t sure how many actually took place). That included the Girls Championship – which returned to Skyline for a second season – during which Showers took home first place by going 3-0 in the 220-pound bracket.

Skyline's Taja Showers pins Millbrook's James Nelson in the second period of their Dec. 8 match this season at Sherando HIgh School. Rich Cooley/Daily

Keel said participation in the Girls Championship did grow slightly from last year to this year, with 67 girls from 30 different schools taking part in the tournament. Showers and Warren County’s Halea Hose were the only two participants from six public high schools in The Daily’s coverage area.

“I would estimate that well over a third of the girls in the state came to our tournament, but well under a half,” Keel said. “Half the girls in the state didn’t come. Coaches didn’t support it, just weren’t aware, although they’re dealing with that.”

Though Keel and Wadas said they’ve seen a lot of support for girls wrestling from fellow coaches, particularly those in the surrounding area, both added that there has been occasional resistance to the expansion of the sport in other parts of the state. Wadas said those dissenting voices are diminishing, however.

“I like to have girls come in here,” said Stonewall Jackson wrestling coach Jerry Franklin, who has an eighth-grade girl, Kayvian Langston, in his program this winter. “And we work with them. It ain’t like we push them to the side. We try to work with them so hopefully they can develop into something. But like I tell them, it’s a hard sport.”

Keel said he hopes to see high school wrestling in Virginia, which is one of the few co-ed sports offered by the VHSL, reach a point where the VHSL can establish a separate girls division complete with its own coaches, schedule, weight classes and state tournaments. That would be the final stop on a journey that began at Point A, he said, which marked the time when girls didn’t wrestle at all.

Skyline's Taja Showers won this match on Dec. 8 this season with a pin. Rich Cooley/Daily

“We’re in the middle at B,” said Keel, whose wife, Ginny, is an assistant coach for Skyline’s wrestling team and is one of only a few female assistant coaches in the state. “In order to get to C, you’ve gotta get the numbers. In order to get the numbers you’ve gotta have the girls tournaments. I think coaching support is a big one, but I think (for) some of the coaches it may seem like they don’t support their girls when in reality they’re very supportive of girls wrestling, they’re just limited on resources.”

Virginia is in a “tough spot,” Keel added, because the low participation numbers are the primary obstacle to the VHSL implementing more exclusive opportunities for female wrestlers. Keel said a committee has been formed to try to create a girls state tournament in Virginia, and while the VHSL has been supportive of the idea, the response has regularly been “we just don’t have enough people right now.”

“I don’t know what the number is, but you have a cumulative mass of girls that would ignite it,” Keel said. “And once you get that number of girls in the state wrestling, then things start to spark. We don’t have that number. We just don’t have enough.”

That much is apparent in the local area. Of the six public high schools in The Daily’s coverage area, only Skyline, Warren County and Stonewall Jackson – three schools that have regularly had at least one female wrestler each year – have a girl in their wrestling programs this season, and Showers is the only varsity starter among those three individuals.

Strasburg has had one or two girls try the sport at the junior varsity level in recent years, athletic director Matt Hiserman said, but none have stuck with the varsity team. Central AD Kenny Rinker said his school hasn’t had any female wrestlers in recent memory.

Sherando has had five girls try out for the wrestling team since the school opened in 1993, longtime wrestling coach Pepper Martin said, though most of those didn’t complete a full season for a variety of reasons. The one outlier, Martin said, was Kelia Lewis, a four-year wrestler who earned a varsity letter as a senior last season and placed second in her weight class at the 2017 Girls Championship.

Much like the trend across the rest of the state however, more girls could soon be taking their place on local wrestling rosters. Keel said girls now make up over 10 percent of his youth program, and he’s seeing similar results elsewhere.

Showers – who earned All-America honors at the USA Wrestling Cadet/Junior Women’s Freestyle National Championships in Fargo, North Dakota last summer – and other girls like her are also doing their part to usher in the next wave of female wrestlers.

“There are a lot of younger girls that are starting to wrestle,” Showers said. “Both of my sisters do. And I feel like if keep with it and I show them that they can do it too, then there are gonna be more girls that continue to start wrestling.”