About eight years ago, McPherson athletic director Shane Backhus and wrestling coach Doug Kretzer started formulating a campaign that finally went through on Friday afternoon.
At its April board of directors meeting, the Kansas State High School Activities Association (KSHSAA) approved the introduction of girls wrestling, a 23rd championship sport in Kansas.
The attending board of 65 representatives from across Kansas passed — with a vote of 63-2 — amendments to rules 44 and 23 of the KSHSAA Handbook. The biggest change comes to Rule 44, which replicates the boys wrestling state championship structure for girls. The change to Rule 23 states the following:
“The mixed team rule is being waived for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years for the sport of wrestling. A two year transition period is being granted to permit girls the option of participating in both their school boy’s lineup and girl’s lineup during the regular season contests only. If a competition only offers a boys division, then girls will have the option of competing in the boys division. If the competition offers both a boys and girls division, then girls are required to wrestle in the girls division. After the two specified years, the mixed team rule will go into effect and girls will only participate against girls. From the start of implementation of Girls Wrestling, the girls must participate in the girls only postseason. No option is given to compete in the boys postseason.”
Kretzer, who was in Topeka to watch history, said now that girls have a chance to win a state wrestling championship, he is excited to see how many come out of the shadows and join the movement.
“It took a little while for the train to get rolling,” he said. “But as soon as the girls in McPherson saw that they could compete against girls and it wasn’t just going to practice and taking a beating from some boy, they learned to love the sport. When you’re a female and you’re wrestling against boys, you have to wrestle defensive. You can’t wrestle to win. You’re wrestling not to lose.
“If you build it, they will come. And we’ve done that.”
Kretzer’s daughter, Mya, who has been one of the best female wrestlers in Kansas, won’t reap the benefits of the amendment. She won’t be crowned a KSHSAA-sanctioned state champion, but she served as the figurehead of the movement.
The girls wrestling state championship in 2019-20 will be the first new event in Kansas since bowling was introduced in 2005. Kansas is the 15th state in the U.S. to adopt a separate girls wrestling division. As the board of directors dismissed after the vote, Mya wiped tears from her eyes.
“This sport gives you something no other sport can give you,” she said. “No one gender should have the ability to have it. Both should, especially at a fair, even plane. It’s a change for society. It’s just going to change the way people see women. We can be leaders in this sport.”
July 1, Bill Faflick took over as the KSHSAA executive director, replacing Gary Musselman who held the position for 22 years. Later that month, Faflick told the Eagle that changes could be on the horizon.
“The activities association is not broken,” Faflick said in July. “But it’s also not perfect. I think we always have to be responsive to the needs of the member schools. We want to lead as we serve. I think it’s critical that we listen to our schools and have a pulse on what they’re saying.
“The association works, but does it work at the highest level possible? I think that’s what we have to continue to look at.”
McPherson has hosted an unofficial girls wrestling state championship tournament each of the past three years and won each season.
In 2017, 112 girls wrestled in Kansas high schools. There were four independently-run, female-only events to showcase them. Two years later, participation has grown more than 235 percent. And there have already been 15 events this season.
Less than one year ago, just six states offered sanctioned girls wrestling. Eight more have recently joined, including Colorado and Missouri, all with significant growth since their induction, which coach Kretzer packed into a three-minute message to the board ahead of the vote.
“That three-minute speech was three years in the making,” Backhus said. “You watch these girls wrestle against boys, and it’s a lose-lose for everybody. There is no other sport out there like it. We don’t make girls run the 100-meter dash against the boys at the state track meet.”
The item on the agenda was one of the most discussed at the board meeting. Representatives brought questions about the number of girls, particularly in rural areas of the state, who would compete at regular-season tournaments and whether those girls would be made to wrestle boys.
The amendment to Rule 23 offers schools an opt-in or opt-out to allow or disallow co-ed teams for the next two years. In July, Faflick said he likes the idea of “ready, aim, fire,” but didn’t want to wait so long that a plan was never implemented.
“You can hold a kid in the blocks too long,” he said in July. “If you hold a track kid at the start for too long, they could cramp up, and they’ll be in trouble. At some point you gotta start the race, but first, you gotta get in the blocks. You gotta plan, and then you gotta implement that plan.”
That plan will go into effect next year at the Tony’s Pizza Events Center in Salina, said Mark Lentz, KSHSAA assistant executive director in charge of wrestling. The boys wrestling tournaments are in Park City’s Hartman Arena outside of Wichita, the Gross Memorial Coliseum in Hays and Salina. The championships stretch Friday to Saturday in late February.
The girls tournament will include all schools of all classifications in Kansas and be held the Thursday ahead of the boys’ championship.
Lentz said all KSHSAA wanted was to give the girls an opportunity. He said girls like Mya Kretzer are the reason it passed Friday.
“Because of her and others that have competed and all the support around them, we now have the path to do it,” he said. “Wrestling people are passionate, and that’s not a bad thing. It may add more work for me, but that’s OK. The girls have that chance now, and that’s all that matters.”
The Kretzers have been at the forefront of the girls wrestling movement in Kansas. Backhus and Kretzer have had countless meetings between themselves and others across the state. Friday’s decision rang proud for both, they said.
“There are a lot of happy girls around Kansas right now,” Kretzer said. “I can already hear the recruiting wave coming. I think there are a lot of girls across the state that just called one of their friends who could be a good wrestler. It’s time to get to work.”