A hundred years ago, high school sports weren’t an option for girls. Fifty years ago, they were an afterthought. Now, opportunities are expanding for girls at the high school level in hockey and wrestling.
In the fall of 1920, Washington High School beat Pittsburgh Fifth Avenue High School to win the WPIAL football championship. On the basketball court, Bellevue topped McKeesport 35-25 to win its first title in the 11-year-old league.
It took another 50 years before girls had championships to call their own. As the 50th anniversaries of the first WPIAL girls basketball championships in 1971 and the passage of Title IX in 1972 approach, participation in girls sports continues to rise. Over the past decade, participation by female athletes has increased in more than a dozen high school sports, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).
Pennsylvania is a different story.
Nearly 2,000 fewer girls — and nearly 1,500 fewer boys — played sports in 2018-19 compared to the year before. It’s the continuation of a decline rooted in Pennsylvania’s aging demographics. As much as one-fifth of Pennsylvania residents will be 65 or older by 2025, according to recent projections by the U.S. Census Bureau and Pennsylvania State Data Center.
While participation in Pennsylvania has dropped in sports such as basketball and softball, two traditionally male sports in the state are seeing an influx of girls participating. Ice hockey and wrestling have become the new frontier for high school girls in Pennsylvania.
MORE ICE TIME FOR GIRLS
The PIHL has had its share of trailblazers on the ice. Former Indiana goalie Madison Barker was the first female to backstop her team in a Penguins Cup Championship. Former Blackhawk forward Abby Schaefer was the first female captain in PIHL history.
They were outliers, though, as girls who opted to suit up alongside boys in order to play hockey. This May, the PIHL will launch its first high school girls league in the hopes of providing more opportunities to girls at the high school level. The four-team league will run in May with six games leading up to a championship on June 14.
“We’ve watched girls hockey grow on the amateur side, and the excitement of getting a chance to play in front of friends and family at the high school level seemed like a good fit,” PIHL commissioner John Mucha said.
At the amateur level, the Beaver County Badgers developmental organization allows for co-ed participation. The Pittsburgh Penguins Elite AAA program and Steel City Selects’ organizations both offer specific girls teams at five different age levels.
When it comes to high school hockey, however, the only option for girls like Quaker Valley senior Haley Steffey and Beaver sophomore Madison Flaugh has been to play with boys on their school’s PIHL team. Despite the number of girls playing at the youth level, Mucha said those numbers haven’t translated to the high school game. The PIHL has 58 girls playing middle school hockey this season, but just 17 at the junior varsity level and only eight at the varsity level.
“Less than 5 percent of the girls that we’re talking to about playing in the girls league play for their high school hockey team,” Mucha said.
The cut-off date for registration is March 1, and Mucha said the league will easily fill all four teams.
“We’re close to 80 girls already,” he said. “We were looking to do four teams of 17 to 20 girls each … and we’re very comfortable with our target.”
The hope is that the schools will eventually take over operation of the teams and that there will be enough participation to have a state championship with the league’s counterparts in Philadelphia just as there is now for the boys.
“It’d be great to say we can do this in a year or two, but my hope would be that we can at least have a state championship in two or three years,” Mucha said. “So there’s a lot of excitement and energy around this program.”
Mucha stressed that the PIHL doesn’t want to stop girls from playing with their current varsity team. Instead, the girls league will follow the traditional PIHL season, giving girls the opportunity to play in both leagues.
“If we wanted to run the girls high school league at the same time as the other high school leagues and the amateur teams, there’d just be no ice available,” Mucha said. “So we thought this was a great way to let the girls continue to play.”
FIGHTING FOR THEIR CHANCE
Paige Lenhardt had always been active.
She played football, ran track, swam, anything that could keep her moving. But when the Quaker Valley wrestling program came to her co-ed gym class during her freshman year, a new door opened for her.
“I tried to get all of my friends to come down,” she said. “None of the girls wanted to go, but I was like, ‘This is so cool! We get to wrestle.’”
Lenhardt signed up. When others around the program expressed concerns about a girl wrestling with boys, her parents backed her up. Four years later, she’s become an advocate for other girls to join the sport.
“She is an ambassador for the sport,” third-year Quaker Valley coach Mike Heinl said. “Any time we go to a venue and there’s another girl there, she goes over and hangs out with them. She’s been terrific.”
According to the NFHS, participation in girls wrestling has more than tripled in the past decade, rising from 6,134 wrestlers nationwide in 2009-10 to 21,134 in 2018-19. The data doesn’t include participation in Pennsylvania, but Pennsylvania USA Wrestling president Joe Stabilito estimates more than 400 girls statewide are wrestling at the high school and middle school level.
“It’s growing so much right now and I can’t wait to see the future of it,” Lenhardt said.
There is still some controversy, though. The Allentown Catholic Diocese and Pennsylvania Catholic Conference have rules in place that prohibit boys from wrestling girls. During the PIAA 2A team wrestling championship, Saucon Valley sent a female wrestler out for the 106-pound match. Notre Dame-Green Pond, a Catholic school, had to forfeit despite having a highly touted male wrestle in the class and ended up losing the match by one point.
Those situations disappoint backers like Heinl.
“I’ve sent my Quaker Valley wrestlers to compete against girls,” Heinl said. “I’ve told them it’s no different. Treat her just like anyone else.”
Lenhardt, who typically wrestles in the 145-pound weight class, owns a couple of wins over boys, including one this year.
“For me it was awesome, because it just goes to prove that I’m just as good or better as some of you,” she said. “And just to show how far we can go is awesome.”
For all the questions about fairness, Lenhardt said most girls just want the opportunity.
“I think once we get enough numbers and enough girls to participate, I think it’d be awesome to have women’s and men’s teams — just like soccer and lacrosse and all the other sports,” Lenhardt said. “But I think it’s important for us to grow into that.”
That opportunity may be coming. Twenty states offer officially sanctioned girls state championships. Current PIAA bylaws stipulate 100 schools must sponsor a sport before it can be considered for statewide governance. Stabilito is working with the organization Wrestle Like a Girl, which has helped push other state associations to adopt the sport, to help organize an effort to add an official state championship in Pennsylvania.
“We don’t really want to sanction the sport,” Stabilito said. “We just want to add a group. I understand from the state’s perspective it’s a new sport and you need a new staff, but we just want to say that it already exists and just give the girls an opportunity to showcase themselves.”
Heinl noted that funding could be a concern in tight school district budgets, and Stabilito is willing to be patient. But he sees an opportunity for growth.
“If we announced this sport in this state, we’d probably have 500 girls tomorrow,” he said.
Women’s wrestling has been part of the Summer Olympics since 2004, and more than 70 colleges now sponsor a women’s wrestling program, according to the National Wrestling Coaches Association. Lenhardt, who didn’t imagine wrestling was an option for her four years ago, has accepted an offer to wrestle at Division II Tiffin University in Ohio.
“I really just liked Tiffin a lot,” she said. “I love the coaching staff and I’m really excited about it.”
When the NFHS first began tracking girls participation in high school sports during the 1971-72 school year, just 294,015 girls were involved in sports. In 2018-19, it was more than 3.4 million. Time will tell what the landscape looks like in another 50 years.
“People keep trying to hold us back and we’re just trying to prove everyone wrong,” Lenhardt said. “Just because you said we can’t do it makes us try that much harder to prove you wrong.”