Girls are invading the testosterone-filled sport of wrestling in record numbers.
Never has that been more evident locally than at East Peoria High School, where four girls are a part of the Raiders roster.
And two of those, junior Randi Robison and sophomore Kortney Atchley, are nationally ranked among girls. The Raiders duo has wrestled varsity all season and have held their own against the boys.
Senior teammates Trinity Burns and Izzy Mansfield wrestle on the EP junior varsity team, joining a growing list of females competing both locally and nationally.
"It's one of the fastest growing sports," said Debbie Nason of the Illinois Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association. "More than 450 girls certified weight at the high school level this year."
Last season, the IWCOA hosted its first state tournament for girls wrestling, in conjunction with its fresh-soph boys tournament, at the BOS Center in Springfield. A total of 93 girls competed in 12 weight classes.
Robison, who has been wrestling since she was 8 years old, won the IWCOA state title at 122 pounds. Atchley finished second at 117 pounds in the IWCOA event but won a state title in a similar state meet sponsored by the Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation.
Four other Journal Star area girls competed at state last year, with Gabrielle Hamilton of El Paso-Gridley winning the 191-pound title and Jaime Howald of Illinois Valley Central placing fourth at 111. Also wrestling were the Richwoods duo of Anna Gentry and Dionne Rainer -- both seniors again competing this year.
"It was eye opening to see how many young women were wrestling," Howald said of her experience at last year's IWCOA state meet.
The number of girls wrestling nationally has nearly tripled in the last 10 years.
According to statistics published by the National Federation of State High School Associations, there were 1,227 schools with 5,048 girls participating in wrestling in 2006-2007. That number jumped to 1,441 schools and 8,235 participants in 2011-2012. The 2016-17 season produced 14,587 girls wrestling among 2,091 schools.
Robison won national titles at girls events in Oklahoma in grade school. This past summer, she wrestled for the Illinois girls team for USA Wrestling and finished second at the U.S. Marine Corps Cadet & Junior Nationals at Fargo in her Cadet weight class -- one year after finishing sixth. Atchley came in sixth at Fargo.
Wrestling comes naturally for Robison.
"My dad wrestled in high school and my younger brother started wrestling before me, so I was watching him wrestle and bringing home trophies and I wanted trophies," said Robison, who is currently third ranked nationally at 122 pounds.
Aside from the occasional heckling fan/parent in the stands and a few old-school coaches who have been resistant to allowing girls to compete with the guys, the negatives have been few and far between.
"There's always going to be haters in whatever you do," said Howald, a sophomore who started wrestling at 9 years old but gave it up for dance before returning in high school. "There's people who call me names for what I do. But besides that, a lot of people think it's amazing what we do."
Howald has heard boys after their match tell their coach they never want to wrestle her again.
"I take it as a compliment to an extent, because I feel boys and girls can do the exact same things and I don't see the problem with wrestling me," Howald said.
The challenges have mostly been on the mat for the girls.
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"Everybody accepts them and they wrestle the same way," said East Peoria coach Phil Johns. "They knew when they stepped in what they were doing. They don't want to be treated any different. They like to compete against the guys sometimes more than they do girls."
Strength is the biggest challenge to overcome.
"The guys are a lot stronger, so I have to work a lot harder in practice and I have to use technique when I'm wrestling, because a lot of them try to overpower me with strength," Robison said. "I have to make sure I know all my moves and try to do them."
Johns marvels at the work ethic of his girls.
"They can outwork anybody," said Johns.
The girls are no strangers to the weight room.
"When they're stronger, it's harder for me to do the moves I know," said Atchley, who started wrestling in seventh grade after competing in Tae Kwon Do. "You just have to get by that with working harder and getting better at pure wrestling. I'm getting a lot stronger lately and trying my hardest to get better."
Robison is currently 11-14, mostly at 126 pounds, with four pins in varsity matches this season. Atchley is 10-14 at 120 with six pins.
"Boys who know Randi and Kortney from around here in the area understand they are not getting an easy match," said East Peoria assistant coach Zach Fleming. "They better be ready to bring it, or they are going to get it taken to them."
Howald owns a 15-6 record with three pins at 120 and will be part of IVC's regional team this weekend. Her brother Cooper is a senior for the Grey Ghosts.
Metamora freshman Cera Howald has wrestled varsity all season for the Redbirds at 106 pounds. She's 14-17 and finished fourth at the Mid-Illini Conference tournament on Saturday.
Wrestling against boys in the winter helps when it comes to battling girls in the spring and summer.
"I always explain it like a baseball player warming up swinging with the weighted doughnuts," Fleming said. "The girls do this all winter, wrestling with the boys, and then when it comes time to wrestle the girls, it's easy and they are blasting through them."
Other girls wrestling at the junior varsity level in the metro area include junior Hannah Sloan at Metamora, sophomore Alana Fernandez at Eureka and sophomore Abigail Peters at Farmington.
Stan Morris can be reached at 686-3214 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @stanmorrispjs
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