Laney girls wrestler Elaina Pollock has dominated her competition on the mat her entire high school career, but it’s never been official. 

That’s because the NCHSAA, until this winter, hadn’t officially classified girls wrestling as a sport, leaving athletes to compete in invitational tournaments instead of state championships.

That all changes this winter as the NCHSAA announced it would sanction girls wrestling beginning in the 2023-24 season. 

North Carolina joins 41 other states in sanctioning girls wrestling, a drastic uptick since 2015, when only six states recognized the sport. Since 2005, participation in high school girls wrestling has skyrocketed by more than 880%, as 49,127 athletes competed in the 2022-23 season.

Even more surprising, girls wrestling saw a 55% jump in participation from 2021-22 to 2022-23, as 17,473 additional athletes joined the sport.

As the popularity of girls wrestling grows across the nation, so does its diverse makeup. 

In New Hanover County alone, 19 of the 24 female wrestlers are African American, Latino, or Asian. While some area schools haven’t been able to start separate girls teams due to lack of participation, others are flourishing. 

Here’s what sanctioning girls wrestling means this winter and why it matters. 

GIRLS WRESTLINGNCHSAA girls wrestling: Wilmington representation grows ahead of state finals

LANEY WRESTLINGHow Andre Adams’ rise as Laney wrestling coach embodies sport’s sacrifice, dedication

Girls wrestling in NC

Laney wrestler Elaina Pollock.

Girls wrestling has steadily grown in North Carolina over the past few years, topping 1,000 participants this winter, a significant leap from the 599 reported athletes in 2022

When the NCHSAA voted to sanction the sport in April of 2022, it said 210 schools had at least one female wrestler, and 125 schools had at least two female wrestlers.

“Let me just say how excited I am that (the sports committee) arrived at this … this is a historical moment for us,” NCHSAA Commissioner Que Tucker said in 2022. 

Participation in the Wilmington area has had mixed results. Laney boasts the only girls wrestling team in New Hanover County, with 19 wrestlers expected to compete this season. 

Other schools like Hoggard and Ashley don’t have enough female competitors to warrant an individual girls team. 

However, outside New Hanover County, schools like Trask, Pender and South Brunswick have flourishing female programs.

“It’s just blowing up,” South Brunswick girls wrestling coach David Prendergast, who will field a squad of 12 girls this winter, said. “You don’t have to look any farther than the doubling every year of participants nationwide to know it’s pretty important to the girls.”

Minorities thrive in girls wrestling

Laney wrestling coach Andre Adams instructing athletes at practice on Nov. 30, 2022.

While there is little to no data nationally on race breakdown in girls wrestling, the Wilmington area alone proves that the sport is popular among minorities. 

Around 50% of the area’s girls wrestlers expected to compete this winter are Black, Asian, or Latino. At Laney alone, 17 of the team’s 19 female wrestlers are from a minority background. 

“For our high school, girls are saying, ‘Hey, I don’t have to be a certain mold to come out here,” Laney wrestling coach Andre Adams said. “Elaina (Pollock) is kind of attracting girls that are like her and want a chance to get into a sport that haven’t found something that’s for them.” 

New Hanover senior Adi Carrero, who’s Latino, says seeing representation in her sport is vital to the degradation of negative stereotypes.

“Coming from a Hispanic background, misogynistic tendencies really run through families, and I think it’s just awesome how a lot of Latinas can get on that mat and not carry what their race usually says about women not being able to do that,” Carrero said. 

“I think it’s just standing up to all that history of sexism, and I think it’s just awesome how all women can do that.”

Carrero is one of two female wrestlers at New Hanover and says wrestling helped her build confidence despite a troubled early life. 

“Being a wrestler, I realized I can’t settle for things that don’t serve me,” she said. “Wrestling teaches me to have grit and not just stay stuck in the past battles I lost but to learn from them and move forward.”

For Pollock, who went 28-2 last winter and took home the top spot at 185 pounds in the NCHSAA girls invitational for the second straight year, she hopes to inspire fellow African-American girls to pick up the sport. 

Laney junior wrestler Elaina Pollock has dominated the 185-pound weight class for the last two years, picking up back-to-back titles in 2022 and 2023.

“I feel so honored to be a part of (the rise of girls wrestling) and being an inspiration for African-American women,” Pollock said. “Wrestling is a way for girls to really express themselves (and show) that they’re not weak and can also do things that boys can do.”

With three female wrestlers at Ashley and none at Hoggard, individual girls’ teams at the schools haven’t sprouted up yet. That hasn’t stopped coach Wesley Knight from noticing the diverse nature of the sport.

“It’s something that hasn’t funneled down into Ashley yet, but I’ve noticed for years that minorities in general kind of flock to (wrestling) because you’re opening up more avenues for opportunities, and they’re taking advantage of it,” Knight said. 

What wrestling means to Wilmington-area girls

High school wrestling hit a 45-year high in total competitors last winter, as 256,466 boys and 49,127 girls combined to give the sport its highest participation rate since 1978.

While girls of the past might not have had a plethora of female wrestlers to look up to, that’s starting to change. Laney’s Pollock got into the sport watching her older brother compete, but now she’s looking to inspire a new generation of female athletes. 

“I’m so excited for the girls who are joining now because it’s a way for girls to show that they have some aggression, too,” Pollock said. 

South Brunswick senior wrestler Lily Prendergast, daughter of coach David, has dominated in the 100-pound classification during her high school career, earning a title in 2022 and finishing fourth last winter. 

Despite having tremendous success, she says wrestling has always been about more than just accolades. 

“I’ve built a lot of relationships through wrestling… I have friends all over the state and in other states,” Lily said. “With (wrestling) being such an open community, it makes girls more comfortable when they come out to tournaments and realize these girls are all going through the same thing.”

With its classification in North Carolina and its unprecedented growth across the nation, it’s safe to say we’ve entered a new era of girls wrestling. With that, many new faces will undoubtedly pick up a sport, continuing the ever-expanding nature of female high school athletics. 

“Anybody can do (wrestling), and anybody can be successful,” David Prendergast said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re tall, short, or a little overweight … that’s the one thing that separates wrestling from a lot of other sports.”