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Manalapan's Jessi Johnson looks toward winning a second State Girls Wrestling Championship, this time at 151 lbs. Asbury Park Press

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Female athletes across the state scored two big wins Tuesday when the Florida High School Athletic Association Board of Directors unanimously voted to sanction girls wrestling and recognize sand volleyball starting during the 2021-2022 school year.

Supporters of both sports hoped student-athletes could begin participation in the sanctioned sports during the upcoming school year, but with supplements and coaching stipends already being allocated in individual school districts, the start was pushed back a year.

Regardless, the delay didn't overshadow the joy of wrestling coaches who've been fighting for a separate FHSAA state championship for girls for the last decade as the sport has continued to grow.

"The story will no longer be that girls qualified for the (boys) state tournament," South Fort Myers High School coach Jake Noland said reacting to the 13-0 vote by the board of directors. "The story will now be the girls get to compete for their own state title."

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FHSAA participation reports indicate 708 girls were on co-ed rosters during the 2019-2020 season. The National Federation of State High School Associations has seen participation in girls wrestling grow for 31 consecutive years with participation throughout the country growing to over 21,000 girls two years ago, a 27.5% increase over the previous year.

"It's a great thing for our sport. It's a great thing for our state," Palmetto Ridge coach Blaine Ison said. "I'm interested to see where we can go from here."

Southwest Florida schools like South and powerhouses Palmetto Ridge and Riverdale said they already have the groundwork in place to field girls teams in 2021. 

In Martin County, Jensen Beach athletic director Anthony Calzadilla said girls wrestling will be a welcome addition.

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“It will help the county. I don’t know how it will work it terms of how far we’ll have to travel to compete, but as a county it will help build that rivalry even more so," Calzadilla said. "Girls wrestling is something we’ve wanted for a long time. Okeechobee has had girls wrestling for years, but it will really increase the interest in the sport and will help keep numbers because (boys) wrestling is one of the first sports people look at to cut when there are budget cuts. We have a huge interest right now because of things like MMA and the Olympics. They translate so well. That’s why more girls want to wrestle.”

Meanwhile, in St. Lucie County the rise of girls wrestling teams could be a much slower burn.

“I know girls wrestling has been on the forefront for a couple of years and I watched the steady increase in participation around the state," St. Lucie County athletic director Pete Crespo said. "We’ve had a few girls wrestle on the boys team in St. Lucie County. We haven’t looked at adding sports in St. Lucie County yet. We’ll have to look if it's feasible for this school year and go from there.”

In Sarasota, Riverview athletic director Rod Dragash said there had been some talk about girls wrestling, but not much.

News of Riverview's sand volleyball program, which has competed in the Sunshine State Athletic Conference for the last two years, shifting to the FHSAA was more well-received. 

"Last year, we were runner-up and this year we had a really good shot of winning it," Dragash said. "I think it's going to help our indoor program and definitely push our beach program.

"Our goal is to have beach volleyball courts on campus."

Jensen Beach, one of the premier indoor volleyball programs in the state and owner of four state titles, has had several players sign to play beach volleyball in college. Even before the FHSAA announcement, the school was in the process of estimating the cost of setting courts and where they would be placed on campus.

“The cost of the court is not the issue. South Fork already has its setup and it was less than $2,000, I believe," Calzadilla said. "The cost is travel to play other teams. Right now, in our area, if we announced that we were having a team it would be us, South Fork and that would pretty much be it. I don’t know who else would have it or how far we would have to go to play.”

Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter Dennis Maffezzoli and TCPalm reporter Jon Santucci contributed to this report

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