FRANKFORT — Several years ago, a parent from another school approached Jaime Smith at a wrestling tournament.
The mother of a Pine River female wrestler thanked Smith for giving girls someone to look up to as the sport continues to grow.
“That was a very humbling moment,” Smith said. “She didn’t even wrestle for me. I hadn’t taken that into context that other girls were watching.”
Folks have been watching as Smith guided the Frankfort wrestling program the last 10 years, winning the school’s first boys district championships in 2017 and 2018.
Smith recently accepted an additional role as female Michigan representative for the National Wrestling Coaches Association. She’s already one of six regional representatives — for boys and girls — for the Michigan Wrestling Association.
“I’d be shocked if there’s anybody else in the state that’s more passionate about girls wrestling,” Frankfort athletic director Dave Jackson said. “When we hired her, we got some odd looks about hiring a woman to coach wrestling. Then when everyone saw how well our kids were advancing, they changed their tune.”
Smith hopes the Michigan High School Athletic Association sanctions women’s wrestling as a sport in the near future, and plans are already under way to have the girls state finals held in conjunction with the boys at Ford Field in Detroit. Those plans may get stalled a little by the coronavirus and its impact on winter sports rules that’ll make it difficult for the sport to host its own regionals this year.
The MHSAA wanted a demonstration of regionals as qualifiers for the state finals to keep championship brackets to 16. At last season’s girls finals, some brackets had as many as 28 wrestlers, like Frankfort’s Briellen Clapp, who took fifth place at 171 pounds. If the brackets can be limited to 16, by having the top eight in each weight class qualify from each of the state’s two regionals, the girls and boys finals could be held together in 2022, even if the MHSAA doesn’t officially sanction the sport.
That would be in time for Clapp’s senior season.
“We kind of took a hit this year,” Clapp said. “But that’s not going to stop us now.”
Smith has spearheaded the effort to get girls wrestling sanctioned by the MHSAA, which currently helps sponsor only the finals.
Girls wrestling has grown massively in recent years, going from 159 girls with 2017 alpha weight certification to 250 in 2018, 327 in 2019 and almost 500 for 2020.
“It helps kids to have her as a role model,” said Clapp, a two-time state placer. “She goes to bat for her kids. She’s knocked down a lot of doors for girls. I was nervous at first, but there is a bigger world out there now for women wrestlers.”
Mancelona’s Kylie Carriere placed eighth in the state tournament at 125 pounds as a junior last year. She said there were no other girls on the Ironmen team as a freshman, but now there’s five or six others.
“All the girls know (Smith) and go to her to ask questions,” Carriere said. “My coach told me to go ask her questions, so she’s pretty well-known.”
The sport’s rise has seen Cadillac hire an assistant coach for girls wrestlers. Many area teams now regularly have girls on their varsity and sub-varsity teams, with programs like Manistee, Mancelona and Boyne City helping lead the way.
Paul Hanus is the Vikings’ assistant to head coach Eli Hoffert, and oversees any female grapplers in the program. The Vikings were slated to have four to five this season, but that number may lower because of COVID-19 concerns, athletic director Fred Bryant said.
“Having talked with the guys at the MHSAA, I feel confident female wrestling will get a lot of consideration to add to their sports catalog,” Bryant said. “I think it will be one of the first new sports added.”
Female wrestlers could be severely limited by this season’s coronavirus guidelines that limit teams to one meet per week and only three other squads at that one. That makes it less likely there’ll be multiple girls wrestlers able to face each other in matches, and also nearly impossible for teams to have the girls in separate events.
Still, Smith hopes this year doesn’t stall out the sport’s recent expansion.
“My job is to make sure we keep progressing,” Smith said. “We might get delayed, but not derailed.”
The potential of college recruiting also helps draws participants to the sport. Smith said college recruiters were all over at last year’s finals, and two area girls, Benzie Central’s Kelsey Novogradec and Traverse City West’s Andrea Frary, committed to Davenport University, one of six college in Michigan that now sponsor a separate women’s team.
Smith wrestled in high school, but instead played soccer at Olivet College because there weren’t opportunities past high school. Now, Alma, Albion, Northern Michigan, Davenport, Adrian and Detroit Mercy field teams.
“There are 29 states that sanction it (in high school),” Smith said. “I would like to think (Michigan) can be No. 32 or 33. I’d like to be 30, but there’s a couple states ahead of us.”