John’s Journal: Female Wrestling Coaches Fill Important Positions
As Girls Wrestling Grows, Coaching Role Models Are Crucial
Posted: Monday, February 27, 2023 - 1:31 PM
Teresa Tonda remembers the day in May 2021 when girls wrestling was approved as an MSHSL sport. Despite having no background in the sport, the longtime teacher in South St. Paul and a onetime basketball coach immediately made it clear that she wanted to help coach female wrestlers.
The middle school language arts teacher, now in her 34th year as an educator, said, “Literally that day I went in and said, ‘I want to coach wrestling.’ My stepsons had wrestled, I love the sport and I wanted to be part of girls having a place to belong.”
Tonda is one of several female high school wrestling coaches in Minnesota, where wrestling for girls is in its second season. Some of the coaches are veteran teachers and coaches in other sports, some have children who wrestled, some are young women who have experience as wrestlers on the high school and college levels, and all are enthusiastic about this new opportunity for female athletes.
“It’s really awesome being a role model and leader for these girls,” said Savannah Vold, 23, an assistant coach at Chatfield who wrestled at Rochester Mayo High School, Waldorf University in Iowa and Augsburg University in Minneapolis. “It’s cool to know how much they look up to me.”
The number of MSHSL schools sponsoring girls wrestling doubled to 96 this season, and the opportunities for postseason berths also doubled. The number of section tournaments for girls went from two last season to four this season, and the number of girls advancing to state also has doubled.
Ninety-six females have qualified for this week’s state tournament at Xcel Energy Center. A year ago, when girls competition was held for the first time, four girls advanced to state in each weight class. When the individual competition for girls and boys is held Friday and Saturday (boys will compete for team titles on Thursday), girls will wrestle in 12 weight classes from 100 to 235 pounds, with eight girls in each class.
It's a sea change for a sport that was largely a boys-only activity for nearly a century; the MSHSL began sponsoring state wrestling tournaments in 1938.
“The big thing for me is I wanted to show girls you can have a job and be a mom and work out and be strong and sweaty and dirty, and then you clean up and put on your high-heeled shoes and go to the dance,” Tonda said. “There are zero limitations for girls.”
South St. Paul’s Gisele Gallegos and Ella George will wrestle at state. The Packers brought seven female wrestlers to the section tournament and they all medaled, including three who are first-year wrestlers.
Kahlea Jolly, 21, is one of the busiest wrestlers and wrestling coaches in the state. She wrestled at Centennial High School for four years and is now a senior wrestler at Augsburg -- which has sponsored women’s wrestling since the 2019-20 season – as well as an assistant coach at Centennial. She was at Hastings High School for a girls section wrestling tournament on Feb. 11, where Centennial’s Jaden Ruegsegger, Nora Akpan and Alaina Franco advanced to state.
“It was full of emotions,” Jolly said of the section tourney. “The highest of highs, sending three girls to state, and the other girls barely missed going to state. I was full of adrenaline all day long. It’s kind of bittersweet because when I was in high school, we didn’t have this. I’m soaking up every second of it.”
Jolly is very busy, because a typical day begins with wrestling practice at Augsburg at 7 a.m., a full slate of college classes, followed by coaching Centennial High School wrestlers at 3:30.
“I love it,” she said.
A love of wrestling provides motivation for coaches, no matter the gender.
Jenn Passe, 38, works as a school nurse at Jordan High School as well as a first-year assistant wrestling coach for the Scott West team, a cooperative squad with athletes from Jordan and Belle Plaine. She wrestled at Hesperia High School while growing up in southern California.
“It was the only way my dad would let me and sister wrestle,” she said, “if it was on all-girls team. Me, my sister and other girls joined forces. My dad drove us to tournaments, because there were no buses for us. It was nothing like it is today. We had three tournaments and that was it. No section, no state, nothing like it is now.
“And I would have to say I love it,” she said. “My five-year goal is to build the girls team up as well as the boys team. We had 10 girls at Scott West to start with, and two left the team. Next year I hope to double or triple that number. I’m paying my respect back from when I was in it, and I’m glad I can pay it forward because I love wrestling.”
Vold graduated from Rochester Mayo in 2018. She began wrestling as a high school junior, competing mainly against boys.
“You really didn’t see any girls wrestling,” she said. “It was crazy if you saw two girls. It was basically all boys.”
Chloe Berg, who will wrestle at state this week, is one of seven female wrestlers on the team at Chatfield.
“I love all of them so much,” Vold said. “It’s so much fun getting to bond with them and relate to them. That makes the girls more comfortable to come out for wrestling.”
Having females compete has given wrestling a big boost, in numbers as well as attention. The female coaches see much more growth ahead.
“Honestly, I feel like it’s going to keep getting bigger and bigger,” Vold said. “It’s amazing that the MSHSL has sanctioned it. I’ve talked to my friends from Augsburg and we wish we’d had this opportunity. It’s cool to talk to the wrestlers now and hope they appreciate this. I don’t have any doubt that it’s going to continue getting bigger. Now that it’s an actual thing and they see all these girls go to college and wrestle, they know they have a shot with this now. It’s super cool to see.”
Passe said, “Ten years from now, I feel like girls wrestling will be just as big as boys wrestling, if not bigger. Especially with how many girls wrestle now compared to just five years ago. I feel like it’s a powerful sport and now that parents are realizing that their girls can do it, and now there are female coaches and female refs. It’s going to become a female sport just as much as a male sport. It’s a wonderful thing.”
Vold said the relationships with young female wrestlers is vitally important.
“I can help give them experiences that I didn’t necessarily get,” she said. “Being there for them off the mat, too, giving them life advice, is important. It’s pretty special.”
--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected]