AHSAA sanctions girls wrestling, flag football beginning in 2024

Published 10:14 pm Thursday, July 27, 2023

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

MONTGOMERY ­– The AHSAA voted to officially sanction girls wrestling and girls flag football as championship sports at their annual Central Board Meeting on Wednesday, July 26.

The sports will be officially added to the AHSAA championship program during the 2024-25 school year following the next reclassification cycle.

The decision to sanction is a historic moment for the sports in Alabama. Both sports have seen explosive growth over the last few years, with 81 schools declaring girls flag football for the 2023 season and 76 declaring for girls wrestling next year, according to the AHSAA.

Alabama has been part of girls wrestling becoming one of the fastest growing sports in the country and seen a great increase in the number of wrestlers and schools that offer girls wrestling. Girls wrestling has evolved from being the only sport where boys and girls compete against one another into its own division with a separate state championship for the last two years.

That growth was on display at a national level at the 2023 US Marine Corp Junior/16U Nationals, the biggest wrestling tournament in the world held annually in Fargo, North Dakota, where the 16U Women’s Freestyle division saw a 42.8% increase in participants over 2022.

Now, just two years after the groundwork was laid for girls wrestling to become its own sport with multiple meets and a state championship, the AHSAA has officially sanctioned it as a full championship sport.

For wrestlers like former Spain Park star Yasmine Oliveira, this moment is a long time coming for her and many other athletes, coaches, administrators and organizations who have pushed for the AHSAA to fully support girls wrestling.

“It’s like weight lifted off of my shoulders, honestly, because it’s been a long journey,” Oliveira said. “We’ve been trying so hard to actually get the state to sanction women’s wrestling, and it’s just honestly so exciting. It honestly leaves me speechless sometimes. But I’m very excited that this finally is happening. Those girls really worked hard.”

The decision to officially sanction girls wrestling will bar girls and boys from wrestling each other as they did in the past before girls wrestling divisions and meets were formed. Wrestlers like Oliveira have spoken out about the burnout, difficulty and complicated emotions they experience wrestling boys in high school.

Those feelings that briefly drove Oliveira out of the sport are now a thing of the past as girls have their own equal playing field to compete against one another and find success like Oliveira did, as she qualified for the Brazilian National Team at the 2022 Pan-Am Games.

“I feel like girls wrestling being sanctioned takes this sport up to another level and allows it to become more serious,” Oliveira said. “This opens up that door for more girls to have more opportunities to train and just keep wrestling, so it is very important for us for sure.”

As for girls flag football, the sport has exploded in participation and popularity since the AHSAA first sanctioned the sport in 2021. Schools from around the area, including Oak Mountain, Spain Park and Helena, have launched their own teams, and the first two state championship games were held during the Super 7 Championships in 2021 and 2022.

The Atlanta Falcons played a key role in helping launch flag football in Alabama, as they worked with Nike, NFL FLAG and the AHSAA to train coaches and lay the groundwork for the sport in Alabama, as well as fund uniform purchases and other expenses for new teams.

Men’s and women’s flag football were also part of the program for The World Games in 2022, and the events at Legion Field in Birmingham doubled as the flag football world championships, which also helped grow the sport in the greater Birmingham area.

While flag football was sanctioned as an AHSAA sport in 2021, the decision to sanction it as a championship sport allows the creation of divisions and brings it up to the level of other championship sports that the AHSAA offers.

Each sport will have two divisions to begin with: Class 1A-5A and Class 6A-7A. Both state championships will continue to be held in their existing locations, with the girls flag football title games taking place during the Super 7 Championships, which will be at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa on December 6, while girls wrestling will take place at the state wrestling championships in Huntsville in January.