Opportunity finally knocked for female wrestlers in the state of Illinois last year after COVID-19 had delayed the implementation of a state tournament series by the Illinois High School Association.

Alize Ramirez, left, and Ariana Flores, seen in February, were the first two girls at Evanston Township High School to compete in the state wrestling tournament. Ramirez has graduated, but Flores, now a senior, is back as a co-captain of this year’s team. Credit: Richard Cahan

Now opportunity is knocking again – louder than ever – and already there’s been a record response at Evanston Township High School.

Eighteen girls are now competing in the sport and will benefit from an expanded regular season schedule starting with Tuesday’s season-opening quadrangular at ETHS. With no schedule limits put in place yet by the state organization, Evanston will participate in five regular season tournaments at Niles West, Elgin Larkin, Maine East, Conant and Oak Park-River Forest and will likely host an IHSA sectional for the second straight year leading to the state finals in Bloomington Feb. 24-25.

Head coach Dillin Randolph can’t wait.

“We have 18 girls out and that’s much better than I expected,” said Randolph, a former ETHS wrestler himself. “Since I don’t teach in the building [he’s an English teacher at Niles West] I really relied on my captains to do some recruiting, and they did an amazing job.

“We’ve tried to legitimize our team with a full varsity schedule. When the state series ended last year, people [coaches] were really hungry to create more matches for the girls. And we want to take advantage of that.”

Co-captains Ariana Flores, a senior, and Priscilla Hartwell, a junior, did their best to spread the word about the sport inside and outside of the halls of ETHS and now the Wildkits will have more girls suiting up than any other school in the Central Suburban League.

Flores, a state qualifier last year at 110 pounds, had already embraced the sport and started some matches for the boys squad as a freshman. She demonstrated her leadership in the offseason in an effort to help the sport grow beyond this year.

“Being a girl in wrestling, I really want to see it grow,” Flores said. “Priscilla really did a good job with that, too. I always mention it around school whenever I can – you know, ‘If you know anyone who’s interested, have them come talk to us,’ that kind of thing – and when they do, I tell them, ‘You definitely should try it.’

“It’s such a rough sport, but we’re building an environment where it’s welcoming, where you can grow and feel super, super important. And some of the girls we have coming back didn’t wrestle for the full season last year, so it’s really exciting we have more opportunities to wrestle in tournaments now.

“I’m still recruiting every day. The more numbers we have, the better.”

The ETHS girls wrestling team is seen in January 2022. Credit: ETHS athletics

Flores and Alize Ramirez, a now-graduated senior, were state qualifiers last year for a Wildkit squad that entered 10 athletes at the sectional. Most of them are back and Randolph believes they’re ready to take the step to the next level.

Besides Flores and Hartwell, the Wildkits will be led by seniors Elizabeth Paredes Torres, Edlin Liang, Nemi Cooper, Nadia Himrod, Sophie Brown Jereni Marshall and Ashland Henson; juniors Wendy-Morales Salinas, Caroline and Natalie Graettinger, Makena Mayer, Marlowe Lang, and Denise Bias; sophomore Coco Herro; and freshmen Kyra Rivera and Lailah Pryor.

“What I want the girls coming back to do better this year is to understand situational wrestling,” said Randolph. “They do know the moves now. They need to understand when to hit certain moves in a match, when to be really aggressive, and when to back off.

“Last year most of them started with no experience, but when I saw the talent we had with the new girls, we raised the bar. We’ll reset and do that again this year and see what they can do. We’re just looking for small improvements. It’s so exciting to be a part of this because everything is still so new, and the sky’s the limit with everything.”

Flores is certainly thinking big, like maybe stepping on the awards podium in Bloomington on the final day of the mat season. She’ll move up a weight class – from 110 pounds to 115 – after fashioning a 15-7 won-loss record as a junior.

Since IHSA rules still allow it, Flores will wrestle against both boys and girls during the regular season. Female grapplers must decide which postseason tournament they’ll participate in and must stick solely to that decision when it’s time for sectional competition.

Flores didn’t let a knee injury prevent her from making program history last year and is determined to improve on her performance at State last year, when she won one of three matches.

“It’s still my goal to be a state champion, and that’s definitely something I’m looking forward to,” said the Evanston senior. “I’ve been very, very timid in the past [on the mat] and now I think I have a grasp on being more tough. I used to question my ability, I think, but now I have a lot better mindset.”

Randolph knows he doesn’t have to worry about leadership in the new team culture with Flores and Hartwell back in the practice room.

“With Ari, I just want her to do her best to do better than she did last year. She just needs to take everything slow and not put too much pressure on herself,” said the Wildkit coach. “Priscilla will really beat you down [physically] when she’s on top and she’s one of the girls who is starting to form their own identity with some go-to moves.

“Priscilla is one of the hardest workers in the room and she and Ari have both fulfilled their roles so well as captains. They lead vocally and they lead by example. They’re both perfect for the position.”