FROM HORSEPLAY to Heroes
BY GREG PETERS
River Falls High School junior Jenna Lawrence finishes her normal school day at 2:45 p.m. and drives over to Meyer Middle School a couple miles away. She walks down enough flights of stairs where it seems like she’s entering a 1950’s nuclear bomb shelter in the bowels of the “old River Falls High School.”
Lawrence is headed to wrestling practice. Her practice partner is 23-year-old Wildcat Assistant Coach Alisha Howk. Howk, a Blue Springs, Mo. native, is attending Chippewa Valley Technical College for nursing and also training for the 2024 Olympics for women’s wrestling. When Howk isn’t there, Lawrence wrestles the 106-lb. and 113-lb. boys, the gender majority of her opponents during the season.
The bomb shelter is clean but it smells like cement and hard work. The room is outdated and so secluded Tom Hanks could paint a face in blood on a forgotten singlet and name it “Wilson.”
Lawrence is the only girl on the team, but make no mistake about it, she is not a metaphoric “Cast Away.”
“Your very first practice is really intimidating,” said Lawrence, “and you feel really stupid, but then you start to see the fun of the sport.”
Lawrence comes from a wrestling family. Her guy cousins wrestle. Her dad, Tim, and uncle, Allen, were mainstays on the state mat in Mobridge, SD growing up. Allen Lawrence won the South Dakota state title in the 1980’s.
“I was always following in my brother’s footsteps,” said Jenna. “He shot trap, so I shot trap. He wrestled, so I wrestled.”
When Jenna first told her dad she wanted to wrestle, she said her dad told her, “You know you’re going to get your face shoved in a mat.”
Jenna replied, “I know.” Tim Lawrence then said, “Go for it.”
“We have mats at home and my dad showed me stuff,” said Jenna. “My family has been very supportive. I love the mental aspect of wrestling. If I win, it’s all on me. If I lose, it’s all on me. I do it for me but I also do the hard work for my team and my coaches and my family.”
At the Wildcat wrestling awards banquet last year, Lawrence received a plaque for being the first-ever female from River Falls High School to compete at the Wisconsin State High School Wrestling Tournament. Last year was the first year the WIAA sanctioned a state tournament for girls’ wrestling. Lawrence placed seventh.
“That was pretty cool, but girls have to win their section this year to qualify for state and that’s my goal,” said Lawrence.
Lawrence has a 12-10 record this year, but she’s undefeated against her four female opponents, taking home the first-place medal in the coveted Northern Badger tournament in late December. It was the first time in the Northern Badger’s 39year history there has been an all-female competition.
Jenna Lawrence wears light blue and red wrestling shoes and loud tights to practice. She is wiry, strong and athletic. She’s all girl but answers with “yes sirs” and “no sirs.” Lawrence expands on her thoughts with a confident and cool tone. She has absolutely no idea she is the perfect high school spokesperson for the fastest growing sport in the country, girls’ wrestling.
According to the National Wresting Coaches Association, there were 112 girls wrestling in U.S. high schools in 1990. Even as late as 2018, there were still only six states with a sanctioned girls’ high school state tournament. By 202122 there were 35 states with girls’ sanctioned high school state tournaments and over 31,000 high girls wrestling. One year later, now there are over 53,000 high school girls wrestling, according to Flowrestling.org, a national multimedia wrestling outlet.
The outdated cement bomb shelter walls in the Wildcat wrestling room evoke images of a black and white picture of an ash tray on a heavy oak desk overlooked by a middle-aged man wearing a suit and tie with black-rimmed glasses. This imagery reflects how River Falls Head Wrestling Coach Kevin Black thinks Wisconsin state high school wrestling administrators have seen girls’ wrestling in the past decade.
“A lot of conservative individuals that have a blue-collar background lead the wrestling world,” said Black. “People are scared of what they don’t know and there was this misplaced fear that the girls would take opportunities from the boys which haven’t proven to be the case. A lot of growth in women’s wrestling is happening in spite of wrestling.”
Like Jenna Lawrence’s colorful wrestling shoes contrasted against the backdrop of stern cement walls, women’s college wrestling has been a brilliant wrecking ball for college administrators looking to increase declining enrollment the past few years.
In 2019, there were 80 women’s college wrestling programs; three years later there are 120, an increase of 50%. Half of the programs added were from NCAA Division III schools. College enrollment has fallen by 7.5% nationwide since 2019 according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
UW-River Falls had 6,788 students in 2011 (Wisconsin. edu). In November 2022, student enrollment is now 5,212 (close to a 23% decline over that span). With an average annual cost of $15,000 per UWRF student, that’s an approximate annual $23 million budget windfall in just over a decade. It may be a reason NCAA Division III schools are looking to add students via less expensive athletic programs.
Added opportunities at the collegiate level may be one more reason for the huge increases at the youth and scholastic levels.
“We pride ourselves on wrestling being for everyone,” said Black. “It shouldn’t be limited to half the population. Hard work, dedication, grit, all that stuff, girls should be able to benefit from that just like the guys.”
Among the 20 River Falls’ state champion signs in the Wildcat wrestling room, there is one sign that reads, “Once you wrestle, everything in life is easy.”
“I think a lot about that sign and that mentality gets me through so much,” said Lawrence. “I always tell myself, ‘Well, that’s going to be a lot easier than practice’ and then I get it done.”