Goodwin: Iowa girls' wrestling movement should gain steam after Fargo performances

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

FARGO, N.D. — The 16U and Junior national championships here at the FargoDome revealed both the encouraging and tough reality of Iowa’s ongoing girls’ wrestling movement.

Let’s start with the good news.

Three Iowa girls earned All-American honors at the 16U women’s freestyle national championships: Lewis Central’s Sophie Barnes, who took seventh at 127 pounds; Charles City’s Lilly Luft, fifth at 132; and Southeast Polk’s Bella Porcelli, fifth at 164.

More good news: Iowa’s three All-Americans matches its highest total at a single 16U women’s freestyle national tournament. Iowa also had three in 2011 (Jasmine Bailey, Katie Stevens, Cassy Herkelman) and 2019 (Ella Schmit, Abby McIntyre, Millie Peach).

That Iowa’s had six total 16U women’s freestyle All-Americans in the last two national tournaments (COVID-19 canceled the 2020 competition) reinforces the idea that the state’s overall talent level is rising along with the participation numbers. Consider: Iowa had just five total 16U women’s freestyle All-Americans between 2012-16.

Again, another sign of growth.

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Here’s the wet blanket:

There’s still a ways to go if Iowa wants to be considered a major player or leader on the national girls’ wrestling scene. 

Iowa finished a ways behind the overall leaders in the competition. California won the team title and finished with 13 All-Americans. Pennsylvania had 10 All-Americans, followed by Colorado with 9, Illinois with 8, Missouri with 6. 

These results are not the be-all, end-all, but consider this, too:

California led the nation in girls’ wrestling participation in 2018-19, per the National Federation of State High School Associations (stats weren’t kept for ’19-20 due to COVID-19). It’s not a coincidence that California has produced more 16U women’s All-Americans and national champs than every other state by a wide margin.

This is the next challenge for Iowa’s girls’ wrestling movement, to continue to grow statewide participation while also continuing to raise the overall talent level. And the returns from the current push show signs of promise.

Statewide participation has popped, from 67 girls five years ago, per the NFHS, to 683 this year. The 12 champs at the girls’ state tournament in January came from nine different schools and spanned all ages. That’s depth and talent across the state.

Nationally, Iowa is building momentum. Eight Iowans were included in USA Wrestling’s latest national girls’ high school rankings. Last month, Iowa recorded its first victory ever at the Junior women’s freestyle national duals, despite not fielding a full lineup.

Then, this weekend: Luft and Porcelli both reached the quarterfinals before battling back for fifth. Barnes lost early and won four straight matches in the wrestlebacks to earn a spot on the podium. Two more Iowa girls, Jillian Worthen, an incoming freshman at Union, and Iowa City West’s Jannell Avila, both finished one win from the podium.

Charles City's Lilly Luft won a state championship in January. This weekend, she became an All-American at the 16U women's freestyle national championships in Fargo, N.D.

► MORE: Lilly Luft honors her late brother by winning a state wrestling title

Luft, Porcelli and Barnes, all top-three finishers at the girls’ state tournament in January, went a combined 14-6 this weekend. That’s impressive considering this was also their first 16U women’s freestyle national tournament experience. That should give other Iowa girls confidence that they’ll perform well at these national events.

It was hard to dismiss the success of other states. Minnesota and Michigan both finished with two champs, and 12 different states were represented among the 14 title-winners. Maryland’s Nebi Tsarni won at 144, the state’s first-ever 16U women’s champ. Illinois had five finalists, California and Michigan both had four, Missouri had three.

But the momentum of Iowa’s girls’ wrestling movement gained more steam this weekend. There’s still a ways to go, but this weekend’s showing on the national stage was another step in the right direction.

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.