A memorable day in Pine Island: Panthers host largest girls-only wrestling meet in state history
More than 260 girls competed at the second annual girls-only tournament in Pine Island on Saturday -- one not many will forget anytime soon.
PINE ISLAND — In what had already been a remarkable past few months for the sport of girls wrestling in Minnesota, Saturday may have been the icing on the cake.
Female wrestlers from as far north as Bemidji and as far west as Ortonville came to Pine Island High School for the second Pine Island Girls Wrestling Tournament to compete and make history.
According to tournament organizer and Pine Island wrestling board member Jason Elsmore, with more than 260 wrestlers and more than 60 schools represented, the event is the largest girls-only wrestling invitational in state history.
"We wanted to build it to this," Elsmore said with a smile as he looked out onto the packed gymnasium. "We want to be the biggest girls tournament in the state. It just took off this year. We didn't want to limit teams, because some teams only have one girl or two girls, so we kept it open all the way to (Saturday) morning. We just want to try and give every opportunity."
Last year's event witnessed more than 150 girls compete at the inaugural tournament, but this year Elsmore and company knew there was going to be a chance to do something bigger.
With the first-ever MSHSL-sanctioned section and state tournaments happening last year, the sport has simply taken off here in Minnesota. The statistics recently reported by the Post Bulletin said the number of girls wrestling in the state is 541 — more than doubling last year's total of 250.
With popularity booming, the MSHSL made the recent announcement of the expansion of both of this year's section and state girls wrestling tournaments — effectively doubling the number of participants in each. This past week, the MSHSL board also voted to add an extra weight class for girls — going from 12 to 13 classes — starting July 1, 2023.
The sport is showing no signs of slowing down.
In fact, in the last month, the Pine Island wrestling room has welcomed in four more girls.
And if anyone needed any further proof of how popular the sport has become, all the evidence they needed was on Saturday at Pine Island High School.
If anyone showed up 10 minutes early for the 10 a.m. start, odds are they were were in for a bit of a walk. Cars were parked everywhere, filling the lots and streets.
The ticket line was to the door and once one did receive their ticket, it was tough to a find a spot to sit in the main gymnasium.
It was a sight to behold.
"This is so cool isn't it," Mayo coach Art Trimble said. "We only have two girls but to have the chance to be here, it's super fun."
One of those was eighth-grader Elsa Koepp, who was all smiles after hearing the roar of the crowd react to her first match pin.
"It was so exciting," Koepp said. "Getting a chance to be here at the biggest girls tournament besides state. It just feels really nice to be able to beat someone here."
For seniors like Grand Meadow/LeRoy-Ostrander/Southland's Emma Hemann, seeing so many younger girls compete in a sport that she has fallen in love with recently, is inspiring to see.
Here at Pine Island today where it is an absolutely packed house for what some are calling the largest ever girls only wrestling tournament in Minnesota. Will be here for a couple of hours pic.twitter.com/lzA4ialHIP— Alex VandenHouten (@AlexVandenhout1) February 4, 2023
"It's really motivating," said Hemann, who fought off a bloody nose in the first period to win her match by decision. "You feel like a role model. You're showing them what hard work looks like and how to be an athlete in this developing women's sport."
Saturday's tournament saw some weight classes have multiple tiers for different levels with the hopes of every competitor getting a match that best fit their skill.
The 'A' bracket was seen as a tune-up for next weekend's section tournament with the best of the best squaring off.
"Most of the girls here are previews of the state tournament," Pine Island freshman and defending 100-pound state runner-up Lauren Elsmore said. "They are all going to be wrestling each other in the coming weeks, even at sections."
The hope in the coming years is to continue to make this the premier girls-only tournament in the state. So far, it's safe to say, they are off and running.
"I just like the whole atmosphere," Hemann said. "Other people's parents treat you like you are part of their family. It seriously is like a family."