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NT girls wrestling rises in third season

Team having success on the mat while some say gender equality remains harder to pin down
New Trier Athletics
New Trier girls wrestlers celebrate following victory at first official CSL tournament on Jan. 20

After months of hard work and a successful winter season, two New Trier girls wrestlers are headed to the IHSA state championship this weekend. However, even as the emerging sport grows, some argue that gender inequalities still persist.

On Jan. 27, the team placed sixth out of 42 teams at the IHSA regional at Round Lake High School. Five athletes also ranked individually and advanced to the IHSA sectional: senior Nina Aceves, juniors Jillian Giller and Katelynn Parsawasdi, and freshmen Sunny Aitzemkour and Zoe Lee. Aceves and Giller advanced to state at the IHSA sectionals at Evanston High School on Feb. 10. The IHSA state final is set for the weekend of Feb. 23-24 in Bloomington.

My experience with [wrestling] has been fantastic. It honestly has really shaped me as a person.

— Nina Aceves

The first state tournament for girls wrestling took place in the 2021-22 season after the sport was officially sanctioned three years ago, according to the Illinois High School Association. Since then, girls wrestling has become the fastest growing high school sport in Illinois: In the 2021-22 season there were 1,249 certified female wrestlers, which shot up to 2,577 in 2023-24.

This growth is evident at New Trier as well. Two years ago, the team comprised just three girls. This season, that number has tripled to nine.

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Athletic Director Augie Fontanetta is encouraged by the increased participation in girls wrestling over the past three years.

“It’s corresponding with the growth of the sport in the state,” he said. “I’ve been really pleased with the growth both at the IHSA level and here at New Trier.”

Aceves decided to join wrestling last year as a junior, which at the time was combined with the boys team. She came to enjoy practicing with both boys and girls.

“My experience with [wrestling] has been fantastic. It honestly has really shaped me as a person,” she said. “We all came to really love this sport.”

This year, the larger girls team is separate from the boys.

“I still would prefer to be practicing with the guys because they definitely pushed me a lot harder,” Aceves explained. “But I think it’s been very helpful for a lot of the girls that are just now joining this year.”

Fontanetta, a former head wrestling coach at New Trier, has also been impressed with the higher numbers of participants and greater level of competition this year. 

“Each tournament we’re in has about 200 kids participating in it, and the development over the last three years has really shown how advanced their skill is,” Fontanetta said.

As the team has grown, concerns over gender inequalities in the wrestling program at New Trier have been raised.

In December, parents Jennifer and Scott Giller filed a complaint accusing New Trier of violating Title IX protections against sex discrimination, per the Chicago Tribune. In their complaint, they argued that the school was slow to give their daughter Jillian a female-specific uniform, hire a separate girls coaching staff, and create a schedule with ample opportunities for girls to compete.

They have been in conversation with New Trier for the past two years over these perceived inequalities and contend that Jillian has faced harassment and retaliation from coaches because of her parents’ actions.

The Giller family did not respond to efforts to reach them for comment.

Aceves agreed that the school was slow to provide female-specific uniforms and coaches but also acknowledged the difficulty of the situation.

“Getting the girls singlets was a problem, but there were so few of us that [the school] couldn’t just make things happen like that,” she said. “We were kind of the last to get things, but they were trying their best with what they had.”

Fontanetta said he’s unable to comment on any personnel issues or complaints that have been raised but emphasized the support and resources that the Athletic Department provides to teams, working closely with head coaches.

“We support all of our programs, and we provide them with what they need to succeed,” Fontanetta said. “The Athletic Department works hard to make sure everybody has the same opportunities, same equipment, same uniforms, same everything, and we take pride in it.”

He also highlighted the two dedicated coaches for the girls wrestling program this year and resources accessible to all sports teams, such as the state-of-the-art E-Building facilities.

Another item listed among the Gillers’ complaints was that Jillian was not named a co-captain despite being the only wrestler to qualify for state last year, which they claim fits with a pattern of retaliation. However, according to head coach Mike Kanke, Jillian is in fact a team captain this season.

Jillian Giller also declined to comment, citing ongoing conversations with the school.

Aceves, the other captain of the team, said she has not observed such instances of retaliation.

“I think it’s, more or less, a personal feeling,” Aceves said.

Aceves added that she and the coaches have worked to make people feel welcome, regardless of their previous experience or lack thereof.

“All the coaches try to make everybody feel as if they’re equal, no matter how much experience you have, how new you are, it doesn’t matter,” Aceves said. “As a captain, I’ve always tried to include everybody.”

Additionally, the team has made significant strides, which they look to carry through the end of the season at state.

“The team has definitely really grown and improved in the wrestling aspect of it,” Aceves said, citing improvements compared to last year.  

Fontanetta believes the two girls going to state can also serve as role models to help develop the program.

“They’re now pushing the younger kids, which is how you’re going to grow your program and start to cultivate the culture,” Fontanetta said.

Despite the large growth over the past three years, the numbers in girls wrestling are still quite low compared to the boys team and other sports at New Trier.

“We’re always looking to grow our programs,” Fontanetta said. “Wrestling in general is a sport that takes a lot of effort on the coach’s part in terms of getting kids involved.”

Unlike many other sports, most wrestlers are inexperienced and join during high school for the first time. Fontanetta sees opportunities to continue the school’s work of outreach through summer programs, open gyms, social media, and involving students as freshmen via the Kinetic Wellness Department.

Aceves, who plans to pursue wrestling in college as well, agreed and encouraged more girls to try the sport.

“Honestly just continuing to put the word out there that girls are more than welcome to join this sport,” she suggested. “It’s not just a guys’ sport.”

This story was originally published on New Trier News on February 21, 2024.