MISSOULA — Girls wrestling is in its fourth year as a sanctioned high school sport in Montana, and it's blowing up across the state.
That includes at Missoula Big Sky High School, where the Eagles have seen rapid growth from last year to this season.
"It's awesome. I love watching these girls," Big Sky junior Lucia Schlapfer said. "I love being by their side. I love trying to teach them. And it's just a great sisterhood."
After only having four girls on the wrestling team total last year, the Eagles had 14 come out for the program this season, and four have now qualified for state, the most of any school in Missoula.
"I come from like doing wrestling as a little kid. And I used to have to only wrestle boys. And then coming into middle school, I could wrestle girls, and I was so shocked," Big Sky sophomore Elizabeth Hankins said. "And I was like, this is so cool. And then from this year, I'm like, we have a girls team. Like it's its own team now. And it's just so crazy. It's so cool to see."
And that growth is part of a larger trend happening across Montana, as a wave of girls are finding community in the wrestling world.
"Sometimes it's kind of odd because you're a girl in a male-dominated sport," sophomore Hattie Morrow said. "But now you're a girl in a male-dominated sport, but it has more girls now. And so it's a lot friendlier. You don't have to be scared to talk to the guys because there's a ton of girls on your team to hang out with. And all the girls are super nice. So that's really helped."
Schlapfer, Hankins and Morrow are all highly ranked heading into state, and are joined by freshman Jakiah Martin as Big Sky's four wrestlers who qualified for the girls tournament.
Schlapfer, a junior, was the lone girl from Missoula to place at last year's state wrestling tournament as she finished fourth in the 126-pound bracket.
"My bracket this year is definitely a lot more stacked than it was last year," Schlapfer said. "But you know, I've fought my way through it. And I'm ready to come back for some revenge this weekend. I've learned a lot over the season with these matches wrestling the same girls over and over again, and I'm ready to take it over at state."
Hankins and Morrow both experienced the tournament last year as freshmen, an eye-opening experience, that has helped them grow in the sport and enter this year's finale with high expectations.
"I think just a lot of self-growth and like, thinking you can do it is like something else too," Hankins said. "Because last year as a freshman, I was surprised that I made it to state which is just like, cool. But this year, I'm actually ranked pretty high at state. So I want to live up to those expectations."
The growth has been through the team, and individually, as this year's Eagles squad look to make a splash this weekend and continue to grow the sport in years to come.
"I'm really happy about it. I always saw the girls, especially last year, seeing all the really good girls on my team, and they got ranked, and I was always really jealous of that," Morrow said. "And now knowing that all of the progress that I've put in has made a difference, and now I'm kind of the girl I would look up to last year. And that's fun to think about."