Salamanca's Mushirah Sheppard

Salamanca senior Mushirah Sheppard is one of four wrestlers from the Big 30 area set to compete in the first New York State Public High School Athletic Association Invitational All-Women's Wrestling Tournament, on Saturday at Niagara County Community College.

New York’s wrestling championship contenders will wait until next weekend for their chance to claim a state title, but that doesn’t mean the sport is taking the weekend off.

No, this Saturday brings a first-of-its-kind showcase to Western New York. The first sanctioned female wrestling tournament in Western New York, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Invitational All-Women's Wrestling Tournament, comes to Niagara County Community College on Saturday morning, with weigh-ins at 9 and wrestling at 10:30.

Alex Conti, a veteran wrestling coach and longtime teacher at Fredonia, became Section 6’s first women’s wrestling director — and the first of any section in New York — in the fall and helped establish the all-female tournament. He expects 45 wrestlers from schools in Sections 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 to compete in the Section 6-sponsored event.

“We've been trying to get women's wrestling for some time,” said Conti. “There are now 32 states that have some sort of women's wrestling, 14 of the states have an actual state championship and we're just getting the ball rolling with ours. So Timm Slade, our executive director, really stepped it up by putting a director's position at the sectional level for women's wrestling. It was a huge step and then by allowing us to have this tournament, which is open to any woman wrestler in the section that went through the same certification as the boys.”

Salamanca and Cattaraugus-Little Valley expected to send two girls each to the tournament. Representing the Warriors are Mushirah Sheppard and Jessica Seekins and for the Timberwolves are Lizzie Hines and Aliyah Small.

Conti, who has U.S. Women’s World Team coaching experience, also coached Fredonia’s Carlene Sluberski to become the first female to place in the New York state tournament in 2009.

After a meeting in Section 5 last week that included NYSPHSAA executive director Robert Zayas, Conti said he hopes two more sections will hold all-female tournaments next year so schools across the state can send their girl wrestlers to one.

“Those are the steps we need to take in order to become a sanctioned sport in New York State,” he said.

Once that happens, New York could award sectional and state championships to girls separate from the boys titles. Conti compared that potential setup to the current state system for boys and girls golf championships. But this year, teams had to decide whether to send their female wrestlers to the boys league and sectional competitions, or hold them out to compete in the new all-women’s tournament, due to postseason competition rules.

On Feb. 1, the NYSPHSAA executive committee voted to allow female individual sport athletes, including wrestlers and golfers, to “participate via mixed competition in both boys and girls regular season events, as long as the student-athlete does not exceed the maximum number of contests in that sport.”

“It's going to allow an old (existing) tournament to give an opportunity for girls to wrestle and have a girls-only event at that tournament,” Conti said. “For instance, the Southern Tier officials tournament, could, we're going to hope that they, designate a mat that girls can wrestle at and anybody who has a girl, they can bring them down and they can participate in that tournament in a separate section. It'll just count towards their 20 (events). Our goal is then to have a path for a championship down the road so they can make that decision.”

Conti has seen steady enough interest in the sport to suggest participation would increase once women’s wrestling would become a sanctioned sport.

“I wouldn't say a rise of it, but a steady influx of women,” he said. “But as soon as they realize that they won't have to wrestle against the guys, I would imagine it's going to jump astronomically. That's just the way it's happened throughout the nation. I could see great things.

“I'm a supporter of women's wrestling. I think there's a place for it and I'm real proud of Timm Slade for stepping up in the state of New York to move forward with it. He's a pioneer.”

(Salamanca Press sports editor Sam Wilson may be contacted at swilson@oleantimesherald.com)