By Sarah Harvard
Plainfield North

Plainfield North junior Carla Mendoza wakes up every day at the crack of dawn for an intense workout. She lifts weights, tosses a medicine ball and pins guys down. She’s a wrestler.

“I hate it when people take it easy on me because I’m a ‘girl wrestler,’” Mendoza said. “I don’t need any special treatment. I’m capable of doing the same things as the guys.”

More than some guys, actually. Mendoza plays two sports: wrestling in the fall and track and field in the spring. But she’s not alone in her passion for sports. Mendoza is just one of 6,134 female wrestlers who make up a small chunk of the more than three million female high school athletes in the nation, according 2009-10 survey statistics from the National Federation of High School Associations.

More and more each school year, girls are lacing up on fields and courts in Illinois and across the country as new opportunities open doors to female athletes.

A friend somehow convinced Plainfield North’s Kayla Kiely to try out for rugby, a rough and rowdy sport that arguably few would ever associate with girls sports.

“I went to a few practices and started getting the hang of it and fell in love,” the senior said.

“Girls can have just as much power and strength as guys; I think some girls just don’t know it,” she added. “Making your first tackle and getting tackled for your first time is scary as hell, but after your first hit, it becomes less and less painful.”

The NFHSA has kept track of the number of boys and girls who play high school sports since 1972, when Title IX was passed requiring all schools and universities that receive federal funding to level the playing field for male and female athletes.

From the 1971-72 school year, high school girls’ numbers have risen from nearly 300,000 to more than three million. Population growth over 38 years and compliance with Title IX help account for that spurt, but the rate of girls’ participation in just the last two school years has outpaced boys by about two percent from 2007-08 to 2009-10.

It might not look like much of a difference, but it means that girls’ programs nationally have swelled, with 31,700 more new athletes than boys’ programs during that two-year span.

In Illinois, the contrast is even more glaring: 2,346 new girls enrolled in athletic programs between 2008-09 and 2009-10; 148 new boys signed up during that one-year span.

Within CPS, as many as 25,000 girls play sports each school year, Director of Sports Administration Calvin Davis said.

“CPS maintains this number due to Title IX and the action plan we must continue to employ to offer the same number of interscholastic sports for girls as we do for boys,” Davis said in an e-mail.

None of the athletic officials The Mash talked to attributed the growth of girls sports to any one cause, but at least in the Chicago area, aspiring female athletes can choose from more opportunities. Rugby, lacrosse and water polo are a few examples of the new teams formed by Chicago-area schools.

Brooke Flesher, a senior swimmer at St. Charles East, said she’s noticed an influx of new girls. “Many of my … teammates just started swimming one or two years ago,” she said.

The rise of club teams—independent teams that play in the summer, on weekends or after school—also play a role.

“I think the rise in popularity is partially due to an increase in opportunity,” said Northside junior volleyball player Adriane Walther, who was preparing for an Oct. 28 state regional match against Steinmetz when she talked to The Mash. “There are many new … clubs available to teens and preteens to supplement their school sports teams, which could potentially open the door to play college volleyball.”

The college ranks are seeing a bump in women’s enrollment as well, according to a 2008 study by Brooklyn College professors Linda Jean Carpenter and R. Vivian Acosta. Colleges were fielding 8.65 women’s teams per school—their highest rate ever. Before Title IX, there were only 2½ teams per school.

Title IX may have created more opportunities, but federal law isn’t what’s inspiring many prep athletes to put on cleats or swimsuits. The reasons are as varied as the types of sports.

For example, today’s teens can look up to superstar athletes like Danica Patrick and Serena Williams.

Soccer star Mia Hamm inspired Plainfield North senior Hayley Wegrzyn, who has been playing soccer since age 4.

“Knowing their troubles they had growing up and being a woman athlete makes me work hard, because they proved that if you work hard at what you love, you can go far,” said Wegrzyn, who plans to play for Troy University in Alabama.

For some athletes, a sense of feminism and a taste of strength has urged them to dive into sports.

“We want to prove to guys that we can play hard just like them,” Wegrzyn said.

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About The Mash

The Mash is the Chicago Tribune's newspaper and website written for teens, by teens. The paper is distributed for free every other Thursday at Chicago-area high schools and is written largely by high school students.

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