In a matter of mere minutes Tuesday morning, the Minnesota State High School League dealt one high school sports advocacy group a serious blow while answering the hopes of another.
The league's Representative Assembly voted narrowly to reject a proposal to add boys' volleyball as a league-sanctioned sport. Not long after, the 48-member body, tasked with considering amending league bylaws, voted overwhelmingly to add a girls' wrestling state tournament starting next school year.
In what Chad Shilson, director of Minnesota/USA Girls and Women's Wrestling, called "the biggest news for female wrestling in Minnesota ever," the vote creates a girls' division within the wrestling state tournament. Girls will remain part of each school's boys' program for regular season training and competition.
Boys' volleyball advocates were disappointed by the outcome, which fell just short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass the measure. In all, 29 region reps voted yes and 18 voted no, with one person abstaining.
"It's just wrong," said Walt Weaver, a Minnesota volleyball hall of fame coach who heads the group that submitted the proposal and has been pushing for league sanction since 2017. "I thought we did everything possible to address all of their concerns and resolve all of their arguments."
The popularity of boys' volleyball has grown significantly in Minnesota. It operated as a club sport since 2018 with a league that at one point grew to include 57 schools, more than 100 junior varsity and varsity teams. More than 1,400 boys signed up to play in 2020 before COVID-19 canceled the season.
Nine of the state's 16 regions had looked favorably upon the proposal in 2019, the majority needed to get a vote in front of the full assembly, Weaver took that as a signal of positive momentum, even as volleyball supporters agreed to table the proposal for a vote in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The effects of the pandemic reduced those numbers this season, but supporters believed their case was strong. Among those enlisted to speak on their behalf before Tuesday's vote were University of Minnesota volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon and Minnesota First Lady Gwen Walz, wife of Gov. Tim Walz, whose eight-grade son plays volleyball.
A large part of the sales pitch for boys' volleyball was its appeal to a diverse array of student-athletes, many of them Asian, particularly Hmong.
"This is totally against their mission of giving opportunities to kids," Weaver said of the league's vote, "Especially when you hear them talk about [the importance of] inclusion and diversity."
Among the potential reasons the measure was rejected were budgetary concerns, potential Title IX conflicts and reluctance to add a sport when many school districts are still recovering from the effects of the pandemic.
Elk River Activities Director Mike Cunningham, a representative of Region 7AA, voted against the proposal. He said he supported giving more opportunities to kids but that "the timing wasn't quite right."
"Part of the deal as a representative is to represent the feeling within the region and they were very strongly against it to begin with," Cunningham said. "Budgets are real tight in a lot of the schools, particularly the smaller ones in AA. It doesn't feel good to deny opportunities to kids. Do the kids deserve it? Yes, they do. Hopefully, they'll come back next year when things have settled down and it will get passed."
The girls' wrestling proposal passed by a vote of 44-4. The plan allows girls the option of wrestling against other girls as an individual for section and state tournaments. As many as 12 weight classes are envisioned, ranging from 95 to 220 pounds.
"They called me crazy when I hatched this idea six years ago," Shilson said. "Whenever someone would come back with some problem, I would answer with the easiest solution. We didn't want to make it difficult."
Girls' wrestling numbers have grown consistently at the youth level and Shilson said that shows no signs of slowing down. During the 2019-2020 season, 153 girls in Minnesota participated in high school wrestling. According to USA Wrestling, there are more than 21,000 girls wrestlers across the country, with the high school sport approved in 30 states.
"We've pushed really hard to get younger girls into wrestling," he said. "This will bring out so many more girls who you would normally not expect to be wrestling. You're going to be getting the 85-pound high schooler and the 285-pounder."