Tiny North Central enjoying moment at top of women's wrestling with change on horizon as sport grows

NAPERVILLE, Ill. (AP) — Joe Norton was plenty busy leading a successful men’s wrestling team at his alma mater when a conversation with his boss in the weight room changed things in a flash. Athletic director Jim Miller mentioned the school was adding women’s bowling. Norton’s response: Why not wrestling?

“I was like half joking,” Norton said. “But I was like what are we adding women’s bowling for? And he said, you know, because we can get like a roster number of 10 to 12. And I said ... I’d get 40 women’s wrestlers.”

Norton now oversees one of the nation's most successful programs in a growing sport poised for NCAA championship recognition as the women's wrestling coach at North Central College, a Division III school in the Chicago suburbs.

The program has ballooned in its five years from nine wrestlers to 51 from 23 states stretching from the East Coast to Alaska.

Four from North Central have combined to capture six national titles since the program's inception, and six are scheduled to compete next month in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials at Penn State. The Cardinals finished second to Iowa in the National Collegiate Women’s Wrestling Championships after taking the top prize last year.

With programs from all divisions going against each other, North Central can say it's one of the best, period, and not just in Division III. That could change in the coming years, with participation increasing and the potential championship recognition by the NCAA.

The number of NCAA and NAIA schools as well as junior colleges with programs has leaped from 62 to 144 the past five years with individual participation growing from 935 to 2,641, according to the National Wrestling Coaches Association. The NCAA has seen about a threefold growth in that span, from 27 teams to 78 and 398 participants to 1,261 competing across all divisions.

It is clear what is feeding the boom: Girls’ wrestling has become the fastest-growing high school sport in the country.

There were just a handful of programs when women's college wrestling began in the 1990s.

“We go to tournaments,” said Maddie Avila, a national champion at 101 pounds in 2023. "We see so many younger wrestlers there and it’s so awesome and also motivating to just see the sport growing as a whole.”

There still is room to grow.

Opportunities in Division I remain scarce, with only four programs and one from a power conference: Iowa, which started competition this season. The other three are Lindenwood (Mo.), Presbyterian College and Sacred Heart.

With only a handful of options for recruits, North Central can attract the best prospects. But the landscape could change if more D-I and D-II schools — with scholarships to offer — start programs and women's wrestling becomes an NCAA championship sport.

In February, the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics recommended Divisions I, II and III sponsor legislation to create a women's championship.

Members are expected to vote at the NCAA Convention in January. If it passes, the first championship could be in 2026. Wrestling would join rowing (1996), ice hockey (2000), water polo (2000), bowling (2003) and beach volleyball (2015) as the sixth to gain championship status through the Emerging Sports for Women program.

“We’re just enjoying this moment in time knowing that it won’t last forever,” said Miller, who wrestled and played football at North Central in the 1980s and coached both sports at his alma mater.

If the NCAA adds enough teams to split into divisions, Norton is prepared to have his program settle in as a D-III powerhouse. But for now?

“I was selling dreams in 2019,” said Norton, who also assists the men's team. “Right now I’m selling this experience. Come and be on the No. 1 team in the country.”

In a short period, a long line of All-Americans have passed through the steamy gym on the second floor of a fieldhouse built in 1930.

The Cardinals warm up by dividing into teams for games of Olympic-style handball that resemble football at times. Players drag each other to the mat as they try to prevent one another from tossing the ball into garbage pails serving as goals at each end of the gym.

They sweat through drills as Corey Hart's 1980s hit “Sunglasses At Night” blares on an endless loop on a recent afternoon. Other days, the music is more current.

Norton, who wrestled at North Central just over a decade ago, cast a wide net when he started the women's program, particularly since the Illinois High School Association didn't sponsor girls wrestling until the 2021-22 academic year. It meant flying in recruits from all over the country.

Yelena Makoyed was hanging with friends at church the night she got the call from Norton. She didn't recognize the number but answered anyway.

“Joe didn’t have much to brag about,” said Makoyed, a three-time national champion at 170 pounds from the Sacramento area. “He was just starting his program. But, man, I think it was just the energy, and he just caught me at a good time. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.”

Amanda Martinez got a similar feeling from Norton and assistant Zach Cook when she was transferring to North Central. Now an assistant coach for the Cardinals, she is scheduled to compete at the Olympic trials.

“They were starting a program because they wanted to — vs. a lot of schools that had to have a women’s program, you know?” she said.