It would be hard to argue that anyone has done more for the growth of girls wrestling in this state than Billy Cox.

He is so dedicated to the sport that he is actually the official head coach of two teams, American Leadership Academy (ALA) and Maple Mountain.

Though in every other sport the two schools are in two different classifications (ALA in 3A and Maple Mountain 5A), girls wrestling just has three classifications, and as fate would have it, 1A, 2A, 3A and 5A schools are in the same classification.

This doesn’t bother Cox, who takes a more philosophical approach where winning and losing is secondary to more important things he sees participating in wrestling will do for the individual.

In fact, it just isn’t Maple Mountain and ALA girls that come to his practices. He has an open door policy and will help any girl wrestler from any team. A typical practice at Maple Mountain will have girls from several schools, many coming from far off places like Roosevelt and Parowan.

Cox has two mottos that he lives by in regards to coaching girls wrestling: “All girls deserve a team” and “We are one.”

Though the Utah High School Activities Association (UHSAA) has sanctioned the sport, there are still many challenges that lie ahead to grow the sport. One of those challenges is that many girls might be the only female wrestlers at their schools.

“A lot of girls just don’t have the coaching or community sport,” Cox said. “They want to wrestle but aren’t getting the attention they need to progress. That’s why I will coach any girl that wants to be coached.”

Cox was a successful high school wrestler in Nevada and his three children all have wrestled. His oldest boy Tanner Cox was a 3-time state champion for Maple Mountain while his younger son Cooper Cox was a 3-time state placer. But in between them in age was his daughter Hailey Cox, who just wanted to be like her brothers who were off winning medals at youth wrestling events.

“To tell you the truth, Hailey just saw all the medals and trophies her brothers were coming home with at youth tournaments, and she just wanted to be a part of things,” Billy Cox said.

Hailey Cox’s journey in wrestling was far from smooth.

“When she first started competing, there wasn’t much fuss,” Billy Cox said. But as she got more successful, then everyone seemed to have a problem with her wrestling. The moms were the worst.”

Though Hailey Cox wasn’t the first female youth or female high school wrestler in Utah, she was an important figure in the growth of the sport. As Hailey Cox had success winning state and national events, more and more girls came out for wrestling. And father Billy Cox was more than willing to help any girl willing to try the sport. In the last five years, the participation numbers have exploded.

Alanna Benally Hunter was actually the first girl wrestler in Utah County. She was an all-state volleyball player at Provo High School and just wanted to try out a new sport and went out for the wrestling team as a senior in 1996. Though she never won a match, she still thought her experience wrestling provided valuable life lessons.

“I had only ever played team sports before I tried wrestling,” Hunter said. “It is such a different mindset and I think it’s important to a young person’s development. It teaches discipline, discipline with our diet, sleep, time management, etc. It teaches us to push ourselves, to push our bodies past what we thought we were capable of. This brings so much self confidence and such a feeling of accomplishment. I’m glad that this opportunity is now available for our young women in the state of Utah.”

Billy Cox echoes Hunter’s sentiments on how wrestling will help the individual grow to take on the challenges of life.

When people at tournaments asked Billy Cox, “why do you want your daughter to wrestle in a ‘man’s sport?’”, he simply would tell them that, “it’s a man’s world and I want my daughter to be as prepared for that as much as she can be.” He wanted Hailey Cox to have all the strength a woman would need to have to be a wife, mother, to have a career and be a leader.

Hailey Cox became the fourth girl wrestler in Utah history to qualify for the state tournament and is currently wrestling at McKendree University in Illinois.

But Billy Cox is happy that girls can have their own teams instead of being on boy’s teams.

“I think when girls are on a team of all boys, that they feel they always have to be strong and they can’t completely be themselves,” Billy Cox said. “I think when they are on a team with just girls, they can be vulnerable and be themselves and have that true comradery that comes with being on a team. I am very glad Hailey is getting this experience in college.”

Besides getting more girls to wrestle, Billy Cox thinks the biggest challenges going forward is getting better institutional support for girls wrestling.

“I think a lot of girls are lacking support from their community and school,” Billy Cox said. “Too often the boys coach is also the girls coach. And if the tournament that the boys team is going to doesn’t have any girls, it will be the girl wrestlers who get shortchanged.”

And since the girls wrestling is in its beginning stages he was also hoping that the best girls like ALA’s Sage Mortimer, who placed in state and won a divisional against male competition, would still have had a chance to compete against the boys. He feels that the lack of tournaments and quality competition has been discouraging for Mortimer and other top female wrestlers.

“I wish for some girls like Sage, and a few others, that the UHSAA would have grandfathered them in,” Billy Cox said. “I would have made them make a choice to wrestle boys or girls, and not just go back and forth. But I would have liked them to have that choice and maybe do it for four years until girls wrestling is a bit more established.”

Approximately 600 girls hydrated and went through the processes to compete in high school wrestling this season. Based on those numbers, the UHSAA divided the girls into three classifications relatively equal in number of athletes.

The 6A and 4A will compete at their own classifications. Westlake (6A) and Mountain Crest (4A) have the largest teams in the state but Bear River (4A), Copper Hills (6A), Fremont (6A), Ridgeline (4A), and Syracuse (6A) have good numbers in their programs.

The 6A meet will be held on Monday at Westlake High School, the 4A meet on Saturday, Feb. 20, at the Sevier Event Center in Richfield, while the 1A-3A, 5A tournament has been changed from its original date and site and now will be hosted by Mountain View on Wednesday, Feb. 17.

Programs will be allowed to enter two wrestlers per weight class and both wrestlers will be able to score points for their teams, the methodology used by the 4A-6A boys state tournaments.

Here’s a look at the what to expect in the girls wrestling state finals:

6A preview

Westlake appears to be the team to beat. The Thunder will have the most grapplers and a good combination of quality and quantity. However, Copper Hills shouldn’t be overlooked and actually have the most No. 1 ranked wrestlers with six.

Westlake does have three wrestlers ranked No. 1 in Celeste DeToles (120 pounds), Lizzie Shunn (140), and Emmy Finlinson (145). Jamie Barton (108), Quincy Peterson (124) and Hailey Pigg (136) are ranked No. 2. And the Thunder have a total of 14 wrestlers ranked in the top six while Copper Hills has nine.

But since Copper Hills has a bit more star power, it will be important for the Thunder wrestlers to perform up to their rankings so their depth can win out. The decision to score two wrestlers per weight class versus just one should benefit Westlake.

Pleasant Grove hopes to crack the top five in the team race and has two wrestlers ranked at No. 2 with Brooklyn Sariah Hays (145) and Katharine Martin (160). Skyridge’s Lianny Barenja is ranked third at 108 pounds.

6A team rankings (courtesy of http://wrestleutah.com): 1. Westlake 2. Copper Hills 3. Fremont 4. Syracuse 5. Cyprus.

1A-3A, 5A preview

Billy Cox will have plenty of work on his hands as he is the head coach of both ALA and Maple Mountain.

Maple Mountain is ranked No. 1, while ALA is ranked No. 3 with Springville in between at No. 2. Mountain View is ranked No. 4, so Utah County is poised to make a huge impact in the team race.

For Maple Mountain, Abi Archibald (150), Nya Seiuli (195) and Morgan Honsvick (245) are currently ranked No. 1. Alexa Camacho (190) is ranked No. 2 right behind her teammate.

Springville’s Valery Ethington (120) is ranked No. 1 while Isabelle Clements (124) and Holaia Valeti (140) are ranked No. 2.

ALA’s Sage Mortimer (115) is arguably Utah’s best-ever female wrestler and is nationally ranked and No. 1 in her weight class in the Beehive State. Her teammates Rachel Camacho (108) and Olivia Carrillo (140) are also ranked No. 1.

Mountain View’s Lillian Spieth (132) and Timpview’s Tiamone Fiatoa (160) are ranked No. 1 in their weight divisions. Other valley wrestlers to watch include Donna Wright (108), Abigail Adams (120), and Jesse Harrison (160), all ranked No. 2 in their weight classes for Maple Mountain. Provo’s Katelyn Wolf is ranked No. 2 at 128 pounds, as is Andrea Patino (245) for Mountain View. Olivia Patten of Maeser Prep is ranked No. 6 at 108 pounds.

1A-3A, 5A team rankings (courtesy of http://wrestleutah.com): 1. Maple Mountain 2. Springville 3. ALA 4. Mountain View 5. Union.

Individual rankings for all classifications can also be found at http://wrestleutah.com.