Fairbury wrestler Autumn Branson pledges York College, signifying booming interest in girls’ wrestling

FAIRBURY, NE – Autumn Branson has wrestled since she was in 3rd grade.

Her younger brother tried out, and didn’t care for it.

“My Mom was leaving wrestling practice and I asked her if I could try wrestling,” Branson recalls. “She said, ‘Yeah, go ahead. I already paid the money for it…I never really looked back from it.”

Coming up through varsity, she’s competed alongside mostly boys. With the exception of some national tournaments.

“Autumn’s had some opportunities the last couple of years to do some girls’ wrestling,” Fairbury head wrestling coach Derek Garfield said. “She went out to Orlando last summer and wrestled in the Disney duals. The Nebraska female team was runner-up in Orlando last year.

“At USA State, she was a state champion. At AAU State, she was a state champion. She’s also an All-American in Orlando. She has the résumé, and she has earned every bit of getting to wrestle at York College. I’m ecstatic for her. There’s no doubt in my mind that she’ll have a ton of success.”

In Fairbury, Branson has been the Jeffs’ 106-pound varsity wrestler for the past four years, winning 33 career matches as of the publishing of this story.

Branson signed to wrestle at York College on Dec. 7 after verbally committing in late November.

Fairbury wrestler Autumn Branson competing at the Tri County quad on Dec. 6, 2018. Branson is one of three female wrestlers for the Jeffs in 2018-19.

The Panthers are offering women’s wrestling for the first time this year. They’re one of just 51 colleges across the country that offer women’s wrestling. They’re one of 12 schools to offer it for the first time in 2018-19.

Jeff Albers, a York College wrestling alum, was tapped to be the program’s first head coach.

Around this time a year ago, Albers began contacting local coaches looking for local talent. York High School head coach Chad Mattox referred Albers to Fairbury, and to Autumn Branson.

“I went to the York tournament last year,” Albers said. “I saw Autumn wrestle a little, and I noticed she was holding her own with the guys, and competing. I just knew I wanted to try and get her. She showed a great work ethic when I saw her. All that I heard is that she’s going to be a great one.”

For Branson, York will provide an opportunity she’s been longing for – to compete at a higher level with all females.

“It’s going to be really exciting,” Branson said happily. “I’ve already met a lot of the girl wrestlers there, and they’re very nice, friendly people. A lot of them are from all over the country, and not just Nebraska. I’m looking forward to being friends with them, and wrestling with other girls, and seeing how their technique is different, because they’ve wrestled with only girls (in high school).”

Girls wrestling isn’t currently sanctioned by the NSAA, but it won’t be long.

High school girls’ wrestling is the fastest growing varsity sport in the nation in terms of percentage. Last year, seven states sanctioned the sport. This year, that number has doubled.

There’s more than 15,000 girls out for high school wrestling across the country. There are about 140-150 girls on the mat in Nebraska alone, including three in Fairbury.

“Female wrestling is taking off,” Garfield said. “Autumn has been kind of our front runner in Fairbury. In our youth wrestling program, we probably have 15-20 girls in our club. It’s growing, statewide and nationwide. I love that Nebraska is embracing. I’m telling you, in a year or two, Nebraska is going to sanction female wrestling.”

Autumn Branson, moments before signing her national letter of intent for York College women’s wrestling on Dec. 7.

Representatives from the NSAA’s six districts across the state met last month. Three of those six districts voted 78 percent in favor of sanctioning girls’ wrestling.

If three districts approve again in January, it will go to a final vote in April.

“It should pass at least three of the districts in January,” assistant director of the NSAA Ron Higdon said, “based on the voting in November. In every district that girls’ wrestling was proposed in, it passed significantly. If four districts are in favor, it should pass easily.”

Higdon says the strong, recent popularity toward high school girls’ wrestling in Nebraska points to one thing – girls wrestling against boys has been unpopular.

“The boys don’t like it, the girls don’t like it, the parochial schools don’t like it, the parents don’t like it, and the administrators especially don’t like it.”

The big question that remains is, will there be enough girls interested? Higdon believes so. He’s been fielding calls from student-athletes and their parents across the state for the last 3-4 years, who express their interest in letting girls have their own wrestling team.

Coach Garfield, a board member of the Nebraska Scholastic Wrestling Coaches’ Association, has seen the growth in girls’ wrestling first-hand – both in his own program and at a statewide level.

“I think it’s going to get sanctioned,” Garfield said. “Everyone sees the demand. I think were over 150 girls at (Nebraska) USA State Wrestling last year. The demand is there. It’s always the equation, do you build it first and see if they come, or do you see if they come and then build it? I think the demand is there right now.”

You can follow Tommy on Twitter @Tommy_NCN.

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