How North Central College built the nation’s top women’s wrestling program in just four years

While girls wrestling is exploding across the country, it may come as a surprise to many that the reigning collegiate national champion resides right here in Illinois.

That's right.

North Central College, which boasts a roster of 54 women from 23 states, captured the title in 2023 in just the fourth year of the program's existence.

“The cool thing about that was the first women we recruited actually got to experience it,” said coach Joe Norton, who wrestled at Montini Catholic and North Central. “A lot of times you start a program, you recruit that first group and you're like, 'We're gonna win a national title here.' And they're like, 'Yeah, but not when I'm here.'

“So the fact that they won a title? That's crazy. That never happens in any sport anywhere. Ever.”

Many factors went into achieving this remarkable feat, with much of the credit going to Norton for coming up with the idea to start a team in the first place.

His lightbulb moment came a couple of years after North Central formed a women's bowling team with 10-12 members. Knowing the school is a tuition-driven institution, Norton told athletic director Jim Miller: “We could have 40 women's wrestlers if we did it right.”

Norton used the example of Lockport's Haley Augello's appearance in the 2016 Rio Olympics to really slam the point home.

“(She) is from 20 minutes down the road and maybe she'd be here,” Norton said. “Maybe we'd have an Olympian who wouldn't be (at King University) in Tennessee.

“He came back to me a few months later and said, 'Hey, were you serious about that?'”

He was, and North Central managed to put together a roster of nine women for the 2019-20 campaign. The next year that number tripled to 27. Then it hit 40. Then 46.

And this year, it is at a whopping 54 – although some of that is due to the fifth-year COVID seniors.

Most are from out of state, with the only Illinois residents being Alondra Aguayo (Buffalo Grove HS), Charlene Bahnfleth (West Chicago HS), Angelina Graff (Conant HS), Arianna Hernandez (Zion-Benton) and Asia Nguyen-Smith (West Chicago).

Last weekend the team claimed first place in all 10 weight classes at the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin tournament. Regional competition in the National Collegiate Women's Wrestling Championships begins Feb. 25, with the national tournament following in March.

Asia Nguyen-Smith, from West Chicago, is a three-time All-American for North Central College’s women’s wrestling team. Courtesy of North Central College

With the number of girls wrestling in Illinois exceeding 2,400 – more than double what it was two years ago – Norton may be able decrease his dependency on out-of-state signees down the road.

But to get the program to this point, Norton had to scour the country for top talent and then convince them to come to Naperville.

So how did he compile a roster that includes six women from California, four from Texas and others from Alaska, South Dakota, Colorado, Oregon, Georgia, Idaho and Washington?

“I think a lot of times we don't realize how spoiled we are in Naperville,” Norton said. “You bring them here and they're like, 'Holy cow. This place is nice.' They stay in the Hotel Indigo on the river.

“A lot of these other schools that have women's wrestling – and I said this to our AD when I pitched it – they're in the middle of nowhere. They're tiny schools in the middle of farm towns in Illinois.

“I said, 'If I'm bringing my 18-year-old daughter on college visits to those places and then I bring her to Naperville, I know where I want to send her.'”

Competition figures to intensify as the sport grows. Right now, Iowa is the only Power Five conference school that has women's wrestling.

Norton hasn't heard the likes of Michigan, Wisconsin, Northwestern or Notre Dame jumping on board, but with some Division I schools adding it, the NCAA will soon create different divisions.

It's a day Norton actually isn't looking forward to.

“I like competing against the best,” said Norton, who expects a huge challenge from Iowa when North Central attempts to defend its title March 8-9 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “Right now we have a team that can do that. We'll see where we're at in two, three, four years.

“But right now if we can compete with the Iowa Hawkeyes, we want to do that because us against the Division III's is just not fair. We have 21 All-Americans. If we wrestled in a Division III tournament we might win nine of the ten weights.

“So we're excited to stay Division I as long as possible.”

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