Trail Blazers: Female wrestling officials Jenna Gerhardt and Dana Henry referee matches at 2023 NDHSAA Wrestling State Tournament

February 20, 2023 4:00 pm

By Tom Mix
NDHSAA Media Specialist

FARGO – History was made at the FARGODOME this past weekend during the 2023 NDHSAA Wrestling State Tournament in more ways than one.

The first ever NDHSAA-sponsored Girls Wrestling Team Dual State Tournament was held on Saturday, February 18 and for the first time ever two female referees – Jenna Gerhardt of Devils Lake and Dana Henry of Bismarck – officiated matches at an NDHSAA-sponsored girls wrestling state tournament.

Gerhardt, a 2022 Devils Lake graduate, wrestled in the first ever NDHSAA-sponsored Girls Wrestling Individual State Tournament a year ago and won the 105-pound individual state title. Exactly one year later, Gerhardt was back at the FARGODOME officiating matches in the girls team dual tournament.

“To be honest it feels like I’m winning another state championship,” Gerhardt said of the opportunity to officiate the girls team dual state tournament. “Being one of the first women to officiate this tournament is a great honor and an awesome opportunity.”

For Henry, the assignment held special significance as she grew up in a family very much tied to the sport of wrestling. Her father wrestled collegiately and was a longtime high school wrestling coach in Southern Oregon where Henry grew up. Because of wrestling’s importance to her family, Henry initially thought she would become a wrestler too, but it was not to be.

“I grew up in a time when there wasn’t sanctioned wrestling for girls,” Henry said. “I was allowed to wrestle through sixth grade because we had a city league, but once I hit junior high I transitioned to being the stat girl for my dad’s wrestling team and I also played volleyball.”

Henry played Division I volleyball at the University of Nevada before moving to North Dakota. Henry is a registered high school volleyball official and never gave much thought to adding a sport to her officiating resume until a neighbor girl – Paige Spomer, who is a sophomore wrestler at Bismarck Century put Henry on the spot.

“This past summer Paige and I were talking and she told me all of the wrestling officials are guys,” Henry said. “Paige said there were no female officials who officiate the high school girls wrestling matches and that most of the coaches are all guys too. … There are no girls. So she asked me if I would referee some of their matches and I said sure.”

And just like that Henry found an opportunity to get on the wrestling mat – not as a wrestler, but as a referee.

A year prior to asking if Henry would officiate girls wrestling matches, Spomer sought Henry’s advice on a decision to try out for the girls wrestling team or compete in the local pageant scene, which Henry is involved in as well. Henry advised Spomer to try out for the wrestling team because an opportunity like that is only around for so long and it was always something she wished she had when she was in high school. The advice paid off as Spomer is now a two-time placer in the girls individual tournament.    

Henry wasn’t expecting much when she joined the wrestling officiating ranks. She assumed there would be a steady stream of sub-varsity matches coming her way as a new official in the sport, but she soon found herself on the fast track to bigger assignments.

“In other sports you usually don’t get your varsity assignments right away,” Henry said. “Our local assignor Justin DeCoteau called me up and said ‘you are going to officiate varsity girls tournaments this year and jump right in.’ He said he and the other officials would be there to support me, but he said I was needed. I needed to show my face at the tournaments to show women can officiate these tournaments.”

Gerhardt, who now wrestles collegiately at the University of Jamestown, is the first example of a former athlete coming back to officiate – a trend many in the sport hope to see in the future.

Gerhardt said one of her coaches mentioned over summer break that there was a need for more female wrestling officials and that she should consider it so more women are aware about becoming officials.

Already a trailblazer in the sport as one of the first 14 girls to ever win an NDHSAA individual state championship in 2022, Gerhardt accepted the call and registered.

“I thought well, I’m in college now, I need to make some money and I’m still in North Dakota so I know a lot of the people in the wrestling community so I thought it would be a great opportunity to become an official and learn from the veteran officials,” Gerhardt said. “I’m proud of all the veteran wrestling officials. They’ve given a lot of time to the sport of wrestling and it has been great learning from them.”

Saturday’s dual tournament wrapped up with Gerhardt and Henry officiating the Girls 7th-place team dual match together – a fitting end to a historic day.

“When (NDHSAA Assistant Director) Kevin Morast emailed me that I’d be officiating in the first ever girls team dual tournament, it was a shock, but it was also extremely exciting,” Henry said. “And to work with Jenna on the same mat to close out the tournament, that is something that is unprecedented and it was truly an honor.”

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