Photos: Why is girls' high school wrestling on the rise?

Madison High School'€™s Harley Ramsey helps teammate Madison Elkins with her headgear at the first annual North Carolina High School Athletic Association high school women's wrestling invitational. Rachel Jessen for ESPN

On an unseasonably warm February morning in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as hundreds of elementary and middle school boys were grappling one another, 87 girls from 55 high schools found their way to the mats for North Carolina's first official high school girls' wrestling invitational contest.

The state is one of many experiencing a boom in female wrestlers. For years, girls around the country were folded into boys' programs. But since 2001, the number of girls in high school wrestling has soared from 3,405 to nearly 17,000, buoyed by the introduction of women to Olympic wrestling in 2004 and the rise of MMA, a sport dominated by strong wrestlers. In the past year, six states have sanctioned the sport, making it one of the nation's fastest-growing high school girls' programs.

As more girls sign up, the question is: What's next? Some schools are pushing for separate programs to give girls their own space, as is the case with the meet in North Carolina. But many girls say they prefer to continue wrestling boys for the tougher competition. Either way, girls' wrestling is coming to a mat near you.

Junior Brooke Hermel (on top, practicing) is one of many girls who compete mainly with boys. But a recent national news story illustrated how complex coed wrestling can be: In March, a Colorado boy chose to forfeit at state championships rather than face a girl.

Hermel, 16, transitioned to wrestling from dance and track two years ago. Because she primarily wrestles boys, her training focuses on technique over physical strength.

Hermel is the only girl on her team at Havelock High School, and initially she didn't want to wrestle other girls. But over time, her coaches convinced her to join women-only events, including camps at the Olympic Training Center and the U.S. Naval Academy.

In February, 87 girls weighed in to compete in the first girls' invitational tournament hosted by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association. The state does not sanction the sport but will decide its future in North Carolina in May.

Part of the challenge of creating girls' events is gathering sufficient numbers of participants across weight classes. The 87 girls at the invitational competed in 11 weight classes, including a few brackets that had fewer than four competitors.

Parkwood High School's Amber Parker (left) defeated Butler High School's Elisa Cox by decision 9-4 to win the 138-pound championship.

Hermel won the 113-pound weight class 15-9. The 16-year-old hasn't decided whether she'll wrestle in college (30-plus non-Division I programs offer women's wrestling), but she appreciates what the sport has already done for her: "I push myself more, I get up, I don't quit. I'm really into that."

At Uwharrie Charter Academy in Asheboro, North Carolina, sophomore Heaven Fitch is no stranger to the wrestling room, having started wrestling at age 7 because of her older brothers.

Fitch, who trains primarily with boys, has traveled to Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, North Dakota and Ohio to wrestle with other girls. "That's where the competition is," she said.

Fitch was one of three female wrestlers who qualified to compete with the boys at the North Carolina state championships in mid-February. She lost only two matches in her middle school wrestling career and was voted Most Outstanding Wrestler in her conference in eighth grade. All of her losses this past season were to boys who qualified for the state tournament.

On a nearby mat, Providence High School 106-pounder Nikoly Dos Santos, another of the three girls who qualified for the state championships, took on Leesville Road High School's Maximus Buico. The senior entered the tournament in the 4A class with a record of 37-5 this season.

Fitch faced Robbinsville High School's Jayden Nowell in the 106-pound weight class quarterfinal. Her mother, Stacey, said she supports sanctioning girls' wrestling, but her daughter would prefer to continue competing against the boys. Fitch dropped an 11-5 decision to Nowell.

Battling her way through male competition, Fitch finished in fourth place in the 106-pound weight class -- the best finish by a girl at the state level. After securing her spot on the podium, Fitch removed her headgear to reveal long, blonde braids. Stacey Fitch heard a 4-year-old girl sitting near her in the stands cheer and say, "Mommy, look! It's a girl!"

In March at the University of North Carolina, 2016 U.S. Olympian Haley Augello (left) and 2017 world bronze medalist Becka Leathers, both of whom train at the nearby Tar Heel Wrestling Club, led a women's wrestling clinic. When Augello was learning to wrestle, she had no idea she could do it with other women. "In my head, since I had always been wrestling guys, I thought, 'I wanna go to Iowa and wrestle on the guys' team!'" she said. UNC does not currently have a women's wrestling program.

It hasn't been easy for wrestlers such as Brooke Hermel (left) and Chapel Hill High School senior Megan Zelasky, 18, who both attended the women's clinic at UNC. "The past four years, I've been the only girl on my team," Zelasky said. "Earlier this season, my team competed against a private school which had a rule that girls are not allowed to wrestle in varsity matches. I was on varsity at the time, so a freshman wrestled for my weight class instead, and I was given an exhibition after the main meet."