Lutheran High School West News Article

Lutheran West Girls' Wrestling Featured in CLHSA Article

Article by Jon Behm from the Cleveland Lutheran High School Association Annual Report, published October 2021

It’s often hard to pinpoint the exact moment history changes.

When it comes to the impending approval of girls’ wrestling as an Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) sanctioned sport, Lutheran West coach Dave Ressler ’86 can recite the exact phrase that started the movement.

“I will build a team around you before you graduate.”

Those are the words that Ressler said to then Our Lady of Angels 8th grader Allyssa Pirro ’21. Those are the words that changed everything.

“She came with her dad to watch a match,” Ressler said. “I vividly remember walking up to the top of the stands, meeting them and saying, ‘If you come to Lutheran West, I will build a team around you before you graduate.’ I’ll admit I didn’t see it coming as fast as it did. I thought maybe we’d have a team her senior year, but I was determined to keep my word to her.”

While Pirro, now a freshman wrestler at Indiana Tech, admits that she doesn’t remember the exact moment, she remembers Ressler’s enthusiasm and knew he was a coach she wanted to wrestle for.

“I went to Lutheran West based on wrestling,” Pirro said. 

“I definitely got a good education, but wrestling was the big thing for me. My junior high coaches told me it would be a good fit for me and that Coach Ressler was going to be a great coach for me. And after meeting him, I knew that they were right.

“Just seeing the amount of excitement that Coach Ressler had. He was excited anytime one of his wrestlers got a point. He was excited to see the crowd there and made me feel welcome. Meeting him definitely made me realize I wanted to go to West.”

Fast-forward four years. Pirro is now a one-time Ohio Athletic Committee (OAC) and two-time Ohio High School Wrestling Coaches Association (OHSWCA) girls’ state champion, representing Lutheran West, the first school to officially sanction a girls’ wrestling team in the state of Ohio.

“I always try to be the best that I can,” Pirro said. “It’s hard to think about my high school career without being proud of it. Being a two-time OHSWCA champion and an OAC champion is something that not many people can say they did. I’m definitely very proud of it. And I’m proud that I did it while also wrestling boys during the regular season and helping to start a girls’ team. It’s really been a great four years.”

Pirro joined the Longhorns as a member of the boys’ team for the 2017-18. If Ressler’s comment the year before was the moment history changed, Pirro’s freshman season is what started the movement’s momentum.

“My freshman year, I thought I’d be wrestling on the boys’ team all four years,” Pirro said. “There really wasn’t any interest from other girls, at least as far as I knew, and I just kind of figured that was how it was going to be. But I think me wrestling on the boys’ team and having good matches and being competitive is kind of what drew other girls in. They saw what I was doing and thought they could, too. It’s like they didn’t want to take that first step until they saw me do it.”

The following year, Ressler and Pirro’s project gained four other girls—Alayna Lopez ’21, Hollis King ’21, Jaeyla Reyes ’22, and Nevaeh Yarber ’22—and Ressler knew the time had come to officially form the first high school girls’ wrestling team in the state.

“I had heard that the Ohio Athletic Committee was going to expand its junior high girls’ tournament to include a high school girls’ tournament at the end of the season,” Ressler said.

“I knew then that it was the time. It was like everything was aligning. We had some interest from girls other than Allyssa, there was a postseason tournament for the girls to showcase their skills and we could accomplish it all with minimal impact on how the program was currently structured.”

Ressler’s talk with Lutheran West Athletic Director Ryan Miller was quite short. In fact, there were just two things Miller needed answered before he said yes: How much will it cost? And will it help draw students to Lutheran West?

“I needed to know those things because there is a budget and I believe anything we do needs to help advance the school,” Miller said. “But I felt the same as Dave. He saw a great chance to give opportunity to a sport and for our student athletes, and I was excited about it. I’ll admit that I didn’t know a ton about it at first, but Dave was willing to handle a lot of it. I trust Dave and knew he was on to something special.”

And just like that, the Longhorns made history.

“It’s amazing,” Pirro said. “Not only being the first team, but to have helped build it is just a great feeling. Now there are girls who’ve never tried wrestling who feel like there’s an opportunity to try it. Being a member of the first girls' wrestling team in the state is a big honor, and I love knowing that’s part of my history.”To confirm the rumors Ressler had heard, the OAC announced it would hold a girls’ wrestling state tournament to finish the 2019 season. While the Longhorns had the only official team in Ohio, there were still 245 girls in the state who wrestled at the high school level. Pirro claimed the 142-pound title, with Yarber placing sixth at 124.

Since that moment, the program has only grown. The team went from five wrestlers in 2019 to nine in 2020 and 17 in 2021.

That growth, though, was not limited to Lutheran West.

“That summer [after the OAC tournament], my phone was blowing up,” Ressler said. “Other coaches were calling to see how to get their own programs going and how to incorporate girls into their boys’ programs. I had coaches who wanted me to talk to their school board to show that girls’ wrestling was actually possible to do. It really just picked up steam very, very quickly.”The 245 girls that wrestled in 2019 nearly doubled in 2020 to 474 as the OHSWCA took over the state tournament. Growth continued in 2021 as 539 girls wrestled — the ninth highest reported number in the nation for girls’ wrestling that year.

And with that growth came another opportunity for the Longhorns to make history—claiming the first ever girls’ wrestling dual victory in school history in 2021.

But that, of course, depends on who you ask.

“We had our first ever girls’ wrestling dual match with Mentor. They had started their own team and we were able to make it happen,” Ressler said. “We like to say we picked up our first girls’ dual victory, but they say that, too. Well, I scored it like a regular dual. So if they didn’t have someone [in a weight class we did], my girl got the forfeit points. They scored it just by matchups since we had to do some inter-weight class matches to get the girls all lined up. So, by matchups, they won. By weight classes, we won. And both schools were bragging about it on Twitter. It was pretty funny and just a real fun moment to even be able to have.”

While records and history making moments are great, there are many other things to be proud of. For Ressler, top of that list is that the growth of the sport is occurring throughout the state, not just in one area or in certain schools. The first OHSWCA tournament included wrestlers from 95 schools, with last year’s featuring 113 schools.“Things have caught on quickly. It’s a great thing to see that this isn’t a regionalized thing where Northeast Ohio has 70 schools with representation and the rest of the state has 30. It’s really been spreading all over the state,” Ressler said. “It’s even more amazing when you consider that numbers across the state grew in 2021, even with COVID-19. There were more teams than ever, more girls wrestling than ever. Yes, the growth slowed compared to previous years, but it was still a substantial leap.”

In fact, the state tournament grew so much that four district tournaments were required this year to pare the number of state competitors down to a manageable number. The host school for the Northeast District tournament was none other than Lutheran West.

“We had 17 girls on the team and 11 had the opportunity to wrestle on their home mats in the first-ever Northeast District tournament,” Ressler said. “That’s pretty special. It was an honor to host the event and it was great to see that the sport had grown enough that it was necessary.”

The Longhorns placed second as a team with 116 points. They also sent eight wrestlers through to the state tournament, where Pirro pinned Taylor’s Meghan Werbrich in four minutes to claim the 137-pound state title.

It was her second OHSWCA title after claiming the 143-pound championship the year prior by defeating Zoe Hussar of Rossford by pinfill at the 2:40 mark. Also placing at the inaugural tournament was Lopez, who claimed third in the 150-pound bracket with a pinfall against Nya Miller of Ridgedale at the 1:29 mark.

In addition to her own success, Pirro loved seeing her teammates succeed.

“You always want to make it to the state tournament, but it’s so much better making the trip with others who are there to compete and not just cheer,” Pirro said. “I think this last year was cool. It was weird with COVID and all that, but having teammates qualify with me for the state tournament made it feel a bit more normal and I’m so glad they were there, too.”

For Pirro, it was a joy to see the sport begin to explode throughout not only the state, but also within the walls of Lutheran West.

“The connection I have with my teammates and the coaches, it’s amazing,” Pirro said. “I think that’s one of the coolest things. They are my family. And it was cool that every year my family grew. I grew up with them at West and they’re always going to have a special place with me.”

While Pirro leaving the Longhorns behind to become a Warrior at Indiana Tech is a bittersweet moment for the program, Ressler takes pride in knowing the Longhorns now have yet another avenue to offer its students to higher education.

“From a sport standpoint, wrestling is the number two driver of first-generation college students in the United States,” Ressler said. “I love that this is another way that we can help our students here at Lutheran West have another path to college. Yes, you need to have the skill and put in the work, but without a team and the exposure, it’s exponentially harder to get that scholarship. And more colleges are adding women’s wrestling each year, which means more scholarships are available each year.”

Pirro also knows that she is leaving the Longhorns’ program in a great place—a place that she admits she didn’t see possible when first walking through the Lutheran West doors as a freshman.“It’s great to see that the team is doing well,” Pirro said. “I think it’s something where you kind of even the playing field. When I was a freshman, I was wrestling boys because I had to. It didn’t have anything to do with skill. There wasn’t really a choice. Now, girls can join the Lutheran West girls’ team with the expectation of wrestling girls. I think that’s a great thing and only helps the sport grow, because things are even now. I don’t know if I really saw that happening so quickly when I was a freshman, but I’m so happy that it has.”

The Future of Girls' Wrestling

Girls’ wrestling is at a crossroads, both at Lutheran West and at the state level.

Locally, the Longhorns are looking to take the next step as a program. That step comes naturally as its first group of freshmen have graduated and it now begins the cycle of replenishing while also offsetting a full graduating class.

State-wide, the next hurdle is achieving OHSAA sanctioning as an Emerging Sport—which basically means that the OHSAA begins to sponsor and aid in running the sport as it transitions to being under its banner.

Ressler is excited about the future of his program, but cautiously optimistic about the future of the sport in Ohio.

“We’re behind,” Ressler said. “As a state, Ohio is falling behind the rest of the nation when it comes to getting girls’ wrestling the recognition it deserves. When we started this three years ago, there were only 10 states that had sanctioned girls’ wrestling at the high school level. We wanted to be in the top-25. Don’t be in the second half of the country on this one. Well, unfortunately, we are. But I think that also speaks to the national boom that girls’ wrestling is experiencing right now.”

As of the 2020-21 season, 32 states had already sanctioned girls’ wrestling. At the high school level, the National Federation of State High School Associations has reported a growing number of girls’ wrestling participants across the nation for 30 straight years.

Collegiately, the opportunities continue to grow as 94 colleges offer programs between the NCAA, NAIA and JUCO ranks. Three of those programs are in Ohio (Lourdes University, Tiffin University, and Hiram College).

So, what is holding up the OHSAA? After all, Ohio has the ninth largest girls’ wrestling platform in terms of participants, yet trails only New York (575 girls’ wrestlers) as the second-highest participation rate without sanctioning the sport.

Simply put, time.

“The OHSAA gave us [the OHSWCA] a checklist that was quite long,” Ressler said. “It’s nine pages long, and we needed to check every box to be eligible to become an Emerging Sport under OHSAA sanctioning. We check every single box except one. We need three years of financial records, but only have two so far.

“So, basically, we’re running this year as status quo. The OHSWCA will run the state tournament. We’ll do the District tournaments again because we’re anticipating another 200-400 girl increase this year. We’ll gather the financials and if everything goes correctly, we’ll be sanctioned for the 2022-23 season.”

In other words, once the third-annual OHSWCA girls’ state tournament is complete, the ball will entirely be in the OHSAA’s court.

And Ressler hopes they do the right thing.

“Sanctioning is really just a key to the growth and development of girls’ wrestling,” Ressler said. “In our presentation to the OHSAA, we talked about Missouri. The year the state sanctioned the girls’ tournament, there were 169 participants. That number jumped to 914 the next year and 1,423 the year after that.

“It’s because having the state’s governing body behind you opens doors. Schools that aren’t willing to put the money behind the girls will be open to it once the state is involved. Administrators have help in forming and developing a plan to make a team possible. Getting sanctioned is a huge step and one that needs to happen.”

Regardless of what the state decides to do, Ressler is ready to keep things moving in the right direction where the movement began: Lutheran West.

“We’ve had girls on our team since 2005, back when Chelsea Pender was the first girl to wrestle for Lutheran West,” Ressler said. “It might not have been every year, but there were more years than not since 2005 that a girl was wrestling on the boys’ team. Nicole Swanson ’12 was the first girl to win a match in Longhorn wrestling history. She was wrestling another girl and got the win. Then you have Allyssa come along. And then the first team, then double-digits. And we’re going to keep this going. I’d love for the team to eventually be large enough that it rivals the boys’ team in size.”

While the accolades and honors the team has received have been great, Ressler believes that the most important thing starting a girls’ team has achieved is within the girls themselves.

“We know what wrestling has done in our own lives,” Ressler said. “The brotherhood and sisterhood that is created through wrestling will help carry them for the rest of their lives. The lessons that they learn and the discipline and desire for success, you can’t measure that.

“We’ve been giving that opportunity to the boys for 50 years here at Lutheran West. I want to have that same opportunity for the girls for years to come. I want them to learn the same life lessons and then be great citizens, great employees, great leaders, great moms, great Christians.”

Lutheran West girls' and boys' wrestling schedules for the upcoming season can be found online here

For media inquiries, please contact Jessica Miller, Director of Communications & Marketing, at [email protected]..

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