Derek Oney has coached a handful of female wrestlers over the past several years, but the Pickerington North coach still wasn’t completely prepared for the atmosphere of the inaugural girls state tournament Feb. 22 and 23 at Hilliard Davidson.
“I was weirdly emotional watching it. I saw people picking up a genuine love of the sport that I love,” said Oney, who competed at Ohio University in the late 1990s, previously coached at both Mount Union and Marion-Franklin and is in his second season at North. “You don’t see that a lot because a lot of wrestlers at this age started when they were younger, but now with girls being given this opportunity and it just being girls (at state), the energy was wild. It was awesome.”
Oney’s hope, and that of hundreds of wrestlers from across the state as well as their families, friends, teammates and any other supporters, is that that weekend at Davidson someday will be remembered as the beginning – the foundation all future tournaments follow.
An estimated 500 girls on 61 teams competed this season, and 234 of them took part in the state tournament. Locally, Olentangy Orange had 21 girls out and, according to coach Brian Nicola, already has set a goal of 30 for next season.
Twenty-nine girls placed in Ohio High School Athletic Association-sanctioned sectional tournaments two weeks ago – which, out of necessity, might be known as boys tournaments soon enough. Six advanced to district, although none were from central Ohio.
According to Ohio Girls Wrestling’s Twitter page, eight girls tournaments already are scheduled for the 2020-21 season, including Dec. 5 at Marysville, Dec. 19 at Delaware and Jan. 9 at Orange.
The girls are getting their due, both on the mat and in their schools, although that hasn’t been without a fight.
Sidney’s Jessie Davis, the state champion at 126 pounds, initially was not going to have a banner hung in her honor in the school’s gymnasium because girls wrestling is not yet OHSAA-sanctioned. One day after a Dayton television station reported on the controversy, Sidney City Schools changed course and announced that it would create and hang a banner.
Grove City’s Francesca Lanese, the state champion at 160, was honored with a parade through the school, according to athletics director Kris Sander.
According to Nicola, a banner for the Pioneers’ runner-up finish will be hung in the school gym. Taryn Martin, who won the state championship at 137, will be added to the banner of individual champions, and all placers will be honored on Orange’s Wall of Fame in the wrestling room.
The hope in the wrestling community is that girls wrestling is sanctioned sooner than later. If that happens, it could enter the “emerging sport” category that is devoted to sports with fewer than the 150 required schools to become a fully recognized sport under OHSAA bylaws.
The OHSAA’s board of directors annually re-examines the status of emerging sports, involving aspects such as growth and financial solvency.
Boys and girls lacrosse became sanctioned three years ago in that fashion, as there were 122 boys and 118 girls teams at the time.
For now, status seems less important than blazing a trail.
Upper Arlington coach Matt Stout put a plaque on the wall in the Golden Bears’ wrestling room for Isa DiBenedetto’s third-place finish at 116, although he reminded her and the team – with a smile – that it would hang for only a year before the team and its history move to a new room in the new high school.
For now, girls wrestling remains its own special club, something Oney saw at the state tournament through what he considered unique interactions.
“The girls are viciously technical and mean (on the mat), but off the mat, they were so good with each other,” Oney said. “I was never like that. I didn’t want to talk to anybody that was in my weight class. If you were lighter than me or heavier than me, we were friends. If you were in my weight class, I didn’t want to talk to you … so that was different. I was extremely happy to see it. It’s a great opportunity.”