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Pa. now has two public high schools with girls' wrestling programs. Will more follow?

TOM HOUSENICK
(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)
Easton High School sports logo

An historic step was taken Tuesday night by an historic Pennsylvania wrestling program.

Easton Area School Board unanimously approved the start of a girls' wrestling program starting in the 2020-21 season during its virtual meeting.

“I think it’s awesome that we’re able to be the first to start this,” rising senior Cameron Nunez said, "to get it rolling for the Lehigh Valley.

“It’s a cool experience to be able to grow the sport, teach girls not just from the Lehigh Valley but Pennsylvania that girls can wrestle, that it’s more than just a guy sport.”

Easton is the second Pennsylvania public high school to approve a girls' wrestling program. J.P. McCaskey in Lancaster was the first in mid-March.

No schools in the York-Adams League offer varsity girls' wrestling, but a number of girls from York-Adams schools have excelled on the mat. In the 2020 My House High School Girls' State Wrestling Championships in March, Kennard-Dale's Tiffani Baublitz and Gettysburg's Montana DeLawder won state titles, while West York's Carly Gross and Central York's Alexx Ortiz earned runner-up finishes.

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, the state’s governing body for high school athletics, requires a minimum of 100 schools supporting a program before it will consider sanctioning the sport.

There are 22 states that sanction girls' wrestling and 83 colleges with women’s teams.

“Easton School District’s proposal to officially add a girls' wrestling program sets a great example for other schools across the state,” Leah Wright, media liaison for Sanction PA, a Pennsylvania girls' high school wrestling task force former earlier this year, said in a statement.

“We appreciate their leadership and interest in supporting the fastest growing girls sport in the country. Girls wrestling is a sport that embraces strength, diversity and opportunities for all types of the athletes. We applaud Easton for recognizing the unique offerings of this sport and exploring options to increase opportunities for girls wrestling.”

Pat Tocci, a Liberty graduate and National Wrestling Coaches Association director, and Parkland assistant coach Brooke Zumas are among the leaders of Sanction PA. They have in recent weeks conducted webinars for school administrators, coaches, parents and female wrestlers, and put together models for perspective high school athletic directors and coaches to use in submitting proposals to their respective school boards to get girls' wrestling approved.

Nunez was one of five females on Easton’s roster in 2019-20. She said Easton, which is second all time in the state with 968 victories, is a perfect place for girls' wrestling to grow.

The 17-year-old Forks Township resident said head coach JaMarr Billman, the rest of Easton’s staff and the male wrestlers provided a tremendous atmosphere for growth among the first-time female competitors.

“They always were supportive and able to give a helping hand,” said Nunez, whose brother Nick was a wrestler who graduated from Easton in 2017. "I would be at practice and [the boys] would come over to show me how to do a move better.

“The [coaches] always pushed me. I could not ask for a better team, a better group of guys to help me through this journey.”

Special night: Nothing highlighted that bond better than Easton’s Senior Night home match on Wednesday, Jan. 15, against Parkland. Four bouts between girls were conducted before the varsity match.

That night’s varsity match or any other match that season did not equal the level of enthusiasm and interest of the girls’ bouts.

“That was a big night for us,” rising senior and returning state medalist Isaiah Reinert said. “We were waiting to see [the girls] wrestle Parkland since the beginning of the year.”

Video from the Jan. 15 event shows the support of the male wrestlers from both programs, something that was not lost on the females or the coaches.

“It was an awesome thing to walk into the gym before the match and see all my classmates there,” Nunez said, “as well as all those from Easton who showed up and were proud of us. It was great to feel all their support and love. To know the coaches were super excited for us to wrestle another team from the Lehigh Valley, to start this huge thing, it was an amazing night.”

“The way the boys from both teams reacted and embraced the girls was something special,” Billman added. “It was a night that everybody who was involved in will remember for a long time.”

Hiring a head coach and putting together a schedule are hurdles in the coming weeks.

Nunez and other returning female wrestlers Kayla Reinert, Isaiah’s sister, and Destiny Silva said they want Billman, assistant Jeremy Hartrum and other Easton boys coaching staff members to continue to be their leaders.

“Being one of the female wrestlers of Easton,” Silva wrote Sunday on Twitter, "I would like to give credit where credit is due. Coach Billman and his amazing staff have been nothing but supportive to me and my female teammates. We aren’t asking for money nor a new coaching staff. Just recognition.

“When I stepped into that wrestling room, I wasn’t a ‘female wrestler’... I was just a wrestler. That is how Billman made us feel every single practice. He believed in us before anyone else did and pushed us to be the wrestlers we are today.”

Reinert said on Twitter: “All of us girls want nothing more than just the ability to wrestle under the staff that helped us to get where we are now. We could not ask for anything more.”

Nunez seconded that sentiment on Tuesday.

“I hope they can make it a lower budget and have the same coaches,” she said. “I hope one of the coaches we have can step up and help for next season.”

Billman said he and his staff were not included in the formation of the proposal that was submitted to the school board.