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'We’re going to be trendsetters:' Northeastern grad to lead prep girls' wrestling team

ROB ROSE
717-505-5418/@robrosesports
  • Dan Heckert was named the girls' wrestling coach at North Allegheny High School.
  • North Allegheny is one of the first schools in Pa. to add girls' wrestling.
  • Heckert will coach the girls' team and still be an assistant for the boys' team.
Dan Heckert

He didn’t realize it until recently, but Dan Heckert has had a connection to high school girls’ wrestling for more than two decades. 

The 1999 Northeastern High School graduate went to prom with, and has stayed in touch with, Sarah Dunmire of Millersburg High. Heckert said he was in the same wrestling weight classes with Dunmire during his Bobcats’ career. Heckert said she went on to become a wrestling manager in college, but without organized female wrestling at the time, Dunmire didn’t have the chance to realize all the sport had to offer.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but she was somebody that, had she had the opportunity to compete against girls, she would have thrived,” Heckert said.

Now, Heckert is on a mission to make sure that the next generation of female wrestlers doesn’t suffer the same fate. Heckert became the first person to be named a girls’ high school wrestling coach for a PIAA school in Pennsylvania, despite the lack of official acceptance of the sport by the PIAA.

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Currently, girls who want to compete in Pennsylvania high school wrestling must do so on a boys' team.

Heckert left Northeastern with the program’s all-time win record. He then wrestled at Thiel College for two years before concussions halted his career. Now he will be the head coach of the North Allegheny High girls’ team next season. He will continue to serve as an assistant coach for the boys’ team as well, a position he has held since 2015.

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The passion to advocate for girls’ wrestling really started two years ago for Heckert when a pair of female wrestlers tried out for the team. He started to mentor them, and once their desire to compete grew, he realized it was necessary to find ways for them to compete against other girls.

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“That’s when I really started to pick it up (and thought) ‘OK, we need to create something for her, to give them the opportunity,’” Heckert said.

Aiming for PIAA sanction: In addition to leading a team, Heckert is a member of the Sanction Pa. organization, which is working to get official sport status for girls' wrestling from the PIAA. Heckert said his school is the fourth PIAA school to approve girls’ wrestling. That's a number he is proud to say has climbed from zero in March, but is still far from the 100 needed for PIAA acceptance.

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He said that the Sanction Pa. group has done a lot of outreach to schools and explained to them how the process of adding a girls’ team could be done easily. Practices and meets will likely be at the same locations and times as the boys’ events, so it would allow for one coach to work with both teams, such as Heckert is. 

With the mats and singlets already owned by schools that have boys’ wrestling, it will only require some extra time, which Heckert doesn’t anticipate being an issue.

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“There is some extra work, but I wanted this,” Heckert said. “Within the wrestling community, the majority of us coaches coach for the passion of it, and if that means we have got to step up a little bit more to create an opportunity for the girls, I think a lot of us will do what we need to do.”

Growing interest: Heckert added that he anticipates 10 schools adding girls’ wrestling by the end of 2020 as interest in the sport has grown each year. The coach said that each of the state’s 12 districts had a female wrestler last season and there were more than 200 girls on rosters a year ago.

As more opportunities to wrestle against other girls are created, Heckert expects the number of female athletes in the sport to only keep growing.

“You don’t need a full team to get started,” Heckert said. “Every other state has shown if you give them the opportunity, girls will come out.”

There are now more than 80 universities that offer women’s wrestling and Heckert hopes that the time and effort he and the Sanction Pa. group have spent will ensure that future generations of female wrestlers have the chance to compete in college that Dunmire never had. 

Much work to do: While he is excited by the progress that has been made since March, he knows there is a lot more work to be done and there is pressure on his program to show schools there is enough interest to get high school girls’ wrestling sanctioned by the PIAA.

“We’re going to be trendsetters,” Heckert said. “We have a responsibility to build this and be successful at what we are doing. There are plenty of opportunities for these girls to further their academic careers with the help of wrestling and if we can help do that, then that’s why we’re doing all this extra work.”

Reach Rob Rose at rrose@yorkdispatch.com.