In late September, wrestling coach Felix Catheline was preparing to lead another season at Bishop Watterson High School when sophomore Katie VanDuzen approached him with a request to join the program.
In the past, a girl wanting to wrestle would mean she would have to join the boys team and compete against boys, which VanDuzen was prepared to do.
But just a year before, a sprinkling of girls programs popped up across the state.
“We met with her family and talked about different options and what we could do,” said Catheline. “I reached out to Brian Nicola, an assistant at Olentangy Orange, and we talked about what’s going on in girls wrestling.
“I had coached girls at South and West and Brian planted the seed that this could be a good opportunity to start a girls team. They’re one or two years away from sanctioning girls wrestling as a sport in the OHSAA, so it would be good to have a leg up.”
After conversations with school administrators and VanDuzen’s parents, Catheline began speaking with female athletes in school, hoping to gain some other competitors.
In the end, VanDuzen was joined by fellow sophomores Lily Grayem and Mercedes Motton. When Catheline brought on Alexandra Ward and Clara Ramirez as assistant coaches who could work with the girls, a program was born.
“Starting the girls wrestling program is something we’ve seen coming the last couple of years,” said Athletic Director Doug Etgen. “We wanted to ensure we gave these girls the best opportunity possible to excel and believe we did just that.
“Coach Catheline and the assistants he brought in to coach these girls did an excellent job of teaching them proper techniques, some starting from ground zero. We couldn’t be prouder of the girls’ efforts all year long and the success they had. We look forward to expanding our numbers and much more success in the coming years.”
Once the girls were on board, a schedule was made, and the season got under way.
“The girls started working out and, again with a lot of help from Brian (Nicola), I was able to piece together a girls-only schedule,” said Catheline. “We went to Olentangy Orange twice,
Reynoldsburg and a couple times the girls joined the boys, like at the River Valley Duals, and competed against other girls who were there.”
Motton (160-pound weight division) and Grayem (143) advanced to the second girls state tournament, hosted by the Ohio High School Wrestling Coaches Association at Hilliard Davidson Feb. 20-21.
Motton finished fourth, winning two matches. Grayem did not place but also won a pair of matches.
“I talked to all three girls about what a great first year this has been,” Catheline said. “We’ve had success and now we’ll have to recruit the hallways and get some more people in the room. I think that can happen. Both Lily and Mercedes are on the volleyball team and I think a lot of their volleyball teammates took notice and we are excited about coming back next year.”
Taking on the extra responsibility of a girls team did not faze Catheline. He looks forward to seeing what can be accomplished next year.
“The infrastructure was already there and there’s buy-in from the girls and the assistants we added,” he said. “I spent the first 12 years as a coach in Columbus City Schools and that was an incredibly rewarding experience but there’s a lack of resources there.
“The extra work didn’t deter me because our administration, our parents and our athletic director were great. It honestly wasn’t that big a challenge and on top of that I can’t say enough things about the help Brian Nicola gave me. It is more work running two programs but it’s worth it because I think these kids got a lot out of the experience.”
Over on the boys mats, a handful of wrestlers earned all-Central Catholic League status after the tournament last month.
The standout Eagles include:
Leo Pavell, first team at 138 pounds;
Nicholas Youell, first team at 182;
Derek Caswell, first team at 285;
Luke Hangen, second team at 113;
Landon Purcell, second team at 132;
William Short, second team at 152; and
Patrick Randall, second team at 220.