Few athletes in the Baltimore area have had as big of an impact on their sport as wrestler Cassy Lopez, who recently graduated from Mount Hebron High School.
Lopez made history May 3 by becoming the first female to sign a National Letter of Intent and accept a scholarship to wrestle at the NCAA Division I level. Next fall, Lopez will attend Presbyterian College (S.C.), where she'll headline the school's new female wrestling team. The program will compete in the newly formed Women's Collegiate Wrestling Association in 2019.
"When I think about wrestling in college I get excited because I'll get the opportunity to wrestle the best girls in the country and even some future Olympians," Lopez said. "When I signed, it felt great because it was a long decision going through other schools. Everything came into place, and I couldn't be happier with my decision."
Committing to play in college capped a monumental high school career -- but it almost never happened.
Lopez wanted to play a sport for Mt. Hebron heading into the winter of her freshman year, and wrestling sounded interesting to her because she had competed for a couple years in Brazilian jiu-jitsu prior to high school.
Lopez was unsure about trying out, though, because she didn't know if girls were allowed.
Her father encouraged her to go to tryouts and see what it was all about. It was tough, Lopez said, but she enjoyed it and quickly became hooked.
Lopez said a key to her success was having a supportive group of teammates who were excited to have her on the team.
"I knew some of them because they went to my middle school," Lopez said. "They were all very welcoming and encouraging. As a freshman I was nervous about being a girl who wrestled, but I knew I could do it."
For Mt. Hebron's coach Dan Harman, it was important to establish early that Lopez was going to be treated like any other wrestler on the roster.
"As a coach, you have to treat everyone equally," Harman said. "I did my best to throw her to the wolves and not give her any advantages. Wrestling is different from most sports -- you practice in a small room, the door is closed and it's sweaty. There's loud music playing, plenty of yelling and sometimes there's blood. It's an aggressive environment, and I didn't want to single her out. It didn't matter that Cassy is a girl, she had to succeed in that environment and to her credit, she did a fantastic job of putting her head down and working."
After an enjoyable freshman season, Lopez had a breakout sophomore campaign. She went undefeated while wrestling at the junior varsity level for the 106-pound weight class, winning a Howard County championship in the process. Lopez also had a few opportunities to compete at the varsity level and held her own.
That paved the way for Lopez to regularly compete for Mt. Hebron her final two years at the 106-pound weight classification, with her personal highlight being a win on her senior night as Mt. Hebron beat Hammond.
"We were expected to lose, but every one of my teammates beat their opponents to start," Lopez said. "I got a little nervous when it was my match, but I was able to reverse my opponent in the second period and get the pin. It was awesome, everyone went wild, and our team won pretty handily."
For Lopez, the rush she feels when the referee raises her hand after a victory is her favorite part about the sport.
"I devote myself to wrestling and winning shows that hard work pays off," Lopez said. "I love helping my team rack up points on the scoreboard and helping them win. I always get a little nervous before a match, but once it starts I get into this zone and it's so much fun."
Lopez joins an elite group of female wrestlers from Maryland who have helped raise the profile of women participating in the sport, including Rockville, Md., native Helen Maroulis.
At the 2016 Olympics, Maroulis became the first American woman to win a gold medal in the sport. Others include Nicole Woody, who went to Arundel and was the first girl to reach a Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association state final in 2007; and Monica Hovermale, who became the first girl in Maryland's history to reach 100 career wins while competing for Smithsburg from 2007-2010.
Lopez looked up to all three when she started wrestling, and now, she's become a hero for a new generation of young female wrestlers, which Harman believes will help push the sport.
"I now have another girl on my team," Harman said. "Wrestling does not have the same standing as lacrosse or soccer in Maryland, so anytime you can promote the sport it's a good thing, and that's what she's done through her amazing accomplishments."
Lopez's success comes at a time when female participation in the sport is on the rise. The numbers of girls in wrestling has increased significantly nationally, both at the high school level and collegiately.
"At tournaments I've had other girls come up to me to talk about wrestling, and it's really rewarding," Lopez said. "I'm helping inspire other girls to compete in the sport I love, which is cool."
Locally, there was a major breakthrough this past winter when the MPSSAA hosted its first all-girls wrestling tournament, which could become an annual event. Lopez, who went 4-0 and won the 106-pound classification at the tournament, was one of 78 girls who participated in the event.
For the most part, Lopez says the mentality she's come across when it comes to girls participating in wrestling has been positive, though she's encountered the occasional taunt or jibe about it. The worst she's dealt with was at a scrimmage as a freshman when an opponent refused to wrestle her.
It's a mindset Lopez and plenty of other girls are proving is outdated.
"I definitely think that women can do anything they set their mind to," Lopez said. "At first it was a little intimidating, but once I was able to learn the skills, it was a lot of fun. This isn't a sport that is just for males. It's on the come up for females and you can see that because of how many of us are doing it now."
Lopez is excited to get to Presbyterian and start her collegiate career. She's hoping to become an NCAA All-American while also earning a degree in biology so she can pursue a career in the dental industry.
Lopez is hoping more girls will have the opportunity to experience what she has throughout the past four years.
"I want to let girls know that they should think about wrestling as any other sport," Lopez said. "Though it will be mostly boys trying out, just think about it as something that if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish what they can. If you devote yourself to the sport you'll definitely do well."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Cassy Lopez
Issue 245: June/July 2018