HOWARD COUNTY, MD — Mt. Hebron senior Cassy Lopez stood out competing against mostly boys for the last four years. The 106-pounder who wrestled for one of the best public school programs in the state has always been the underdog, despite competing three years on varsity and winning 29 matches — including 20 by fall — this winter.
But Lopez won't be overlooked any longer. Instead, she will be a role model for high school girls for years to come.
Lopez made history Thursday afternoon at Mt. Hebron by becoming the first woman to sign a National Letter of Intent and receive a scholarship to wrestle at a Division-I school. She is the first signee for the newly formed women's wrestling program at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., which will start competing alongside 40 other schools in the Women's Collegiate Wrestling Association starting in 2019.
"I'm extremely happy and grateful to have received this opportunity to wrestle," said Lopez, who had four pins to win the 106-pound weight class at the first Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association women's state tournament on Feb. 3 and placed sixth at the Howard County championships. "It has sunk in, definitely, and I am really excited to see how it grows now that Division-I programs are starting to open up."
Mark Cody, who was hired as Director of Wrestling at Presbyterian in December after six seasons as the men's wrestling coach at Oklahoma and nine at American University, said he was looking for someone to build the program around. Lopez, in his mind, was the perfect choice.
"It's great. She's already made history," said Cody, who took over at American in 2002 after the school dropped the wrestling program and was the National Wrestling Coaches Association's Coach of the Year in 2011. "We expect her to be a pioneer for this program, as well as the sport. ... She's got a great personality, academically she's done great, she's done great on the wrestling side. She's a very special person and to have her as our first signee is going to be great for women's wrestling across the country, as well as right here at Presbyterian."
Lopez said she fell in love with the sport as a freshman after training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu for three years, as well judo. Dan Harman saw her potential when he took over as the Vikings head coach before her sophomore season.
"She's tough. She got overlooked a lot and she's tougher than people realize," he said. "She developed into a regular, good varsity starter and contributing to a very successful team. Her strength as well, people overlook that. She's just an overall hard worker."
Lopez won the 106-pound JV county title as a sophomore with four first-period pins but missed the postseason last year due to an injury. This season, she went 29-19 and helped Mt. Hebron win its second 3A East regional dual championship and reach the 3A state duals final for the second time in program history. Lopez also became the first female to win the Maryland State Wrestling Association's "Triple Crown" by capturing titles in folkstyle, freestyle and Greco-Roman. She's done it twice.
Lopez was one of about 80 girls to compete in the first-ever MPSSAA women's state tournament, and the number of high school girls competing nationwide has grown considerably in recent years. Since 1994, the number of girls who wrestle in high school has grown from 804 to more than 11,496, and the participation numbers are higher than NCAA sponsored sports like crew, fencing, skiing, rifle, sand volleyball and equestrian, according to the NCWA.
The growth in Maryland in particular has risen significantly, especially after Rockville native and former Magruder High School star Helen Maroulis became the first American woman to win an Olympic gold in the 2016 Rio Games. One of Lopez's mentors, Nicole Woody, was the first Maryland female to reach the state finals in 2007 competing for Arundel. Both Maroulis and Woody were All-Americans in college, but neither had the opportunity to compete for a Division-I school.
Lopez was first made aware of Presbyterian after receiving an email from University of Maryland head coach Kerry McCoy. She filled out an application, was accepted to the school and immediately sent a wrestling resume to Cody, who happened to be in Washington D.C. that weekend in mid-March.
"When I read the email I was pretty excited about what she had done in the sport, so I contacted her immediately and had lunch with her that weekend, and about a month later I had here out here and she loved it and loved the school," Cody said. "It fits in line with what she wants to do with her future ... everything really fell into place and it worked out great."
Cody said the next step is to have the NCAA officially sponsor women's wrestling as a sport. He said there is a petition to the NCAA to grant the sport full status and there are "a lot of other Division-I schools looking at this and waiting to see how is this going to go."
"There are a lot of other Division-I schools that have shown interest in starting a women's program."
But for now, Lopez is the first to earn an opportunity that many hope will be more available in years to come. The significance of it isn't lost on Lopez, either. She hopes to inspire other girls to wrestle in high school and hopefully follow in her footsteps at a Division-I school.
"What I would say to other girls who want to start is definitely give it a try," she said. "I fell in love with the sport so you never know, they might as well."