Meet Cassy Lopez, the first woman to receive a scholarship to wrestle at a Division I school
ELLICOTT CITY, Md. -- Cassy Lopez never saw herself as a pioneer when she stepped onto the mat for her first wrestling match four years ago.
If you want to be specific, Lopez actually didn't see much of anything.
Lopez's vision was impeded half the time because her hair cap kept falling over her face. She eventually lost the high school match, but not before throwing down her male opponent to the ground in the final period.
"The crowd was like, 'Whoa,'" Lopez said. "It was a little wake-up call that girls can wrestle, too."
With newfound confidence -- as well as a sewed hair cap -- Lopez finished her varsity career at Mount Hebron High with a 45-29 record, pinning her male opponents 32 times. She then dominated the first Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association tournament for girls in February, pinning each of her first three opponents in 20 seconds or less before winning the championship with a pin at 1 minute, 13 seconds.
Her successful career culminated in a historic takedown, when Lopez became the first woman to receive a scholarship to wrestle at a Division I school. Last month, Lopez signed a national letter of intent for the newly formed women's wrestling program at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, which will start competing alongside 38 other schools in the Women's Collegiate Wrestling Association in 2019.
"As far as taking that big step forward, this is going to be huge for women's wrestling," said Mark Cody, the director of wrestling at Presbyterian.
Lopez lives about 30 miles north of the hometown of Helen Maroulis, who became the first American woman wrestler to win a gold medal at the Olympics in 2016. Like Maroulis, Lopez embraces the role of ambassador for one of the fastest-growing high school sports for girls.
Nationally, there are 15,000 young women participating in high school wrestling, according to Cody. The number of state high school championships for girls wrestling increased to nine this year.
Lopez has witnessed the burst in popularity in Maryland, where the state tournament participants quadrupled in her four years. When she attends a local tournament, she will get stopped by a younger girl for a handshake or photo.
"You inspire me," a girl once told Lopez.
There was no such inspiration for Lopez four years ago. She was initially reluctant to try out for wrestling in high school.
"Girls don't wrestle," Lopez told her father.
Her father brought up her background in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and how she had already competed against boys. Lopez attended the meeting to gauge the interest of newcomers, but coach Daniel Harman had seen her before. A student had previously approached Harman with a video of Lopez throwing someone in a mixed martial arts tournament.
"She's a beast," the student said.
In Harman's 12 years of coaching wrestling, there have been three girls who've wrestled at the suburban Baltimore school. None had the talent or competitiveness of Lopez.
She looks forward to practicing a sport where bloody noses are a daily occurrence and where you typically leave the wrestling room drenched in sweat. Every time she steps on the mat, her challenge is to beat a male opponent who has a distinct physical advantage.
"I know she has skills and can protect herself. However, the strength factor is my No. 1 concern," said Paco Lopez, her father. "She wasn't going to get out-wrestled, but she was going against someone stronger."
Earlier this year, Cassy Lopez was losing to a male wrestler in her county by eight points in the final period. That's when Lopez went against technique, reaching up from bottom position to grab her opponent by his head and pull him down. She pinned him with one second left in the match.
"Don't count her out," Harman said. "She can get a guy to his back when they least expect it. On paper, that guy was probably a better wrestler than her. But that's the kind of stuff she would do."
At the end-of-the-year banquet, Harman pointed out what no one will forget about Lopez: the reaction she gets after throwing a boy to his back and pinning him.
"People stand and cheer for her, and they aren't Mount Hebron fans," Harman said. "It's great to see people respect her."
Off the mat
Lopez has other ways to knock you off your feet. She loves to cook. Her favorite dish is pasta and shrimp with a vodka or alfredo sauce. Her other interests include snowboarding, kayaking, fishing and watching the latest Marvel movie. From an early age, Lopez always wanted to be involved in something -- from dance to gymnastics to soccer.
In high school, her grade-point average is 3.31 (out of a 4.0 scale). A first-generation college student, Lopez is set to pursue a career in the dental industry, which has been her goal since middle school.
As far as wrestling, Lopez feels there's been more positive feedback than negative. At the beginning, Lopez did hear the occasional, "Wow, I can't believe you're wrestling" comment from friends.
These days, it's "when isn't Lopez wrestling?" She practices every day from Monday to Friday. She competes in a tournament on Saturdays and then helps coach her brother's team on Sundays.
"The biggest challenge is giving up weekends," Lopez said.
The next step
Cody has received plenty of emails from high school wrestlers over the years about joining his college programs. Few were as impressive as Lopez's. She sent an email with a list of her accomplishments that included her blue belt in jiu-jitsu, her three years with the Spanish Heritage Club and her most valuable player award on the junior varsity team.
"Usually, you have to reach out and find people like Cassy," Cody said.
Cody understands about building programs. He was formerly at the University at Oklahoma, where he led the Sooners to four top-13 finishes and produced 10 All-Americans.
Now, Cody is handling a potential landmark team. Presbyterian became the first school in Division I women's wrestling last December. If Presbyterian is successful, Cody believes an NCAA championship for women's wrestling will happen at some point.
It all begins with Lopez.
"I felt she was someone we could build this program around," Cody said. "I was looking for that type of person."