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Sacred Heart to add Division I women’s wrestling program in fall 2021

Southington High’s Ashley Reed was one of 10 girls to win a championship in the first-ever CIAC Girls Invitational in New Haven last February.

Wrestling is growing at Sacred Heart University – home to Connecticut’s only Division I wrestling program.

Sacred Heart announced that the Pioneers will be the second NCAA Division I school in the country to field a varsity women’s wrestling beginning in the fall of 2021. Sacred Heart University men’s coach John Clark also said that the school is working to establish a regional training center for men and women.

The plan is to have the women’s wrestling team up and running next fall. The school is looking to hire a head coach for the women’s program in January. Clark, who will continue at coach of Sacred Heart’s men’s program, will be the director of Operations for both wrestling programs.

It’s a vision turned into reality for Clark. “This is a goal I had since I started three years ago,” he said. “This is great for women, this is great for Sacred Heart. This is great for so many people.”

“I think it’s important that the NCAA recently labeled women’s wrestling as an emerging sport,” Clark said. “But even before that, I saw the potential. Anything that guys can do, girls can do, too. This is an equal opportunity.”

Clark has worked for the past year on launching the woman’s program. Clark expects rapid growth for the women’s team. After all, his men’s team has doubled in size — from 26 athletes to 51 — since his arrival. The men’s team had their first winning season since 2003-04 last winter at 8-6.

“We see tremendous opportunity here,” Clark said. “If I had to start a program from scratch, I don’t know how much better of a location you could put that program than right here. New York, New Jersey and New England are rich in talent and quantity in terms of both men and women wrestlers.

“Our location (in Fairfield) is a huge draw,” Clark said. “I am excited to take this step as a university and this wouldn’t be possible without the tremendous support from the dedicated leadership on campus. Sacred Heart University is such a special place to be and the addition of women’s wrestling will continue to provide broad-base opportunities for the student-athletes on campus.”

Sacred Heart University John Clark recruiting at February’s New England championships. Clark is helping bring women’s wrestling to SHU.

Clark also expects support from the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA), which has already helped in organizing the new program.

“The NWCA was thrilled to help facilitate the solicitation of substantial start-up funds in support of this historic announcement. Included in this support was a very generous gift-in-kind donation of uniforms from adidas/wrestling,” said Mike Moyer, executive director of the NWCA.

Women’s wrestling will be the 33rd varsity sport at Sacred Heart and the 20th for women.

“This is an exciting step to help grow the sport of women’s wrestling across the nation, in addition to rounding out our wrestling program,” said Charlie Dowd, deputy athletic director at SHU.

Being first, however, does present challenges. Who will Sacred Heart compete against if they are the initial college in New England with a Division I women’s team?

Clark does not foresee problems in finding opponents. “I was asked to do a schedule last week and was able to come up with 11 competitions, between dual meets and tournaments, that would not require us to travel past Pennsylvania,” he said.

That number of meets and travel schedule are both appropriate for a first-year program, the coach believes. From there, the women’s team should grow in the years ahead.

“The goal is to promote this as much as we can,” Clark said. “In terms of competition, we are all about equal opportunity for male and female athletes.”

“We are truly Pioneers,” he said. “It will change the sport as I know it will.”

Clark said the school is still working out details about the regional training center, which would provide an opportunity for men and women to train all year long. There would be programs for wrestlers at the scholastic level and wrestlers looking to train to compete at the international and Olympic levels.

The only women’s wrestling program sponsored by a school at the Division I level is Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina. Presbyterian had their first-ever season last year and went 6-6 and finished tenth in the country at the first-ever Cliff Keen Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association (WCWA) national championship in Michigan last March.

McKendree University, a NCAA Division II school, from Illinois won the national tournament.

Content from Sacred Heart’s news release included in this story. Posted on Monday, September 21, 2020

Gerry deSimas, Jr., is the editor and founder of Connecticut Wrestling Online. He is an award-winning writer and has been covering sports in Connecticut and New England for more than 40 years. He was inducted into the New England High School Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2018.

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