Graphic courtesy of Sacred Heart University
FAIRFIELD, Conn.- The Sacred Heart University Pioneers will set a regional precedent with the launch of an NCAA Division I women's wrestling team.
This new athletics program officially begins in the fall of 2021. With this team, SHU now has 33 NCAA Division I sports — including 20 for women. And in true pioneering fashion, the University will become the first college in New England to offer Division I women's wrestling.
It's a vision turned into reality for John Clark, men's head wrestling coach. "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 program, which plans on hiring its first coach this coming January. Competition will then start the coming fall. 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.
"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 is a huge draw. 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."
Clark also expects support from the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA), which has already helped him tremendously in organizing the new program. In particular, he thanks Mike Moyer, the NWCA executive director.
"The Sacred Heart men's wrestling program has experienced incredible growth and success under head coach John Clark, and we are absolutely certain his leadership will propel the women's program to similar heights," Moyer said. "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."
Moyer lauded Sacred Heart's "extraordinary leadership" in setting this important precedent. His praise for the program was echoed by Charlie Dowd, deputy athletic director at SHU.
"We are thrilled to announce women's wrestling as SHU's 33rd varsity sport," Dowd said. "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."
Being first, however, does present challenges. Who will SHU 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 the Sacred Heart Pioneers," he adds, "and we are truly Pioneers."
Editor's Note - Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., the first Div. I school to offer women's wrestling, competed in their inaugural season in 2019-2020.