DES MOINES, Iowa — Cassy Herkelman would have rather wrestled Joel Northrup than to become by default the first girl to ever win a match in Iowa’s state tournament. But the 14-year-old said Friday she didn’t feel slighted when he refused to wrestle her because she was a girl.
Northrup’s decision garnered national publicity a day earlier, when the two were set to meet in a first-round match. Northrup, a favorite to win his 112-pound weight class, cited his religious beliefs and said he didn’t think it appropriate to engage with a girl in a combat sport that could get violent.
"He had the right to make his own choice, and he made his choice," said Herkelman, one of two girls in this year’s tournament. "It’s not like he did what he didn’t want to do."
Her father expressed similar sentiments shortly after his pony-tailed daughter was eliminated following losses in two matches Friday. Northrup, who moved into the consolation bracket after defaulting, also was knocked out of the tournament after a loss.
Bill Herkelman said his family held no ill will towards Northrup, a home-schooled sophomore who competes for Linn-Mar High School, or his family.
"That’s their belief, and I praise them for sticking to it. This is the biggest stage in wrestling in the state, I would say, and they stuck to their beliefs when it probably tested it the most," he said. "It was probably a tough pill for him to swallow."
Despite the media buzz, there was little reaction from the 6,000 spectators at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines when Herkelman lost her first match Friday. Focus was divided among the several other matches taking place during a tournament that attracts high school wrestlers from across Iowa.
Herkelman said it would be a "lot more fun and more exciting" if girls could wrestle other girls in Iowa instead of having to face boys. She had a 20-13 record at Cedar Falls High entering the tournament and thinks it would have been a close match between her and Northrup.
Ottumwa High School sophomore Megan Black, the only other girl to make the tournament in its 85-year history, watched both of Herkelman’s matches from the stands Friday. She was eliminated Thursday after losing both her matches.
"She tried hard, so that’s good," Black said.
Herkelman’s teammates, KC Groomes and David Langley, said they’ve wrestled girls before without issue and praised Herkelman for her demeanor throughout the tournament.
"With all the pressure she had on her, I thought she did pretty good. She handled it pretty well and didn’t let it get to her head or anything," Langley said.
On Thursday, Northrup said he respected Herkelman and Black but didn’t think he should compete against them. In a statement issued through his school, he said "as a matter of conscience and my faith I do not believe that it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner. It is unfortunate that I have been placed in a situation not seen in most other high school sports in Iowa."
High school and college wrestling draw huge crowds in Iowa, and the annual tournament in Des Moines is followed closely throughout the state.
Herkelman, who also runs track and plays softball, is hoping to qualify for the state tournament again next year — but under less scrutiny.
"I feel like I’m going to make it here and make it further in the state tournament than just three matches," Herkelman said. "I feel like I’ll do better next year."