UPPER MARLBORO — Queen Anne’s County High assistant wrestling coach John Waters had not seen progress like this since Matt Olauson.
And he was a state champion.
Now, so is Ally Conley.
Conley became the first girl in Queen Anne’s County High history to win a state wrestling title late Saturday night, when she crafted a 14-2 major decision over North Harford’s Bryn Cespedes in the 100-pound final at the Class 2A/1A state championships at the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro.
“I won’t lie, I was tearing up last night,” said Lions head coach David Stricker, who was still getting text messages and comments on Facebook at 1:30 a.m. Sunday in celebration of Conley’s victory. “It probably won’t sink in (for awhile). It was the culmination of a lot of things, just being so happy for Ally.”
Only 14, Conley becomes just the fifth state champion in Queen Anne’s history, joining Olauson, who won back-to-back titles in 2014-13, Waters (1996) and Kevin Barney (1990). It was also the fifth straight tournament a wrestler from a North Bayside school won a state title — there was no state tournament last year because of the pandemic.
And it took a girl to do it.
But Conley admittedly wrestled with whether to step on the mat this year or stay with the school’s cheerleading squad.
“I knew they were having a competition team and I was thinking about it,” said Conley, who did cheer in the fall. “I was really debating on it for awhile.”
Conley wrestled in Queen Anne’s junior league program though, and she became more attracted to the sport watching her older brother William’s success on the mat.
“Always seeing him win, I thought it was really a cool sport, and I really wanted to get into it,” said Conley, whose brother, a sophomore, suffered an injury in December and missed the majority of the season. “He was really just my inspiration for going into this sport.”
So Conley chose wrestling over cheer, a decision that carried a different type of weight.
“To be in a sport where you walk into the room and there’s 30 guys, and looking around, there’s only two girls, three girls. That can be intimidating,” Waters said.
And though she was a freshman, Waters quickly recognized Conley wasn’t a novice.
“From the first practice I went to, the girls were on this side, the boys are over here, and we’re drilling,” Waters said. “And I’m looking over (at the girls) and I’m like, OK, ‘They’re doing it right. You guys are not.’”
Stricker made a concerted push to recruit girls into the program this season, partly because the Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association had started a girls’ tournament in 2019.
“I think it’s sort of an untapped half of the sport that we’re trying to get into,” Stricker said of getting girls to wrestle. “With Ally I knew she had some junior league experience and I think it helped the other girls on the team, like, ‘OK, this is a girl that has some experience. Do the moves that we’re talking about, and kind of show them.’”
Conley, Delaney Gray, Julia Reburn and Emme Dumont came out for the team. Reburn got injured during a dual meet against James M. Bennett. Dumont got a bigger part in the school musical and stopped wrestling because of rehearsals. Conley went 7-8 against boys during the regular season — though many of those wins were via forfeits. Still, she and Gray each qualified for states at the Class 2A East Regional.
Stricker and Waters continued to see progression. Conley rarely missed practice. She drove her way through daily drills and sweat-soaked workouts. And she managed to handle the season-long battle all wrestlers face of maintaining weight.
They also took notice of Conley’s wrestling style.
“She has a really good shot defense,” Waters said. “The girls will get in, and even the guys will get in on her, and they think they’re getting a takedown. And she sprawls, hammers the head, spins behind. She can score that way, which is very effective. And that breaks people down mentally.
“That type of wrestling style is hard,” said Waters, who won the 103-pound state title in ’96. “For me, when I wrestled someone who was a defensive wrestler, you shoot in and you’re like ‘Oh, I got a shot.’ And then they sprawl. Next thing you know, they’re behind you. Mentally it just wears you down. And then she has