It doesn’t seem that long ago when Gloucester High School wrestling coach Tom McConnell saw incoming high-school student Jaclyn McDowell sitting at club wrestling practices while injured, physically writing down notes on moves and drills she could use to improve her wrestling skills before reaching high school.
McConnell, who is also involved in the community’s youth-wrestling programs, was one of the coaches who noticed McDowell’s passion for learning about the sport at such a young age.
“That was my first real interaction with her,” McConnell said. “She came to all of our open workouts while she was injured and actually took notes on what she thought was important to remember each day. She couldn’t do the technique, obviously, with her being injured, but she was writing notes as we went along, and that was the first thing that kind of tipped me off that she would be something special pretty soon.”
McDowell would later become the first girl in Gloucester history to suit up for the Lions upon reaching high school. But the current sophomore recently added an even more impressive milestone to her list of accomplishments, becoming the first Gloucester wrestler — boy or girl — to win a region title. McDowell went 4-0 en route to an individual championship in the 100-pound weight class at the NJSIAA 2022 South Region girls wrestling tournament at Kingsway High School.
McDowell was the runner-up in the regional tournament as a freshman last season, before finishing fourth in the state meet. Following her recent regional title this year, McDowell was seeded fourth heading into the NJSIAA girls’ state tournament.
Having moved to Gloucester from Audubon during middle school, McDowell originally ran cross country and track and field, and developed an interest in long-distance running as her brother took up wrestling. But the thought hadn’t crossed her mind to join the sport herself, until she noticed a girl wrestling in matches when she would watch her brother.
“It wasn’t until then that I realized, ‘Oh wait, girls can do wrestling, too.’ So I joined right up,” McDowell said.
Toby Hague, an assistant coach at Gloucester who has worked primarily with McDowell and the other girl on the team, was familiar with the young wrestler before she reached Gloucester High’s halls. Having seen firsthand her passion for the sport and her drive to get better, Hague said McDowell’s dedication to being the best she can be, despite her young age on the mat, has helped her become one of the top girls wrestlers in South Jersey.
“Right away, you could see a lot of good fundamentals, and she’s always asked the right questions in terms of how to get better,” Hague said. “She has all the right attributes to be a successful wrestler.”
A regular season shortened this year due to injuries led the sophomore to only wrestle in 10 matches before the start of the postseason. Fortunately, McDowell’s strong mindset and drive kept her focused on getting better however she could, despite not logging as much time in physical matches as she would have liked for the postseason.
For that reason, Hague and McConnell agree McDowell is a trailblazer in Gloucester wrestling – and winning – for a sport that continues to grow throughout the state.
“Within our school, I don’t think she realizes how important what she’s doing is in general, but also for our program especially,” Hague said. “We have two girls at our middle-school level and a handful that are wrestling at the elementary-school level, but she’s serving as the pioneer for girls wrestling in Gloucester.”
“It can be hard for girls to step through those wrestling-room doors, but we’re seeing that get a little easier thanks to Jaclyn,” McConnell said. “They’re interested in it and asking some questions while watching what she’s doing …
“She’s helping promote the awareness of the sport, whether she intended to or not,” McConnell added.
Girl-specific teams have formed at several area schools in recent years. While McDowell and a teammate wrestle for the Lions, more wrestlers are needed to form a girls team that can go up against other schools.
For that reason, McDowell said she hopes what she’s done encourages more girls to come out for the team in the future, with a possible girls team forming by the time she graduates.
“I hope that my success has brought some of the people that have thought about it but were nervous about wrestling boys to come out and help it grow,” McDowell said. “I hope to have an actual girls team by the end of my senior year.”