The wrestling hotbed of Pennsylvania just got a bit hotter, as Berks Catholic High School in Reading will be putting a brand-new wrestling program on the mat come this December.
Berks Catholic -- a four-year, 800-student co-ed Roman Catholic high school -- will be the first private school wrestling program in Berks County in eastern Pennsylvania since Central Catholic ended its program in 2007. However, for the past dozen years, Berks Catholic students have been able to wrestle at Reading High as part of a co-op agreement.
Berks Catholic is already in the process of putting together an independent schedule for the new wrestling program for the 2019-20 season, with the hope of being accepted into the BCIAA (Berks County Interscholastic Athletic Association) for wrestling in the 2020-21 season.
The man behind the effort to bring one of Pennsylvania's most popular sports to Berks Catholic is Derek Sola, who, as the Saints' head wrestling coach, has been building the foundation for the new program over the past four years as an instructor at the school.
Sola brings nearly three decades of experience as a wrestler and coach to the new Berks Catholic program. As a freshman at Conrad Weiser in 1996, Sola ended an eight-year Berks County drought in the PIAA (Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association) state wrestling finals when he was the Class 2A runner-up at 103 pounds.
After continuing his on-the-mat career at Millersville University -- where he was a qualifier for the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships -- Sola has served as the head coach at Lampeter-Strasburg, Pennridge and Hamburg high schools. He guided Hamburg to the PIAA Team Tournament Class 2A semifinals in 2015, a year before leaving Hamburg to become a teacher at Berks Catholic.
Experience aside, building a new high school wrestling program from scratch hasn't been easy for Sola. The wrestlers practiced at John Paul II Center for Special Learning in Shillington for two years before an old weight room was transformed into a wrestling room at Berks Catholic last fall.
"It's a huge challenge," Sola told the Reading Eagle. "You're literally starting with nothing. We had to raise a lot of money. It's a lot of work. We've pretty much been going year 'round."
Sola's efforts appear to be paying off. There are now 75 wrestlers in the elementary program and 18 on the junior high team. The Saints have competed at the junior high level the last two seasons and, this past season, hosted a junior high tournament.
"It's been fun," according to Sola. "It's definitely an experience to start a program from scratch. We have a lot of great people involved from the elementary level on up. When you have a lot of good people involved, good things happen."