Norwalk’s Donahue claims state wrestling title

Rylee Donahue admitted she usually “freaks out” before her wrestling matches.

However, that wasn’t the case as the Norwalk freshman prepared for her CIAC girls championship bout last Sunday in New Haven.

“I was talking with my friends who were very supportive of me and were also in the finals,” Donahue said. “So they understood what spot I was in and that helped. Just go in there with a clear head, go out and be smart and aggressive.”

If there were any nerves at any point during the state tournament, they certainly didn’t show.

Donahue, the No. 3 seed at 126 pounds, reeled off three straight victories, including a 7-0 shutout of top-seeded Emily DeSouza of Amity in the final, to claim a state championship at the Floyd Little Athletic Center.

It was a fitting finish to a great first season with the Bears, as Donahue cracked the starting varsity lineup at the beginning of season and became a key part of the team.

From Day One, it was clear to Norwalk coach Joey Ryan that Donahue was ready.

“Rylee is super-competitive,” Ryan said. “When I started this season, the first thing she told me was nothing about wrestling in the girls championships — she wanted to wrestle the boys in the boys’ one. And she did: She wrestled at LLs and did a great job and competed well.”

Donahue, who has wrestled since the second grade and was part of the Norwalk Mad Bulls and the Connecticut Marvels girls program, was ready for anything at the girls tournament.

“I’ve been doing this for a while so I was hoping to get good results and obviously it went my way,” Donahue said. “But anything could have happened so it was definitely exciting, especially because I’m only a freshman.”

“It’s all mental going out there. You have to physically get ready but it’s more just about focusing and getting into the game.”

Donahue had a first-round bye before pinning Masuk’s Gianna Silva in 3:20 in the quarterfinals.

In the semifinals, she fell 2-0 in the first period, but scored the next eight points for an 8-2 win over second-seeded Claire Keene of RHAM.

“She was just flourishing,” Ryan said, “Strength was an issue wrestling against boys this year, but this weekend, the playing field was leveled out for her. So she could really just flourish with her technique. She really just came into her own, wasn’t hesitant and did anything she wanted to do. She controlled all of her opponents pretty handily.”

In the final, Donahue jumped ahead of DeSouza 5-0 with a takedown and nearfall a minute into the match. She scored two more points with a third-period reversal to win by seven.

Both Donahue and Ryan felt the experience she gained wrestling varsity all winter was a factor in the championship tournament.

“Wrestling the boys is definitely a lot harder because they’re boys and they’re a lot stronger,” Donahue said. “But because it’s harder, it made wrestling girls a little easier. You’re equal to them strength-wise. It’s like fair play.”

“A lot of these girls couldn’t crack their varsity lineups, but Rylee has been getting experience all season,” Ryan said. “She had around 20 matches this season and they were really competitive. She won matches for us at the FCIACs, won matches for us at LLs and then won her tournament.”

Donahue compared the Norwalk wrestling program to a “big family” and said her teammates were accepting and supportive of her throughout the year.

“In our room, we don’t treat anyone like freshmen, seniors, girls, boys — they’re all wrestlers to me,” Ryan said. “I think she liked that. She thrived through the program and the culture we’ve created.”

She’s also been a part of a phenomenal season for the Bears, who finished sixth in the FCIAC, and eighth in the CIAC Class LL and State Open tournaments. Norwalk has three wrestlers competing in the New Englands this weekend: Brendan (195) and Ryan Gilchrist (182) and Phoenix Gardella (120).

“It’s a really good feeling because I’m part of this team and I contributed to most of the varsity meets,” Donahue said. “Taking the time every single day for practice and sticking to it is hard, let alone going out there and separating your social life to straight wrestling for however long your season is. It’s not an easy thing.

“So knowing that we did so well makes me feel good and also really proud of everyone else.”

david.stewart@hearstmediact.com; @dstewartsports