Then the school’s administration stepped in.
Sprague said the athletic director informed him that the school president would not allow it. Sprague wrote a letter stating his case and then met with both administrators.
According to notes that Sprague took from that October meeting with President Jeffrey Mancabelli and Athletic Director Dennis Hart, the administrators told the coach that coed participation would cause potential issues with other sports. They also brought up a viewpoint from a school board member that it could hurt the school’s ability to recruit “alpha males.”
“I still thought that there were things I could do internally at the school to help change it,” said Sprague, 25, who works for a consulting company and is not a member of the school’s full-time staff. “I made it my mission to do everything I could to get that changed.”
But as the Cadets near the end of their season, with the D.C. State Athletic Association meet set for Saturday and the National Prep Championships coming later this month, the female student was never allowed to take the mat for St. John’s.
Mancabelli and Hart declined interview requests, instead referencing a statement that Hart emailed to The Washington Post on the school’s behalf.
“Changing a single gender team to a coed team has potential implications not just for that particular team, but for other teams as well,” the statement read in part. “SJC will continue to evaluate what makes sense for our students in that regard, including for the wrestling team, but it would be imprudent and inconsistent with our policies to make such a change on an ad hoc basis in the middle of an academic year as was requested in this situation. Rather, the decision concerning whether to change the composition of a team deserves a thoughtful review.”
The family of the female student declined to comment for this story and asked that her name not be made public to protect her privacy.
After initially learning the student wouldn’t be allowed to compete, Sprague wrote a letter to Mancabelli and Hart asking them to reconsider. In the letter, which Sprague shared with The Post, he mentioned that he spoke with the head of WCAC wrestling and the director of the D.C. wrestling championships, both of whom confirmed that girls are allowed to wrestle during the season and in the end-of-year meet.
In the letter, Sprague provided historical context of St. John’s athletes competing against girls. He mentioned Helen Maroulis, who wrestled at Magruder High in Derwood before becoming an Olympic gold medalist. He cited SJC’s stated values on diversity and inclusion. He pushed for change.
“In 2021, it seems incredibly short sighted to deny one of our SJC students to compete in the co-ed sport of wrestling simply because of their gender,” Sprague wrote. “That is not the type of program that I want to represent and be a part of. As far as I am concerned, any SJC student in good academic standing, that is willing to show up to our practices, learn, and work hard is accepted and considered a valuable member of the St. John’s College High School’s wrestling team.”
Sprague, a Georgetown Prep and American University graduate who’s in his third season as the Cadets’ coach, finished his letter by saying, “I am happy to have a conversation with you about this.” And that’s what he got. When he met with Mancabelli and Hart, though, he could not change their minds.
“I thought I was going into a discussion. But it wasn’t,” Sprague said. “They already knew that they weren’t going to allow it. … It was decided, and there’s nothing I could have done.”
St. John’s confirmed it wasn’t Sprague’s call: “Decisions about the composition of teams, including issues like team size, gender, class-year eligibility, etc. are made at the level of the Athletic Director,” it said in its statement. “For obvious reasons, they are not made by individual coaches.”
Sprague said the administrators conveyed that St. John’s already had a disadvantage in vying for top boys’ athletes against other D.C.-area schools such as DeMatha and Gonzaga because St. John’s is a coed school. Sprague considered that a “confusing and ridiculous claim” and said the wrestlers on his team do not feel this way.
Sprague did not make his wrestlers available for comment on the matter, saying he didn’t want them to receive any “pushback from the school.”
In pushing for the girl’s right to compete, Sprague also worked with Sally Roberts, a former U.S. national champion and founder of Wrestle Like a Girl, an organization that advocates for female wrestlers. Roberts connected with Olympians around the area to “weigh in and use their voice,” she said. She messaged Maroulis, whom Roberts said tried to help while she was in Russia competing.
“Frankly, it’s dumbfounding to me to hear that this is still going on even after you have advocates like Michael,” Roberts said.
The St. John’s administrators suggested the girl form a club team and said in their statement to The Post: “When a club team operates successfully for three years, it then becomes eligible for varsity status. … This is a leadership opportunity for our students and a model that works for everyone involved.”
After finishing fourth at the WCAC wrestling championships this month, St. John’s on Saturday will try to defend the D.C. title it won in 2020, Sprague’s first year at the helm.
Although the girl who wanted to wrestle has been involved with the team as a manager, her presence on the mat has been missed. St. John’s doesn’t have a 106-pounder and has had to forfeit in lower weight classes. She would have been their 106-pounder.