Stepping onto the mat and into the future with the women’s wrestling program at Eureka College
Inside a once-vacant storefront at Eureka’s Lakeview Shopping Center, one of the area’s newest collegiate wrestling programs takes its first steps toward glory.
Their practice space holds three mats, and features large Eureka Red Devils logos spread across two walls. It’s humble beginnings for a team quickly gaining local traction.
Led by head coach Eric Biehl, the Eureka College men’s and women’s wrestling programs have made a splash in a community filled with wrestling fans of all ages.
“Our first home meet, I think we had like 300 people in the stands, which is crazy—especially for wrestling,” said Biehl. “A lot of wrestling meets are usually quiet, and it was loud in there.”
Biehl, who wrestled at Olympia High School and then gained All-American status at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, led the programs at Lincoln College to a successful final season that saw eight men and two women qualify for Nationals. When Lincoln officially closed its doors in May, Biehl was left with a squad of wrestlers suddenly unmoored and looking for a new home.
“I sent out a bunch of feelers to see if any schools wanted to pick up a program knowing that I could probably bring a lot of my wrestlers with me, so it’d be a pretty strong start,” said Biehl. “Eureka College seemed like the best fit for my athletes, so we wound up here.”
The women’s team in particular has been getting attention on social media, having brought the one of the newest branches of a quickly growing sport to the Peoria area. The two wrestlers who qualified for Nationals at Lincoln—McKenzie Cook of Homer, Alaska and Audrey Driskell of Pekin—are happy to be back on the mat.
With Biehl still at the helm, Cook says it feels like the same program with a new name. She has three younger sisters who also wrestle, and hopes she can continue carving a path for girls aiming to compete collegiately.
“I would love to see them wrestle in college one day,” said Cook. “Maybe when it’s a lot bigger than it is now so that there will be a lot more competition.”
The NCAA classifies women’s wrestling as an emerging sport, but growth is happening quickly across the country. There are now over 100 collegiate wrestling programs in the United States, and Cook is excited to be a part of the advancement.
“Years from now, people are going to look and see the girls that paved the way for them so they can wrestle, and we’ll be a part of that, and I think that’s cool,” said Cook.
For Driskell, her advice to girls considering wrestling is simple: just try it.
“I didn’t start wrestling until my sophomore year of high school,” said Driskell. “We talk about process over results a ton. You’re not going to win every match. You learn a lot when you don’t win. It’s definitely the process of becoming a better person [and] a better wrestler.”
Personal development on and off the mat is one of Biehl’s priorities for his teams. His coaching philosophy is to establish a “family mindset” with the wrestlers and then let the rest of the pieces fall into place.
His demonstrated success has carried over from Lincoln thus far, with Cook landing Eureka’s first-ever tournament title in November, and Driskell placing fourth in the same tournament. Going forward, Biehl hopes to place a heavy focus on recruitment to register a full team and avoid forfeits at weight classes they don’t currently have on the squad.
As of now, Biehl says he’s signed three additional women for the next year’s team and is hopeful of making his goal of 15-20 total wrestlers.
“I want them to have a full team, and I want them to experience what the men experience, with being able to compete as a team and have that tighter bond,” said Biehl.
At the end of the day, Biehl believes that those relationships measure just as much of an achievement as whatever happens on the mat.
“If they win an All-American status or national title on the way, that’s even better, it’s icing on the cake—but in the long run, that’s going to be a trophy that sits in a box somewhere,” said Biehl. “If they’re doing what they’re supposed to do by giving their 100% and buying into the program, then they’re going to get what they’re looking for.”