You really couldn't blame Carl Schnellenbach for being surprised.

Entering his 52d season as Ridley's coach, he certainly had earned the right to think he had seen all and experienced all he would see and experience in wrestling.

Then, this happened.

"I didn't believe it," he said.

For what he says is the first time in his half-century-plus reign, he has a female wrestler on his team.

Cass Ferrell, a 16-year-old junior, transferred back to the Ridley district after two years at Friends' Central and cracked the starting lineup as the 106-pounder. Through 15 dual meets, she has won one match and earned four forfeit victories.

And here's another first for the venerable coach known as "Schnell": Well accustomed to coaching second-generation wrestlers, he has his initial father-daughter combination. He coached Mike Ferrell, Cass' dad, back in the 1980s.

"She doesn't miss [practices]. She's got a great attitude," Schnellenbach said of Cass Ferrell. "She's tough."

She's experienced and accomplished, too.

Cass Ferrell has been wrestling for about eight years, both in girls-only competition and against boys.

She competed with boys at Ridley Middle School. She also was a member of the Friends' Central team. But in the Friends Schools League, competition was sparse - because of their Quaker beliefs, some schools chose to forfeit matches against her.

Ferrell also works out with, and competes for, Women Only Wrestling, a club for females based at Friends' Central. The group participates in national tournaments.

Ask about her achievements on a national stage, and she rattles them off: Two national championships. Since she left elementary school, all-American status (for top-eight finishes) in every national tournament she has entered. Fourth place at folkstyle nationals last year, and second at freestyle nationals.

Facing boys in PIAA competition is obviously less eventful. "It's rough," she said of her season. Ferrell lost her first eight dual-meet matches - half by pin, half by decision - before entering the Delco Duals on Dec. 27. There, she earned a 5-2 decision against a boy from Avon Grove.

"When I wrestle boys, I feel like I go out with more aggression, and I just have to wrestle really tough, because guys are a lot stronger than me," Ferrell said.

Against girls, she added: "I think it's a more even playing field. You're not worried about strength issues. You just go out there with a plan, and you know what you're going to do, and you just execute your moves."

Ferrell beat out two Ridley boys for the starting spot at 106, the lightest of the 14 weight classes. In three wrestle-offs, the intrasquad challenges for lineup berths, she said she recorded two pins and an 8-0 decision.

"I didn't believe it, because this is not an easy sport," Schnellenbach said. "It's like a girl going out for football, except here there are weight classes."

Still, he added, Ferrell often gives up about eight pounds to opponents.

She's certainly confident. At a recent practice, partnered with freshman Sean Cannon, one of the boys she had beaten out, and she halted a drill to teach Cannon some throwing technique.

"She's a good wrestler. She's quick," Cannon said. As to how it felt losing to a girl, Cannon, who said he has been wrestling Ferrell since he was 6, termed it no big deal. "She's beaten me. She's just beaten me," he said. "I'm kind of used to it. She's been beating me for a while."

Then, he paid her the ultimate compliment.

It might bother him, he said, if a girl who had just started wrestling beat him.

"With her," he said of Ferrell, "I treat her like a boy."

As for the man of Ridley wrestling, Schnellenbach, 78, shows no signs of stopping - despite having retired after 40-plus seasons as an assistant football coach after Ridley's final game this past Thanksgiving, and despite having been diagnosed with congestive heart failure more than a year ago.

Schnellenbach, who said how he feels now compared to last year is "like night and day," entered this season sixth all-time in dual-meet coaching wins, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. He has a 721-206-7 record and a healthy number of wrestlers due to return next season.

"We have like 10 back next year. It would be tough to walk away from 10," Schnellenbach said.

Does that mean he'll definitely return for season No. 53?

"If I stay alive, yes," he said. "I mean, anybody can go at any time - I realize that - but I do feel much better."

Contact staff writer Lou Rabito

at 215-854-2916