When you’re on a winning team, it’s easy to maintain your competitive spirit.
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ASHLAND — As tough as she is to mark on the soccer pitch or catch up to while running on the track, Sadie Bailey couldn't escape the trained eye of Ashland wrestling coach Tony Champion.
In her defense, it wasn't like Champion had many obstacles in his line of sight as he put about a dozen wrestlers through their daily routine in the winter season.
For the past two years, Champion says he would look up and there was Bailey, pacing back and forth past the entrance to the wrestling room.
"She would just be walking outside back and forth every week, just looking in and watching," says Champion. "You could tell there was something there but she was really shy about it."
Shyness never really was a factor for Sydney Norvell. Her only issue was making a decision on what to do to stay in shape once her gymnastics career had run its course.
"Ever since I stopped gymnastics, which is a sport I'd done all my life, I had been searching for an intense and high-demanding conditioning sport," says Norvell.
Already a soccer player and member of the track and field team, similar to Bailey, Norvell filled her first vacant winter last year by joining the swim team. As someone who enjoys a new challenge, she looked for another winter option.
"I played powder puff football one day at school (in the fall) and I enjoyed the physical contact with it," says the junior Norvell, almost embarrassed by her admission. "Once I heard about wrestling and found out it was a winter sport, I just thought I'd try it. I didn't know any other girls who were doing it, but I thought it would be something fun to do."
And with that, the dominos began to fall — much to the delight of Champion.
First it was Norvell, then two weeks later junior foreign exchange student Ditte Beiskjar joined in. Shortly after that, freshmen Sofie Bogdanove and Joanne Lemley came on board. Finally, the senior Bailey crossed a threshold she'd been eyeing for two years.
"I'm a woman of challenge so I just like the whole idea of wrestling," says Bailey. "I really wanted to do it for a while and was interested and since this is my senior year, I finally decided that I'm just going to try this now."
Suddenly a wrestling program that has struggled to get participation had five female wrestlers in the mix — and no one was more excited about that than Champion.
"The girls are nothing but good for business," says Champion, in his second year as the Grizzlies' head coach. "It's been amazing. I really enjoy having them on the team."
In reality, adding the five girls has been a winning proposition on both ends.
The girls have not only embraced the challenge of wrestling, and wrestling against boys at that, they've found tremendous success, be it on the mat or through personal growth.
"The first day I went to wrestling I found out that I really enjoyed it and it has exceeded all my expectations," says the 5-foot-7 Norvell, who holds a 4-12 record primarily in the varsity lineup at 132 pounds. "I had no idea about wrestling or what to expect, but it's been one of the most amazing sports I've ever been involved with."
For Champion, their presence has added a needed jolt to his program — and allowed the Grizzlies to settle in with one of their largest squads in history at around 30 wrestlers.
"The number of people we have attending our home matches is actually pretty unbelievable from what we've had," says Champion, "and a big part is having girls on the team. People just want to see them wrestle. When they go out there and they're wrestling a boy, it's a completely different vibe "» and they don't even have to win. If they just get an escape or if they get a takedown, people go nuts. It's been really good for the sport of wrestling because it draws more spectators."
"Another thing it has done for us is the boys that usually might quit after a month or two, well, they're not going to quit when those girls don't quit," adds Champion, who won three straight NCAA Division II national championships for Portland State. "These girls have come in and they want to win. There's some tough athletes there."
Bailey and Norvell are the only girls to secure spots in the varsity lineup, with Bogdanove, Lemley and Beiskjar competing at the junior varsity level. Bailey, whom Champion says is a natural talent, has been the most successful with her 9-12 record at 126 pounds, but all have won at least two matches. Bogdanove is 2-8 at 106, Lemley 3-12 at 138 and Beiskjar 2-9 at 152.
"The girls are great because they don't have that ego whereas the boys worry about the wins and losses so much," says Champion. "As long as they're having fun and enjoy it out there, the girls like it. They don't mind going out and getting beat, they just like going out there and fighting with the boys."
And it most definitely has been a fight for the girls, who have had to quickly develop from the ground up.
"I barely knew anything about wrestling," admits Bailey. "I just jumped in and said, 'OK, I'm ready to do this, what can you teach me?"
Making it easier has been a welcoming attitude throughout the Ashland program and community.
"Everyone was really encouraging right from the start, which I was really surprised about," says Norvell. "All the wrestlers were super sweet and I never really got any flack about joining the team. Everybody's just been super supportive and willing to do whatever they can to help."
For someone like senior standout Mason Montgomery, who was a state runner-up last year and title hopeful at 220 pounds this year, anything that can help the wrestling program develop is a good thing.
"It's cool to see how wrestling is kinda picking up again in Ashland, especially since they didn't even have a program six or seven years ago," says Montgomery. "It's kinda cool to have the extra attention and extra exposure we've had this year. I'm all for it."
What's even better for someone like Montgomery, who has poured his heart into the sport, is that his female teammates are taking the right approach: They're out there to compete; they're not out there for laughs.
"Wrestling's a sport where you can't just be on the team and coast," he says. "It's cool to see them sticking with it and working hard. It kinda pushes the guys on the team to work a little harder, I guess."
"I've always seen other teams who have girls and I've always supported it and think it's good," adds Montgomery. "It's cool when they're on your side and they're beating guys. I feel bad for those guys, but the girls kinda go out and show them who's boss, especially Sadie and Sydney."
If he were in a lighter weight, Montgomery says, Bailey definitely is a girl he wouldn't want to square off against.
"She's one of the most muscular people at our school," he says with a laugh. "She probably squats about 400 pounds and she's got some crazy arms, too. I feel like she scares guys when she goes out on the mat."
Bailey says she wasn't nervous at all having to wrestle against boys, she was only nervous about stepping on the mat in competition for the first time. Once she did, it became all about trying to pick up her first win — and then repeat that experience.
"I've surprised myself because I didn't know I had it in me," says the 18-year-old.
That first win, which came early in the season against Phoenix, is a moment Bailey says she'll never forget.
"Me and the guy went at it for a while and in the second round I caught a head and arm and, bam, before you knew it he was on the ground and everyone was like, 'Where'd that come from?'" says Bailey. "He couldn't move and it was like, 'Yep, this is it, this is the win.' After that first match that I won I got really pumped and I was ready for the whole season."
Norvell's main goal was simply to get through the season — and given the intensity of a wrestling practice she feels like she's accomplishing something each day — but she couldn't help but dream of more.
"After a while I really wanted to beat somebody, and I ended up doing that," she says. "Then I ended up wanting to make my goal to be in a varsity meet, and I did that, too. Then when I finally won a varsity match, that was the best feeling I've ever had. Being on varsity is such a big accomplishment that it just already feels good, and to win feels even better."
And at no time has it been about what gender is standing in opposition.
"A lot of people ask me what it's like wrestling guys, but I don't focus on that at all," says Norvell. "It doesn't feel like I'm wrestling a guy or girl, it just doesn't cross my mind at all. It's like you're so nervous and right when the whistle blows everything just calms down and you're focused in on what you need to do."
That said, the girls do realize that the gender difference may be on the mind of the boys they have to face.
"People I've talked to who have to go against us say the same things, that it's hard for them because if you lose, you lose to a girl," says Norvell, "but if you win, then it makes you look like a bad person because you beat a girl."
"Generally they're all really nice people and I totally understand," she adds. "I mean, even I don't want to lose to a girl. I don't think anyone wants to lose to a girl, but sometimes that's just the way it is."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry