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Although it's not a sanctioned sport in Oregon, girls wrestling is considered a wave of the future for local coaches like Ashland's Tony Champion and Crater's Greg Haga.
Champion and Haga each have had at least one female wrestler as part of their varsity lineup throughout this season, and the number of girls certified for wrestling in the state has hovered in the 110-130 range over the past five years, according to statistics kept by the Oregon School Activities Association. This year, 139 Oregon girls were certified by the OSAA.
"I think the sport is so appropriate for so many different life challenges that the more kids we get involved, the better they will be in the long run," says Haga, who has guided the Comets to eight state titles in the highest classification during his tenure. "That's always my goal in wrestling, I want to promote the sport, and I guess winning, I kinda like that, too. Adding female wrestling, I think, is very smart on the part of the colleges out there."
The next step, ideally, would be to generate boys and girls wrestling teams at the high school level in Oregon, but this state is well behind Texas, Hawaii, California and Washington, where girls teams are flourishing. In comparison, last year there were about 1,300 girls wrestling in Washington.
"It's something I think is going to happen, it's just a matter of time," says Haga. "Once people start seeing colleges have female wrestling, then it's kinda hard to justify not to have high school wrestling here when there's an opportunity for them to go to college."
Haga points to programs that field women's wrestling like Menlo, Southwestern Oregon Community College, Pacific, Simon Fraser and, next year, Warner Pacific as valuable entities not only for what they do for interested females, but how they help with Title IX compliance.
"It's the wave that has allowed college programs to reinstate or maintain wrestling with Title IX by adding women's wrestling," he says. "You're going to see more and more of that in college wrestling."
Whether that has a trickle-down effect on high school girls wrestling here remains to be seen.
In order to be a sanctioned sport by the OSAA, according to assistant executive director Brad Garrett, 75 percent of the schools in the highest classification have to offer that activity. That means 38 schools would have to fully sponsor girls wrestling through the OSAA for its executive board to even consider it.
While Brooke Brower, a 113-pound varsity starter at Crater, and her junior varsity teammate Aisha McConaghy (195) are in the mix along with Ashland's fivesome of Sadie Bailey, Sydney Norvell, Sofie Bogdanove, Joanne Lemley and Ditte Beiskjar, girl wrestlers in Oregon are few and far between.
"To be honest with you, I've been a little disappointed that our numbers didn't grow faster than I thought they may," says Garrett.
Over the past few years, the OSAA has allowed exhibition matches for the top two finishers from the girls high school state qualifier in Cottage Grove to compete alongside the boys during the state tournament at Portland's Memorial Coliseum.
While that has generated some buzz, it really hasn't been enough to sway the general population. The girls state qualifier, featuring around 60 wrestlers, was scheduled for Saturday but had to be canceled due to weather issues, with a reschedule date still to be determined. As another step toward gaining exposure, the OSAA is going to allow the top four finishers from each of the 10 weight classes at that qualifier to compete during this year's state tournament, with the semifinals mixed in among the boys matches on Friday, Feb. 28, and the championships to be wrestled on two mats during the boys semifinals the next morning.
To further the cause, Haga says he's talked with Champion and others in the area about gathering all the female high school wrestlers to form one team in the spring that can barnstorm areas like Eugene, Salem and Portland and wrestle against girls from those areas.
North Medford head coach Phillip Lopez came to the area over the summer from Reedsport High School and got to see firsthand what quality girls wrestling could be like. One of his wrestlers last year, Kaylynn Hixenbaugh, finished third in her regular district to miss out on a state bid but was part of the exhibition matches and pinned her way to a championship.
"I don't think enough people realize there are some really tough girls out there who really know how to wrestle and enjoy it," says Lopez, who doesn't have any girls on his team at North. "It's an easy scholarship, too, for the most part for girls because we have all these colleges out there, but it's just hard to find girls in Oregon to give one to. There just isn't enough sanctioned stuff out there for them so they have to make a name for themselves against the boys."
The scholarship issue is a main one for Haga, who only sees opportunity out there waiting to be had.
"There are scholarships out there for people and who wants to turn that away," says Haga. "If I can get them to college, I don't care how we do it. One of my top goals is can we get these kids moving on from high school to college, whether they wrestle or not."
One thing that has helped at Ashland, according to the girls on the wrestling team, is that they've been welcomed into the fold with open arms.
"The only reaction I got was, 'It's nice to see you in here,'" says Ashland senior Sadie Bailey upon joining the team after years of debating the move.
Champion says the decision to allow girls in his program was an easy one and hopes others throughout the state will follow suit. In Bailey, he saw an all-state soccer player and standout track and field athlete who kept pacing outside the wrestling room until ultimately deciding to come in this year.
"You have girls like that who probably want to do it but they don't think they're going to be accepted going into those environments," says Champion. "I just opened the door and said, 'Come on in, let's train you.'"
The end result has been more spectators at his team's dual meets and considerably more interest in his program, as well as considerable personal growth among each of the girls, who neither ask for nor get any special treatment.
"I just basically made an internal decision that I can't be any different to you than I am to the boys," he says of what he told each girl. "I have to treat you exactly the same way. If you're coming into this wrestling room you're no different, you're just a body."
The ability to take on that challenge and persevere alongside her teammates — male or female — has Norvell hoping more girls give it a try throughout Oregon.
"I just think the most important thing is those girls should not listen to people who are trying to keep them down," says Norvell. "If they want to try it, they should really focus on it and go for it because it ends up being way more rewarding than you ever think it will be."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry