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North's Lopez goes for fourth state title

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Faith in yourself and having the resolve to see things through no matter the obstacle, it’s that spirit that has North Medford senior Kyleigh Lopez on the brink of history at this point in her life.

With a No. 1 seed heading into the first girls wrestling state tournament sanctioned by the Oregon School Activities Association, Lopez will look to cap what has been a remarkable ascension in the sport Friday and Saturday by earning her fourth straight state championship at Portland’s Memorial Coliseum.

“I’m pretty excited, I’m happy it’s finally here,” says the 5-foot-3 standout, whose first three titles came in unsanctioned exhibition showings. “I’ve worked hard these past four years to get to the point where I am now.”

“Over the past few years I never thought that they were actually going to sanction (girls wrestling in Oregon),” she adds, “but it’s good to see how the years have grown and how many more girls have participated in wrestling at girls state, making it more competitive. It’s good to say that I have an actual shot at being an actual state champion.”

Should Lopez claim the championship at 115 pounds this weekend, she would take the first pivotal step in also becoming Oregon’s first four-time triple-crown winner in girls wrestling, with freestyle and Greco-Roman events to follow this spring.

Not bad for someone who wouldn’t even be in the sport were it not for a little creative negotiation back when she was an eighth-grader.

“I remember when she first asked, ‘Dad, can I wrestle?’” recalls Phillip Lopez, who has served as North Medford’s wrestling coach for six seasons before resigning two weeks ago. “I said, ‘No.’”

It wasn’t like the father was concerned about his daughter moving into a male-dominated sport, mind you. It was more about questioning whether she truly was interested in wrestling or was just saying that because she felt obligated to try since he was a wrestling coach.

Kyleigh had also grown up playing volleyball and softball and put so much into those sports, Phillip was concerned how adding wrestling would affect those pursuits.

So what’s any headstrong young lady supposed to do? With the urging of club wrestling coach Lester McFall, Kyleigh found an answer.

And Phillip soon found his when he was asked to handle a club practice in McFall’s absence five years ago.

“I just remember going into the room and they’re warming up,” says Phillip, “and I just remember looking at Kyleigh and Kyleigh kind of looking at me. Her face turned purple and she kind of stared, got close to me and just stopped and said, ‘Mom said I could!’”

And that’s how it all began, with Jennifer Lopez giving the stamp of approval her husband wouldn’t.

“I’m pretty thankful they did that,” says Phillip, crediting his wife for unwavering support for Kyleigh and their other children, Myah and Tygren.

“She’s my kid so I’m always proud of her,” he adds. “When Dad tells her no, probably the best decision she ever made was not listening to me. At least that one, I’ll give her that mulligan.”

Success was immediate, with Kyleigh advancing to the middle school district finals and regionals against the boys. At that point, the dye was cast for her new path.

“She was getting a lot of attention beating up on some pretty good boys so she liked it,” laughs Phillip.

Having grown up in wrestling rooms, scrambling around with her little brother Tygren while Phillip was busy coaching, there was a natural draw to the sport that Kyleigh couldn’t get past.

“It was just exciting to see how other people were pushed mentally and physically in a sport and I wanted to try it that way,” she says. “Also, my little brother wrestled and I’m competitive with him.”

The rest, as they say, is history as Kyleigh began to increasingly focus on becoming a top-tier wrestler and set aside her volleyball and softball pursuits.

“She’s a worker,” says Phillip. “It doesn’t matter what sport she’s in, she’s a student of the game and have fun telling her she can’t do that because she definitely always has that small-man syndrome where she’ll work it and work it and improve her craft just to prove she can.”

Through a tireless work ethic and focus, Kyleigh has gone on to earn All-American status in the girls wrestling realm, shining at national events and also coming close to making the World team.

Lopez is No. 14 in the nation at 112 pounds in high school girls rankings developed by the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, USA Wrestling and FloWrestling. Phoenix junior Emma Truex — who is seeking her third straight state title this weekend — is No. 19 at 127 pounds.

“From when I started to now, I’m a lot more confident in myself,” says Lopez. “When I first started, it was just me being aggressive and me forcing stuff. Now I get a game plan against girls that are good or even guys, too. Now I get to work more with technique instead of being just physically better than someone.”

And, oh yeah, she still competes with the boys during the season. This year, she spent more time on the boys side and actually considered trying to make the boys state tournament before settling in on trying to put a bow on her girls tournament run.

“I have a lot of pride when I beat a guy,” Kyleigh laughingly admits. “When I beat a girl, it’s just like, ‘Oh, I beat another girl.’ But when I beat a guy it’s just like, ‘Whoa, look at me, I’m the best.’”

Lopez credits regular training with boys as part of the North Medford program as a big boost to her career, saying that has given her confidence to stand up against any competition.

Another benefit came when she began putting volleyball and softball back in the mix. She played volleyball her freshman year but after winning state in wrestling, she stowed her softball glove away. As a sophomore, she gave wrestling her total commitment, and that didn’t work out so well for anyone in the family.

“My sophomore year I only did wrestling and I got semi-burnt out with that,” she says, “so playing volleyball and softball (again as a junior and senior) really got my mind off of it and it also made me better. Volleyball and softball both work different kinds of muscles and it made me more technically sound overall as a wrestler.”

That may have been one lesson she could have learned earlier had she listened to her dad.

“I remember telling her that you shouldn’t do this and you’re going to regret it,” he says of when she stopped playing softball and volleyball, “but in her mind she was thinking I need to catch up to these couple of girls because that’s all they do and it’s what I want to do.”

But when your daughter is as headstrong as Lopez, all you can really do is lend your support and be open for anything.

The one thing Phillip has always known is that Kyleigh is definitely one who rises to the occasion.

“What I like is that when she goes out there, win or lose, it’s her best,” he says. “She’s not one for excuses.”

“I’m super proud that she takes pride in her sport and that she’s headstrong to take on any adversity that comes her way, and she’s the one that’s doing it, it’s not mommy or daddy and not anyone else that got her to this point.”

Truth be told, though, Kyleigh says she’s ready for this chapter in her life to be complete so she can move on at Southern Oregon University in pursuit of another goal, to be an Olympic wrestler.

“I definitely just want to get it over with, there’s a lot of pressure in wanting to be a four-time state champion,” she admits. “There’s a lot of things I have to back it up with.”

Interestingly enough, of all her title pursuits, this one isn’t shaping up to be as tension-filled as one might believe.

“Honestly winning my second one was probably the hardest one,” says Lopez, alluding to her ability to prove the first wasn’t a fluke. “There was a lot more pressure then than winning the first one and the third one. I don’t even feel as much pressure in winning this last one than my second one.”

See how she did here.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Kyleigh Lopez North Medford girls wrestlingThumbnail
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneNorth Medford’s Kyleigh Lopez at practice Wednesday.