Hanging with the boys

Jerricha Haller proves she can hold her own against the guys

Abbie Beane / The Bulletin /

Wrestling — one of the most physical, stripped-down sports there is — can call to mind a primal battle. A battle not only for victory, but for social status, for respect and, most of all, for pride.

Now imagine getting beaten by a girl.

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At first, it’s hardly noticeable.

The Bend High School varsity and junior varsity wrestling teams stride in a straight line to the benches in front of the mats and wait for the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to begin. All stand confidently in their Lava Bear warm-ups.

Yet upon closer inspection, one team member is clearly different from the others — shorter, and wearing a fitted white T-shirt under the standard wrestling singlet. The wrestler also has long pigtail braids, pink shoelaces and other feminine features.

Sure enough, when the wrestlers are announced for the start of the 140-pound match, Bend’s Jerricha Haller — a girl — finds herself facing a male from the opposing team.

The teen male ego is as sensitive as a wrestler is tough.

The opposing team’s wrestler appears to be taking a ribbing from the bench.

“A lot of times the other teams talk garbage about me,” says 15-year-old Haller, a freshman and the only female wrestler on the Bend High team. “They yell out, ‘Come on! You can pin her!’ Then I start wrestling, and they find out they can’t pin me.”

Bending gender lines

Buck Davis, head wrestling coach at Bend High, still remembers Haller as a mere fourth-grader, when she stood 3 feet 8 inches tall and weighed about 70 pounds. At the time, she was wrestling as part of the Deschutes Mat Club and regularly attended her older brother Jared’s wrestling matches at Bend High.

“She came up to me after a meet one time,” recalls Davis. “She looked up at me and told me she would be the first girl to wrestle for Bend High. I looked down at her and said, ‘Well, I guess we’ll see.’ “

Young Haller nearly fulfilled her promise. Instead, she settled for becoming the second girl ever to wrestle at Bend High. Another female wrestler joined the team as a senior, the year before Haller graduated from the High Desert Middle School wrestling team to the Bend High squad.

Not only is Haller one of the few female high school wrestlers in Central Oregon, she also is one of the best.

According to Davis, she has won roughly as many matches as she has lost in the 140-pound division for junior varsity wrestlers — most of them against larger and often older boys. And she has a good shot at wrestling in this weekend’s Intermountain Conference district tournament in Hermiston.

Haller took third in her weight class two years in a row at the Central Oregon middle school district tournament, and she was told by her coach that she was the first girl ever to take third at the annual tournament.

Haller’s response? “I’m not a girl, I’m a wrestler.”

She also recently qualified for the U.S. Girls Wrestling Association National Championships by placing first in a field of four in her weight class at last month’s Oregon Wrestling Classic in Redmond. The national championship is set for March 27 through April 3 in Detroit. The USGWA is a Michigan-based organization that was founded in 1998.

“When she wrestles girls she always seems to have an advantage because she is used to wrestling boys,” notes Jerricha’s mother, Jackie Haller.

Davis notes that Jerricha (pronounced JER-i-kuh) has not only wrestled boys bigger, older and physically stronger than her, but she has also defeated them.

“She’s beat a bunch of guys,” says Davis. “She recently pinned a very mature freshman boy from Crook County High School. She also wrestled a senior guy from North Lake High School and gave him a real battle. This was a way bigger, physical kid at a solid 140. There have just been a number of situations like that.

“Some girls who wrestle are just tough girls but don’t have a lot of skills,” Davis observes. “Some boys are like that too. The first thing other coaches say when they see Jerricha wrestle is, ‘She has skills. She’s not just going through the motions. She can really wrestle.’ ”

Brother Jared, a four-year wrestler for Bend High, knows firsthand the importance of a wrestler’s technical ability.

“I’ve tried to help her out quite a bit and make sure she has all the moves just right,” says Jared. “As a female, she needs to do all the moves perfect.”

It’s no surprise to learn that Jerricha grew up in the company of four older brothers: Jared, 22; Josh, 26; Justin, 29; and Shane, 30 — both Jared and Josh were also wrestlers. She also has an older sister, 19-year-old Jasmine, who is described by her mother as a “girly girl” and the polar opposite of Jerricha.

“Jerricha realizes she won’t outmuscle the boys,” her mother says. “She must out-technique them.”

Jeff Haller, Jerricha’s father, explains that in order to acquire such skills his daughter has to work hard and pay careful attention to detail.

“She’ll watch videos of herself wrestling and analyze all the moves and what she could have done differently,” says Jeff. “Then she’ll practice and practice a certain move until she gets it right.”

Jerricha has proven that she possesses a deep passion for the sport.

“I love wrestling because it’s a team sport as well as a personal thing,” she muses. “I think it’s cool that I’m the only girl on the team. I get to have friend relationships with the guys that most girls don’t have.”

The right to wrestle

While most high school wrestlers are focused on winning a strictly physical fight, Jerricha Haller is fighting a second, long-standing battle of a more intangible nature.

Although Haller possesses the skills and the drive to be a wrestler, there remain those of the wrestling world, according to her parents and coach, who do not want to wrestle Haller or believe that it is not appropriate for her — or any girl — to wrestle, particularly among boys.

And Jerricha is not alone in her struggle.

According to Bobo Umemoto, director of the women’s division of the Oregon Wrestling Association, there are more than 200 active female high school wrestlers in the state, including a handful in Central Oregon. And, the director notes, the number of female wrestlers in the state has risen by approximately 15 percent each year during the past 10 years.

“I worry about her because of people in the stands and what they think,” admits brother Jared. “A girl wrestling can have the appearance of being inappropriate, but that’s the last thing on your mind when you’re wrestling.

“It’s frustrating dealing with people who don’t understand and support it,” Jared adds. “Jerricha could help grow the sport of wrestling for women and open a division for women in high school. I think that would be awesome.”

According to mother Jackie, Jared thought his sister’s wrestling was only a phase when she was in elementary school. Yet he agreed that by continuing to wrestle in high school, Jerricha has demonstrated that she takes the sport seriously.

“(Jared and Jerricha) never really got along, and now he teaches her arm bars,” says Jackie. “She’s not afraid to yell at him, either — even though she only comes up to his bellybutton.

Another of Haller’s former skeptics also has turned out to be one of her most ardent supporters.

Adam Malinowski, wrestling coach at High Desert Middle School, initially told Haller’s parents, according to Jackie, that Jerricha’s place on the team was inappropriate because, “My boys were always taught not to touch girls like that.”

It was an adjustment for the coach, and for his male wrestlers.

“When she first joined the team, I didn’t know how to deal with a female wrestler,” Malinowski recalls. “For the boys, it was a lose-lose situation. If they lost, they lost to a girl. And if they won, they (beat) a girl.”

Malinowski notes that there are two types of female wrestlers: girls who want to wrestle for show, and serious wrestlers who happen to be female. Malinowski quickly changed his mind about Haller when he discovered that she fit the latter mold.

“Right away, it was clear she loved the sport,” says Malinowski. “She was phenomenal technically and worked harder than any other wrestler. She became one of my favorite kids of all time.”

Haller’s parents explain that their daughter’s pure love of the sport keeps them behind her.

“We support her because she wants this,” Jackie explains. “We’re proud because this is where she wants to go.”

“Some people still don’t think she should be wrestling,” adds Jeff Haller, Jerricha’s dad. “But it always will be like that.”

Yet admittedly, the high school years — when adolescents are growing and developing — can be an awkward time to be physically grappling with the opposite sex.

“She’s had her moments,” her father recalls. “Most of the boys weigh in naked in the locker room, so she had to deal with that situation. Sometimes they find a different locker room for her to use or completely clear out the boys locker room before they bring her in. Or they move scales if they can. She’s not always comfortable, but she knows there are things out there that she has to do to wrestle.”

Competitive matches also have the potential to become awkward.

“But if the boys even take a second to think about where they’re touching her,” says Jackie, “they’re pinned.”

Jeff Haller notes that it is usually the parents, not the male wrestlers, who have a problem with Jerricha being on the mat.

“They (the parents) are embarrassed to have a younger girl beat their older son,” he says. “We’ve literally had parents yell at us.”

One of Haller’s closest teammates is also her wrestling practice partner, 16-year-old, 112-pound Jacob Graber. According to Graber, Haller once out-wrestled him about three years ago. Since, Graber says he has worked intensely on his skills in order to improve.

“Sure, it would be a big deal if she beat me now,” Graber admits. “But the guys on the team really don’t talk crap. We’re there to wrestle and learn. We’re focused on the wrestling.”

At tournaments, however, Graber’s teammates have been known to let loose.

“Sometimes when Jerricha walks out for her match they’ll yell, ‘Hey look, there goes your girlfriend!’ “ says Graber with a grin. “But if anything, other teams know to watch out for Jerricha. She’s tough.

“Most of us think it’s cool to have a girl on the team as tough as we are,” says Graber. “A girl who can take everything we can take.”