Taylor Ohlson was simply browsing the web last week when she stumbled upon a photo of herself attached to a news story. Naturally, the Mountain View sophomore became curious.

After visiting the site and reading the article, Ohlson immediately smiled. Girls wrestling in Oregon, she recalls thinking, is “going to be a real thing and a real sport.”

Last week, the Oregon School Activities Association executive board voted unanimously to sanction an OSAA state championship for girls wrestling. As was the case this past weekend at the state meet in Portland, the girls tournament had been considered more of an exhibition, overseen by the Oregon Wrestling Association, as the boys Class 6A, 5A, 4A, 3A and 2A/1A meets took place. Beginning next year, a sixth division — the girls — will be added to the state championships, at which the first official OSAA state titles will be awarded, further legitimizing the fast-growing sport.

“It being a real thing now is really respectful to us,” says Ohlson, who over the weekend took third in the girls 125-pound bracket, a year after winning the title. “Because we work just as hard as the guys.”

“It’s a really big step in the right direction for recognizing the advancement of women’s wrestling nationally,” says longtime Bend High coach Luke Larwin. “And I think it’s really going to promote the sport of wrestling as a whole. It’s really going to be an important step in motivating college programs to come back, when you now have opportunities for young women at the prep level.”

Starting next season, the girls division will be split into two districts. The OSAA executive board recommended a maximum of 10 weight classes (yet to be determined), and the top two placers at each district meet will qualify for the state tournament. As they do now, girls will have the option to compete in a girls or a boys bracket at districts to qualify for that gender’s state meet.

“We’re excited about it,” says OSAA executive director Peter Weber. “It’s certainly a sport that’s seen tremendous growth in not only Oregon but across the country. … We started (girls) exhibitions at the state championships six or seven years ago. And over that time, we’ve seen the numbers grow and the popularity of that section of the sport is growing. Our state championships committee, and ultimately our board, is excited to take that next step and formalize it with its own championship and division next year.”

The OSAA decision to sanction girls wrestling came on the heels of the Georgia High School Association announcing a few days earlier that it was also going to begin holding sanctioned state championships for girls wrestling starting next year. The addition of Oregon and Georgia raises the number of states with official girls state tournaments to eight, joining Washington, California, Texas, Alaska and Hawaii.

“I don’t think that Oregon’s necessarily late to the party,” Larwin says. “The reason it might look like that is because the population of Oregon is really not that very high, relative to neighboring states like Washington and California, who have much greater populations of kids and therefore the probability of having more athletes interested (in girls wrestling) is going to be higher. We’ve gotten to it when we were getting to it, and we got to it now, which I think is really good.”

“In Oregon, it’s kind of been a slow grow,” says Les Combs, now in his 23rd year as the Mountain View coach. “But nationally, women’s wrestling is exploding. You think about Title IX things and making sports equal, and I don’t think there’s a better sport for women. It just gives them self-confidence and gives them internal strength, and it allows them to feel like they’re viable as humans in the sense of they can physically assert themselves and control their own life. That’s why I think wrestling is such a great sport for them. And I just think that it’s awesome that the OSAA is taking a step forward in recognizing that.”

Girls wrestling is already a fast-rising sport in terms of participation numbers — 131 girls at 59 high schools participated in Oregon during the 2012-13 season, numbers that swelled to 350 girls at 103 schools last season; 33 girls are on Central Oregon high school rosters this year, up from 14 two years ago. And holding an official OSAA state championship could create even more popularity. When Washington sanctioned girls wrestling in 2007, fewer than 200 girls were competing. As of 2017, more than 1,000 girls were wrestling in the Evergreen State.

“It’s kind of like the old, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Combs says. “You look nationally, there’s, like, 30 or 35 colleges right now that have wrestling programs with scholarships (for women). If I had a daughter that was going to think about wrestling, what a great opportunity for a young lady to get involved in a sport where they can earn a scholarship athletically. It just signifies where the sport’s going.”

Nationally, 44 colleges — NCAA, NAIA and junior colleges combined — offer women’s wrestling, including nine whose programs will begin next fall. Of those programs, which are governed by the National Wrestling Coaches Association, at least 30 offer scholarships. In Oregon, six colleges offer the sport: Eastern Oregon in La Grande, Pacific in Forest Grove, Southern Oregon in Ashland, Warner Pacific in Portland, Southwestern Oregon Community College in Coos Bay, and Umpqua Community College in Roseburg.

Last year, three wrestlers from three different Central Oregon schools qualified for the girls state tournament. This past weekend, six girls representing four schools competed, including one wrestler — Ridgeview’s Bailey Dennis at 160 — who claimed one of the final “exhibition” state titles. Next season, the first official OSAA girls wrestling state championships will be up for grabs.

“I’m super excited but kind of nervous,” says Ohlson, Mountain View’s former 125-pound girls state champ. “It’s the real deal now. It’s just been exhibition these last few years, so it being a real championship, I’m going to have to work harder for sure.

“Girls in wrestling is becoming a thing now, and it’s really cool to see the sport grow.”

—Reporter: 541-383-0307, glucas@bendbulletin.com .