Derek Wiley
The Bulletin

Sasha Smith’s wrestling career did not get off to the most positive start. And it had nothing to do with her success on the mat.

If anything, Smith was too good.

“It was a lot of boys’ parents coming up to me and saying girls shouldn’t be wrestling,” says Smith, now a senior at Bend High, looking back at the start of a wrestling career that began when she was a seventh-grader with the Deschutes Mat Club. “They didn’t want me to beat their sons. I took it as constructive criticism.”

Thanks to a push by both the OSAA and Bend High to promote girls wrestling, Smith no longer deals with those remarks.

While Smith was one of just two girls in the Deschutes Mat Club program and the only girl on her Pilot Butte Middle School team, she is one of 13 girls currently wrestling for the Lava Bears.

“If you get a few solid girls then you can build around them and it’s also about being able to create opportunities and provide special attention for the girls,” Bend coach Luke Larwin says. “And I think this year we were able to be really successful at that.”

Bend hired an additional assistant coach, Jared Dalgleish, to lead the girls program.

Dalgleish was a senior wrestler at Washington’s Kelso High School in 2006 when Washington became the first state to hold a separate high school girls state tournament. He then wrestled at Southern Oregon University, whose program includes a separate women’s team that is currently 30-plus wrestlers strong.

“It’s been a lot of fun, just being able to get in and give back and help with the kids,” says Dalgleish, who wants to continue to build the Bend girls program. He noted that earlier this month Kelso High hosted a girls tournament that included 555 wrestlers across 14 weight classes, compared with 38 wrestlers in nine weight classes for girls at the Bend Invitational on the same day.

Creating opportunities for girls to wrestle is another way Larwin is growing the program at Bend. Three years ago, Larwin added a girls tournament to the annual Bend Invitational. Both the Adrian Irwin Memorial in Redmond and the North Bend Coast Classic have also added a girls tournament.

After hosting an exhibition state tournament for girls since 2005-06, the OSAA will stage a sanctioned girls division for the first time at the state tournament next month at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland.

Two qualifying tournaments will be held Feb. 1-2 — the Northern Division at Liberty High School in Hillsboro, the Southern Division at Thurston High in Springfield.

Central Oregon schools are in the Southern Division. There are no classifications (6A, 5A, 4A, 3A, 2A/1A) for the girls as there are for the boys. From each qualifying tournament, the top two girls in each weight class will advance to a four-girl bracket at the state tournament.

According to the OSAA’s assessment data, 609 girls signed up to wrestle at Oregon high schools this season, compared with just 81 back in 2005-06.

Two Bend High girls, Charli Stewart (105 pounds) and Kyleigh Cuevas (100), placed third in the exhibition state tournament last season as freshmen.

Cuevas started wrestling in the sixth grade. Her father, Robert, was an assistant coach at Oregon Basics Wrestling Academy in Sunriver. But he did not push her into the sport.

“I was the only girl on the team and I was the one that wanted to wrestle and my dad was the one that didn’t want me to wrestle,” Cuevas recalls. “He let me try it out. He told the head coach that I would probably quit eventually. I never did. I stuck with it and now I love it. I just like the competition. It’s really hard and it really pushes you but I like the end result.”

Cuevas then persuaded Stewart, her friend at Three Rivers School in Sunriver, to join Oregon Basics in seventh grade. Stewart was familiar with the sport. Her older cousins wrestled at Thurston, including Macie Stewart, who now wrestles at Southern Oregon.

“I’d go visit their house and they’d always wrestle me,” says Charli Stewart, who stopped playing soccer to focus on wrestling. “I wanted to try something else and I’ve always loved contact sports.”

While both Stewart and Cuevas are looking forward to the girls state tournament, they have also grown used to wrestling against boys.

“I’ve always wrestled boys since mat club, every single day, even at practice,” Stewart says. “I’m super used to it. It’s so different wrestling girls than boys. You think it would be so much easier wrestling girls but they’re just so different. Girls aren’t as strong, some moves you can’t do on a guy. Girls are harder to pin because we’re so flexible.”

Mountain View junior Taylor Ohlson, who won the 120-pound state title as a freshman and then placed fourth at 125 pounds last year as she battled a back injury, started wrestling when she was 13. She seldom wrestled against girls until she got to high school.

“I wrestled one girl the entire season and that was it,” Ohlson says, recalling her experience in middle school. “Girls are starting to wrestle more and they’re getting good.”

Wrestling at 131 pounds, Ohlson won her weight class at the Sierra Nevada Classic girls tournament last month in Reno, Nevada. Nine girls were in her bracket. Ninety-eight girls participated overall across 14 weight classes.

“The sport is growing and I’m excited to see where it goes,” Ohlson says.

Even with all the girls in the Bend High wrestling room, Stewart and Cuevas still train with boys at practice, often wrestling against Dalgleish, the coach.

“I only wrestle guys in practice because it makes you better and strong,” Stewart says. “I want the best wrestling partner I can get, all the time. I feel like I get so much better when I wrestle guys because they’re stronger and a lot of the time they’re really fast. Their technique is good, usually.”

Stewart wrestled in the boys state tournament in middle school.

“I died. I got killed. I got crushed,” Stewart recalls. “Everyone was so good. Now I look back and I could actually hang with those people now. I think I could survive in boys state. I don’t know if I could do very well, but I could survive.”

Cuevas was not sure about being on a team with so many other girls.

“At first I was a little iffy about it because I was used to being the only girl on the team,” Cuevas says. “I ended up really liking it. We’re all friends. We all support each other. We all push each other. We’re winning. It’s really fun.”

The Lava Bears girls have won two tournaments this year — the Bend Invitational and Adrian Irwin. They placed second at the North Bend Coast Classic.

La Pine has doubled the size of its girls roster, from four last season to eight this year. The Hawks are led by senior Evangelina Toruno and junior Olivia Flack, both undefeated this season. Toruno, a former basketball player at La Pine, did not start wrestling until her junior year. “It wasn’t pushing me to be where I wanted to be athletically,” Toruno says of basketball.

Toruno, who also plays soccer and softball, was a natural on the wrestling mat, finishing fourth in the state at 180 pounds last season.

“Wrestling is definitely my favorite sport out of everything,” says Toruno, who, like Stewart and Cuevas, wrestles only against boys in practice.

“They push us to our absolute limit,” she says.

Olivia Flack’s father, Aaron, is the athletic director and wrestling coach at La Pine High. Weighing in at 90 pounds, she can give up as much as 10 pounds to her opponents, as the OSAA’s weight classes for girls begin at 100 pounds.

Flack has wrestled since she was in elementary school, but she switched to basketball in eighth grade, believing she was too small to wrestle against boys. However, with more girls wrestling, Flack was able to return to the sport in high school.

Weighing 83 pounds, she placed sixth in the 100-pound girls state qualifier last season.

While more girls are participating in wrestling overall throughout the state, not all schools have experienced the same growth in the sport that Bend High has.

Mountain View coach Les Combs says nine girls showed interest in wrestling at his school in the fall, seven came to at least one practice, four showed up regularly, and now the Cougars are down to three.

At Crook County, winner of five of the last six Class 4A boys state championships, just one girl turned out this season. And at Culver, which has won 11 of the last 12 2A/1A titles, no girls are currently on the roster.

Larwin says the most significant thing Bend has done to attract girls to wrestling is to create a culture of trust and acceptance for all athletes. He also has the support of other Bend High teachers.

“Our teaching and support staff value athletics and encourage students to get involved,” Larwin says. “I have encouraged various members of our teaching staff to help me seek out and recruit girls from within our student body. The positive relationships I am so fortunate to have with my teaching colleagues was instrumental in accessing young ladies who were willing to take the risk to come out for such a tough sport like wrestling. The other component for getting girls to come out for wrestling is having such awesome female student leaders already in place on our team.”

­­— Reporter: 541-383-0307,