Two decades ago, the idea of a girls-only dual wrestling meet seemed impossible to Casey Horn.
A standout prep wrestler at North Salem High in the late 1990s, Horn was fascinated with the world of coaching and wanted to jump-start his own career however possible. So for his senior project, he spent the better part of a year talking with coaches around the state, including former Oregon State coach Dale Thomas.
Out of everything he gleaned from his interview with the collegiate coaching legend, one thing in particular stuck with Horn.
“He told me back in 1998 that girls wrestling was going to save boys wrestling,” Horn said.
Now the head coach at West Albany, Horn is watching firsthand as Thomas’s prediction comes true. Few high school sports in the U.S. are growing more quickly than girls wrestling, and Oregon has seen a 77 percent increase in participation in the last decade alone.
For a sport that was at risk of being removed from the Olympics as recently as 2013, and had seen decreases in numbers at the prep level throughout the 2000’s, the recent influx of female wrestlers has brought life to the sport.
“We kind of giggled about it back in the day,” Horn said. “But 22 years later, (Thomas) is right.”
Horn and plenty of other coaches around the state are doing everything they can to continue growing the sport and giving girls the opportunity to pursue their passion on the mat.
The West program made history last week when it hosted its first ever girls-only dual meet. An exhibition meet that featured six schools from the area, wrestlers competed under a spotlight in an atmosphere that mirrored that of a big-time varsity boys meet.
“We’ve got 13 girls and I think probably half of them haven’t done a sport before,” Horn said. “It’s just really cool to see that confidence grow in them.”
In 1998, when Thomas made that prediction to Horn, there were only 71 girls participating in high school wrestling in the state of Oregon, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations. In the organization's most recent release, that number has jumped to 597 participants across 140 schools.
That number will likely rise once again this year thanks in large part to an expanded state championship format. In 2019, the Oregon School Activities Association introduced a girls wrestling state tournament for the first time in its history.
This season, the state meet is expanding and each of the 14 weight classes will feature an eight-person bracket.
“We had seen a steady growth the last three years,” Sweet Home coach Steve Thorpe said. “But with the OSAA making it a sanctioned sport last year, it is just taking it to another level.”
Thrope, who serves on the executive board of USA wrestling, said Sweet Home had seven girls come out for wrestling last year and five this year. Several Huskies have locked up state tournament spots, but their respective introductions to the sport could not be more different.
Senior Lexi Schilling finished fourth at state last season and is ranked second in Oregon in the 110-pound class. She comes from a family of superstar wrestlers; both of her older brothers, Tyler and Colton, had successful prep careers at Sweet Home before going on to wrestle at Cal Poly.
Her father did not want her to wrestle competitively growing up, though, and she didn’t start until her freshman year.
“Back then it wasn’t a girls sport,” Lexi said. “There weren't any other girls, I would have just been wrestling with boys.”
Once she began, Schilling quickly found success and is one of many prep wrestlers who are fairly new to the sport but are using it to further their education. Schilling recently signed with Corban University and will continue her wrestling career there.
“Being the first girl in our family to do it, it’s pretty important,” Schilling said. “I just want to show what women’s wrestling can be.”
One of Sweet Home’s other standouts came to the sport with an entirely opposite background. Jessy Hart, a junior, is ranked fourth in the 120 class this season but also did not begin wrestling competitively until her freshman year.
She had friends on the Huskies’ cross-country team who also wrestled, and eventually decided to give it a try because it sounded challenging.
“It’s crazy how quick the sport has grown and it’s nice to have a bunch of girls to wrestle with at duals. I’m like recruiting now — I want a bunch of girls to come out.”
As the sport continues to grow, Thorpe hopes that more girls will be encouraged to try the sport at an early age so they aren’t dealing with a rapid learning curve once they begin competing in high school.
“A lot of boys start at six years old, but a lot of girls don’t,” Thorpe said. “With the growth, you’re seeing more girls come out at six or seven or eight.”
Horn said a large part of the Bulldogs’ strategy to recruit more girls to wrestle is simply word of mouth. He wants every athlete that comes out to wrestle to feel welcome, and he believes the family atmosphere of West’s program is a huge calling card.
He hopes that infrastructure that is now in place in Oregon can provide avenues to college for students who may have never considered that an option.
“All these colleges are really starting programs right now just for girls,” Horn said. “It’s so important that we kind of push this idea to them because it gives them the idea that if they want to, they can go to college.”