Thus far, it’s been another year on the path of upward trajectory for the Cottage Grove High School wrestling program.
With 35 students out for the team and six wrestlers ranked in the top 10 in the Oregon Wrestling Forum (OWF) 4A rankings, the Lions move towards their most important events of the season with strength and numbers.
The team will split into two factions for their events this weekend. The entire boys squad as well as a number of the girls will head to Sutherlin on Sat., January 11 for an 11-team meet with assistant coach Christina Kent. Head coach Rich Herzog, meanwhile, is taking his five most experienced girls to Kelso, Wash. on Fri., Jan. 10 for the two-day Kelso Invite. The Invite, which is the largest female wrestling tournament on the West Coast and hosted 735 wrestlers last year, will be the girls’ first big test of the season.
Herzog, who has been around the program since 2004, has coached the CGHS wrestling team for three years alongside Kent and Chris Joyce and made sure to put special emphasis on the performance of his growing female contingent.
“It’s not a separate girls wrestling team,” Herzog pointed out at the Mon., Jan. 6 South Lane School District board meeting where he received board approval for his team’s upcoming out-of-state trip.
“The OSAA says they’re separate. When we go to tournaments they wrestle against the other girls, but when we practice they wrestle right alongside those boys. They run the same miles, they do the same pushups, so those girls are tough. The 10 we have still out are working hard, training hard right along with the boys.”
The girls already tasted some success at last month’s Coast Classic at North Bend High School. Junior Raina Herzog, daughter of Rich, took first place in the 235-pound division, senior Elizabeth Bass second at 110, junior Maryanne Eckstine second at 130 and Leslie Chacon third at 120. Junior Adelle Kent, who went to Nationals last year along with Herzog, is sitting out this season after ACL surgery.
Overall, the girls finished fourth out of 23 total teams at the event and now have two wrestlers ranked in the top five of the OWF rankings. Herzog is first in her weight class and freshman Savannah Osban is ranked fifth in the 190-pound division in her first year on the high school team. As the girls’ team tastes more and more success year after year, their confidence and ability to compete at a high level grow.
“I was fortunate,” Rich Herzog said. “I was one of the coaches for Fargo, for the girls’ national team [last] summer. With Adelle and Raina, to see their confidence grow as they get into those bigger stages, then you come back and wrestle our tournaments. An eight-mat tournament suddenly doesn’t seem so big when the last one you were at had 25 mats laid out.”
The confidence that the younger Kent and Herzog have gained through their successes has emanated out to the rest of the team as they look forward to the rest of their 2020 schedule.
“We took seven to state last year and I expect right about the same this year,” Herzog said.
On the boys’ side, the Lions have four seniors ranked in the OWF top 10. Fernando Soto-Cruz — also the captain of the CGHS boys’ soccer team — is ranked seventh in the 138-pound division, Jacob Dunn second at 145, Drew Swenson third at 170 and Austin Dempsey tenth at 220. The team is ranked ninth overall in the 4A team rankings, the highest mark of any team in the Lions’ district.
The success of the team, both girls and boys, can first and foremost be attributed to the coaching staff’s local involvement at all levels and philosophical approach to the sport.
The Cottage Grove Mat Club, much like the Aqua Lions swimming club, is a way for local student-athletes of all ages to get involved with wrestling.
“Four years ago when I started the Mat Club back up we had nine kids,” Herzog said. “Then it went up to 17 and now there’s about 55 out for the MAT club. As the years come, since we now have those junior, lower levels developed, they’ll feed that high school program and I would expect that it’s gonna get better and stronger.”
But for those young Grovers who may be interested in the sport, be forewarned: it shouldn’t be easy.
“Maybe I’m biased, but I think wrestling’s the toughest sport out there,” Herzog added. “I call it a ‘bank account’ … You get out of it what you put into it and you can’t blame anybody else for your losses. It tests everything you have: your mental wits, your confidence, your strength, your conditioning, everything about you when you step on that mat.”
Herzog maintains that he and the rest of the coaching staff are not teaching their athletes how to play a game. They are teaching them a skill involving values and abilities that can be played to myriad aspects of life
“We’re a fight with rules,” Herzog said. “So, I’m very particular about who I teach that to. I don’t want some bully to come around and give them skills to be a better bully, so I do tend to be very purposeful about the people we grow and get there.”
This weekend’s events will look to be another testament to the people and athletes that the coaches of CGHS wrestling have been cultivating these recent years.