Cottage Grove High School (CGHS) junior wrestler Raina Herzog has three primary goals for the 2019-20 wrestling season: be the OSAA state champion, be named an All-American and never get pinned. After last weekend, she’s one step closer to one of her goals: a second consecutive state championship.
On Friday and Saturday, Feb. 7-8 Thurston High School welcomed hundreds of girls wrestlers from around the state — all of whom were looking to cement their place in the state tournament — for the second annual OSAA Girls South Regionals.
The Lions entered eight wrestlers in the two-day event and while six made it to day two, Herzog ended up as the lone CGHS wrestler on the podium, defeating Elkton’s Tayla Swearingen by fall (1:57) in the 235-pound championship match and locking her down her place at state.
“I feel like it was a lot more eventful than last year just because I had a full bracket,” Herzog said referring to the fact that she only needed to win two matches in 2019 to advance. This year, there were 12 girls total in her weight class and, despite having a bye in the first round as the top seed, she won four matches on her way to the south regional title.
“I had more nerves because I know that it’s not guaranteed,” Herzog said. “Even going into the finals, I know that I’m guaranteed to go to state, but I won it last year and there’s all the nerves and stuff that go with that so … when you win it like this it’s just a lot more exciting.”
With greater expectations comes greater pressure — true in both life and in sport — but CGHS head coach and Raina’s father, Rich Herzog, sees the maturity with which his daughter handles her lofty status as a top-ranked athlete.
“That’s always a funny feeling,” Rich said. “For the state regionals for her, there’s always that doubt of, ‘What if I don’t win this again?’ So, when you do execute, then that confidence and that affirmation of self-worth and self-belonging really builds for you.”
The necessity of getting through four opponents this year, as opposed to two last year, is indicative of the other big takeaway from this event: girls wrestling has exploded in popularity in the state of Oregon.
“When I was in high school there was one girl on our team and there may have been five or six throughout the state,” said Rich.
“It’s not uncommon for teams to have 10, 15, even upwards of 30 or 35 girls on their teams now, which is great. I expect to see it grow even further. If you look at the middle school and the Mat Club, they have several girls in there, so I see it continuing to evolve and grow.”
The growth of the sport locally in Cottage Grove has matched the growth seen statewide. This same event last year — the first year girls wrestling was a sanctioned OSAA sport — hosted 180 wrestlers from 53 teams. In 2020, 269 wrestlers from 59 teams converged in Thurston, marking an 11 percent increase in teams and a whopping 49 percent increase in total competitors. In the 2020 state tournament, each weight class will have an eight-girl bracket. Last year, it was just four.
“And I expect in the next five years for that to grow,” Rich said. “We’ll likely see a full 32-girl bracket, just like the boys. They’ll probably need their own weekend and their own gym space for their own state tournament.”
As for the other Lions wrestlers, a number of them had hard-luck losses on day two of the tournament, losing in what the wrestling community calls the “blood round”: the last round of the bracket a wrestler needs to win in order to earn one of the six podium spots.
For Rich Herzog and the other coaches at CGHS, those results point to the mental and physical difficulties that exist in wrestling and particularly a multi-day event like the regionals. It’s two days of matches, sometimes with down time in between, sometimes without, and the ability to maintain focus is paramount.
“Some of them competed well,” Rich said. “But it’s that grind: six minutes, match after match, in this case day after day. You’re up early, you’re not 100%, you’re sore, you’re banged up a little, tired, maybe hungry. It’s not always the best wrestler who wins these tournaments. It’s who can get themselves mentally prepared to give that top performance as if it was their first one.”
While Raina will eventually have to recapture her focus in order to earn another state title, she had a slightly different plan following last weekend’s triumph.
“Probably celebrate a little. We’re gonna get a milkshake after this. My tournament traditions are either a Snickers at the tournament or some kind of ice cream afterwards,” she said laughing.
Next up for the Lions wrestlers is the boys regionals, to be held at CGHS on Feb. 21-22. Girls who didn’t qualify for state at regionals will be entered into the boys regionals, so their season isn’t over and the coaching staff emphasizes that every wrestler has the responsibility of helping their teammates prepare.
To see more team and individual results, turn to page 4B. For more photos of the event, see 8B.