The conversation has happened within many families: a high school student begs to play a sport and reluctant parents worry about what could go wrong.

For Fairfield High junior Nicole Small, the challenge three years ago was bigger than that.

She wanted to become one of the few area girls who wrestle.

"I just felt wrestling was a boys' sport," said Shelly Small, her mother. "I told her boys would be stronger than she was. That didn't matter to her. She's very strong-headed."

Nicole said she needed a few years to persuade her mom after practicing alongside her 12-year-old brother, Cody Small, when he was in youth wrestling. Their father, E.J. Small, coached them there after competing two years at Delone Catholic High School.

Fairfield High s Nicole Small, left, who wrestles at 106 pounds for the Green Knights, locks the leg of 126-pound teammate David Stone during a recent
Fairfield High s Nicole Small, left, who wrestles at 106 pounds for the Green Knights, locks the leg of 126-pound teammate David Stone during a recent practice at Fairfield High School. (THE EVENING SUN --- BRETT BERWAGER)

The sport, you could say, runs in the family. E.J. spent much of his childhood wrestling with his five brothers.

"Our furniture wasn't too good," he said. "We used to do the WWF stuff."

Her mother finally relented, letting Small compete at a Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling tournament in eighth grade. Her father knew his daughter's career was just beginning, even if his wife was still reluctant.

"Very nervewracking," Shelly said. "I was afraid she would get hurt, wrestling boys and being a girl. It's scary to sit and watch."

Nicole went 17-13 on the junior varsity team her freshman year and moved up to varsity last year, when she finished 15-14 before placing fifth in her weight class in a USA Wrestling girls' tournament in Fargo, N.D.

She is in a unique position because her dad, pending Fairfield Area school board approval on Jan. 9, could become the head coach after former coach Bruce Kocsis left to restore the wrestling team at Penn State Mont Alto.

Having her father around, Small believes, will be beneficial.

"He's a big influence," she said. "He's helped me. He knows how I wrestle. Sometimes it gets frustrating. You need that little bit of time alone. But he helps a lot."

While he tries to be as hands-off as possible at home, E.

Fairfield High s David Stone, left, attempts a single-leg takedown of Nicole Small during a recent varsity wrestling practice at Fairfield High School.
Fairfield High s David Stone, left, attempts a single-leg takedown of Nicole Small during a recent varsity wrestling practice at Fairfield High School. (THE EVENING SUN --- BRETT BERWAGER)
J. helps his daughter with wrestling moves whenever she asks. He'll sometimes suggest Cody to do a certain move to his sister, but Nicole said she's able to fend him off easily.

Her performances have persuaded her mom that wrestling is a good sport for her, but opponents remain unconvinced. Small competes in the 106-pound weight class, which opposing teams can't fill at times. Last season in 22 dual-meet matches at 103 and 112 pounds, Small accepted 11 forfeits.

"I've heard some of them say she's on the team for a forfeit," E.J. said. "I can assure you my daughter has paid her dues. She's wrestled (Bermudian Springs' Brad) Farley. She's wrestled (Hanover's) Ian Brown. She's not backed away from anybody. She'll go out and give it what she's got.

"I know last year we had some teams forfeit, and they had kids at her weight. That upsets me some. I wish they wouldn't do that."

One instance stands out for Nicole.

During a home match last year against a team whose wrestler she had beaten earlier in the season, the opposing team forfeited the bout.

"It kind of stinks that you worked your butt off and you got to sit on the sidelines and not (earn) your points," she said. "You want to show your team you could earn it. I would rather think I earned my spot and earned my win or got my loss against them."

Nicole's decision has been one her teammates have supported.

"The (practice) room's pretty good," E.J. said. "I think they treat her like a sister. They watch out for her. I don't think they'd let any harm come to her."

She has received many questions about why she wrestles, but rarely from her friends at school.

"When you're in a small town like this, it's not that big of a deal," she said. "Everybody kind of supports you. It's not like a big school where everybody is, like, 'Oh, my gosh, why would you do such a thing?' They're like, 'Yeah, go out and kick some butt the next match.'"

Her mother agreed, saying fellow Fairfield parents were understanding about Small's wrestling. She said there can be trouble at other schools.

"They don't like it," Shelly said. "'Oh, she's a girl. This is going to be easy.' It makes me mad.

Nicole Small, left, talks with Clay Kocsis, middle, who wrestles 152-pounds, as Cameron Scalio, who wrestles 120-pounds, looks on during a break at a
Nicole Small, left, talks with Clay Kocsis, middle, who wrestles 152-pounds, as Cameron Scalio, who wrestles 120-pounds, looks on during a break at a recent wrestling practice. (THE EVENING SUN --- BRETT BERWAGER)
 I stared one guy down. There are some that are very nasty. I'm a very protective mother. I don't like anything negative said about my children.

"I'm proud of her. She's done a good job. She works hard. I think any girl that wants to go out there and wrestle, that's their option."

dpaulling@eveningsun.com; 717-637-3736, extension 139