Preps Talk

A Tournament Of Their Own: How Girls Are Helping Change The Face Of Baseball

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A Tournament Of Their Own: How Girls Are Helping Change The Face Of Baseball

Eric Burgher
Special Contributor to CSNChicago.com

Madison Femia rolled over and looked at her alarm clock, barely making out 4:30 a.m. through blurry, tired eyes. A high school freshman at the time, she wasn't used to waking up so early and she certainly wasn't used to this funky mixture of anxiety and excitement as she prepared to try out as the only girl on the freshman baseball team at Geneva High School. 

"It was stressful," Madison, 15, recalled, sitting in the bleachers after finishing a game versus St. Charles North 1-for-2 with a bases-loaded, two-run RBI single. "I was just trying to keep my head on straight and not throw up." She burst out laughing, revealing a mouth full of blue braces and rubber bands. She's earned the nickname "Smiley", a quality at odds with the competitive streak she displayed that afternoon on the field. 

She paused for a moment and took off her hat to reveal long, thick brown hair that she wears down even under her catcher's helmet despite the pleas from her mom to put it up. "I was just trying to push myself to be better than most of the boys," she said. "The anticipation was more stressful than the actual tryout. It's a giant relief because I worked hard to do all this and it's finally paying off." 

Being the only girl on an all-boys team is nothing new to her. She's been playing organized baseball since she was four years old. When she was 10 she played on a 13-U boys' travel team. "When I first started, I just got really excited to hit a ball with a bat and beat the guys," she said.  "All the other sports I played with girls, and this was more fun and more competitive."

Madison is enjoying a rare experience. Though more than 100,000 girls play youth baseball across the country, only 1,000 play in high school, according to Baseball For All, a not-for-profit that wants to open up opportunities for girls in baseball. Something is happening to those tens of thousands of former players – and it doesn't necessarily have to do with losing their love of baseball. 

Across the country, only a handful of programs offer baseball teams for girls, which means girls have no choice but to play with boys. The number who can compete successfully – like Madison – as they enter their teens is small: 0.27 percent of high school players are girls, according to The National Federation of State High School Associations. Instead, girls are channeled to a different sport, softball. 

More than 40 years after Title IX, there are still no girls' baseball teams offered in Little League, high school or college, with reasons ranging from lack of participation to outdated notions of gender. But a number of people – in Illinois and elsewhere – are actively working for change. 

"We have a societal myth that girls play softball and boys play baseball," said Justine Siegal, founder of Baseball For All. "When Little League was sued to include girls in their leagues, instead of supporting the girls in baseball, they created a girls' softball league."

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Professional women's teams did play each other during World War II (for which the film "A League of Their Own", which celebrated the 25-year anniversary of its release Saturday, was based) but Major League Baseball officially banned women's contracts in 1952. Congress passed Title IX in 1972, which prohibits discrimination against girls and women in federally-funded education, including in athletics programs. However, the passage of Title IX worked against girls who wanted to play baseball by helping programs justify excluding them because they offered softball. Two years later, the Peabody Little League in Massachusetts barred 18 girls from their baseball tryouts. The reasons Little League officials initially gave ranged from the claim that boys would quit if girls were allowed to play, to the risk that if a girl were hit in the chest by a baseball, she could develop breast cancer. So, they were pushed into softball, with a larger, softer ball and a smaller field. The ensuing lawsuit led the Little League board of directors to allow girls to play with boys, but discrimination remains to this day. 

Even though girls like Madison have proven to be skilled enough to play baseball at a high level, her parents still see pushback to a girl playing "a boys' sport." The first boys' travel team she tried out for didn't allow her play because she is a girl. And even though her coach and teammates at Geneva are supportive of her, not everyone was thrilled when she made the team. "The other parents were surprised she made it," said her mom, Leslie. "You hear other parents whisper to each other that she is taking a spot on the team from one of the boys."

Robert Daniels, a child clinical psychologist living in Winnetka, Ill., saw his daughter Taylor's love for baseball right away. She played for the first time when she was seven. "She fell in love with baseball that first season," he said. But the real point of no return came two years later when Taylor, one of only two girls on her youth team, came up to bat with the bases loaded. "I think the ball's still flying," Robert remembered, leaning his head on his hand and looking up smiling, as if he could still see it sailing. "She hit this home run farther than any third-grader had ever hit the ball. This thing just kept going and going and going. It was in that moment she got attention for hitting a grand slam, not for having a ponytail and playing baseball. There was no turning back after that grand slam."

As Taylor got older and Robert would call leagues to sign her up for baseball, they responded with, "Did you mean softball?" It is a common assumption, that girls aren't interested in baseball, that reaches up to the high school level as well. "Until there is a significant number of girls who indicate they want to play baseball, there's not a lot to do," said Sam Knox, assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association, in charge of baseball. "They know the option exists for the girls to be on the boys team and they indicate they are okay with that."

But without offering a girls' team, how can they assess the demand? "Middle school is the first time you can play sports in a school system and the offering is girls' softball or boys' baseball," said Ashley Bratcher, senior director of baseball operations for USA Baseball. "So, girls playing baseball isn't offered as an opportunity in the school's infrastructure. I grew up playing baseball, and when I went into 7th grade, the only opportunity was to try out for softball. I had never played before but I did it because it was my only opportunity."

From a young age, girls like Taylor can plainly see they are not being judged on a truly level playing field. "You have to prove yourself more than the guys do because there's an expectation that you're not going to be as good and you have to be better than that," said Taylor, 14, who currently plays on the New Trier High School feeder team with all boys. "The standards are higher." She has been asked to try out multiple times for boys' teams. None of the boys were asked for a second tryout, and skill wasn't the issue.

Taylor was selected from a pool of 144 players to play on the WBL Sparks, a team Justine Siegal founded in 2002, when it was the first all-girls baseball team to compete in a boy's national tournament at the Cooperstown Dreamspark in Cooperstown, N.Y. Taylor's 2015 team finished 21st out of 104 of the best boys' teams in the nation. 

Seeing how much the girls loved playing together inspired Robert to start Illinois Girls Baseball, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that strives to provide opportunities for girls to play baseball with other girls by offering clinics, games, and one day, a league. "I want it to be normal," Robert said. "I don't want it to be special. I want to rent a field, pay the same fee that the boys' league pays and have two teams consisting of girls playing a game of baseball."

In May, they hosted the first Girls Baseball Day, where approximately 50 Chicagoland girls aged 6-17 had an opportunity to participate in a half day of skills clinics and games at the University of Illinois at Chicago, led by coaches from the baseball program. He sees it as a way to show young girls that there is a place for them to pursue their baseball dreams. 

"The youth programs are where the love of baseball either begins or ends," Robert said. "There are attitudes that encourage little girls to continue playing and there are attitudes to discourage those little girls from continuing playing."

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One thing that may account for girls feeling excluded is the lack of women in leadership positions from youth baseball all the way up to the majors. The Kenilworth-Winnetka Baseball Association, where Taylor has played, has 21 people on its board, all men. While Robert, one of the board members, is actively working to change this, it does reflect the lack of female representation in decision-making positions in baseball. In a study done in April by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, Major League Baseball was given a C grade for gender hiring practices. The study gave MLB a D+ at the senior administrator level and a C- at the professional team administrator level, with women making up only 29.3 percent of its workforce. There are still no women who are majority owners, managers, general managers or presidents of baseball operations. 

"There are girls who have experienced rude coaches or league administrators who wouldn't allow [them to play]," Bratcher said. "But to me it's a bigger, culturally engrained thing than softball is for girls and baseball is for boys. It's a larger battle to fight. It's going to be a long battle to reverse that mindset." 

Even the most established female athletes across all sports are still rationalizing their success to males. Mo'ne Davis, one of the stars of the 2014 Little League World Series, was once asked why she didn't play a more "female-friendly" sport like soccer by Fox and Friends host Eric Bolling. She told him that, actually, she does play soccer, and then informed Bolling that she would be able to strike him out. Davis still plays baseball at the Marian Anderson Recreation Center in South Philadelphia, but she's shifted her dream to one day playing in the WNBA. 

But for those who want to continue to play baseball, Baseball For All and Illinois Girls Baseball are making an impact on girls when they are young and first developing their love of the sport. "If we tell them they can't play because they are girls then we have to wonder what else they won't try because they are girls," Siegal said. "We need to smash gender stereotypes and instead let our children lead with passion." 

In April, Major League Baseball and USA Baseball launched their "Trailblazer Series," a three-day tournament at Major League Baseball's youth academy in Compton, California, featuring over 100 girls ages 16 and under from across the country. They were coached by some of the top female baseball coaches and players including several current and former members of USA Baseball. It was also Major League Baseball's most aggressive step into the movement. 

In July, Taylor and Madison will be playing with the Windy City Huskies in Baseball For All's 2017 Nationals in Rockford, IL July 27-31, at historic Beyer Stadium, home of the team featured in "A League of Their Own," the Rockford Peaches. It is expected to be the largest girls' baseball tournament in U.S. history. 

"It makes me realize I'm close to my goal," Madison said. "I can see that I can actually do this. There are women supporting me to help me get there."

CSN Chicago, in partnership with Northwestern University,  features journalism by students in the graduate program at Medill School of Journalism. The students are reporters for Medill News Service. Medill faculty members edit the student work. Click here for more information about Medill.

Edgy Tim's recruiting news and notes

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USA Today

Edgy Tim's recruiting news and notes

Lake Forest’s Mac Uihlein, a four-star junior inside linebacker (6-foot-1, 210 pounds), gave Northwestern his verbal commitment this past weekend. 

“Northwestern is like family,” Uihlein told WildcatReport's Lou Vaccher. “It’s the relationships you build at Northwestern that make it more than a four-year decision. It’s a lifetime decision.

"The academic opportunities they provide are amazing, and it’s definitely something I want to take advantage of,” said Uihlein, who carries a 5.01 GPA (on a 5.0 scale) at Lake Forest and scored a 26 on his ACT. “Coach Fitzgerald, and Coach McGarigle and all the guys they recruit are just great people I want to be around. Plus, Northwestern is close to home, so my family can get to games easily.”

Uihlein said that it was during a phone conversation with McGarigle that he realized “Northwestern was the place I wanted to be. My values line up with Northwestern’s, so I decided there was no reason to wait. I wanted to make my decision now."

Uihlein is now the fourth known verbal commitment for the Northwestern Class of 2021 and the first known in-state commitment.

Richmond-Burton junior offensive tackle Luke Eckardt (6-foot-7, 265 pounds) gave the NIU Huskies and head coach Thomas Hammock his verbal commitment late last week.

"We went back and forth for a bit with NIU, but once they offered me, it's just too good of a fit and opportunity for me to pass up. So I committed," Eckardt said. "I had been thinking more and more about making an early college decision, and I feel great about committing to NIU."

Eckardt, who was starting to see his overall recruiting stock rise this early spring, discussed why he committed to the nearby NIU Huskies.

"I just really like the coaches at NIU. We've been talking a lot, and I've gotten to build a strong relationship with them. I've also been able to make visits to NIU, and I really like the campus and the facilities. NIU is also close to home, and that also played a factor in my decision. I'll be able to go to school, get a good education, and also have my family and friends see me play in college. Everything about NIU feels right to me, and my family is also behind me and is excited about my decision. NIU is building something special, and I wanted to be a part of it."

Eckardt also admitted that the timing of his decision during the COVID-19 pandemic no question played a role in his choice.

"It (COVID-19) definitely played a role in making my decision this early. With the NCAA basically pushing back recruiting (the NCAA recently extended the dead period from April 15 to May 31), I really won't have a chance to get out to visit any other schools. I also didn't want to extend or drag out the recruiting process for a long time. I'm extremely comfortable with NIU. The school and the football program is a great fit for me, and I felt ready to make my decision. So I committed."

Luke Eckardt is the sixth known verbal commitment in the NIU Class of 2021 and the fourth known in-state commitment. Eckardt joins Aurora Christian quarterback Ethan Hampton, Solorio safety Brian Whitsey and Batavia Wide Receiver Trey Urwiler in the Huskies Class of 2021.

Willowbrook junior offensive tackle Enrique Cruz Jr. (6-foot-6, 250 pounds) has seen his recruiting stock take off over the past week or so, adding his first offer last week from Syracuse.

"Syracuse Coach (Mike) Lynch found me on Twitter a week or two ago," Cruz said. "We've been in contact quite a bit ever since then, and we FaceTime called on Saturday. That's when Syracuse offered me a scholarship ."

Cruz discussed his initial impressions of adding his first scholarship offer from Syracuse.

"I know that Syracuse is a really nice school, and I've been online and able to do a little bit of research on them. They offer a strong education, and it's just a great offer from a great school. The offer from Syracuse was a big surprise for sure. The coaches from Syracuse said that they want me to come and visit them as soon as we are allowed to make college visits."

Cruz Jr., who added new offers from Louisville and Western Illinois on Monday, has also been in touch with Iowa, NIU and Rutgers. He made a Junior Day visit earlier this winter to Iowa.

Nazareth Academy junior defensive tackle Drew Hughes (6-foot-3, 270 pounds) saw his recruiting stock take off early this spring despite an NCAA-forced football recruiting dead period in response to COVID-19.

"It's been really exciting getting these offers all of a sudden," Hughes said. "I have offers now from Miami of Ohio, Kent State and also North Dakota. I didn't expect to be playing Xbox one day and then getting on the phone with college coaches who want to offer me scholarships the next. It's been pretty wild."

Hughes filled us in on his latest recruiting news and new suitors so far this spring.

"I have offers from Miami of Ohio, Kent State and North Dakota. I've been in contact quite a bit with the coaches from South Dakota, South Dakota State, plus Akron. I've made visits so far to Miami of Ohio, NIU, Tennessee, South Carolina and Auburn, and also Iowa. I had visits planned to Western Michigan and Ball State, but those visits got canceled. I'm hoping that we can eventually be allowed to make college visits again, and I'm also looking at visiting Miami of Ohio again, along with North Dakota."

Mount Carmel head coach Jordan Lynch discusses football program during pandemic

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NBC Sports Chicago

Mount Carmel head coach Jordan Lynch discusses football program during pandemic

The latest guest on my weekly 20 Minutes podcast is Mount Carmel head football coach Jordan Lynch. Lynch, who was an All-State quarterback at Mount Carmel and then starred as a Heisman Trophy candidate at Northern Illinois University, has led his alma mater to an impressive 25-2 record in two seasons including a 14-0 record last fall and the 2019 Class 7A state title. Lynch and I cover several different subjects from the coronavirus pandemic to an impressive 2019 Caravan season and much more.

EDGYTIM: So as an educator and a coach, what has been the game plan as far as the whole coronavirus is concerned for Mount Carmel as a school as well as for your team?

Jordan Lynch: Educationally it's been a lot to take in, especially for a 16-17 year old kid and in the bigger picture this can all be a lot. At first I thought a lot of kids looked at this as a couple-week vacation, but we've really locked down here as coaches and teachers and administrators and we are all on an eLearning platform. A lot of our kids have fully bought in and they aren't treating this as a vacation. At first I think the whole vacation mentality was the mindset of a lot of kids, but that's all changed very quickly. Everyone is hitting the books and doing eLearning five days a week and getting after it. We've had our challenges because we have kids who come from different backgrounds, and some might not have a device or proper WiFi, but everyone is helping each other out and it's been a success so far. Personally, I do miss being around the kids. I miss getting to see them and getting to check up on them individually. That's been my focus this week and I'm sending out texts along with sending them messages on Hudl. We've been sending them workouts, different motivation quotes and just trying to keep the kids as engaged as possible. But the most important thing right now is that they are keeping up with their education and staying on top of their school work.

EDGYTIM: Your program has been well known for your 6 AM workouts for years now. They have been such a big part of the whole team bonding aspect at Mount Carmel, but that's being lost for now. When you eventually are allowed to get back with the team, is that team bonding maybe as important to recapture as any other work this time of the year?

Lynch: Absolutely.  Every team in the state and every kid that plays football is part of an offseason program. The big thing that I think separates us is how we run our 6 AM workouts. Every kid is dressed head to toe the same. You aren't allowed to work out even if you don't have the right socks, everyone is dressed the same. At this time of the year we have no seniors in the workouts, just juniors and younger, so we have juniors that want to take over the leadership roles and who want to lead and want to be a captain. This is the biggest time of the year where they grow the most in that aspect. As an example Justin (Lynch, Jordan's younger brother and starting QB) is more of a quiet kid, and he is going to need to be more vocal this year. This is that time of the year where he can be building upon that over the next few months so when it comes to August hopefully he's already taken over that leadership role. That's a big aspect that we are missing right now.

EDGYTIM: So after two seasons as a high school head coach now, what's been the biggest surprise or the biggest challenge for you so far?

Lynch: I'm still learning and I'm still growing every day. When I was the running backs coach at Northern Illinois you are working on football constantly 24/7, 365 days a year.  It's really all you do and you are just grinding it out. I got to Mount Carmel and got hired in late December, early January and there isn't a whole lot of football activity going on from January 'til July. So during that time you are building up relationships with the kids and that's when I realized that mattered the most. At the end of the day it's not all about the X's and O's and winning a game. It's about the kids trusting you and trusting your staff and having them buy into what you're trying to preach. So delivering that message day in and day out is the most important part of being a head coach and winning games. If the kids don't believe in you, even if you have the greatest schemes, it doesn't matter. In Year 2 we really minimized everything and we only had a few different plays. But we know what we are good at and we make sure the kids buy in and know their assignments and really trust us as a coaching staff.  In high school you need to have great mentors regardless of all the X's and O's.

EDGYTIM: We've talked before about the new on campus Barda-Dowling Stadium at Mount Carmel and everything that went into that new facility, but did it go maybe above and beyond even your expectations last season?

Lynch: It really did go above my expectations last year to be honest and I'm someone who played at Gately Stadium and who played on the old AstroTurf. I sound really old but that was just 10 years or so ago. I Ioved Gately Stadium and I loved playing there, but that was 10-11 years ago and times have changed. The thing I always noticed playing at Gately was our student section never really traveled to Gately and we never had a great student section. When we moved our games to Mount Carmel our student section really came alive. They came up with different themes each week and different chants and they really bought in. The student section in the end zone was packed every single time and that was really the first time as a player and now as a coach I felt a home atmosphere and we finally had an advantage playing at home now. For the people who haven't been out yet to see a game it reminds me of a Division 2 or Division 3 atmosphere. It's compact and it's tight. It seats 2,200 I believe and we make sure we pack it. It has an old school feeling too where sometimes people don't like to sit in the stands and instead just stand around the field. It was just great and a big reason why we went undefeated at home last season.

EDGYTIM: What stood out to me about last season's 14-0 state title run was that you didn't exactly blow anyone out of games week in and week out. You had a lot of tight games, yet it never felt for the most part that you were ever out of any games and even though the scores were close, they really didn't feel that close. Is that by design or was that just me?

Lynch:  Kind of how I felt the season played out when I look back on it is that when you think of Mount Carmel, the first thing that comes to mind is defense and you think of Dave Lenti (defensive coordinator). That guy doesn't get enough credit for a lot of things, but there is a reason why Mount Carmel has been super successful over the years and Dave has a lot to do with it. We pride ourselves on defense and we pride ourselves on grinding teams out. The scores in those games doesn't indicate the game necessarily and for three quarters there will be some teams with our schedule, some high powered teams who are going to be in the game with us. We really pride ourselves and why we train like we do in the off season is that come the fourth quarter we wear teams out. We will stick to the run game, we will eat some clock up and we are going to rely on our defense. We have some great play makers on offense who can do some special things, but I'm not going to drop back and throw the ball 50 times a game. I'm going to run the ball 50 times a game and grind you out for three quarters and when it comes to the fourth quarter, who wants it the most? A lot of the games were close bit in the fourth quarter you saw the clock management, the run game and upfront we just seemed to get stronger and stronger as the game wore on. That's Mount Carmel kind of football in a nutshell and how we play.

EDGYTIM: So who are your nonconference games for next season and have you realized that the CCL/ESCC will be even more stacked with loaded teams in 2020 who all bring back a ton of experience from last season?

Lynch:  From what I've heard alot of kids are coming back from last season and a lot of the teams are returning a lot of starters. It's the Catholic League Blue and I wouldn't want it any other way. We open up at home against Calumet High who we played last year as well. The only thing that really changes in our schedule this year from last year is that we play Phillips in Week 2 then after that it leads right into another grinder. It really comes down to who can stay the healthiest and who can have the most momentum heading into Week 10.

EDGYTIM: So let's say we finally get past this whole coronavirus ordeal. I decided to take you out for dinner and I'm buying...so where are you taking me?

Lynch:  Man that's tough. One of my go-to spots is I'm a big pizza guy. I would say that over the last 15 years or so my parents have always been going to Roseangla's Pizza in Evergreen Park. That's a spot on almost every Thursday you can catch me eating there.  So that's a spot where me and you could sit down and have a nice little hangout. That's where we would go.