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.

High School Lites Roundup Week 8

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NBC Sports Chicago

High School Lites Roundup Week 8

High School Lites is back with an exciting Week 8 full of thrilling matchups. NBC Sports Chicago has the highlights of some of the top matchups from the games.

Be sure to follow us on Twitter @NBCSPREPS for all of the latest IHSA football scores and highlights.

Drive: Phillips Epsidoe 8

Windy City Legends: Pierre Thomas

Saint Xavier Team of the Week: Proviso East Pirates

Wintrust Athlete of the Week: Maggie Biegalski

Phillips 58, Westinghouse 0

Coal City 29, Wilmington 14

Homewood-Flossmoor 14, Bolingbrook 13

Hillcrest 32, Lemont 26

Prairie Ridge 42, Cary-Grove 7

Grayslake North 20, Grant 17

Antioch 10, Lakes 7

Nazareth 21, Notre Dame 0

Warren 37, Stevenson 0

St. Francis 20, IC Catholic 19

Edgy Tim's Week 8 analysis and picks

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NBC Sports Chicago

Edgy Tim's Week 8 analysis and picks

NBC Sports Chicago will have cameras covering the biggest high school football games across Chicagoland on the Week 9 edition of High School Lites, Friday at 11:00 p.m. Can Wilmington win on the road at Coal City in this backyard rivalry? Who comes out ahead in the Battle for the Alec Anderson Trophy: Bolingbrook or H-F? Can Prairie Ridge and Cary Grove just start overtime now? Can Nazareth Academy unleash its offense and beat a very strong Notre Dame defense in Niles? And will Friday's Metro Suburban Blue --and Class 4A-- showdown between IC and St. Francis stand as a potential playoff preview between the two?

Wilmington at Coal City, 7:00 p.m.

EDGY's Take: This Illinois Central Eight conference title game features two nearby rivals who know each other extremely well. It's one of the most anticipated games in southern Will and eastern Grundy counties all season. Wilmington (7-0/5-0), led by veteran head coach Jeff Reents, has the Wildcats playing well this fall behind a power running game led by RB Jake Rodawold and a nice mix of the play-action passing game behind QB Keaton Hopwood. Coach Dan Hutchings and the Coal City Coalers (7-0/5-0) have an experienced and deep roster. THey will also look to establish the running game with RB Dan Jezik. The passing game is also a strength with QB Peyton Hutchings. Can Wilmington contain the Coal City running game and win the battle in the trenches? Will home field be a factor?

EDGY's Pick: Coal City 28 Wilmington 14

(10) Bolingbrook at (6) H-F, 7:00 p.m.

EDGY's Take: Despite the distance between Bolingbrook (6-1/3-1) and Homewood-Flossmoor (6-1/3-1) this game is undoubtedly one of the biggest rivalry games for each school. They will play for the Alec Anderson Memorial Trophy. Raiders head coach John Ivlow has returned to the triple-option offense with just enough play-action passing game to the tune of great success. The running attack is led by senior QB Deyvn Suggs; the experienced offensive line is led by senior John Williams (Cincinnati). The defense has speed and athleticism, guided by junior LB Tyler Mclaurin and junior S Justin Walters. H-F head coach Craig Buzea features a big and experienced offensive line led by seniors Marcus Harper II (Oregon), Michael Ford and Denzel Bryant. Junior RB Sean Allen is also having a strong season. The Vikings 'D can match just about anyone in the state speed for speed. Junior WR/SB Will Pauling and sophomore LB Malyk Jones are names to watch. Can Bolingbrook run the football against H-F? Can the Vikings' offense pound away at Brook's speedy defense?

EDGY's Pick: Homewood-Flossmoor 21 Bolingbrook 14

(18) Hillcrest at Lemont, 7:00 p.m.

EDGY's Take: Hillcrest (6-1/4-0) has been playing lights-out football since a close 26-20 Week 1 loss to Brother Rice. Junior RB Mar'Kiese Irving has been one of the most sought-after recruits in the Class of 2021 and has led the way for head coach Morgan Weaver's Hawks this fall. Lemont (6-1/4-0) also dropped a close opening week decision (12-6 to St. Charles East), but they have been on a roll ever since. They have a balanced offense led by QB Luke Bailey and WR Anthony Sambucci (Western Michigan). Can the Lemont defense corral and contain Mar'Kiese Irving? Can the Hawks win on the road? 

EDGY's Pick: Hillcrest 28 Lemont 27

Prairie Ridge at (25) Cary-Grove, 7:00 p.m. #SendEDGY

EDGY's Take: Year in and year out, these two Fox Valley powehouse programs never fail to entertain. Same applies in 2019 where Prairie Ridge (6-1/6-1) and Cary Grove (6-1/6-1)-- expect a very tight, 'last-possession-wins' type of game. Prairie Ridge and head coach Chris Schremp will look to get the Wolves offense balanced and on trackled. The group is led by QB Connor Lydon and a backfield of RB Blake brown, Taidhgin Trost and Carter Evans. Cary-Grove and head coach Brad Seaburg will want to establish the power running attack with RB Blake Skol and QB Luke Eleftheriou. On defense, the Trojans have allowed just 36 points so far on the season. Will the team that limits the overall amount of mistakes win? 

EDGY's Pick: Cary-Grove 28 Prairie Ridge 21 OT

Grant at Grayslake North, 7:00 p.m.

EDGY's Take: Grant (6-1/4-1) secured the Bulldogs' first state playoff bid since 2012 in last week's win over North Chicago. Head coach Chris Robinson's squad will rely on a stable of quality running backs along with QB Tyler Elfering. On defense, Grant has kept teams at bay all season. The unit is led by senior LB Kyle Rainey. Grayslake North (3-4/2-3) will be in must-win mode this week. The Knights are hoping that their recent offensive explosion over the past few weeks continues Friday night. North is led by QB Nick Fish. Can the Knights' offense put up points against a very strong Grant defense?

EDGY's Pick: Grant 35 Grayslake North 21

Antioch at Lakes, 7:15 p.m. 

EDGY's Take: Antioch (6-1/5-0) has been able to keep winning despite losing standout junior QB Athan Kaliakmanis (Minnesota) for the season to a Week 6 injury. Look for the Sequoits, coached by Brian Glashagel, to get the football into the hands of junior WR Dino Kaliakmanis (Minnesota) along with senior WR Treshawn Watson. Lakes (6-1/4-1), coached by Jordan Elder, was able to bounce back last week with a win over Grayslake Central after losing to Grant. Can the Eagles get starting QB Chris Selig back in the lineup after suffering a Week 6 injury? This is one of the top rivalry games in Chicago's northern suburbs.

EDGY's Pick: Antioch 35 Lakes 34

(5) Stevenson at Warren, 7:20 p.m.

EDGY's Take: Warren (7-0/5-0) is looking to lock up the North Suburban Conference title with a win. Head coach Bryan McNulty's Blue Devils defense remains the big story so far this season. The 'Township defense has allowed just 21 points all season and is led by senior DT Willis Singleton Jr. (Iowa State), junior LB Malachi McNeal and senior LB Juan Delacruz. On offense, Warren is getting a big season from RB Derrick McLaughlin. The experienced offensive line has certainly helped. Stevenson (4-3/4-1) features a first-year head coach in Brent Becker. He has relied on senior RB J.M. Etiene and backup QB Liam Crowley-- who has played well since filling in for the injured Justin Hiller. Can the Patriots' offense move the football consistently --and then score-- against Warren's defense?

EDGY's Pick: Warren Township 28 Stevenson 10

(3) Nazareth at (8) Notre Dame, 7:30 p.m.

EDGY's Take: Nazareth (6-1/2-0) is coming off a big 39-29 win last Friday over Marist. The Roadrunners are stacked again this fall for head coach Tim Racki. Junior QB J.J. McCarthy (Michigan) is as dangerous as ever. He has a target in sophomore WR Tyler Morris. The 'Naz defense is also very solid. Keep an eye on senior ILB Marcus Griffin (GVSU), junior DE/OT Ryan Keeler and senior LB/FB Riley Theobald. Notre Dame (7-0/2-0), under Hall of Fame head coach Mike Hennessey, has been one of the biggest surprise stories in Chicagoland. The Dons have a tough one-two punch on offense with junior QB Anthony Sayles and senior RB Julian Schurr. LB Anthony Ranallo leads a very tough ND defense. Can the Nazareth offense dent a very strong ND defense? Can the Dons' offense keep the football and win time of possession?

EDGY's Pick: Nazareth Academy 20 Notre Dame 14

I.C. Catholic Prep vs St. Francis at Wheaton College, 7:30 p.m.

EDGY's Take: A huge showdown here in the Metro Suburban Blue-- as well as in Class 4A. I.C. (7-0/4-0) has relied on the arm and legs of senior QB/LB Danny Cronin. Junior RB Kyle Franklin remains a game-breaking threat at all times for head coach Bill Krefft and company. Many around St. Francis (6-1/4-0) felt that this team was maybe a year away. But next year is here. Keep an eye on junior QB Tommy Rittenhouse. He's one of the most dangerous dual-threat signal callers in Chicagoland this season. The Spartans also have a stable of talented backs and receivers. Can The St. Francis defense slow down and contain the balanced Knights offense? Can the IC defense get pressure on the St. Francis offense? Am I the only one who thinks this game could be Part 1 of 2 this season? (psst: playoff preview)

EDGY's Pick: I.C. Catholic Prep 34 St. Francis 28