Commentary

High school athletes are breaking down gender barriers on the field

Updated: May 5, 2009, 3:55 PM ET
By Karen Eschbacher | ESPNRISE.com

No one can accuse Jasmine Teters of being dainty. The Banks (Ore.) senior has played football for each of the past four years.

She's not just one of those girls who occasionally jogs onto the field for a punt or an extra-point attempt, either. Teters plays offensive and defensive tackle. That means she lines up against guys who dwarf her 5-foot-6 frame. Despite bouts of pain and oh-my-god moments when she's staring down 300-pound opponents, Teters keeps suiting up to abuse her body for one simple reason.

"I just love football," she says matter-of-factly.

Teters is among a rare breed of female athletes who have pushed, pried and slammed their way onto playing fields typically reserved for males. Though their numbers are still small, more and more of these trailblazers are crushing gender barriers each year and hoping to prove true the adage that anything boys can do, girls can do better -- or at least just as well.

Consider this: According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 1,225 girls nationwide played 11-player football last school year -- up from 779 female participants 10 years earlier. Another 1,010 members of the fairer sex claimed a slot on the baseball diamond last year and more than 5,500 hit the mats with wrestling teams.

[+] EnlargeGirl Football Player
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonMore than 1,000 girls suited up for their high school football team last fall.

Then there's hockey, a sport that's as physical as they come. Not only are girls refusing to shy away from the boards, they're gaining interest. More than 8,600 girls are now taking a shot at the sport, up from about 3,500 just 10 years ago. Many states, like Minnesota, have even started to add girls' hockey leagues.

Those leagues produce future college stars like Sally Komarek, a senior forward for The Blake School (Minneapolis, Minn.) girls' team. Komarek first laced up skates when she was 3 because her mom thought it would be cute if she learned to figure skate. In third grade, she decided to give hockey a try.

"I can remember the first time we had practice," she says. "I could hardly skate because I wasn't used to hockey skates. I was moving around like a little tripod, leaning on my stick all the time."

Turns out, she got better. Downright good, in fact. Komarek, who will play college hockey for Dartmouth, has been on the varsity team since eighth grade. Last season, she scored 32 goals and assisted on 30 more. Brano Stankovsky, president of the Minnesota Girls Hockey Coaches Association, says Komarek is one of the top five female players in Minnesota and a contender for the state's Miss Hockey crown.

Komarek has even competed for boys' teams, occasionally playing for club squads when they're short a player. And she prepared for this season by going to unofficial boys' team practices.

"She has passion,"says Stankovsky, Komarek's coach at The Blake School. "She's very feminine, yet she'll go toe-to-toe with you in the corner and in front of the net. As soon as she puts on the equipment she transforms."

For Komarek, Teters and most other of these tough-minded girls, breaking into male-dominated sports isn't about making a political statement or soaking up attention. They're just trying to do their thing.

Take Jessica Bennett, a senior at Montville (Oakdale, Conn.). As a third-grader, Bennett watched her older brother, Dylan, wrestle in a community league. She idolized her big bro, so the next year she bugged her mom to let her sign up. Bennett was instantly hooked. By the time she got to high school, there was no doubt she'd have a place on the team with the guys.

As a junior last year, she finished fifth in the 103-pound weight class at the Class S state tournament. This year, she's co-captain of her squad and hopes to improve her performance at state.

[+] EnlargeMary Walker
AP Photo/Jim BryantPlaying sports against guys takes talent -- and self-confidence.

Bennett says her teammates have never treated her differently because she's a girl. And for the most part, her opponents have been respectful -- even the ones she's made look silly on the mat.

"I'm not going to lie about it -- It probably doesn't feel great for someone who comes into a match against me to lose," Bennett says. "But for the most part people are pretty understanding. I have no idea what people's teammates are like after the fact, but in the moment I've never met anyone who was totally disrespectful to my face. Nobody's ever made a big deal about it -- I appreciate it."

Going up against the guys isn't always easy. But for some girls, the biggest challenge involves winning the right to play in the first place.

Logan Young has been playing baseball with boys since she was 5, and she has no plans to quit now that she's a freshman at Bloomington South (Bloomington, Ind.). Trouble is, Indiana rules prevent girls from playing baseball if their school has a softball team.

To keep her playing hardball, Young and her family filed a lawsuit against the school district and the Indiana High School Athletic Association asking that the rule be tossed. The IHSAA responded by issuing a waiver for Young to try out, though school and IHSAA officials say she would have been granted permission even without the lawsuit.

But Tae Sture, one of the family's attorneys, says that's not good enough. He argues that since baseball and softball simply aren't the same, girls shouldn't need special permission to participate.

Young, who plays third base and outfield, couldn't agree more.

"I don't know how to describe why I love baseball so much,"she says. "It's a lot of fun. It's a passion for me. I had the option to play softball, but I love baseball."

For girls who do make the cut in a traditionally male sport, sticking it out can be grueling. Even painful.

[+] EnlargeGirls Hockey
AP Photo/Toby TalbotFemale athletes are dominating on the ice, as well.

Michelle Serrato, a senior fullback who also plays on special teams for Roosevelt (Corona, Calf.), tore an ACL and meniscus while practicing running plays last year. She underwent surgery and missed the first two games of this season.

Despite the bang-ups, bruises and occasional struggles, Serrato has no regrets about her decision to break the gender mold when it comes to sports.

"I have self-confidence," Serrato says. "I'm so determined, I don't pay attention to what other people think of me. I mostly do it for myself."

Then there's Teters, who admits she considered walking away from football during her junior year. Her coach, Ben Buchanan, still remembers the day she came to him in tears, ready to throw in the towel.

"She was hurting," he says. "She's had shoulder issues from [competing] with the guys. They've all gotten bigger and faster and stronger than her. She wasn't sure she wanted to do it anymore. I said, 'There aren't that many girls in the country who can say they've played as many years of high school as you. It would be pretty special if you could finish up.'"

She stuck it out. Both are glad she did.

Banks had its most successful season in memory this school year, advancing to the Class 4A state championship for its first title game appearance since 1949.

The Braves lost to Astoria (Ore.), 19-11, and Teters' play was limited to just the last minute or so. But none of that made the moment any less meaningful.

"It was awesome," Teters says. "At the end of the game I gave my coach a hug and he said, 'Aren't you glad you stayed?'"

Like with all the other girl athletes breaking gender barriers, the answer was a resounding yes.