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High school athletes are breaking down gender barriers on the field

5/5/2009

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.

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.

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.

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.