Having never fielded a baseball team before this season, Mesa Preparatory Academy was thrilled with an undefeated season that had it in position to play for the Arizona Charter Athletic Association’s 1A state championship at Phoenix College Thursday night.
The Monsoons had gone undefeated in the regular season and done so with just 11 players. The feel-good story turned a bit sour this week, though, when their championship opponent forfeited the title game because Mesa Prep’s starting second baseman is a 15-year-old female, Paige Sultzbach.
Our Lady of Sorrows Academy, a fundamentalist Catholic school in Phoenix, declined to play Mesa Prep because of a strict parish policy prohibiting participation in co-ed sports. The school is affiliated with the U.S. branch of the Society of Saint
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Pius X, a group of conservative priests who broke away from the Catholic
Church in the 1980s over church reforms.
In a statement to FOX News, an Our Lady of Sorrows official said the school had no choice but to forfeit: “Teaching our boys to treat ladies with deference, we choose not to place them in an athletic competition where proper boundaries can only be respected with difficulty,” the statement said. “Our school aims to instill in our boys a profound respect for women and girls.”
Sultzbach joined the baseball team because the school does not field a softball team. Under ACAA rules, co-ed sports are allowed if an equivalent for both sexes is not offered.
The championship game was not the first time this issue had occurred between the two schools.
According to ACAA executive director Randy Baum, Our Lady of Sorrows athletic director Gerry Violette was proactive before the season in informing other coaches that his school’s teams could not participate in co-ed competition.
Sultzbach was added to the Mesa Prep roster later, and Violette did not know about the change until the two teams met on March 22. Our Lady of Sorrows, Baum says, was prepared to forfeit the game but saw that Mesa Prep had just nine players. When told another player was on the way, Violette offered to play the game if Sultzbach was on the bench.
Rules stipulate a game must begin with nine players on each side, so Sultzbach started in the game. It’s unclear if she left the game before the first official pitch, or if she played an inning before taking to the bench. (Violette did not respond to requests for comment.)
The teams met again in late April, but this time Sultzbach agreed to sit out before the game began. Mesa Prep won both games. When it came to the championship, however, Mesa Prep was unwilling to let Sultzbach sit.
“I think the championship game was something she had earned the right to play,” Mesa Prep athletic director Amy Arnold said. “The (Mesa Prep) players are all very supportive of Paige. They consider her very much a part of the team, and they want her to play.”
Sultzbach and her family did not respond to requests for comment, but Sultzbach’s mother, Pamela, told the Arizona Republic: “This is not a contact sport, it shouldn’t be an issue. It wasn’t that they were afraid they were going to hurt or injure her, it’s that (they believe) that a girl’s place is not on a field.”
Violette and Arnold discussed ideas for how they might play the game, but Baum told Violette they could not put any restrictions on Sultzbach’s participation. Violette conferred with administrators at Our Lady of Sorrows but they were unwilling to make an exception to their policy.
“We respect the stance of Our Lady of Sorrows Academy,” Arnold said. “They are obviously taking a moral stance on their beliefs, and we have to respect that. It’s a sad situation that the championship game cannot be played. No one wants to win or lose a championship by forfeit.”
Baum believes both sides could have taken steps to head off the problem before it reached the championship game.
“It’s definitely upsetting that this happened,” Baum said. “There were probably a lot of protocols and things that could have been done proactively to avoid this situation for both schools.”
Baum believes if Mesa Prep had made clear its stance on Sultzbach’s participation prior to the tournament, Our Lady of Sorrows might have bowed out before it began and another team could have qualified for the championship. The school had done so before a flag football tournament in October, knowing that some teams had female players.
“I would have told (Our Lady of Sorrows) right away that Paige is a student and she is allowed to play,” Baum said. “We want every kid to get the opportunity to compete. That’s what our league is about.”
Arnold said Mesa Prep isn’t interested in making Our Lady of Sorrows change its mind on the policy.
“It’s just unfortunate,” Arnold said. “I would like to see the game played because that’s where championships are won — on the field, the court, the track or wherever it may be.”
Added Baum: “I feel bad for the 23 or 24 kids that are not going to be out there tonight getting ready to play in a state baseball game.”