By David Rookhuyzen, Arizona Republic
All second baseman Paige Sultzbach wanted to do was play in her school's state championship baseball game.
But because she is a girl, that won't happen.
Sultzbach is a freshman at Mesa Preparatory Academy, which had been scheduled to play Our Lady of Sorrows Academy in Thursday's Arizona Charter Athletic Association state championship at Phoenix College.
But Our Lady of Sorrows, a fundamentalist Catholic school in Phoenix that lost twice to Mesa Prep during the regular season, chose to forfeit the championship game rather than play a team fielding a female player.
Our Lady of Sorrows school officials would not comment, but in a written statement, said the decision to forfeit was consistent with a school policy prohibiting co-ed sports.
Sultzbach's mother, Pamela Sultzbach, said her daughter and the rest of the team received the news after Wednesday afternoon's practice.
"This is not a contact sport, it shouldn't be an issue," Pamela said. "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."
Paige played softball and volleyball in junior high, but because Mesa Prep does not have a girls' softball team, she decided to try out for the boys' baseball team, with the coach's encouragement.
From early on, Paige tried to blend in, her mother said. When the coach referred to the kids as "guys and gals," Paige spoke up and said that they all wear the same uniform, so the coach should just call them all guys.
Her teammates have stood up for her.
During Mesa Prep's two previous games with Our Lady of Sorrows, Paige didn't play out of respect for the opposing team's beliefs, but that wasn't going to be an option this time, Pamela said.
"We respected their school rule but she took it hard," Pamela said. "She didn't like it and neither did her teammates. They went out and played the best they could because they wanted to prove a point."
Our Lady of Sorrows is run by the U.S. branch of the Society of Saint Pius X, a group of conservative, traditionalist priests who disagree with the reforms of the Vatican II Council in the 1960s and broke with the Catholic Church in the 1980s.
It is not clear whether the school's athletics policy originates with the Society or the school. Nor is it clear if the school accepts male and female students. Calls to Our Lady of Sorrow's athletic director and principal and to the Society were not returned Wednesday.
School officials did release a short statement saying they were discussing the matter and will release a written statement "at the appropriate time."
"I respect their views, but it's a bit out of the 18th century," said Mesa Prep athletic director Amy Arnold, who is the only woman now coaching a boys high-school football team in Arizona.
Mesa Prep's baseball team, which went undefeated in the regular season, has only 11 members, so having one sit out in a championship is a big deal, Arnold said. Besides, Sultzbach earned the right to play in the title game, she said.
Before the forfeit was announced, Arnold had hoped the game would still take place. "What true athlete would want to win or lose a championship game by forfeit?" Arnold asked.
The two teams play in the seven-team 1A division of the ACAA. Mesa Prep won the Eastern Division by going 9-0 on the season, and Our Lady of Sorrows won the Western Division with a 6-3 record.
Sultzbach, 15, said she felt Our Lady of Sorrows was putting her down by asking that she not play in those first two games.
"I felt like any passionate athletic person would feel (in that situation)," said Sultzbach, who added, "I don't want our very first high-school baseball team to win the championship on a forfeit."
Pamela said she doesn't believe Our Lady of Sorrow's stance is discriminatory, but a bit narrow-minded.
Randy Baum, ACAA's executive director, said the league backs females playing all sports, and Our Lady of Sorrows is aware of that.
This isn't the first time the issue has come up. Our Lady of Sorrows pulled out of a flag football tournament before it began last October because some teams had female members, Baum said.
Before the baseball season started, Our Lady of Sorrows asked all of its potential opponents if they had girls on their teams. At that point Mesa Preparatory did not -Sultzbach came on board later - so the religious school did not learn of her participation until the first time they played, Baum said.
Baum said he wishes Mesa Prep had been more consistent in its policy rather than sitting her in the regular-season games and insisting she play in the state championship.
Our Lady of Sorrows athletic director Gerry Violette has put in a motion for the association's meeting next week that would create separate boys and girls sports, Baum said. But that doesn't ease the disappointment of the way this season ended, Pamela said.
"This team has worked so hard," she said. "They're undefeated. They had one game left. At our school, we're taught that when you start something you complete it, and they weren't done."