It’s a season ending worthy of a Hallmark television special—a girls’ baseball team knocking off a boys’ team for the division championship.
Where’s Geena Davis to star as one of the moms?
You don’t need to dream it—it’s a fact. The Chicago Pioneers, one of just two all-girls baseball programs in the country, recently won the North Shore Baseball League division championship in the 11 B age group.
“Our team had never won a playoff game before,” says Winnetka resident Kara Gagliardi, whose daughter Grace is on the team. “I’m just so proud of them.”
The Pioneers program is the brainchild of Skokie residents Mary Jo and Greg Stegeman, whose now 26-year-old daughter had always wanted to play baseball. Baseball. Not softball.
“They are two completely different sports,” says Mary Jo, a woman so passionate about making baseball accessible to girls that she’s continued to operate the program long past the time her daughter could have benefited from it.
“I got started because I have a baseball girl,” she says. “I wanted her to have the choice to play. So often, girls are directed to softball, whether or not they want to play that. The choice to play baseball isn’t typically given to them.”
The Chicago Pioneers is the only girls’ program in the U.S. playing all-boys teams. It began in 2006 with just 12 girls and now has more than 150 participants, including girls from as far as Germany. The level of desire to play is evident.
“If a girl is choosing to play baseball, it’s because she wants to play baseball,” Mary Jo says. “The girls in our program are adamant about playing.”
Ask Mary Jo what the #1 success of the Pioneers has been, and the answer comes quickly.
“Getting the girls together,” she says. “Typically, these girls feel they are the only ones out there that like playing baseball. But getting them together—these girls aren’t feeling like oddballs. They’re normal girls.”
On-the-field success is evident—Chicago Pioneers players have won spots on the U.S. women’s national team and college-level scholarships.
And what’s keeping more girls’ teams from cropping up?
“It may be tough to hear, but it’s parents,” says Mary Jo. “Parents need to demand it. They’re ignorant to the fact that they have a choice. It’s how most all-girls teams get going, as it did in soccer and most recently, hockey. When parents demand it, the program is created.”
Another challenge that keeps more girls from playing the sport they love is the scholarship ideal—parents directing kids toward a sport offering them the best chance for a 4-year ride in college.
Mary Jo says, “Some parents have abandoned the ‘let’s play for fun’ ideal. Most parents are interested in the ‘Where is the future in this?’ instead of approaching it as, ‘This is my kid and this is what she likes to do.’”
She looks forward to the day when the Pioneers will be looked at as just another team, and not a girls team.
“The sooner people get over the ponytails, the better off we’ll all be,” she says.
For more information about the program, visit ChicagoPioneers.com or call Mary Jo at 847-707-8944.