Just one of the boys: Softball standout Emma Speer has proven she can play baseball at Coal Ridge High School
March 27, 2014
PEACH VALLEY — Hearing the taunts, quips and jeers by the opponents of the Coal Ridge High School baseball team does nothing but motivate Emma Speer.
"The game against Aspen, I heard a bunch of players from the dugout yell out at me and say, 'What, are we playing softball now?'" said Speer, a Coal Ridge senior who plays baseball for the Titans. "It's OK, though. I just laugh. It just drives me even more to prove that I can do this."
Speer, despite some taunts by opposing players who are used to playing exclusively against boys, has already proven herself to be a good ball player. Even though her playing background comes primarily from the softball diamond, her coach and teammates had no doubts about her making a smooth transition to the baseball field.
"I thought it was a great idea," first-year Coal Ridge baseball coach Dan Larsen said. "In the dugout, she doesn't ever expect to be treated any differently from the other boys on the team, and she has a very high baseball IQ, and … she knows her role on the team. Any playing time she gets is a bonus."
Speer, however, hasn't just sat in the dugout all season. She's gotten into all but one of the Titans' five games this season and is 1-for-4 batting, with her single coming during a doubleheader against Basalt on March 15.
Needless to say, she's gained a lot of respect of her teammates as the season has progressed.
"She can play. There's no doubt about that," Coal Ridge senior shortstop Jerome Pizzelli said. "All of the guys have accepted her. She's not stealing anyone's spot, but she's definitely a valuable member of the team."
Speer has been a valuable member of many of the teams she's played on, and that background made a difference in her landing a spot on the Titans' roster.
Originally from Florence, Ore., Speer began playing softball when she was in first grade and, by the time she was in sixth grade, she had begun playing in Thurston — a suburb of Eugene — with a traveling ASA softball team called the Eugene Thunder. She continued playing with the Thunder until she moved to New Castle, where she began attending Coal Ridge High School as a freshman.
Since Coal Ridge doesn't have a softball program, Speer had to go to neighboring Rifle to play for coach Cindy Skinner. What followed was a prep career that was more than stellar, as Speer finished her three-year varsity stint with a .486 batting average (89-for-183), 11 home runs, 84 RBIs and 93 runs scored in 57 varsity games. She also finished with an .877 career fielding percentage as a shortstop which, combined with her performance at the plate, earned her recognition as a Class 4A second-team all-state softball player by the Colorado High School Activities Association.
So when baseball season came around, Speer initially wanted just to be the team manager. But the players on the team — among others — convinced her not to sit on the sidelines.
"My dad [Deen Speer] was saying to me 'You should totally play,'" Emma Speer said. "And then when I would sit in the dugout watching practice, I just said to myself, 'Wow. That looks so much fun. I want to play!'"
Girls playing in sports that have traditionally been played exclusively by boys is becoming more commonplace. Girls are more frequently seen playing football than two decades ago, and their presence in wrestling is growing. So is their success — Grand Valley High School graduate Cody Pfau, who now wrestles at Oklahoma City University, became the first girl ever to earn a first-round victory in Colorado's wrestling state tournament in Denver.
For some, however, seeing a girl on the baseball field — one who could play — has been an eye opener.
"It's kinda neat," first-year Aspen baseball coach Ryan Triece said. "Coach [Larsen] and I were talking about it. It's a little weird because they usually play softball. Typically you see girls playing football because they understand the game a little better. But that was fun to see her out there, and she had a pretty good arm, too!"
Larsen said Speer initially tried to play either shortstop or third base and admitted that she has the arm strength to play the position. But with Larsen already comfortable with the players he has starting on the left side of the infield, he felt first base and outfield would be better spots for her in the field.
Speer has had to make plenty of adjustments to keep up with the guys, though. She was quick to point out how fielding becomes different since there's typically grass on a baseball infield — as opposed to the all-dirt softball infield — and the larger infield was also an adjustment. The smaller size of the baseball compared to the softball doesn't bother her as much as the difference in pitches, which include curveballs and sliders in baseball as opposed to riseballs and dropballs in softball.
"But you definitely have more time to react [at the plate in baseball] than you do in softball," the 5-foot-9 Speer said. "One of the biggest challenges for me has been learning to wait on a curveball instead of reacting immediately once a pitch is thrown."
Almost all of the feedback Speer has gotten this season has been positive. She joked that she might be getting some extra positive feedback "just because I'm a girl." She's not about to turn that support away, though, and her coaches and teammates only look at how she can benefit the team, not her gender.
"I wouldn't hesitate to send her out to be a pinch hitter or to play her if I needed someone," Larsen said. "I also know that with her baseball IQ, I know I won't have to worry about her not paying attention to the game and not knowing what's going on.
"To me, this isn't weird at all," the coach continued. "Everyone on the team knows her talent, and the great thing about that is she's treated just like one of the guys. Like one of the team."
Still, Speer realizes that she does stand at a disadvantage based solely on her gender. But Speer's confidence in herself, along with the confidence her teammates have given her, drives her to improve even when people don't immediately accept what she's doing.
"People can say whatever they want," Speer said. "I know I have my teammates behind me no matter what, so I don't care what people say. And really … all that does is make me push harder so I can prove myself."