Paige Sultzbach has learned to field interview questions as smoothly as she does grounders.
Mesa (Ariz.) Preparatory Academy's starting second baseman helped lead her team to an undefeated regular season as a freshman. She then became a national media sensation after Our Lady of Sorrows, a rival school in Phoenix that lost twice to Mesa Prep during the regular season, forfeited the Arizona Charter Athletic Association's 1A state baseball championship on May 10 rather than play a team that fields a female player.
The story -- and Sultzbach herself -- became a major topic of discussion on TV, sports radio and social media. She found herself inundated with both interview requests and well wishers, as e-mails poured in from all corners of the U.S. One missive even came from an all-girls school in Ireland. This Saturday, Sultzbach and her team will attend an Arizona Diamondbacks game, joining the pros for pregame warmups and an autograph session. And they've been invited to an Oakland Raiders game next season.
My teammates respect me -- not as a girl player, just a baseball player -- and I appreciate that.
”-- Mesa (Ariz.) Prep second baseman Paige Sultzbach
In between, Sultzbach has been feted, along with the rest of her team, at a school pep rally; studied for finals ("acing" exams in Latin and Humane Letters) and found time to start designing her homecoming dress for next year.
"It's been pretty hectic," said Sultzbach with a laugh. "But it's been fun."
Along the way, the 15-year-old has earned plaudits for her poise and for capably acquitting herself on and off the field. Turns out, she didn't have to look far for inspiration.
Mesa Prep athletic director Amy Arnold knows something about dispelling stereotypes as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated sports role. She's also the school's varsity football coach -- one of only two female high school head football coaches in the country.
Arnold says that she faced some skepticism when she first took over the program two years ago, but quickly quieted her doubters by leading Mesa Prep's eight-man squad to an undefeated regular season last fall and to the state championship game, where it lost a heartbreaker to rival Glendale Prep 38-32.
Like her AD, Sultzbach has let what she does on the field speak for itself.
"Paige absolutely earned the right to play," said Arnold. "We're all very proud of her."
Sultzbach played softball and volleyball in junior high, but because Mesa Prep does not have a softball team, she decided to try out for the baseball team, with Arnold's encouragement.
"She came to me before the season and asked if she could join the team," said Arnold. "I told her, 'Absolutely. Title IX says that if we don't offer a sport for girls, they have to right to play on the boys' team.'
"That very night I got an e-mail alert notifying me Paige had registered for baseball. She was the first to sign up."
Just as players and parents at Mesa Prep no longer see Arnold through the prism of gender, Sultzbach is simply considered an essential cog on her team, not a token.
"From the very beginning, she just wanted to blend in," said her father, John. "I had some reservations. I was concerned that she would get frustrated that she could not keep up or perform well enough to be considered an equal by her team. But that concern quickly went away."
When Mesa Prep coach Christopher Estilow initially referred to the players as "guys and gals," Sultzbach spoke up.
"I told him, 'We all wear the same uniform, Coach, so just call us all guys," she said.
"It took her some time to adjust to baseball pitching, but in our two-week prep for the playoffs she was one of the hardest workers, and she battled through everything with a smile on her face," said Estilow. "I even hit her once during batting practice. She took getting hit better than some of the other players did."
Sultzbach said her teammates accepted her immediately, as did most of Mesa Prep's opponents in the seven-team 1A division of the ACAA.
"All the other teams we played against didn't have a problem with playing a team with a girl on it," said Sultzbach. "They treated it as just another baseball game. Our Lady of Sorrows was the only team that wouldn't play against me."
During Mesa Prep's two regular-season games against Our Lady of Sorrows, including an 11-3 win on April 26, Sultzbach didn't play out of respect for the opposing team's beliefs.
"She didn't like it and neither did her teammates," said John. "But they went out and played the best they could because they wanted to prove a point."
But with only 11 players on the team, and a title at stake, Sultzbach wasn't about to sit out the ACAA championship game, which was to be played on a neutral field at Phoenix College. Instead, she and her teammates learned of Our Lady of Sorrows' decision to forfeit after their final practice.
Sultzbach finally had a moment to reflect on the season and its aftermath during Mesa Prep's team barbecue, which was held at the home of her teammates Matthew and Michael Ginty last Saturday.
"We just kind of hung out together as a team and talked," said Sultzbach. "It was a nice break from all the cameras and newspaper articles and everything."
At the start of the gathering, she stood up and gave a speech.
"I really wanted to thank my teammates, coaches and their families for being so supportive and for treating me as just one of the guys," said Sultzbach. "They respect me -- not as a girl player, just a baseball player -- and I appreciate that."
Sultzbach will switch back to softball for summer league, but plans to play volleyball for her school in the fall and then suit up for Mesa Prep's baseball team again next spring.
The school, which has an enrollment of 122 and graduates its first class on May 25, was founded in 2006 and doesn't yet have enough interest or numbers to field a softball team. But Arnold says that the growth in the ninth and 10th grade classes means that Mesa Prep will likely add girls' teams in the near future, building on the success of the past year. The Monsoons also won state titles in volleyball, boys' and girls' track in 2011-12.
"It's been a heck of a year," said Arnold, who revamped the school's programs after reading John Wooden's "Pyramid of Success" last year.
Neither Sultzbach nor her coach has heard from anyone at Our Lady of Sorrows but Arnold said that Mesa Prep headmaster Robert Wagner has spoken with his counterpart at the school. While no rematch is likely -- Mesa Prep will move to the Arizona Interscholastic Association next season, while Our Lady of Sorrows will remain in the Charter Athletic Association -- Arnold says there are no lingering hard feelings.
"Our two schools are actually more similar than we are different," said Arnold. "We practice the same philosophy and search for truth, beauty and goodness. The difference is we have no problem with females on the same field with males."
Playing with or coaching them.