If you can see it, you can be it.
Girls in Alberta have had many opportunities over the years to see some extraordinarily talented women like Nicole Luchanski, Kelsey Lalor, Ellie Jespersen and Madison Willan represent the province and country with Baseball Canada’s Women’s National Team.
According to Barb Northcott, the “be it” part has always been a struggle.
Whether it was talented girls dropping out because they couldn’t find a place to play or the COVID-19 pandemic putting a stop to grassroots baseball, the Baseball Alberta Girls/Women’s director was looking for ways to not just attract girls to the game, but to keep them playing.
“Associations in Alberta were really struggling with girls programming,” she told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. “They would put together girls teams, but then they would play in boys leagues.”
Northcott is hoping she has found a possible solution with the creation of the Alberta Girls Baseball League.
It’s a pilot program that will start this summer with the Beaumont Minor Baseball Association, Edson Prospects Baseball and the Rocky and District Baseball Association.
SWING FOR THE FENCES
Northcott says the idea initially came to her during the pandemic as Baseball Canada has a girls baseball committee that met virtually, sharing success stories, ideas and opportunities.
One idea that she heard came from Nova Scotia, where they created the Bluenose League for girls to play with and against other girls.
While that province might not face the same geographical challenges that Alberta does, Northcott found it to be a worthy concept to bring back home.
“We’re trying to bring girls to the game, but in really forever, nothing has changed,” she said.
“So, let’s create the league and be the leaders instead of relying on our associations to just work even harder to put more effort into it.”
It started with an all-girls tournament in Spruce Grove in 2022, and while Northcott admits she was hoping for more teams to take part, it allowed for the conversation to keep going.
The three teams that took part in that event were ecstatic to be asked to help form the new league.
ONE BASE AT A TIME
The three associations taking part in the pilot season will continue on their usual schedules against boys teams in their local areas.
But for three weekends, they will be hosting and traveling to face their AGBL counterparts, with teams in 9U and 12U divisions.
Northcott says it will be an opportunity for the athletes to play together for a few years, and grow some new friendships.
“We need to start a base,” she said.
“We can keep those girls together, provide a league for them, then teach them the technical pieces they need to know, and build out from there.”
Northcott admits one of the challenges is that they see a big uptick in interest in 9U, but by the time girls enter their teens, they start dropping out.
She hopes that getting the word out about this league and watching it succeed will hopefully lead to more interest from other areas of the province, including Indigenous communities.
“I’ve already had a few other communities contact me about the league and what are the details with it and how we can get in on it,” Northcott said.
“I know there is interest out there, so hopefully next year, I would love to see it hopefully double, at least.”
Not only would she like to eventually see more teams join, but she would also like to see more growth so that Baseball Alberta can provide offerings for older athletes as well.
BUILDING SOMETHING BIGGER
The longer the athletes are able to stay in the game, the more opportunities that will lie ahead for them on the field as well.
Along with playing for Baseball Alberta and Baseball Canada women’s teams, she says the Canada Summer Games is set to begin a girls baseball division at the 16U level.
“For the first time ever, our young girls, our 14-year-old girls, will qualify for the Canada Summer Games,” Northcott says.
“And our 9U and 12U girls can look forward to a national competition, which is a real key component of our growth of the game.”
Baseball is also in a strong position to join other sports in a groundswell of interest in the girls and women’s games, akin to what we’re seeing in hockey, basketball and soccer.
Northcott says it’s a lot of attention that, if done right, will pay dividends for the long-term development of the game.
“Girls baseball is a bit different than boys baseball, but there is still lots of skill,” she said.
“It’s a wave we want to ride and just the exposure that the media is giving to all of the women in baseball, coaching, the front office – it’s a really good time to do our part at the grassroots level.”
ON AND OFF THE FIELD
It’s not just from a playing perspective, either, as she would like to see more girls and women get involved in aspects like coaching and umpiring.
Northcott points to coaches like Ashley Stephenson joining the Vancouver Canadians, and officials like Aileen Hartman and Shari Reiniger, who have represented Alberta at a number of events, with Hartman being a scorer for the 2022 Canada Summer Games while Reiniger has been part of technical committees for Baseball Canada at the Olympics as well as the recent World Baseball Classic.
“These opportunities are not just for athletes, but can show where baseball can take you,” she said. “It’s no longer just about who you know.”
And then there’s the overall discourse around girls in baseball.
Northcott watched as her daughter, Heidi, and many of her friends faced the gender inequity head-on and succeeded in baseball, but also became leaders in life.
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While things have improved somewhat over the years, she’s hopeful the new league and the buzz around girls and women in baseball will finally start to break down those barriers that are driving many girls out of the game in the first place.
“If a girl wants to play baseball, we need to make sure we provide safe environments where they feel like they belong and can excel,” Northcott said. “We want them to stay with the program, because the opportunities that are available to them are endless.”
Those opportunities have the potential to inspire future generation of Alberta girls and women in baseball to reach higher than they ever thought possible.
And hopefully they can do more than just see it.