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'We need to do what's right for all kids'

Softball facilities vary widely across the Three Rivers League, where the promise of equity under Title IX remains an ongoing process

REVIEW PHOTO: MATT SHERMAN - It may be located two miles from campus, but West Linn High School's girls softball team plays its home games on the only turf softball field in the Three Rivers League. 'Look at where we are today versus 10 years ago,' former Lions coach Mike Higgins says. 'It's come a long way. It's tracking in the right direction.'Before every sporting event in the United States, it’s customary to face the flag and sing the national anthem. And that’s what happens before every boys baseball game at Lake Oswego High’s on-campus stadium.

But there is no sound system to play “The Star Spangled Banner” at LOHS girls softball games — and no flag near the team’s home field at Lake Oswego Junior High to salute.

When West Linn softball players gather for their home games, they wait outside the high school’s doors — not far from the boys baseball field — “and hope that the bus comes,” says WLHS softball head coach Monica Sorenson. That’s because the Lions’ home softball field is two miles away at Rosemont Ridge Middle School.

“Not all the girls drive,” Sorenson says, “and there are days when the bus isn’t there. So then they’re hustling in trying to find (a ride).”

But at Canby High, softball players can walk across a lush green lawn on campus to their 2-year-old softball field — a complex that’s comparable to the boys’ field and rivals many facilities used by college teams.

REVIEW PHOTO: MATT SHERMAN - Lake Oswego's Brionna Gereb is tagged at the plate by Lakeridge catcher Kelley Ericson during a game in 2015. Ten Lake Oswego softball players are suing the school district in federal court for what they say is inequitable treatment.Those kinds of discrepancies are common in the Three Rivers League, where both LOHS and Lakeridge High compete. Some of the league’s schools have top-of-the-line facilities, while others are below average or worse.

The overall consensus among players, parents, coaches and administrators who spoke with The Review is that softball programs are adequately supported across the league. But it’s the differences between boys baseball and girls softball that have caused concern over the years, most recently with a federal Title IX lawsuit filed by 10 LOHS softball players against the Lake Oswego School District.

Among other things, that lawsuit claims the softball team has been denied equal access to the kinds of equipment, facilities and funding enjoyed by male athletes. The lawsuit, filed April 4 in U.S. District Court in Portland, claims that parents and students have complained to the district about Title IX violations or unfair treatment of female athletes for years.

Those efforts came to a head in February, the lawsuit alleges, when school officials said some of the inequities wouldn’t be addressed until the team “wins a state championship.”

The lawsuit does not seek monetary damages. Instead, it asks the court to order the district to remedy the effects of “discriminating conduct” by better allocating funds and making upgrades to equipment, supplies and softball facilities to make them equal to what the baseball team has been given. Title IX, a federal law passed in 1972, prohibits discrimination based on sex “under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

“Softball and baseball seem to be the biggest concern, where you hear the most problems,” says Sherwood High athletic director Randy Ramp, “because it’s the two most relatable sports that play on different facilities.”

While boys and girls can share basketball and soccer facilities, he says, baseball and softball teams can’t because of the physical requirements of the sports — baseball fields are larger than softball fields, and there isn’t always room on high school campuses for both.

LOSD officials have said they prefer not to comment on the active lawsuit. But in an email to The Review in April, the district said some improvements have already been made in response to the softball players’ requests, “such as providing suitable inclement-weather practice opportunities for girls softball and an upgrade to the indoor softball batting cage.”

“Additional planning, coordination and equipment are required to further improve conditions,” the email said, “and the district expects those will be in place within the next several weeks.”

LOSD Superintendent Heather Beck told The Review this week that the district has indeed been addressing issues with the softball fields and equipment.

“We support and value all the opportunities we provide for all students in academics, athletics and the arts,” Beck said. “We are continuing to work through the process for improving practice and playing conditions for girls softball.”

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Lake Oswego High's girls softball team plays its home games at the junior high school across Country Club Road, where the dirt-and-grass field is generally considered to be among the worst in the Three Rivers League. 'It's like cat litter,' one opposing coach says.

Seeking equity

Elsewhere in the Three Rivers League (TRL), however, coaches and administrators say they were not surprised by the Lake Oswego High lawsuit, which claims that the Lakers softball team has no covered batting cage, press box, bathrooms, concessions or a team locker room, all of which — as well as a turf field — is available on the LOHS campus for male athletes to use.

The grass-and-dirt field at Lake Oswego Junior High where the female athletes play?

“It’s like cat litter,” one TRL coach says.

Still, coaches and administrators admit that it is a constant struggle to provide the kind of equity that Title IX demands. Under the federal statute, schools must provide “equal treatment and benefits” to members of both sexes who participate in “any interscholastic, intercollegiate, club or intramural athletics offered by a recipient” of federal funding.

That includes equipment and supplies, locker rooms and facilities, the scheduling of games and practice time, and the assignment and compensation of coaches. It also applies to funding and publicity.

“If I pick one facility on my grounds and do some drastic improvements to it,” says second-year Canby High athletic director Mark Martens, “I have to ask the question, ‘What is this going to look like down the road and who’s benefitting from this?’”

Upgrading a weight room is a “no-brainer,” Martens says, because it’s a neutral space that every student can access. So, too, would be upgrades to the basketball court, where physical education classes are held, or to the football, soccer and track-and-field facilities.

Baseball and softball, however, are another matter, because the rules of each sport make it impossible for girls and boys to play on the same field. And yet the bottom line, Martens says, is that “we need to do what’s right for all kids. If it’s right for some kids, it should be right for all kids. So we try to find things that will benefit all kids.”

That’s probably why Canby softball has arguably the best facility in the league, with unquestionably the nicest grass-and-dirt grounds.

“I’ve seen a lot of fields,” says former Canby head coach Mike Higgins, who coached in the TRL for seven years before leaving the Cougars after the 2015 season, “and I feel our overall complex is a Top 5 (in Oregon), maybe even higher.”

Ramp, in his 18th year at Sherwood High, says he’s always looking at his budget and keeps a running tally on how much money each program receives to make sure the school is compliant with Title IX. But while the effort keeps things balanced, it can also be restraining.

“There has always been talk about turfing our baseball field,” Ramp says, “but every time we bring it up, we say, ‘We’ve got to do a softball (upgrade) if we do it. Otherwise, we’ll be in trouble.”

REVIEW PHOTO: ANDREW BANTLY - Canby High has arguably the best softball facility in the Three Rivers League. 'I've seen a lot of fields,' former Cougar head coach Mike Higgins says, 'and I feel our overall complex is a Top 5 (in Oregon), maybe even higher.'

‘Nature of the beast’

Ramp and others say that even with the best of intentions — he describes the results of his efforts at Sherwood as “a reverse Title IX situation” — it’s not always possible to create 100-percent equity between girls and boys facilities.

At the Bowmen’s four-field softball complex, for example, “it’s BYOW,” as one parent puts it. Translation: There’s no plumbing at all on the grounds and the concessions trailer is often closed, that parent says.

“It’s the nature of the beast, when it comes down to it,” Tualatin High softball head coach Jenna Wilson says. “Female teams have fewer players than male teams usually do,” which often translates into fewer parents who support the girls teams and fewer dollars from outside fundraising.

“But that’s why it’s important to be able to sit down and say that our girls need to have the same opportunity,” says Wilson, who is in her sixth season as the Timberwolves skipper and is also an alumnus of the program.

Wilson says she believes Tualatin is a program that handles Title IX compliance well through superb communication between athletic programs, specifically baseball and tennis.

“We’re all willing to work together,” she says. “Our communication is really great.”

Tualatin High is one of the many schools that lack plumbing at its on-campus field, a reality that hasn’t changed since Wilson played there 10 years ago. But in an ironic twist to the Title IX dilemma, male athletes at the school deal with the same issue: Both teams have a portable toilet to use.

“You want to see equal facilities for sure,” Higgins says. “Is that always possible? No. I think there are a lot of factors that come into play, and a lot of them are coach-driven, booster-driven. It’s tough to compare.”

REVIEW PHOTO: ANDREW BANTLY - West Linn High's softball team plays its home games on a turf field that was built at Rosemont Ridge Middle School in the mid-2000s. The Lions recently finished another upgrade to install a locker room, concession and bathroom facility.

Past and present

The current lawsuit is not the first time a TRL school has faced Title IX complaints.

Lakeridge High was accused in 2001 of making its softball team play in George Rogers Park while the baseball team was given access to an on-campus field. The district used $700,000 in bond funds to build an on-campus softball field for the girls.

In another case, Lake Oswego High was criticized because a video room where athletes could review game footage — outfitted with a flat-screen TV and comfy couches — could only be accessed through the boys locker room. The school responded by providing alternate access to the room and upgrading a second video viewing facility for female athletes. The case was resolved in December 2008.

“In both of these cases,” then-Superintendent Bill Korach told The Review, “we adjusted to the circumstances we had to address.”

The West Linn-Wilsonville School District faced a Title IX complaint at West Linn High and dealt with it by adding a field — the only turf softball field in the TRL — and a softball batting cage in the mid-2000s. The Lions recently finished another upgrade to install a locker room, concession and bathroom facility.

“West Linn used to play in Willamette Park,” says Higgins, who coached the Lions from 2009 to 2012 before joining the program at Canby. “They didn’t have a facility at their school at all. I think for a new parent coming in and comparing what’s there today, it’s harder for some of them to fathom.

“But for a veteran that has a tenured look on it,” he says, “look at where we are today versus 10 years ago. It’s come a long way. It’s tracking in the right direction.”

The same is true at Tigard High — although Melody Kelly, whose daughter Lexii played for the Tigers until her graduation in 2015, said it took several months of negotiations between parents and adminstrators before the school addressed its issues with the batting cage, road maintenance, netting, electricity and plumbing.

“It was interesting to me that just the day before the (LOHS lawsuit) story broke, the operations manager said he couldn’t get people out there,” Kelly says. “The next day, they were on it.”

Today, only two TRL softball teams — Lake Oswego and Tigard — have different playing surfaces than their baseball counterparts. Only Lake Oswego and Lakeridge softball teams have no designated area to sell snacks and drinks, although both have used a temporary table during home games.

Only West Linn and Lake Oswego softball fields are located away from school grounds, while every TRL baseball field is on campus. But that may be more of a space issue — at WLHS, for example, Sorenson says a nearby bird sanctuary keeps the school from being able to put a softball field on campus.

Every varsity baseball and softball team in the league has a scoreboard, stands and some kind of bathroom — either a portable toilet or bathroom with plumbing — although the Title IX lawsuit against the LOSD claims that the bathrooms at LOJ, which are not maintained by the district, are often broken and unclean, and Sorenson notes that a single portable toilet at a softball field isn’t realistic anyway, especially during games.

“It’s a little bit simpler for the boys” she says.

But former Canby and West Linn softball coach Higgins, who coaches a summer team that travels around the state, insists that “among other leagues across the state, I’d say (the TRL is) probably above average.”

And that is likely to remain true, several coaches and administrators say, especially if the Title IX lawsuit against the Lake Oswego School District results in improvements to what is generally considered to be the worst softball field in the league.

“It’s odd that this is our discussion here in our little circle of towns and cities,” says Tualatin High’s Wilson, who spent a year with the Portland Interscholastic League’s athletic office. “We are very lucky. Even Lake Oswego, which is the unlucky one in our group, is lucky compared to an inner city school.”

Reporter Jillian Daley also contributed to this story. Contact Andrew Bantly at 503-636-1281 ext. 117 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..