Her football uniform and helmet ready for Lincoln High School's big game against its cross-town rival, the team's new kicker was nervous. Real nervous.
Not everyone at Friday night's varsity game against Riverside High School was a fan of 17-year-old junior Ashley Nicole Lytle, or at least not of her joining the boy's football team after threatening a federal lawsuit. Her last few days of practice had been rough, playing in the field's sloppy mud with a heavy, wet football -- so different from the ball she was used to from the girls varsity soccer team.
And she worried about letting down her team, her school and all the friends who had encouraged her fight against Ellwood City Area School District's policy against students playing a contact sport on a team of the opposite sex.
"It's a lot harder to kick a ball when there are 10 200-pound boys running at you," she said a few hours before Lincoln's game at Riverside in Ellwood City. "If we lose tonight, if any bit of it's my fault, I'm going to get it because I'm the girl."
But the Wolverines didn't lose. They triumphed, brushing off their first four losses of the season to topple longtime rival Riverside, 42-28, and lift their record to 1-4.
Ashley didn't get to play, but she will play in a junior varsity game against Riverside this morning. And despite some earlier teasing and grumbling from other students, Ashley plans to keep her spot on the varsity and junior varsity football teams and keep working to improve -- just like her male teammates.
"It's doing something not a lot of girls are used to," she said.
But more are trying.
There have been numerous girls who have kicked in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League and around the country over the past decade or two.
One of the best in the WPIAL was Stephanie Weimer, a 2002 graduate of Serra Catholic. She was a first-team all-conference selection as a sophomore and senior and kicked six field goals as a senior, more than any other WPIAL Class A player.
Chartiers Valley's Kristina Coyne was a first-team all-conference selection last year and has kicked 10 extra points this season -- three of which Ashley watched her score against Ellwood City last week.
So Sept. 17, when Ashley asked an assistant football coach if girls were allowed to try out for the kicker's position, he let her kick some field goals. He liked what he saw and took her to talk to head coach Don Phillips.
After that day's soccer practice, she kicked for Mr. Phillips, too.
"He said, 'We would love to have you on our team -- you can come get your pads tomorrow,' " she recalled of his offering her a spot as one of the team's two kickers.
Mr. Phillips could not be reached for comment.
But, the next day after his invitation, administrators told Ashley she couldn't accept it because the district does not allow girls to play on boys' teams and boys to play on girls' teams in contact sports such as football, soccer and basketball.
The Ellwood City school board created the policy two years ago, out of concern that girls playing on boys' teams could be more seriously injured, said superintendent Frank Aloi.
They also were concerned that boys playing on girls' teams -- prompted, for instance, by the district eliminating the boys soccer team this year -- could cut into the girls' playing time, he said.
District officials, however, changed their minds after receiving a letter dated Sept. 25 from Ashley's attorney, Joe Bellissimo of Ellwood City. In it, Mr. Bellissimo described the district's policy as an "unlawful and unconstitutional" violation of Ashley's 14th Amendment right to equal protection and threatened to seek a preliminary injunction and a temporary restraining order in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh if she were not allowed to participate with the football team.
State education officials said Friday that most decisions about how school athletic teams are managed -- who can play and how -- are decided by local school boards and athletic associations, not the state.
Ellwood City school board members, who make and amend policy, will discuss this particular policy at their next meeting on Oct. 11, Mr. Aloi said.
Until then, he has appealed to their common sense.
"I told them if the coach wants her and the parents feel there isn't a problem and she wants to play, there's no sense to deny her," Mr. Aloi said.
Luckily, the district was willing to resolve the disagreement amicably, Mr. Bellissimo said.
"Ashley's a fighter and thankfully she stood her ground and stood up for everybody," he said. "There's a real lesson here, and the student is teaching the lesson."
And while Ashley's parents, like those of many football players, are anxious about their child getting obliterated by a rough tackle, they also are glad she prevailed.
"I'm proud of her -- I'm proud of her fighting it," said her mother, Kim Lytle, of Ellwood City.
"She sure goes for it."region - hsfootball