By Ashkan Motamedi
In Vista, California, heroes wear softball uniforms. Their names: Danielle Ellis and Sydney Prenatt.
Ellis and Prenatt resist such praise. But at Rancho Buena Vista High School, where the pair were teammates on the Longhorns softball team for four years before graduating in 2018, that’s exactly how they’re remembered.
“They absolutely must be considered heroes. What they did was selfless and it will help so many girls in the future,” said Ava Bradford, a former Rancho Buena Vista softball player.
The story of Ellis and Prenatt is rare. A four month survey Title IX and High School Sports by the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism found that many high school girls lacked the information to recognize Title IX violations and demand changes from school officials. school.
Not Ellis and Prenatt.
On May 8, 2018, as their teammates watched, Ellis and Prenatt read a letter from the Vista Unified School District board. They learned that the board had approved the construction of a new softball field on campus. They had won their fight for equal treatment.
“It was a really powerful moment,” Prenatt said. “I almost started crying, just because it was so surreal.”
As seniors, the friends and teammates were students in a government class taught by Timothy Leary, a beloved figure at the school for 26 years. In the first unit of Leary’s class, Ellis and Prenatt learned about the five concepts of democracy, especially civil rights and the full scope of Title IX as it relates to equal opportunity in sports. As they discussed the law and its purpose, a light bulb went on about their softball field.
“Sydney and I sat down and analyzed Title IX as law. We’re like, ‘OK, this is a big deal. This is a very important issue,” Ellis said. “We always noticed the differences and everything, but we didn’t know there was a specific law that dealt with that.”
There were many differences between the baseball diamond for boys and the softball diamond for girls. Everyone favored the boys. The softball field was off-campus at Buena Vista Park, where the girls played on the Buena Vista Ballfields about a third of a mile from the school. Softball players also had to provide their own transportation, or walk.
Other facilities were lacking. Ground conditions were below average. The softball team’s storage facilities did not match the baseball team’s. As a result, players had to walk to their classes with their softball gear. Park restrooms were also sometimes locked, and there were instances where athletes said they felt their privacy was being violated by passers-by.
“It just made us feel underappreciated and undervalued. [by] school,” Ellis said.
The baseball diamond was far superior. It was on campus, had better field conditions, had a clubhouse to store gear, had access to school restrooms, and had batting cages. The baseball team determined when to use the field.
Prenatt explained that playing softball on a field in a city-owned public park made it difficult to schedule games and practices, knowing that other teams also had to use the field.
“From our perspective, it was so obvious, the inequality,” Prenatt said.
After consulting with their government teacher, Ellis and Prenatt focused their year-long class project on their softball field and the IX title. They approached the school principal in the fall for help. He was not supportive, they said.
“That’s when we knew we had to go to the school board,” Ellis said.
Ellis and Prenatt contacted Vista Unified School District board members, which led to a tense conversation with the principal, Ellis said. (Attempts to contact the principal, who has since left the school, were unsuccessful).
The girls faced other roadblocks. But Ellis and Prenatt weren’t going to be stopped short of their goal.
“[Danielle] and I both flared up and was like, ‘No, why would we stop because this is such a blatant violation,’ Prenatt said. “We also knew the softball team deserved better and our coaches deserved better. That’s why we weren’t really super discouraged not to hear [what we want].”
They decided to go to a school board meeting on April 12, 2018, after their softball game against Ramona High School. They were dressed in their uniforms as they gave a speech about their proposal for a new domain.
“We’re asking all of you to support us so future girls don’t have to grow up thinking equality is earned,” Prenatt said during her speech to the school board. “They grow up believing that equality is expected.”
On Leary’s advice, they then made an emphatic gesture to get the school board’s attention.
“Fundamentally, [Leary] told us “if you really want to make a statement, right after you give your speech, you get out,” Ellis said. “That’s what we did, we walked out, then our teammates, our parents, everyone got up and walked out with us.”
About four weeks after the school board meeting, Ellis and Prenatt received the letter with the big news that the district was going to build a new softball field for Rancho Buena Vista High School.
“We read the letter to our entire team and we all started jumping and screaming,” Prenatt said. “It was a really good time, and it really made us feel seen and it made me really happy for future softball players. … It was a really powerful moment. I will never forget him.”
“The goal was definitely to have the girls come after us on a softball field on campus, something comparable to the baseball field,” Ellis said. “The bigger goal was just to do better for the next generation, to give them something more than we ever had.”
Bradford, who was a freshman at the time of the school board meeting, was one of the softball players who got to play on the new field as a senior when it opened.
“We are so grateful for what Sydney and [Danielle] done,” Bradford said. “Just to be able to have the opportunity to play on this ground. I’m just very grateful to have had my senior season there.
Ellis and Prenatt’s Title IX story lives on in Leary’s government classroom as he teaches Title IX to his students.
“I use [Danielle] and Sydney in my class in my explanation every year now,” Leary said. “What’s so inspiring is that they were determined and it shows what you can achieve and what you can accomplish…when you don’t take no for an answer.”