At state tennis, a girl among boys

Claire Uhle skipped her senior season of girls' tennis last fall and is playing boys' tennis this spring.
Claire Uhle skipped her senior season of girls' tennis last fall and is playing boys' tennis this spring. (LOU RABITO / Staff)
Posted: May 25, 2012

Claire Uhle rejoined the girls' tennis program at Wissahickon High School in Ambler for her senior season after qualifying for the state singles tournament as a junior, spent a day with the team, and didn't return.

Friday, she'll play doubles in the state tournament.

That's the boys' tennis state tournament.

If you thought boys' tennis was for boys and girls' tennis was for girls, you would be right - in most states. But in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, sports' gender tags are merely labels, not mandates.

Girls at PIAA schools may sidestep girls' tennis, girls' basketball, girls' soccer, or any other girls' sport to play with the boys' team. And boys, of course, have similar crossover options.

Both have had that freedom since 1975, when a Commonwealth Court judge overturned a PIAA bylaw that had prevented girls from competing against boys.

Melissa Mertz, assistant executive director of the PIAA, said that the organization, "because of the injunction we were placed under back in the '70s, cannot prohibit a girl from playing on boys' teams or vice versa even if they offer that sport in the specific gender" at the school.

Thirty-seven years after the ruling, Pennsylvania remains one of the few states that allows a girl to play on a boys' team at a school that offers both boys' and girls' programs in a sport. In a survey of high school governing bodies from the other 49 states, among 46 respondents, only nine said they would permit that. One of the nine, Alaska, allows it only in ice hockey.

Pennsylvania is in an even greater minority in letting a boy play for a girls' team instead of the boys' squad. Just two other states - Ohio (under certain circumstances) and Michigan (except for tournament play) - said they would make that concession to a male athlete.

Mertz said that school districts may rule against cross-participation and that she is sure some have done that. Wissahickon had no rule that would hinder Uhle (U-lee), the first girl to play for coach Mark Daniels in his three decades with the boys' team.

What Uhle did, bypassing the girls' season and playing in the boys', is "not very common," Mertz said. North Penn coach Toby Watton recalled having two girls on his boys' tennis teams over his 43 seasons. Becky Desmond, Downingtown West boys' coach since 1983, said she has had none.

Equality under the law

Overall, cross-participation tends to occur more in sports offered for only one gender, such as field hockey, Mertz said.

Before 1975, the PIAA had a rule prohibiting girls from practicing and/or competing with boys. But in November 1973, the commonwealth filed suit against the PIAA, contending that the bylaw violated both the U.S. Constitution and Pennsylvania's Equal Rights Amendment.

Commonwealth Court Judge Genevieve Blatt ruled in March 1975, that the PIAA no longer could discriminate because of gender.

"Even where separate teams are offered for boys and girls in the same sport," Blatt wrote, "the most talented girls still may be denied the right to play at that level of competition which their ability might otherwise permit them. For a girl in that position, who has been relegated to the 'girls' team' solely because of her sex, 'equality under the law' has been denied."

The PIAA's executive director said at the time that the association wouldn't appeal the decision because of the cost involved. The offending rule was removed from the PIAA bylaws. No language has replaced it. Thus, nothing in the bylaws says girls may play on a boys' team, and vice versa.

"We stay silent about it, in essence," Mertz said.

Uhle, 18, didn't know about the 1975 ruling when she decided she wanted to go out for the boys' team. Neither did Daniels.

"I thought the rule was if [a sport] was offered for girls, you have to play on the girls," the coach said. "That's what most people think the rule is."

Good opportunity

Daniels was leaving the school, walking past the tennis courts, one day in February when he saw Uhle, who was hitting balls with a friend. Uhle and Daniels chatted, and Uhle asked if it was too late to join his team. He thought she wanted to become a team manager. She said she wanted to play.

For Uhle, who will play in college at Northern Colorado, a Division I program, it wasn't a matter of making a case for her gender or proving a point to herself. And, she said, she didn't skip the girls' season just so she would be eligible for the boys'. Playing in a girls' match would have made her ineligible for this spring, because the PIAA allows an individual one season in a given sport per school year.

Uhle said she left the girls' team to focus on her schoolwork. She first thought of joining the boys' team, she said, only about a week before the February tryouts.

"I wanted to get more match play for my college matches because I'll be playing D-I next year," said Uhle, adding that she had heard of some girls in Western Pennsylvania who had played for their schools' boys' teams. "It's more practice, and I thought it would be a good opportunity."

Once Daniels cleared her participation with the PIAA - even though he didn't have to - and with Wissahickon, Uhle came to tryouts. She made the team as a member of the first doubles tandem.

"She just blended right in with everybody," Daniels said. "And I think that's why there was no problem with the guys on the team. They saw how hard she worked. They saw how good she was."

Uhle, who is low-key and quiet and 5-foot-3, said that "mostly everyone I've played with was really nice and cool about it. Some people asked, like, if our school had a girls' team or what. But they didn't seem upset. Tennis is one of the only sports that boys and girls practice together, so I think a lot of the boys are used to playing with girls. I know I'm used to playing with boys."

One of the Trojans singles players quit during the season, and Uhle won a challenge match to move up to the third and final singles slot. She won four of her five doubles matches during the regular season and was 7-1 in singles.

In the postseason, doubles teams often consist of players who were knocked out of the playoffs in singles. When Ricardo Prince, Wissahickon's No. 1, did not advance past districts in singles, he was a natural as one of the members. The senior had competed in the previous two state doubles tournaments with his brother Andres, finishing third last year in his brother's senior season.

Daniels considered two boys and Uhle as Prince's partner and went with Uhle. One of the key factors, Daniels said, was that Uhle was "tournament tough," having played in the girls' state tournament as well as in the U.S. Tennis Association's Middle States competition.

Mentally tough

Uhle and Prince won the Suburban One League American Conference tournament and advanced to the District 1 championships, in which they finished third to earn one of the four state berths awarded to the district.

"She's got a lot of control - not a lot of pace, not a lot of power. She likes to just outhit, just outrally her opponent," said Prince, who will try to walk on to the Lehigh team next season. "Especially when I play doubles, I like to play more aggressive, try to attack and finish points. It works really well."

Uhle and Prince will play their first-round match in the state tournament at 1:30 p.m. Friday at the Hershey Racquet Club. Quarterfinals are scheduled for 5 p.m. Friday. The semifinals and final will take place Saturday.

Daniels said his mixed-doubles duo has a chance in the Class AAA (big-school) bracket, citing how strong District 1 tends to be in boys' tennis and how close the district matches were.

"If they both play well, they can go somewhere in the state tournament," Daniels said. "They are both mentally tough. Neither one of them will ever give up."


Contact Lou Rabito at 215-854-2916 or rabitol@phillynews.com.

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