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Female baseball players to start for men’s independent team

Jul 22, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; United States starting pitcher Kelsie Whitmore (14) delivers a pitch in the first inning against Cuba during the 2015 Pan Am Games at Ajax Pan Am Ballpark. USA beat Cuba 11-0. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports ORG XMIT: USATSI-230858 ORIG FILE ID: 20150722_pjc_sx9_236.JPG

By KURT VOIGT – Associated Press

Kelsie Whitmore only ever wanted to play baseball, so why pass up just about any opportunity to continue doing so at this point?

That was the thinking behind the 17-year-old Californian’s decision to be one of two women to try their hand at the professional version of the national pastime.

Both Whitmore and Team USA baseball teammate Stacy Piagno, 25, signed with the independent Sonoma Stompers of the Pacific Association earlier this week. They were making their debuts on Friday night, with Whitmore in left field and Piagno on the mound.

“We hope this sends a message to the rest of the baseball world that there is room for women and girls in this game, from Little League to the Major Leagues,” Stompers general manager Theo Fightmaster said.

Neither Whitmore nor Piagno are strangers to baseball, with each having played with Team USA previously – including at last summer’s Pan American Games, where they won silver medals.

It was that connection to the “game I’ve always loved” that helped land Whitmore a spot with the independent team just a few short months after graduating from Temecula Valley (California) High School.

Whitmore, who played baseball exclusively throughout her high school career, had taken part with an organization called Baseball For All when she was young. And it was a member of that group, which aims to provide opportunities for girls to participate in baseball, who first contacted Whitmore to see if she was interested in joining the professional ranks.

After a few scouting trips to watch Whitmore, the Stompers – who last season fielded the sport’s first active openly gay player, Sean Conroy – agreed the fit and timing were right.

“Any opportunity like this, of course I wanted to do it,” Whitmore said.

Whitmore first played for Team USA as a 16-year-old after having been a part of the team’s development program for three years. That while she was still in high school, and after having politely declined chances to play varsity softball instead because of her love for baseball.

“My relationship with baseball is different than anything else,” Whitmore said. “It’s like my best friend. I hate it some days, but the next day I just love it and am enjoying it. It’s competition all the time, and there’s so much to learn.”

Whitmore will make the switch to softball later this year, having accepted a scholarship to play at Cal State Fullerton. She was offered by the school after having never played the sport, with her only experience coming during a weekend camp following her junior year of high school.

She’ll keep playing baseball as well, beginning Friday night – though she’ll do so without pay to ensure her NCAA eligibility isn’t jeopardized.

“So far, I’ve tried to earn respect with everyone individually, but they’ve been great,” Whitmore said. “I’m lucky to have a good group of guys to play ball with.”