She wants to play football, they don't want to play against her

Only a few days before her teenage daughter was supposed to play in her first football game last March, Sonya Herrera received an unsettling phone call.

The football coach at her daughter’s Central California high school hinted that he had bad news and asked if they could speak in person.

What Herrera learned during their subsequent conversation that afternoon left her “in disbelief.” Cuyama Valley High’s first opponent was canceling their upcoming game. And the presence of Herrera’s daughter was the reason why. Valley Christian Academy refused to play an opponent with a girl on its team.

“I started crying when I found out,” Herrera told Yahoo Sports. “Then I went home and I cried some more. I was worried about how my daughter was going to react, what was going to happen next and if she was going to be able to play anymore.”

To Herrera’s daughter, playing football was more than just a way to spend time with her friends or an extracurricular activity to bolster her college application. Football was her passion.

It didn’t matter to her that there were no other girls on Cuyama Valley’s team. Or that her mom was deathly afraid of her getting hurt. Or that, even in her helmet and gear, she weighed barely 100 pounds. Herrera’s daughter just wanted to play football — and felt she was being unfairly denied that opportunity.

Any hope that Valley Christian Academy might reconsider quickly evaporated when its superintendent sent a letter to his Cuyama Valley counterpart. Pastor Joel Mikkelson explained that Valley Christian Academy is guided “by the authority of the Bible” and that the Bible “gives instructions as to how men are to treat women.”

“Holding a door open for a lady,” Mikkelson’s letter stated, was an example of behavior Valley Christian Academy encouraged. “As we train our young men in this world, we want to train them rigorously to admire and value women as precious and worthy of respect,” Mikkelson wrote.

Strictly forbidden at Valley Christian Academy, however, is “physical contact between boys and girls.” Mikkelson’s letter says, “Football is a violent game, and we understand the value of such in training our young men within the boundaries of an organized sport. However, because of the nature of its contact, we will not play a team that has a female as part of its football team.”

Six months later, it doesn’t appear Mikkelson’s stance has softened. The two teams were scheduled to meet on Saturday, but again, Valley Christian Academy is refusing to play. It’s the latest incident in a saga that has lawyers involved, coaches and administrators tight-lipped and one frustrated mom preparing for a fight.

Valley Christian Academy letter explaining why it won't play football against a female player.
Valley Christian Academy letter explaining why it won't play football against a female player.

‘If it’s a sport, she’ll try it’

To understand why a girl with a cheerleader’s physique is determined to play wide receiver, it’s important to consider her upbringing. Fearlessness has long been the norm in the thrill-seeking, sports-obsessed Herrera family.

James Herrera races sprint cars on dirt tracks across California. Sonya Herrera specializes in the sport of mounted archery, which means she shoots arrows at targets while riding horseback. Their daughter, whose first name is not used in this story at her mother’s request, has played every sport available to her, from basketball, to volleyball, to rodeo, to racing midget cars.

“If it’s a sport, she’ll try it,” Sonya said with a laugh.

There aren’t many towns in talent-rich California where so slight a girl could play varsity football, but the Herreras happen to live in one. New Cuyama is a former 1950s oil boomtown on the easternmost fringes of Santa Barbara County, a two-hour drive from Santa Barbara, a one-hour drive from Santa Maria and at least a 30-minute drive from just about anywhere else. The population in the town has dwindled below 700 as petroleum production has gradually declined and agriculture has become the town’s main industry.

With so few people to draw from, Cuyama Valley is now one of California’s smallest public high schools. Only 53 students were enrolled during the 2019-20 school year. Only about a third that many kids play football each year. As a result, Cuyama Valley plays eight-man football against other low-enrollment high schools — and even then scraping together enough healthy bodies to practice is a weekly headache.

So there was little doubt that Cuyama Valley’s football coaches would welcome a female athlete with Herrera’s history of excelling in male-dominated sports. The question was whether Sonya would set aside her injury concerns and grant her daughter permission to play.

When her daughter was a freshman, Sonya held her ground. Over the course of the next year, however, Sonya’s stance softened.

“I gave in to peer pressure,” Sonya joked. “I didn’t want to see her get hurt, but then I also know you can get hurt doing anything. I’m a nurse. I’ve seen people survive things they never should survive and die over the simplest things. So, yes, it increases her risk, but she loves it.”

Sonya’s lingering doubts began to melt away in February when the pandemic subsided enough for California high school sports to resume. Her daughter seldom missed a practice or workout and beamed with excitement as the season opener against Valley Christian Academy approached.

On March 13, a week before the scheduled season opener, Cuyama Valley drove to Santa Maria to scrimmage Valley Christian Academy. The scrimmage went smoothly until Sonya’s daughter removed her helmet at the end and for the first time revealed her long blonde hair and feminine features. Valley Christian Academy, apparently, had overlooked the traditionally female name on Cuyama Valley’s roster. The way Sonya recalls it, the opposing players gawked at her daughter like “they had never seen a female before.”

At the time, the Herreras didn’t think too much of it. There was too much to celebrate. Sonya’s daughter reveled in achieving her goal of playing high school football as her mom’s truck headed east on highway 166 toward their New Cuyama home.

“It was one of the best times of her life,” said Sonya, which only made what happened two days later harder to stomach.

After Valley Christian Academy refused to play last March, Sonya braced for the worst.

“Oh no, everyone is going to hate us,” she thought, as the ramifications of the late cancellation became clear.

Aware that his team would otherwise lack the necessary games to be playoff-eligible, Cuyama Valley coach Charlie Bosma scrambled to find a replacement opponent on short notice. The only option he could find was a road game at a Moreno Valley military academy separated from New Cuyama by 200 miles of Friday afternoon freeway gridlock. The trip proved as excruciating as it sounded. Not only did Cuyama Valley lose 40-6, players and their parents also didn’t make it back home until around 2 or 3 a.m.

And yet something encouraging happened in the wake of that miserable journey. Nobody scapegoated the Herreras. No one made their daughter feel like she was to blame. As Sonya later put it, “The team ended up backing her. And the coach too — he wouldn’t tolerate it any other way.”

What sticks with Sonya most is how a Cuyama Valley team captain opened the speech he made at the end of last season. “To all these fantastic guys,” he began, “and to one very brave girl.”

The nature of the Herrera lawsuit
The nature of the Herrera lawsuit.

Taking the battle to court

In April, one of America’s leading attorneys on Title IX matters received a phone call about what happened to Sonya’s daughter.

Andrew Miltenberg wasn’t sure whether to take on the case … until he read the Valley Christian Academy superintendent’s letter.

“That letter was really the tipping point for me,” Miltenberg told Yahoo Sports. “The letter is what made me say, ‘This is just outrageous.’”

Miltenberg helped Sonya draft a 24-page complaint accusing Valley Christian Academy of sex discrimination. In the lawsuit, filed last month in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Herrera accused Valley Christian of violating Title IX law by depriving her daughter of the opportunity to play in a football game solely because she is female. Herrera is seeking a jury trial, unspecified monetary damages and an injunction that prevents Valley Christian Academy from discriminating against high school athletes based on sex.

To Miltenberg, there are two hurdles that Sonya’s case must overcome. The first is that Valley Christian Academy is a private school and has the right to set more exclusionary rules than a public school can. The second is that Sonya is suing a school that her daughter doesn’t attend.

What is working in Sonya’s favor is that Valley Christian Academy is a member of California’s governing body for high school athletics and therefore must adhere to anti-discrimination policies and comply with Title IX. Among the stated purposes of the California Interscholastic Federation is to foster equal opportunity for athletes regardless of sex or gender identity.

Under CIF rules, girls are eligible to play for a boys team whenever their school only provides a team for boys in a particular sport. More than 2,600 girls nationwide play tackle football in high school, according to a 2019 survey by National Federation of State High School Associations.

Yahoo Sports asked the CIF if Valley Christian Academy had broken any rules by refusing to play Cuyama Valley. CIF-Southern Section spokesman Thom Simmons confirmed that his organization is aware of the situation but declined further comment, citing the pending litigation.

Mikkelson, the Valley Christian Academy superintendent, did not respond to two voicemails and an email from Yahoo Sports seeking comment. Valley Christian Academy football coach Pete Fortier declined comment and referred all inquiries to Mikkelson.

As of Thursday, it has been 22 days since Herrera filed her lawsuit. So far there has been no response from Valley Christian Academy, no sign that it intends to reverse course. In fact, if anything, it appears to Miltenberg that the school may be doubling down in preparation to argue that it is acting within its rights as a private school.

This Saturday, Cuyama Valley and Valley Christian Academy would have played their annual Coast Valley League football game. Cuyama Valley superintendent Alfonso Gamino told Yahoo Sports that Valley Christian Academy has said it intends to forfeit.

Asked if Sonya’s daughter’s presence is still Valley Christian Academy’s issue, Gamino said, “I don't know and I don't want to speculate. I think that's a better question to ask them.”

What Gamino was happy to discuss was the positive attitude that Sonya’s daughter perpetually displays. The only girl on Cuyama Valley’s football team never missed a voluntary workout over the summer, not even in temperatures of up to 100 degrees.

“I'm very impressed with how she's handled this,” Gamino said. “She never once complained about this or that. She goes about her business. She's at every practice and does every drill.”

Sonya says that her daughter scored a touchdown in Cuyama Valley’s first scrimmage of the season and has since played in all six of her team’s regular season games at wide receiver, safety and outside linebacker. Cuyama Valley will improve to 5-2 once its upcoming forfeit victory is included in its win-loss record.

When Sonya recently asked her daughter how she thought this experience had changed her, the younger Herrera responded that it has made her stronger, more self confident and more determined to follow her dreams.

The other message Sonya hopes to drive home is that you can’t always shy away from a fight. Sometimes it’s necessary to stand up for what you believe.

“If I just sit back and do nothing, it’s like ‘OK, sorry she’s got ovaries,’” Sonya said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous in this day and age that someone could be treated like that and it shouldn’t be allowed to stand.”