She could tell by their hoots and hollers that Evangel Christian’s baseball team had just won the state championship, but as the high school boys clamored up the bleachers to cheer on their girls, a young Lily Tanski drowned out the noise.
“They were cheering as loud as they could, and like yellin’ stuff at me,” Lily said. “But I just got up there and I was like, ‘You know what? I can do this.’”
Lily, the visiting team’s closing pitcher, was 12 years old when she won her first Varsity state championship game.
“I don’t remember if I struck anybody out or did anything,” said Lily, now 17 years old. “I just remember believing in my teammates and knowing that we could do it.
Unlike her opponents, Lily’s team had no school or field to call their own. Coached by Lily’s mother
Donna Tanski, the group of homeschool girls have made it to five state softball championships. They call themselves the Lady Warriors.
Of those five championships, Lily has won three. According to her MaxPreps profile, Lily’s opponents would be lucky to return any of her pitches. The girl who played since she was three years old has pitched in 405 innings and has struck out 744 players, nearly double the national average.
“[Lily] would have never had that opportunity in high school,” Donna said.
While most high school teams have “50 kids going out for 10 positions,” Donna faces a much different reality. Every season she asks parents the same question: “Do we have 10 kids to play ball?”
Through the chain-link fence that separates the lawn of University Church of Christ from a red dirt diamond, parents watched the Tanskis at work. At their Fall evaluation, Lily led drills after her mom covered the bases.
“If your kid’s on this team, you’re expected to volunteer,” Donna said to the parents. “I need an army of parents.”
She passed out a packet about physicals and uniforms. The girls groaned when she said they’d be wearing white.
“Welcome to the world of real ball,” she said. “Welcome to my world.”
Of the eight girls that showed up for evaluations, only one was new. The past two years have seen maybe five or six new players, but the Lady Warriors have always been small, and most have had no prior experience.
“You’re giving kids that would never have the opportunity to play sports and learn all the life lessons that come from that a chance,” Donna said. “One of the best things I can teach these kids is that it’s okay to fail.”
Donna glanced across the bleachers.
“Now, does anybody here pitch?” she said.
Lily was the only one to raise her hand. Her teammates let out a laugh.
“Well, y’all follow her out to the field,” Donna said, half-sighing and half-laughing. “She hasn’t slept in about a week and a half, but she’s gonna lead drills today.”
This year, Lily’s a junior looking to get scouted, but the team that gave her a chance might be what holds her back. Coaches just don’t recruit from homeschool teams, Donna said.
“High school coaches know college coaches,” she said. “Just getting her name out there is a big thing. Nobody knows who she is. She’s just been flying under the radar all this time.”
In April of 2016, the Alabama High School Athletic Association Legislative Council voted unanimously to pass a new bylaw that allows homeschool students an opportunity to participate in public school sports. Some call this the “Tim Tebow Rule.”
Anthony Harris, the Tuscaloosa City Schools athletics coordinator, said to qualify, homeschool students must take one PE class and one elective at a local public school.
Donna has considered this option, as have other parents.
Homeschool parent Rodney Dyer enrolled his son Justin at Hale County High School for the two required blocks so that he could play baseball.
“[Justin’s] goal was to play in college,” he said. “He needed to play against better players.”
Unlike church facilities, which most homeschool athletes have to rely on, a public school would provide Justin with focused, daily workouts. Hale County High School also funded a program that would record and upload Justin’s stats for recruiters to view.
“There are definite advantages to go into a school to play the sport,” Donna said. “We don’t have access to the gym every single day. I can only imagine what kind of a beast she would be if she had that.”
But Lily had other obligations, like the new job she just got, and she wouldn’t be able to make it to school every day. Homeschool was still her best option, she said.
“I didn’t think it was worth leaving the girls here,” she said.
However, Lily may not be entirely out of luck. Most college coaches recruit from travel ball teams, and Lily has played on three, including the Birmingham Thunderbolts, which is a “big deal in the softball world,” Donna said.
Travel ball, though, is both expensive and taxing, and Lily, who juggles softball, volleyball, a job, AP classes and online college courses, said she struggles to keep her eyes open sometimes.
“It’s definitely hard to focus,” she said. “I do a lot of self-practice. It’s a lot being willing to get out of the house and come here to pitch with nobody else but just me.”
As she sat on the bleachers after the team’s Fall Evaluation, she wasn’t sweating like the rest of the prospective Lady Warriors.
“You think about a warrior, and there’s so many different kinds of warriors,” she said, coolly. “I’m fighting for something bigger than myself. I’m fighting for my teammates, and I’m fighting for God.”