Tri-State Trailblazers an all-girls 12U club not to be messed with

By DN WRITING STAFF | August 20, 2023

Zoe Wood of the Tri-State Trailblazers strokes an RBI double against the PAC Journeymen.

By Rich Bevensee

The Tri-State Trailblazers came out swinging. 

A single here, a double there, three more base hits and the all-girls 12U baseball team from Cherry Hill, N.J. owned a four-run lead against an all-boys team before the first out was recorded. 

“They are out to prove they can compete with anyone, and that they can win,” said Trailblazers founder and manager Dan Jefferson. 

“All the girls want to play against the boys. They want to prove they’re just as good as them and they want to beat them.”

The PAC Journeymen from Rochester, N.Y., eventually turned things around with a big rally in the fourth inning and won an entertaining 11-7 ballgame in the 12U Summer Finale on Saturday afternoon at Diamond Nation in Flemington.

The Trailblazers were swept in their Saturday doubleheader, having lost to Naturals 12U Blue, 8-2, earlier in the day. But the losses didn’t dampen their spirits – or their desire to prove themselves on a baseball field.

“I love baseball,” said Brooke Ploetner, who went 2-for-3 with two RBI against the Journeymen. “It feels great to be on a girls team because we like each other and we all have the same mindset.”

And that is what?

“We all like playing against boys, it makes you want to beat them,” Zoe Wood said. “I’m competitive and I want to win. We all feel that way.”

How motivated are these Trailblazers?

Start with Wood, a first baseman, center fielder and pitcher facing what some would see as not one but two disadvantages – competing against boys, and playing with only a thumb and no fingers on her left hand, due to a birth defect. Wood still manages to play exemplary defense in the field and hold a bat well enough to swing with power. 

Her very first at bat against the Journeymen was a ringing double which streaked to the right-center field fence and drove in a run.

When the inspiring Wood plays first base she wears a glove on her right hand, catches the ball, moves the glove under her left arm and then throws the ball with her right.

When pitching, she wears her glove on her left hand. The hard-throwing Wood pitched a scoreless sixth inning against the Journeymen and allowed one hit and struck out three. 

“It took more time for me to learn, like switching my glove off my hand, but I like a challenge,” Wood said. More accurately, Zoe embraces challenges and stares them down. “Even if I’m a girl and something makes me different, it really doesn’t matter who I’m playing with or what I’m doing. I’m just a different gender and there’s something about me that makes me different from everyone else. That’s it.”

Aside from her physical disability – and anyone watching her play would most decidedly believe she didn’t have one – Wood said she’s heard the murmurs in the crowd when her team walks onto a field or into the opposing dugout. They aren’t complementary murmurs.

“Oh, there’s a girl pitching. We should be able to beat them,” said Wood, echoing the occasional opponent chatter. “I think we should go out harder if someones talking about us like that. Sometimes it makes me mad, but sometimes it makes me play better.”

Wood said she learned her love for baseball from her older brothers Hayden, 16, and Sawyer, 14, who taught her how to be hard-nosed and competitive.

Ploetner, too, learned baseball from an older brother, Brett, a rising junior who plays for defending Greater Newark Tournament (Essex County) champion Millburn. 

“Now I’m in love with it and I don’t want to go over to softball,” Ploetner said.

Ploetner said Brett is a big part of the reason why she doesn’t get distracted by those who question her desire to play a male-dominated sport, or when she hears the mocking before and during a game.

“I think it’s natural and I just play my game,” Ploetner said. “It’s important to not listen to anyone because you don’t want to lose focus and go out of control and start getting out of your game.”

“Sure, there have been times we’ve heard people say, ‘Go back to playing softball,’” Jefferson said. “There’s times we’ve heard coaches or parents say, ‘C’mon, a girl is pitching. When they strike out, I like to think, yeah, your son just got struck out by a girl.”

Brooke Ploetner of the Tri-State Trailblazers is caught in a rundown against Naturals 12U Blue.

Sometimes the Trailblazers get handled pretty well, sometimes they are competitive and sometimes they win. After losing two ball games on Saturday, the players were tired but upbeat.

And win or loss, they usually prove doubters wrong, Ploetner said.

“It’s nice playing for an all-girl team because after the game you get compliments,” Ploetner said. “It’s a different version of baseball because you’re used to seeing all the boys on the field and now the girls play and even beat the boys and no one’s used to that.”

The Trailblazers began with Jefferson’s daughter, Mia, wanting to play baseball. Two years ago, she was playing in the Cherry Hill recreation baseball league and Jefferson thought it might be good for his daughter to play with all girls. But she didn’t want to play softball. 

He reached out to Baseball For All, a non-profit organization founded by Justine Siegal, who was the first woman to coach in professional baseball.

“She (Siegal) asked me to start my own team and I didn’t know if I was ready to take that on,” Jefferson said. “I always tell my daughter as long as she believes in herself she can achieve anything, and here I am telling her she can’t (play baseball). So I slept on it and the next morning I called Justine back and said I’ll start a team.”

That summer Jefferson recruited enough girls to take a 10U team to the Baseball For All national tournament at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Maryland. 

Last summer the nationals were in Arizona, so in a cost-prohibitive move, the Trailblazers opted to skip the nationals and play in an all-boys tournament in Delaware. They placed fourth out of 10 teams and in five games, the girls hit eight home runs.

Jefferson said a performance like that didnt come as a surprise because the girls come from their own travel teams, like the Brooklawn Ballers, Harrison Heat, Vernon Cyclones, and 3Up3Down of Pennsylvania.

“In July and August their stuff slows down so we pick them up and put a girls team together,” Jefferson said. 

The Trailblazers train indoors at the Diamond Sports Club in Sewell – a facility owned by coach Jeff Wood, Zoe’s dad – and outdoors at the Cherry Hill National Athletic League. 

One disadvantage to drawing players from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Jefferson said, is that practices are rare because many of the girls have to travel from considerable distances.

But the roster is usually fully stocked on game day, Jefferson said. 

“I had to turn girls away this weekend because we already had 11 and I didn’t want to sit anyone,” he said. “I don’t like asking parents to drive all this way just for their daughters to sit the bench.”

This summer the Trailblazers have enjoyed their share of success. They won the Title IX Tournament in Hoboken, N.J., and placed second in the Baseball For All nationals in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. 

Earlier this month they played in the Skylar Kaplan Pioneer Series in Lake Shore, Maryland. Next weekend the Trailblazers head to Long Island, N.Y., for the Maria Pepe Series, and later on the slate is the DMV Series in Ellicott City, Maryland, in October. 

The Trailblazers have become a rousing success, Jefferson said, although he’s not surprised. He said he suspected there were enough girls – and enough supportive parents – who believed the same opportunities should be afforded to anyone who wants to play baseball. 

“For me, I wanted my daughter to step forward and not be afraid to take chances,” Jefferson said. “I’m proud of all of them for stepping out of the box, for stepping forward and being leaders and doing it on their own.”

The girls love the game in spite of the fact that they’ll probably face the same uphill battle no matter how long they play. In fact, it seems they embrace that battle, and maybe that makes the game even more enjoyable.

Said Wood, “I like to face a challenge and succeed in a challenge, and make everyone say she just beat a challenge.”

You’d be crazy to doubt her.

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Comments 1

  1. Thank you for this insightful and positive article about the Trailblazers organization, the girls who pay for them and my absolute favorite player, Zoe Wood.

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