Is there a future for women in the national pastime? Baseball player Malaika Underwood hopes so

Malaika Underwood U.S. womens national baseball team
USA Baseball

This story is the second in an On Her Turf series called “Groundbreakers,” which highlights female athletes who compete in sports or events that 1) are primarily contested by men or 2) aren’t currently open to women at the highest level. Today’s story features Malaika Underwood, a veteran member of the U.S. women’s national baseball team.

How to begin a career as a women’s baseball player

Malaika Underwood is a member of the U.S. women’s national baseball – yes, baseball – team. (For the record, the U.S. also has a men’s national softball team.)

“Still to this day, I’ll tell someone I play on the U.S. women’s national baseball team, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, you mean softball?’”

In fact, Underwood – who has appeared on every U.S. roster since 2006 – owns the record for most appearances on a USA Baseball national team.

Underwood’s baseball career began while growing up in San Diego, California. “Everybody in our neighborhood played baseball, so I decided that was what I wanted to as well,” she explains.

As she progressed from tee-ball to Little League, she says she received nothing but support from her family. “In our unit, if you wanted to do something – including playing baseball – go do it.”

But around seventh grade, friends of the family began recommending she try a different sport: softball.

“They were doing it under the guise of looking out for me, but I felt like, why should I consider a sport that I’ve never played or have much interest in?”

While these conversations didn’t sway Underwood’s commitment to baseball, they did impact her understanding of the world. “It probably was the first time that it really occurred to me that there were things in society guys got to do – without question – that girls and women didn’t.”

As Underwood’s graduation from middle school neared, she wanted to ensure she would have the opportunity to continue playing baseball. There were about half a dozen high schools that were open to her, from public schools to magnet schools. She sent a letter to the head baseball coach at each high school, asking if he would be willing to have a girl try out for the team. “I stated that I wasn’t looking for special treatment, I just wanted to know that I would have a fair chance,” she explains. 

She received a variety of answers. “Some more or less said ‘No, we have a softball team,’ and others were very open about it.” 

The latter group included La Jolla High School, which Underwood decided to attend. She played two years of JV baseball before making the varsity team as a junior. She also played volleyball and basketball, and ultimately earned a scholarship to continue playing volleyball at the University of North Carolina.

As a student-athlete at UNC, Underwood focused on volleyball. She compiled a decorated career, including being named MVP of the ACC tournament as a junior. After her volleyball career concluded, she stayed in Chapel Hill for grad school. At that point, she had already made her way back to baseball as a youth team coach, but she found herself wanting to play. While looking for a league she could join, she stumbled upon the fact that USA Baseball – based just 20 miles down the road in Cary, North Carolina – was holding an open women’s tryout for the 2006 World Cup.

“I had no idea there was even a women’s national team,” Underwood explains. “I thought, I’ll get some swings in, take some ground balls, and see what happens… And I haven’t looked back.”

The softball problem

To be clear, Underwood has no animosity towards softball.

“Softball is a great game. To be a baseball player isn’t to disparage softball. It’s just to want to play baseball.”

But that doesn’t mean that the lack of women’s baseball opportunities isn’t directly connected to the growth of women’s softball.

Women’s exclusion from baseball has a long and complicated history. (For a more in-depth dive on this topic, suggested reading includes Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball by Jennifer Ring.)

One of the more significant – and recent – developments in this saga unfolded in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1972. That year, 12-year-old Maria Pepe signed up to play for a local Little League baseball team. She played only two or three games before Little League’s national office got wind of her involvement in the sport. (At the time, Little League rules did not allow girls to participate.) When Little League’s national organization threatened to revoke Hoboken’s license for allowing a girl to play, Pepe was dropped from her team’s roster

Upon hearing Pepe’s story, a New Jersey chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) filed a sex discrimination suit against Little League’s national organization.

Sylvia B. Pressler, the hearings officer with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, ruled in favor of NOW, writing in her decision, “The institution of Little League is as American as the hot dog and apple pie. There is no reason why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls.”

Pressler’s ruling was later upheld by the New Jersey Appellate Court.

Little League’s executive board initially voted to appeal the ruling, but with grievances and legal fights growing in other states, the organization ultimately bowed to pressure and changed its boys-only rule in 1974.

But that doesn’t exactly mean the organization started welcoming girls with open arms.

In 1974 – the same year girls won the right to play Little League baseball – the organization launched a new program: Little League softball. 

Coincidence? Not exactly. 

While girls were technically allowed to sign up for baseball, many of them were instead funneled into the “sister sport” of softball.

“I do not mean in any way to disparage softball, but softball has filled that void. It’s made it acceptable to be like, ‘Oh, but you have a stick and ball sport.’ That’s like telling Serena Williams, ‘Hey, you can play ping pong… It’s the same. You have a paddle and a ball and there’s even a net in between you…’ It just seems so strange that we’re okay with that.”

[RELATED: Unequal footing in track and field: Jordan Gray’s fight for a women’s decathlon]

Of course, this was all happening at the same time that Title IX – the landmark 1972 Civil Rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs and activities that receive federal funding – came into existence.

While Title IX led to greater opportunities for women in sport, it didn’t necessarily result in equal gains for all sports. Twelve years after Title IX was passed, the first NCAA women’s softball tournament was held. Fourteen years after that, softball made its Olympic debut in 1996. 

Meanwhile, women’s baseball struggled to gain traction. 

“If you have a daughter who’s pretty good on the [baseball] field, and wants to get a college scholarship, her best chance – unless she plays volleyball or basketball or something else – is to switch to softball,” Underwood explains. “Who am I to tell you not to do that and take that opportunity?”

The future of women’s baseball

Stories about the fight for women’s equality are often taught using the glass ceiling metaphor: women work their way up the ladder, finally pushing through the final barrier and shattering the glass ceiling.

But the problem in women’s baseball isn’t really a glass ceiling. A more accurate comparison might that of a skydeck: some people are close to the top, but they’re walking on a glass floor, an uncertain abyss below their feet.

Underwood describes her sport like a top-heavy pyramid. “At the very top of the pyramid [where the national team is], things are pretty good. But everything else underneath it needs to be to be reinforced… If we can get a good club system or opportunities [in the middle]… then it affects the bottom of the pyramid.”

That’s not to say that being a member of the U.S. national women’s baseball team is easy.

The U.S. team typically only trains together for a few weeks out of the year, and only in years when there are major competitions. In between, players – who are all either in school or have other jobs – train on their own.

Underwood helps coordinate some of these self-funded, player-organized sessions. “If we can get five or six people together for a long weekend and train together, it’s helpful,” she explains.

Underwood is also extremely busy away from the baseball diamond. She and her husband Chris live just outside of Jacksonville, Florida, with their daughters: two-year-old Birdie and five-month-old Kit. “Our hands have been very full. My husband and I are learning how to manage two kids instead of one,” she laughs.

On top of that, Underwood, who has spent her professional career working in sports licensing, recently started a new job. In August, she was named Senior Vice President of Licensing for OneTeam Partners. “We help athletes maximize the value of their name, image and likeness,” she explains.

Despite these new demands, don’t expect Underwood – who turns 40 next year – to retire from baseball anytime soon. “People who know me really well have heard me say, ‘Oh, I think next year might be my last year,’ and they always laugh. They’re like ‘You’ve been saying that for years… You’re just gonna keep playing until they tell you you can’t anymore.'”

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2023 March Madness: Utah Utes engineer dramatic turnaround for third-ever Sweet Sixteen appearance

Members of the Utah Utes celebrate their win over the Princeton Tigers in the second round of the NCAA Womens Basketball Tournament.
Getty Images

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The No. 2-seeded Utah (27-4) women’s basketball team held off a pesky 10th-seeded Princeton squad on Sunday, winning 63-56 to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships for the first time since 2005-06 and just the third time in the program’s history.

“I’m proud of our team,” said eighth-year head coach Lynne Roberts after the second-round win at Utah’s Hunstman Center. “We set out to do this a year ago. We lost in this game at University of Texas and the goal was to be able to host (this year) so that we could have that home-court advantage and it made a difference.”

Utah’s fourth-year junior Alissa Pili backed up her recent second-team All-American honor with another 20-plus-point performance, scoring 28 on 8-for 13 shooting with 10 rebounds and going 11-for 13 on free throws. Sophomore forward Jenna Johnson added 15 points and six rebounds.

There’s been a lot of talk this weekend about how the Utes’ previous few seasons have ended – beginning with a rough 14-17 season that was cut short in 2020 due to the pandemic, followed by an abysmal 5-16 record in 2020-21. But the tide turned last year, as Utah rebounded with a 21-12 season that ended with a 78-56 loss to Texas in Austin in the second round of the NCAA tournament one year ago.

So, what changed?

“Last year, everyone was new to the NCAA tournament, so I think everyone was just experiencing it for the first time,” mused Johnson. “Losing in the second round last year, we’re definitely a lot hungrier this year, and then obviously hosting in Salt Lake, it’s fun just being in your own environment, to be around your own fans. I think it gives us an elevated level of confidence, both knowing what it’s like it play in this tournament and also getting to be at home.”

“Yeah, freshman year was kind of rough,” added third-year sophomore Kennady McQueen, who chipped in nine points Sunday. “We did experience losing a lot. … Coach Roberts, she said we are not going to have another season like that. We all stood behind her — the people that stayed — and brought in great people like starting last year with Jenna and Gi (Gianna Kneepkens) and people like that who have had a huge impact in helping us to where we are today. …

“When you get together a group of people that have the same goal in mind and will do make anything to make it happen, I think that’s where we have seen our success rate going up. This past offseason, we just kept getting better, and of course, the addition of the Alissa Pili really helped. When you bring a group of girls that have the same dream and same goal at the end of the year and doesn’t care about personal stats more than winning, I think we get the season that we have today, and it prepares us for deep run in March.”

In particular, McQueen believe it was Utah’s improvement in their defense that was crucial to the turnaround. “Everyone knows how good we are on offense, but if we can’t get stops, it doesn’t matter how good you are on offense,” she said. “So that’s just been a key the whole past off-season and all of this season — just getting better on defense.”

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Alissa Pili revives her love of basketball with record season at Utah

Roberts credits their defensive improvement with a “philosophical mindset change,” explaining, “We worked on [defense] a lot differently, a lot more intentionally. Strategically we made some changes of how we are going to defend, and I won’t bore you with that. But there was a lot, just different things because you have to play to your strengths. You can’t be a run-and-jump pressing team if you don’t have the depth and athletes to do it. You can’t be a zone team if you are not super big. You have to figure out what fits your personnel, and so that’s what we did.”

There’s also the undeniable impact of Pili, a transfer from USC who has found her stride as a Ute, where she recently was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year.

“She kind of is the straw that stirs the drink for us right now,” said Roberts of the 21-year-old Alaska native. “She’s a nightmare to defend because she can shoot the three, and she’s also really athletic and mobile, so it doesn’t matter who we are playing. I think you have to gameplan for her. But then with her three-point shooting, you know, you have to pick your poison.”

But Roberts also gave plenty of kudos to Johnson, whom she describes as “phenomenal.”

“She’s 19 going on 40,” Roberts said of Johnson. “She’s the most mature, even-keeled consistent player we have. What I love about her is she is who she is. She’s confident in who she is. She knows who she is. She also is incredibly busy off the court.

“We were talking as we were getting ready to watch film, just shooting the breeze a bunch of us, we were talking about movies. And she was like, Oh, I don’t watch movies. Why not? I don’t have time. I get bored. What do you mean you don’t have time? Do you watch shows? No, I don’t ever watch TV. It is because she is doing all of these other extracurricular activities.”

As for guiding to the Utes to becoming a championship program, Roberts still sees it as an uphill battle – but one that she and her players are ready for.

“I always use the analogy of pushing the boulder up the hill,” she said. “And doing things for the first time, you have to have that mindset. You have to keep pushing. It’s been incredibly fun to see the support, and I think the swell is a perfect word for it. Most importantly, our players feel it.

“This is why you play, right? And it means so much. I know I say it over and over, but this is not going to be a flash-in-the-pan [season]. This isn’t going to be a ‘Oh, remember that year they had such an incredible year?’ We are going to keep doing it.”

RELATED: 2023 March Madness 2023 — Updated bracket, scores and schedule for NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship

2023 March Madness: Updated bracket, scores and schedule for NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship


Editor’s note: We’ll keep this page updated, so be sure to check back here for winners, scores and next-round details as the tournament progresses.

The bracket for 2023 NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship is officially set and defending champion South Carolina earned the No. 1 overall seed for the second straight season. A total of 68 teams will see tournament action, beginning with the “First Four” games on Wednesday and Thursday, followed by Round 1 play kicking off on Friday.

On Her Turf has compiled the matchups, sites and schedule for the tournament, which culminates Sunday, April 2 with the title game from American Airlines Center in Dallas.

2023 tournament No. 1 seeds:

  • South Carolina Gamecocks
  • Indiana Hoosiers
  • Virginia Tech Hokies
  • Stanford Cardinal

Last four teams in the tournament:

  • Illinois
  • Mississippi State
  • Purdue
  • St. John’s

First four teams out of the tournament:

  • Columbia
  • Kansas
  • UMass
  • Oregon

RELATED: South Carolina nabs No. 1 overall seed in NCAA women’s basketball tournament

‘First Four’ game schedule

Wednesday, March 15

  • 7 p.m. ET: 11. Illinois vs. 11. Mississippi State (South Bend, Indiana)
    • Winner: Mississippi State, 70-56
  • 9 p.m. ET: 16 Southern U vs. 16 Sacred Heart (Stanford, California)
    • Winner: Sacred Heart, 57-47

Thursday, March 16

  • 7 p.m. ET: 11 Purdue vs. 11 St. John’s (Columbus, Ohio)
    • Winner: St. John’s, 66-64
  • 9 p.m. ET: 16 Tennessee Tech vs. 16 Monmouth (Greenville, S.C.)
    • Winner: Tennessee Tech, 79-69

Bracket, schedule* by region 

*Includes scores, game time and TV network, if available


Columbia, S.C.

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 1. South Carolina 72, 16. Norfolk State 40
    • 8. South Florida 67, 9. Marquette 65
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 1. South Carolina 76, 8. South Florida, 45

Los Angeles, California

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 5. Oklahoma 85, 12. Portland 63
    • 4. UCLA 67, 13. Sacramento State 45
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 4. UCLA vs. 5. Oklahoma, 10 p.m. ET (ESPN2)

South Bend, Indiana

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 6. Creighton 66, 11. Mississippi State 81 (First Four winner)
    • 3. Notre Dame 82, 14. Southern Utah 56
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 3. Notre Dame 53, 11. Mississippi State 48

College Park, Maryland

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 7. Arizona 75, 10. West Virginia 62
    • 2. Maryland 93, 15. Holy Cross 61
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 2. Maryland 77, 7. Arizona 64


Bloomington, Indiana

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 1. Indiana 77, 16. Tennessee Tech 47 (First Four winner)
    • 8. Oklahoma State 61, 9. Miami 62 (FL)
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 1. Indiana vs. 9. Miami, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN2)

Villanova, Pennsylvania

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 5. Washington State 63, 12. FGCU 74
    • 4. Villanova 76, 13. Cleveland State 59
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 12. FGCU vs. 4. Villanova, 7 p.m. ET (ESPNU)

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 6. Michigan 71, 11. UNLV 59
    • 3. LSU 73, 14. Hawaii 50
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 6. Michigan vs. 3. LSU, 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Salt Lake City, Utah

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 7. N.C. State 63, 10. Princeton 64
    • 2. Utah 103, 15. Gardner-Webb 77
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 2. Utah vs. 10. Princeton, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2)


 Blacksburg, Virginia

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 1. Virginia Tech 58, 16. Chattanooga 33
    • 8. Southern California 57, 9. South Dakota State 62
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 1. Virginia Tech 72, South Dakota State, 60

Knoxville, Tennessee

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 5. Iowa State 73, 12. Toledo 80
    • 4. Tennessee 95, 13. Saint Louis 50
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 12. Toledo vs. 4. Tennessee, 6 p.m. (ESPN2)

Columbus, Ohio

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 6. North Carolina 61, 11. St. John’s  59 (First Four winner)
    • 3. Ohio State 80, 14. James Madison 66
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 3. Ohio State vs. 6. North Carolina, 4 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Storrs, Connecticut

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 7. Baylor 78, 10. Alabama 74
    • 2. UConn 95, 15. Vermont 52
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 2. UConn vs. 7. Baylor, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)


Stanford, California

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 1. Stanford 92, 16. Sacred Heart 49 (First Four winner)
    • 8. Ole Miss 71, 9. Gonzaga 48
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 1. Stanford vs. 8. Ole Miss, 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Austin, Texas 

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 5. Louisville 83, 12. Drake 81
    • 4. Texas 79, 13. East Carolina 40
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 4. Texas vs. 5. Louisville, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Durham, N.C. 

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 6. Colorado 82, 11. Middle Tennessee State 60
    • 3. Duke 89, 14. Iona 49
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 3. Duke vs. Colorado, 9 p.m. ET (ESPNU)

Iowa City, Iowa 

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 7. Florida State 54, 10. Georgia 66
    • 2. Iowa 95, 15. Southeastern Louisiana 43
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 2. Iowa 74, 10. Georgia 66

Regionals/Final Four schedule, how to watch

Sweet 16: Friday and Saturday, March 24-25; Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Greenville, S.C., host: Southern Conference and Furman; and Climate Pledge Arena, Seattle, hosts: Seattle and Seattle Sports Commission

Elite 8: Sunday and Monday, March 26-27; Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Greenville, S.C., host: Southern Conference and Furman; and Climate Pledge Arena, Seattle, hosts: Seattle and Seattle Sports Commission

Final 4: Friday, March 31, 7 p.m. ET and 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN); American Airlines Center, Dallas; hosts: Big 12 Conference and Dallas Sports Commission

Championship Game: Sunday, April 2, 3 p.m. ET (ABC); American Airlines Center, Dallas; hosts: Big 12 Conference and Dallas Sports Commission

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: 2023 March Madness — All about the 32 automatic qualifiers