Deborah “Debbie” Engelstad has been a part of Grant High School’s softball team for 41 seasons and is a trailblazer for gender equality.
Having played the game since she was eight, Engelstad was on the school’s varsity team as a freshman. That season, she and her team traveled to Hawai’i over spring break to participate in tournaments. She played varsity every year of her time at Grant, and studied at PSU to become a teacher after graduating in 1982.
Engelstad returned to Grant in 1987 to coach the softball program, and in 1988 began teaching the school’s physical education and health classes. She has been in both positions since, and is retiring this year as a PIL Hall-of-Famer and legend in the Grant community.
Wilshire Park has always been the home of Grant’s softball team. Every day after school, Engelstad and her team would trek 1.1 miles to the park, carrying their school bags, personal equipment, and team gear. Upon arrival on rainy days, the field would often be unfit for playing on, littered with puddles that had to be drained using fabric sacks.
Meanwhile, Grant’s baseball field was mere steps away from the school. “Most varsity baseball practices and home games were held on the field at Grant, most lower level games and practices were at Irving Park, and all of the teams would practice in the gymnasiums at Grant when needed,” explains Matt Kabza, one of the baseball team’s coaches.
Engelstad had been aware of the unfair treatment early on in her career, but didn't think much of it. “...we always had played at Wilshire so it just seemed [like] what we did,” she shares. Every now and then there would be talk of the possibility of an on-campus softball field, but nothing ever happened. That is, until the first plans for Grant’s renovation were released, including a field for softball.
“When the school was slated to be remodeled and a softball field was put into the plans I was over the moon. Unfortunately, not too long after those initial plans it was taken out of the plans stating ‘value engineering,’ or in other words we don’t have enough money for this project so something has to go, and that ended up being the softball field,” shares Engelstad. “That’s when things got real interesting and I became a very squeaky wheel, talking to any and everyone that would listen about the inequities of facility use at Grant.”
That year, Engelstad and three students filed a federal lawsuit against Grant High School and Portland Public Schools for a violation of Title IX by treating male and female athletes unequally. They argued that the boy’s baseball team should not be allowed to use their new
on-campus turf field as long as the girl’s softball team does not have their own. Not long after, construction for the softball field began.
The 2023 season was the first season that Grant’s softball team has had an on-campus field. Engelstad was inducted to the PIL Hall of Fame in 2017 and is retiring from her positions at Grant this year. Without her, the field would never have been built.
In her 37 years of coaching, she has had “So many great memories…but the highlight was opening and playing on the new field.”
Engelstad’s story, however, is not unique. Though she succeeded in her efforts, many women’s teams across the country still receive inferior treatment to their male counterparts.
Her feats demonstrate that equality is a battle worth fighting for.
By June Bäck