Coach Ava Benach congratulates Josephine Kanach after the 9-year-old batted during practice June 19 in Washington. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The four baseball players sprinting between first and second base were covered in red dirt and sweat. Even their ponytails were damp and sticky.

“Look, girls, it’s important you’re giving 100 percent,” said Coach Ava Benach, who at 6-foot-3 towered over the young athletes. “You don’t turn your head to look at what others are doing. You just go.”

It’s good advice when you’re learning to steal second. It’s also apt for the members of DC Force, the Washington area’s first all-girl baseball team, as they try to find their place in a sport heavily dominated by boys.

Benach — an immigration lawyer who knows a thing or two about breaking gender barriers — built DC Force as a refuge for these 8- to 12-year-olds, who also play on coed Little League teams but often are the only girls on the roster.

Although the focus is on skills such as bunting and catching pop flies, Benach hopes the girls can learn broader lessons.

“I want to teach them that limitations are in their head and that you shouldn’t let other people define you,” she said. “That they can do anything and be anything. That fear is a noxious feeling that only serves to hurt.”

This coach fully understands how scary it can be to be yourself.

A new beginning

A year before volunteering as a first-base coach for Capitol City Little League in 2010, Benach underwent a difficult job change. Even after the workplace turmoil calmed down, the overwhelming stress, anger and unhappiness remained.

Something else was going on, and it had nothing to do with practicing law.

Born the son of Cuban immigrants living on Long Island, Benach since childhood had felt uneasy living as a male and had wondered what it would be like to live as a woman. Despite decades of trying to suppress those questions, they were never erased completely.

Now, married for 10 years and with three beautiful children, the disconnect between Benach’s physical body and gender identity felt impossible to ignore.

Benach tried in vain to re-
embrace the roles of man, husband and father. A therapist proved unable “to fix the problem.”

“I wanted to go back and put all of that back in the bottle,” Benach said, “but it had already been shattered.”

Benach’s wife, Mona, had known about her partner’s inner questioning since they began dating. After years of difficult therapy and conversations, she accepted Benach’s decision to identify as a woman.

It was during this period that the idea for DC Girls Baseball began to take root.

DC Force girls baseball team members pose for a photo, clockwise from left, Sophia Trendl, 8, Anya Prokop, 10, Tess Usher, 10, Katy Whipple, 11, Harper Dunn, 11, Alice Stillerman, 9, Paloma Benach, 12, and Josephine Kanach, 9. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

In June 2014, Benach’s daughter Paloma traveled to California with Mona to join a team of girls from across the country that was playing in a coed baseball tournament.

The team was organized by Baseball for All, a nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging girls to stick with the sport. The rest of the teams in the tournament were made up of all boys.

Although most of the girls had never met one another, they played well together — well enough to win the championship game, 18-0, on a mercy rule.

Benach, who had been coaching her sons’ Little League team since 2011, in addition to helping out with Paloma’s, decided to form an all-girls team in Washington.

But first, there was a more personal goal to pursue.

That November, Benach began taking small doses of the hormone estrogen, which essentially made her body chemistry more female.

“I felt like I stepped out of the black-and-white part of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ into the color part,” she recalled.

She slowly increased the dosage over the next seven months but continued to live publicly as a man, discussing the transition only with her wife, the partners at her law firm and a few close friends.

Even in liberal and accepting Northwest Washington, coming out as transgender was not easy.

Although D.C. law protects transgender people against many forms of discrimination, a majority of transgender people in the city still experience discrimination, harassment and violence, advocates say.

Nationally, transgender issues have roiled the political and cultural landscape, from the coming-out of Caitlyn Jenner to the hit series “Transparent” to bitter battles over civil rights protections and access to public locker rooms and bathrooms.

“It scared me for a long time, knowing what was going on, but I eventually came to a place where I didn’t have much of a choice,” Benach said. “I decided I couldn’t let that control me.”

Finding a place in baseball

Coach Ava Benach coaches her all-girls baseball team in Washington. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Ava Benach started DC Force, an all-girls baseball team, in the District last year. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

By spring 2015, Benach’s appearance was noticeably different. Her facial hair was disappearing and her body was starting to develop curves. As she scouted for girls to join the DC Force roster, she wrestled with how and when to tell her players — and everyone else in her life — that she was not exactly the person they thought they knew.

“I wasn’t comfortable living in that in-between,” she said. “I decided at some point that I had to thoroughly embrace who I was.”

That Father’s Day, she and Mona told their three kids about Benach’s transition. The couple had prepared extensively for this moment, consulting experts and child therapists.

The kids were unfazed, Benach said. They quickly texted some of their friends with the news.

The next day, Benach sent an email to 70 family friends, including the parents of her baseball players. She described the three minutes between hitting “send” and getting the first response as the most terrifying of her life.

“I was sure I was going to lose everything,” she said. “My family, my friends, my career, even my baseball teams.”

But her inbox quickly filled with supportive messages.

“I’m actually excited to have the opportunity to have a real conversation with my kids about honesty and acceptance and you are a great role model for them,” one family friend wrote.

“Kudos to you for taking this step,” the parent of one of her players wrote. “Kids and parents call you Coach for many reasons: leadership, trustworthiness, teach­ing, mentorship, sportsmanship, respect, among others. That all comes from within.”

Many of the emails ended: “Let us know what we can do to help.”

Benach’s players adapted more quickly than their parents, said Susan Comfort, whose daughter, Ella Comfort-Cohen, plays on both of Benach’s teams. They would correct the adults who forgot to use the correct pronouns or Benach’s newly chosen first name.

Their main question was whether Benach would still be their coach.

“The bravery it takes to live as yourself is a huge lesson, especially to the girls,” Comfort said.

On the field, little changed, though Benach now wears earrings, nail polish and athletic clothes designed for women. She said that coming out has deepened her commitment to her mission as a coach: empowering the girls to play the game they love.

“I was a feminist in an abstract sense before,” Benach said. “The transition makes me want to work harder for them. To do more.”

Coach Ava Benach pitches during a DC Force practice in Washington. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

There are uncomfortable moments, too. Sometimes Benach feels the burn of curious eyes and sting of quiet whispers from strangers in the stands.

She said she tries to ignore it. She has a game to win.

Her female players were already used to getting stared at.

They say that before the boys on their Little League teams will take them seriously, the girls have to show that, yes, they can play ball.

“We always have to prove ourselves,” said Harper Dunn, an 11-year-old outfielder.

“They think we can’t throw the ball 10 feet or even hit it,” shortstop Sophia Trendl, 8, said. “But we’re hitting it to the fences.”

Becoming a ‘survivor’

More than 100,000 girls play youth baseball in the United States, but 99 percent of them quit before they get to high school, according to Baseball for All founder Justine Siegal.

Of the 48 girls in the Capitol City Little League, nearly half play in the division for 5- and 6-year-olds. Only one girl plays in the oldest division, for 13- and 14-year-olds.

The girls who stay in baseball are “survivors,” Siegal said.

She would know — she’s one of them.

Siegal was lonely as the only girl on her childhood baseball teams in Cleveland and was continuously advised to give up the sport. Instead, she began coaching, first at baseball camps and later with men’s college teams, and she earned a doctorate in sports psychology.

In 2009, she became the first woman to coach a professional men’s team, the independent minor league Brockton (Mass.) Rox. In 2015, the Oakland Athletics hired her to coach during their fall instructional league, the first time a woman had served in that role in Major League Baseball.

Josephine Kanach, 9, winds up to pitch during practice with the DC Force. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Alice Stillerman reaches to snag the throw to first during practice. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

“If you tell a girl she can’t play baseball, what else is she going to think she can’t do?” Siegal said.

Benach said she sees DC Force as about all that and more.

It’s about taking the time to show girls that their gender should not dictate what they can do or their passion for the things they love. It’s about teaching them that their work and grit is just as valued as that of their male teammates.

Benach was recently named one of the best immigration lawyers in the city, and she said she is thriving emotionally and professionally.

Coming out as transgender, she said, has helped her form deeper, more meaningful relationships with colleagues and clients.

“We all dropped the armor we all wear around us,” she said.

As she likes to tell her players, being true to yourself is not always easy, but it’s worth the risk.

“I’m so glad I didn’t have to give this up,” Benach said of her life as a baseball coach. “I’m glad to live in a community that never for a second thought of pulling their kid off my team.”