‘This is America’s game and now they’re included’: Sights and sounds from California’s flag football, now an official high school sport
The IX: A very special Flag Football Monday with Michelle Smith, Sept. 11, 2023
By Michelle Smith, Special to The IX
(Scheduling note: Annie Peterson and Soccer Monday is off this week, but we have this special edition in its place. We’ll be back with you on Tennis Tuesday as usual.)
DUBLIN, Calif. — The student leadership tailgate party began at 6 p.m. on a lovely late summer Tuesday evening in the Bay Area. Students handed out brightly colored construction vests for “Neon Night”.
The Dublin High Athletic Boosters had the snack bar open and the nacho cheese machine warming up, the music blared and the sno-cone food truck positioned itself strategically for maximum impact.
On the field, two groups of high school girls ran through passing and catching drills. The excitement, and even the nerves, were palpable.
For the first time ever, Dublin High hosted a girls high school flag football game against local rival Foothill of Pleasanton, a groundbreaking moment duplicated at fields across California.
Girls flag football season has started in the nation’s most populous state, giving a huge infusion of participation and interest to a high school sport picking up momentum in pockets of the country.
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Before the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) sanctioned it as an official sport last February, girls flag football was contested at the high school level only in Alaska, Florida, Alabama and Nevada. New York also began offering this sport this fall. More than 15,000 girls nationally played the sport in 2022, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
With the addition of California’s 423 teams that are playing this fall statement, as many as 10,000 more girls are now added to that list. And if the game grows as quickly as state officials think it will, that 15,000 number is quickly going to double.
“It’s been great to see the reaction and the excitement this is creating at different schools,” said Pat Cruickshank, the Commissioner of the North Coast Section (NCS), a section that covers the much of the East Bay, Marin and Sonoma Counties in Northern California. “We were at a CIF gathering (Tuesday) and one of the attendees, it was his daughter’s first game and she came into the house after the game with her eye-black on and just beaming. It was awesome.
The girls are just so excited to play.”
And on this night in Dublin, a little nervous. Gaels head coach Kisha Odin-Harris pulled small groups together to talk skill and strategy, while players fidgeted with their flag belts and their mouth pieces. Even Odin-Harris admitted to butterflies.
“I just want to cultivate a love of the sport,” Odin-Harris said. “It’s not just about rolling balls out and playing.”
In addition to summer camp and the start of fall practice, the team has been put in “classroom” time in chalk-talks and spent time in the weight room.
“I have been really intentional about how I structure the plays and playbooks in a way that’s logical and that they can remember and understand what we are trying to achieve,” Odin-Harris said. “My perspective is that we are going to have a lot of people contributing to the success of the team. It’s not going to be just seven people or nine people. We’re going to use our entire roster.”
Odin-Harris, who teaches criminal justice at Dublin High, is the only female head coach in the East Bay Athletic League, and she has an all female staff. She played both flag and tackle football for years in the Sacramento area and she coached boys JV and frosh at Dublin. When she heard that girls flag football was being sanctioned she was “all in.”
“I said, ‘I have to be the person’,” Odin-Harris said, who coaches softball in the spring. “I’ve been following this, so I know they had started in Southern California (last year) and ran a whole season. When I heard it was going to happen, my mind immediately started rolling. I started talking to my softball players, started thinking about soccer girls, and we ran a summer camp, but the majority of the girls showed up when school started.”
Odin-Harris’ own experience with football has guided her philosophy about this experience. Selecting fellow female coaches was intentional as well.
“I am definitely leveraging relationships that I already had with people who have a similar mindset in terms of the way they interact with the girls,” Odin-Harris said. “In my experience with football, I want it to be different than the way that boys are dealt with by men coaches, I don’t want girls to be dealt with the same way that some boys are dealt with. There’s a lot of toxic masculinity that happens in football. I mean, it even happened when I played with all women. It’s a part of the story of the game and I want to engineer that out.”
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Dublin is carrying a roster of 27 girls, making almost no cuts. Other schools in the area had to cut players through tryouts. The roster is a mix of athletes from other sports, including softball, basketball, wrestling, soccer and lacrosse. And girls who have never played a high school sport before.
Morgan DiBiase is a senior. This will be her one and only season.
“I wanted to try something new and flag football was something that was risky for me and it would push me out of my boundaries,” DiBiase said. “I definitely like playing defense. I like pulling people’s flags.”
The reality of high school sports is that many girls who haven’t participated in club sports – soccer, basketball or soccer, for example – don’t get an opportunity to compete for their high schools, shut out by more experienced players. There simply isn’t room to dabble, or to represent their school in such a visible way.
“Those girls who haven’t had opportunities, now they have it and that’s exactly the reason we added it, for what we are seeing right now,” Cruickshank said.
Dublin High athletic director Tim Sbranti called the sport an “equalizer.”
“Everyone is starting off from the same place. No one has played this sport before,” Sbranti said.
Running back Lily Charlton, on the other hand, has been waiting for this opportunity, almost her whole life. Her family runs a local youth football club program and she was never allowed to play. Also a senior and a catcher on the varsity softball team, Charlton’s parents said yes to this.
“I’ve wanted to play since I was six years old,” Charlatan said. “It’s everything I thought it would be. To be on the field and have the experience of being around all of these girls. I’m having so much fun.”
Lavenda Hafoka is now a three-sport athlete, adding flag football to wrestling in the winter and softball in the spring. She said she wanted to improve her athleticism and play a sport year-round.
“It’s been an amazing experience mentally and physically and I’m extremely grateful to be a part of history,” Hafoka said.
Some schools have seen former varsity football coaches come out of retirement to coach the girls’ teams. At other schools, the varsity coaches have taken on the girls’ teams. At Menlo School on the Peninsula near Palo Alto, the new team comes with star power. Former 49er and Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young is the assistant coach under former Stanford quarterback John Paye. His daughters Summer, a senior and Laila, a freshman, are on the team. Menlo’s first game on Wednesday included multiple television cameras to capture the scene.
Young, on KNBR Radio Tuesday, said he is “amazed” by what he has seen so far and impressed with how quickly the players have learned the details of the game.
“The sense from the girls is that this is America’s game and now they’re included,” Young said. “There’s something to this. They are fired up to be a part of it and it’s pretty cool to watch.”
Schools have spent between $3,000-$5,000 gearing up with footballs, uniforms and flags. Some teams have been sponsored by local sports teams, others have been ramped up through their athletic booster programs.
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By and large, anticipated potential issues around sharing fields with football and officiating have not yet materialized. On Tuesday night, the officials were still sorting through rules with the coaches and players.
The game is 7-on-7 and consists of two 20-minute halves with a running clock until the final two minutes of each half. A touchdown is worth six points. Teams can attempt conversions for extra points that are worth more at extended distances. A successful conversion from the three-yard line is worth one point, from the 10-yard line worth two, and from the 20-yard line worth three.
Games will be played through October. Leagues will hold their own championships. Section championships will likely come along in a year or two.
“In our section bylaws, we need four leagues to participate in order to hold a section championship, and right now we have three. I think we may see schools adding it as the season goes along once they see how well other schools are doing.”
As the sun went down on Tuesday night, Dublin lost its first game to Foothill, 12-6, scoring a first touchdown late in the game. But there were no heads down. There was another game to be played 20 minutes later.
“We are going to grow and we are going to get better,” Odin-Harris said. “I want them to do what they do. I think we’ve done a good job preparing them and they are going to shine.”
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