Flag football gives Arizona HS girls a means to the end zone

Michael Lev
14 Min Read

On a scorching Tuesday night on high school fields throughout the state of Arizona, a new era dawned.

Girls flag football became an AIA-sanctioned sport this year, and it debuted this past week. Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray even participated in a ceremonial coin toss.

Fifty-five schools across the state are fielding teams this fall, including two from the Tucson area: Marana and Mountain View. Many more are coming.

“I see it growing. It’s gonna grow in Tucson, in Phoenix,” Marana coach Shaun Lara said. “It’s giving these girls that have always wanted to be part of football an outlet.”

Lara is also the coach of Marana’s girls wrestling team. No sport has grown more over the past 30 or so years.

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“I see flag football being right next to that,” Lara said.

I’d be shocked if his forecast is wrong. Girls flag football has all the elements to be The Next Big Thing.

It’s relatively inexpensive to play and run a team, especially compared to tackle football. Flags, cleats, mouthpieces and footballs are the only essential requirements. Because it’s seven-on-seven, and not as physically taxing as tackle football, rosters can be anywhere from 15-25 players.

Danika Stoddard, right, looks for an opening as she runs with the ball during a girls flag football practice on Aug. 24.

It also fills a void and serves an underserved market. Women have been fighting for athletic equality for decades and have made great strides — from participation to popularity to prize money — in sports such as basketball, tennis and golf. Football is challenging because almost every play ends in a high-speed collision. As Mountain View junior defender and reserve quarterback Holly McLemore said toward the end of a recent practice, it’s “intimidating trying out with a bunch of guys.”

Flag football offers a safer alternative that’s no less competitive and no less fun. Asked what she likes most about playing the sport, Joy Navar, one of McLemore’s teammates, said: “I’m a competitive person. I like it when I’m on defense and you just pull that flag and you get it.”

On offense, Navar said, nothing compares to running past the entire defense into the end zone.

“That’s the best,” the sophomore said. “Your teammates come in, and they’re all hyping you up.”

For the longest time, only boys got to experience that sense of exhilaration. Why should they have all the fun?

Challenges and triumphs

The start of the inaugural season of girls flag football has presented challenges for Marana and Mountain View.

The turf at Marana’s football field was destroyed and had to be replaced after a nasty storm last month. The Tigers have had to move several of their games. Their first home game — fingers crossed — is expected to be on Sept. 26 vs. Phoenix Desert Vista.

Mountain View’s turf replacement is near completion but behind schedule. The Mountain Lions should be able to practice and play on the field by Sept. 11, MVHS athletic director David Romero said.

In the meantime, the Marana-Mountain View game slated for this past Thursday — what would have been an all-Tucson matchup for the first official high school girls flag football game in the 520 — had to be postponed. It’s currently scheduled for Oct. 2 at MVHS.

“We’re all just kind of rolling with it this season because that’s all we can do,” Mountain View coach Jane Nova said.

Besides, these are just minor setbacks. Marana and Mountain View were able to play on opening night. And they both won.

Members of the Mountain View High School girls flag football team run sprints during a practice.

As we enter Week 2 of Year 1 of girls flag football, Tucson’s representatives have yet to surrender a point.

Marana defeated Casa Grande Union 2-0 — a score straight out of 1911. (The University of Arizona played five tackle football games that year. The combined tally: 22-3.)

Nami Singer split two blockers and chased down the Union quarterback in the end zone for a safety and the game’s only points.

“She was kicking butt the whole game,” Lara said. “I kind of surprised her. She’s usually a safety. I said, ‘You’re going to be our blitzer.’ She said, ‘Let’s get it.’ That’s what I’m looking for in a player.”

Singer’s sister, Roxi, is Marana’s quarterback. The Tigers’ top receiver is Malaysia Roebuck, sister of big-time tackle football recruit Dezmen Roebuck and daughter of Sean Roebuck, who coaches Marana’s boys basketball team, assists Lara and works with him in the counseling department.

Lara said the Tigers played better on offense than the 2-0 score indicates. It took a minute to convince his players of that.

“They put so much effort in,” he said. “When they looked up and saw 2-0, it didn’t represent how we played. A handful were saying, ‘We could have done this, we could have done that.’ But when we got on the bus, everyone was happy.”

If anything, that quirky final was indicative of the newness of, well, everything. Although girls flag football is a popular club sport, especially in the Phoenix area, many of the girls have never played before. Referees who are used to officiating tackle football also face a learning curve. “What’s a block?” is fast becoming the “What’s a catch?” of flag football.

“There are some coaches who haven’t coached it before; there are officials who haven’t worked it before,” said Tyler Cerimeli, the flag football administrator for the AIA. “You do your best to educate. You get out there and launch it, you learn a lot and you adjust accordingly. I’m confident we can make those adjustments down the road.”

Assistant coach Matthew Jones runs through a play with members of the Mountain View High School girls flag football team run during a practice on Aug. 24, 2023.

Learning and emerging

Five white lines, each 5 yards apart, stretch from the first base foul line to center field at the Mountain View softball field. With the football turf not yet ready, this is the best the Lions can do for practice.

The field of play for games is the same length as for tackle football — 100 yards with 10-yard end zones. The field isn’t as wide — 40-43 yards marked by lines or cones. First downs are gained by advancing from one “zone-to-gain” to the next. The zone-to-gains are marked at the 20- and 40-yard lines.

Mountain View’s squad made the best of it and then some. Despite the unrelenting afternoon sun, they were spirited, enthusiastic and receptive to the teachings of Nova, who runs the defense, and assistant Matthew Jones, who runs the offense. Neither yelled nor cursed at any point.

Nova, who teaches biology at MVHS, and Jones spent considerable time going over basic fundamentals such as footwork, route-running and getting in a proper defensive stance. Those are new skills for most of the players. Learning the lingo of football and the playbook is just as difficult, if not more so.

“It’s definitely … the most complicated thing I’ve learned so far for sports,” said McLemore, who also plays power forward for the MVHS girls basketball team. “It’s harder than basketball plays, that’s for sure. Because there’s so many and all the different directions and places you have to run.”

McLemore is subbing at quarterback on this day as Lillian Gradillas-Flores — a state wrestling champion — and Alyssa Valencia are absent. The left-handed McLemore’s athleticism is obvious as she regularly races into the secondary.

Holly McLemore runs with the ball during a girls flag football practice at Mountain View High School on Aug. 24. Mountain View and Marana are two of 55 Arizona high schools playing flag football for the first time this fall. Both school opened their seasons with shutout wins.

Gradillas-Flores returned for Mountain View’s opener at Avondale Agua Fria and played an instrumental role in the Lions’ 20-0 victory.

“She had a great game,” Nova said. “She is a phenomenal leader. She was paramount in that win.”

Nova attended Seattle Seahawks games in the Kingdome while growing up in Maple Valley, Washington, rooting for Jim Zorn and Steve Largent. She would have loved to have played flag football had it been an option. She’s thrilled that girls of this generation have that opportunity.

“Girls have just not been able to get involved in football, and a lot of them love it,” Nova said. “I always loved it but never could play. So the fact that flag football is finally on the radar, especially at the high school level, I think that’s great.

Coach Jane Nova, far left, talks to her flag football team before a practice at Mountain View. The Mountain Lions won their first game, defeating Avondale Agua Fria 20-0.

“Who knows? Maybe soon enough they’ll be doing scholarships and getting into college.”

It’s already happening. Women’s flag football is considered an “emerging sport” in NAIA, where 17 schools currently offer it. There’s talk that it could become an Olympic sport as soon as 2028.

Nearly 500,000 girls under the age of 17 played flag football last year, according to the NFL. Eight states have sanctioned it as a high school sport, per the league, with 20 more exploring pilot programs.

Why has the NFL invested in flag football for both girls and boys? Every kid who plays is a potential future fan of the league.

Navar, Mountain View’s speedy two-way player, played flag football in eighth grade. Both boys and girls participated. She thoroughly enjoyed it.

This version? It’s even better.

“I really like having a girls-only team,” Navar said. “It’s really encouraging women to be stronger and more confident with each other. … I love it.”

VIDEO: Salpointe’s Elijah Rushing and Keona Wilhite — both committed to play college football locally for Arizona next season — jointly crunch the opposing quarterback during the Lancers’ 35-14 win over Marana Friday, Aug. 25, 2023. Video by James Kelley/Special to the Arizona Daily Star

Contact sports reporter/columnist reporter Michael Lev at [email protected]. On X(Twitter): @michaeljlev 

Michael Lev tucson.com

2023-09-02 21:20:00 , "Marana Arizona" – Vivrr Local

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