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Cold wind and rain didn’t deter about 200 high school girls from suiting up and practicing on the Somers High School football field last Friday.
It was the Section 1 jamboree to celebrate the arrival of flag football at the high school level in New York State. Playing tips were shared by a pair of New York Giants – quarterback Daniel Jones and linebacker Blake Martinez.
Flag football, a popular alternative to traditional American tackle football, could become a varsity sport for girls in New York within the next two years. The game is attractive since it is a non-contact version of the sport and players are less likely to sustain serious injuries compared to tackle football.
There is no diving, blocking, screening or fumbles, in addition to the prohibition on tackling, making it safer while reducing the chance of head injuries.
“This is fun for everyone and we’re all very excited,” said Lakeland’s Lina Brown, a junior. “I grew up watching football and to actually play is a real rush. It’s empowering that we can do what the guys have been doing for so long.”
For some, practicing at Somers High School was their first chance to play on a football field. Unencumbered by the traditional protective gear, players wore belts with two flags hanging from their sides, and many used eye black. Instead of tackling the ball carrier, the defensive player tries to take one of the flags off of the player’s belt to stop their forward progress.
For a few exhilarating hours, players scrimmaged and practiced passing and receiving.
This year the New York State Public High School Athletic Association’s (NYSPHSAA) flag football pilot program was launched within six of the state’s 11 sections. The NYSPHSAA is partnering with Nike, the Buffalo Bills, New York Giants and New York Jets. Section 1 flag football is sponsored by the Giants.
There are nine teams that will be competing in the section when the season opens later this month for a six-game schedule. The participating teams are Brewster, Greenburgh-North Castle, Hastings, Lakeland, Mahopac, Walter Panas, Peekskill, Scarsdale and Somers. All nine schools were represented at last Friday’s jamboree.
The enthusiasm was infectious as girls encouraged one another.
“There is an awesome collaborative environment here on the field,” said Devon DiMichelle, a Somers High School senior. “This is an amazing sport and I love how different it is from (tackle) football. It’s new, revolutionary.”
Coaches also provided instruction, support and encouragement.
“This is a chance for our girls who never had the opportunity to now play football,” said Lakeland flag football Coach P.J. Nyberg, who was accompanied by Panas High School flag football coach Brandon Thomas.
“The energy for us is great,” Thomas said. “We have girls that quit other sports to play flag football.”
In January, the New York Giants announced a $60,000 donation to the NYSPHSAA to support the inaugural flag football season in Sections 1 and 4. Nike will provide a $100,000 stipend split between all participating teams in the state for equipment and uniforms.
Somers flag football Coach Katie DiChiaro initially laid the groundwork for the sport to take root. Along with Jennifer Kisslinger, DiChiaro co-founded the Somers Youth Sports Organization (SYSO) and started an all-girls flag football league in 2018, which has become a wildly popular town recreational program. The program has grown to a 22-team, 188-player all-girl league, for girls five years old and up, and is a part of the NFL FLAG program, the official flag football league of the NFL and the largest youth flag football organization in the U.S.
Under the NFL FLAG rules, there are generally five players per team on the field for each play, although there can be up to 10 on each side. The field is 30 yards wide and 70 yards long between the goal lines with two 10-yard end zones.
In the three-year period ending in 2018, the number of six- to-12-year-olds playing had increased 38 percent nationwide, to more than 1.5 million, according to a New York Times report. That’s 100,000 more than the number of youths playing tackle football, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association reported.
An impressive number of girls have signed up to be on their school’s flag football roster in Section 1. In February, about 45 Lakeland High School girls and 52 at Panas attended a flag football meeting. Other schools attracted 40 to 50 hopefuls to try out for their teams.
The Lower Hudson Valley high school league is planning for each team to play six games starting in mid-April, with a final tournament to be held before the end of May.
From the sidelines, Denise Galgano watched her daughter Grace scrimmage with her Brewster teammates.
“Grace plays varsity basketball for Brewster High School and will be playing next year at college,” Galgano said. “She was excited to accept the coach’s invitation to play flag football. She is a big Giants fan.”
– An earlier version of this article identified Lina Brown as of Somers. She’s a junior at Lakeland. We regret the error.
Abby is a local journalist who has reported on breaking news for more than 20 years. She currently covers community issues in The Examiner as a full-time reporter and has written for the paper since its inception in 2007. Read more from Abby’s editor-author bio here. Read Abbys’s archived work here: https://www.theexaminernews.com/author/ab-lub2019/