In all of our previous years covering California football, there have been mentions of girls playing the boys game, but this school year the girls have their own game. We went to our first-ever game last Thursday to see the first game played at our local high school in Stockton, but it’s just one school out of 70 in the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section playing this fall. There are more than 100 in the CIF Southern Section.
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There have been new sports that have been rolled out over the years as official sports by the California Interscholastic Federation. These are sports that generally have crossed over from being club sports – like boys volleyball or boys and girls lacrosse in some CIF sections – or a sport like girls wrestling that has evolved from girls being on boys teams.
Flag football for girls, however, has shown “unprecedented growth” as a new sport, according to CIF Sac-Joaquin Section assistant commissioner Will DeBoard. In just the SJS alone, there are 70 schools that have fielded teams in this first season of the sport. That’s well over 50 percent of the large schools in that section and as DeBoard noted during a recent media day at the section office “school districts like Elk Grove and Modesto probably are going to be in next year.” He added: “They just wanted to see how it goes this first year.”
In the CIF Southern Section, which is the state’s largest section by far with more than 600 schools, it reported 114 schools having flag football in this first year of the sport.
One of the reasons for the big totals of schools wanting to field teams is the simple popularity of football in general and girls wanting to play but not wanting to play tackle football. It also appears to be a factor for growth that the CIF made flag football a fall sport (same as 11-man football). It isn’t a fall sport in other places around the country, such as the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, which made it a spring sport when it was approved as a sport there earlier this year.
In California, the CIF Federated Council voted unanimously last February to add girls flag football to the portfolio of sports offered.
“You can love the game of football and not love getting tackled but still want to participate,” CIFSS Federated Council member and president-elect Paula Hart Rodas said in an interview on KCAL TV in Los Angeles when the CIF voted. “Flag right now is aimed directly at getting more girls involved in athletics by adding a different sport that we know girls across the country are interested in, but not willing to play tackle for a variety of reasons.”
The general football community at the high school level also has been supportive of the efforts and there already have been some examples of a girls flag game being played on a Thursday right before a lot of schools host a freshman boys football game.
That was the case last Thursday at Stagg High in Stockton where the girls flag teams (there was a JV flag game played first) had contests before the Delta Kings’ freshmen 11-man squad had a game against Modesto High. There were more people who came for the freshman game, but it was easy to remove the cones and yard markers for flag football before the freshmen teams came out. The field of play is 80 yards instead of 100 for flag and it’s also not as wide either with one sideline placed on the numbers painted on the opposite side of the field.
Some of those coaching girls flag football also have made a name for themselves in the bigger game.
At Menlo School in Atherton, Super Bowl winning quarterback Steve Young is going to help with the girls team this fall along with head coach John Paye. Menlo School won a state title in D2 in girls basketball in 2021 with Paye as head coach and he’s also won more than 400 games as a girls hoops coach. Before that, though, Paye was a quarterback at Menlo (1981 State Player of the Year), Stanford and in the NFL. Steve’s daughter, Summer, played on Paye’s basketball team last season and is expected to play flag football this fall. Just on Friday of last week, Paye resigned as head coach of the girls basketball team but said he would continue to coach the flag squad.
Colfax High’s first flag head coach will be Tony Martello, who just retired as the Falcons’ head football coach. He’s also one of the winningest head coaches in SJS history.
There also are some great family connections with the 11-man varsity and girls flag teams that already have gained attention. Corona Centennial’s first flag coach is Sami Logan, the daughter of 11-man head coach Matt Logan (a 10-time CIFSS champion and on his way to becoming one of the winningest coaches in state history) while at Orange Lutheran it’s Kristen Sherman, the wife of head coach Rod Sherman.
The NFL also has thrown its considerable weight behind the promotion of the girls flag game. Just last weekend, the league paid the way for Long Beach Poly and Serra of Gardena to play a flag football game as part of an event at Nike world headquarters in Beaverton, Ore. The Jackrabbits won 31-6 and with all of their history in many sports and their great tradition in girls sports (numerous state titles in track and basketball) it wouldn’t be a shock if they are one of the very top teams in the state for this first season.
The growth of girls flag football could lead to more girls wanting to try to play 11-man with the boys or more women wanting to coach. There’s much history in the state record book files about those who’ve had success doing that. The lists include Emma Baker from Rancho Christian of Temecula, who had more than 200 career kicking points from 2014 to 2017, and Bella Rasmussen of Laguna Beach, who became the first girl in state history to score two touchdowns in a game last season.
Every Game Is Historical
As the unofficial historian of California high school football with records that go back well more than 120 years, it was a bit strange to head to a game between teams with virtually no history at all. But one of the good things about girls flag football is that in every early season game the girls are making history.
For the game between Edison of Stockton and Stagg of Stockton last Thursday, it was the first ever game in the sport played at Stagg. And at the finish, which was a 28-6 win for Edison, it was that school’s first-ever varsity victory.
The expectations coming into the game based on available rosters on MaxPreps (note: coaches please report scores and post rosters because it will surely help grow the sport as media members and community members interested in perhaps going to a game can look up info about the team beforehand) were only that Stagg senior Jameelah Pharms probably was going to be one of the best players on the field. She’s made a name for herself in basketball (20 ppg scorer and a NorCal Player of the Week once last season) and comes from a very athletic family.
It was correct about Pharms, who quarterbacked the Delta Queens and could make defenders miss on their grabs for a flag by hesitation moves and then a burst around the corner. But Edison had more speed throughout its lineup and headed home with the 28-6 victory. The Vikings had started their season last weekend at a tournament in Lodi with a couple of close losses and the girls were excited to get the win.
“It’s our first real win and it’s great,” said Edison quarterback Ahniah Daniels, who threw for four touchdown passes. “It’s fun to have girls football. I’m really glad it’s happened.”
Two of Daniels touchdowns went to sophomore Jaylani Moore, who often receives passes from Daniels on the basketball court when that sport is being played. She had never played flag football other than at recess.
“It’s like a totally different sport than I’ve ever played before,” Moore said. “It’s more than one challenge when you’re on the field.”
Freshman Kayla Thomasson also was a standout for Edison with one touchdown catch and several stops on defense. She has played before in a local boys and girls combination flag football program.
“I like it a lot because it gives girls the chance to show that football is not just a boys sport,” Thomasson said. “We’re definitely learning as we go and we’re improving a lot in every game.”
Stagg had one win already showing on its record so this was the team’s first loss. Pharms threw a touchdown pass to junior Anjali Hernandez for the team’s only score. Junior Janae Moreno also made some plays on both sides of the ball.
“It’s been fun,” said Pharms. “It opens up my vision more with all of the girls out there on the field. It will help with basketball. I just like leading my own team.”
If You Go, Here’s What to Watch For
1. Ignore the yard markers for the 11-man field. When a team in girls flag is on the 50-yard line, they aren’t. They’re on the 40-yard line of an 80-yard field.
2. There is no kicking game at all. The first play of the first half is simply the receiving team starting out on the 20-yard line. There are no kicks after touchdowns, just all two-point conversion tries. When a team doesn’t want to go for it on fourth down, it just tells the referee it is punting and the ball is placed on the opposing 20-yard line.
3. It’s not 10 yards for a first down, but 20 yards for a first down. There was only one “punt” in the game we saw. The coaches will tend to keep playing.
4. It is illegal in flag football rules to do spin moves or use your arms/hands to protect the flag from being pulled.
5. Pass interference can be called, but it wasn’t in the game we saw. Other penalties such as offsides or holding can be called as well.
6. There are two halves of play each 20 minutes in length. The clock doesn’t stop on incomplete passes. Similar to 11-man tackle, each team does get three timeouts for each half.
7. On a lot of plays, the quarterback is scanning the field for several seconds without any pass rush. They need to be seven yards behind the line of scrimmage. A defense can send one or two blitzers on a play, but that didn’t happen other than perhaps one time in the game we saw.
The CIF Sac-Joaquin Section will have two divisions of playoffs that will conclude its first officially sanctioned flag football season.
The CIF Southern Section will not have playoffs this first season and would not be able to conduct playoffs until 20 percent of its member schools are fielding teams. They could reach that threshold next season. There will be top 10 polls with the first one coming on Sept. 10.
Some CIF sections do not even have girls flag football as a separate sport yet on their websites. There are no other sections other than the Sac-Joaquin that for sure will have playoffs this season. It is to be determined in San Diego.
As more and more schools add the sport, which seems very likely, other ways to promote the sport such as honoring a State Team of the Year or a Ms. Football State Player of the Year also can begin to come into focus.
Mark Tennis is the co-founder and publisher of CalHiSports.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to follow Mark on the Cal-Hi Sports Twitter handle.