Flag football takes hold in Anchorage

Michelle Smith visits a high school flag football league in Alaska.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- It's a blustery early fall day, the wind whipping through Anchorage Football Stadium, one of the city's oldest athletic facilities.

It isn't raining -- for a change. The weather has been unseasonably unpleasant here the past few weeks, with flooding, lots of rain and wind gusts of more than 100 miles an hour.

But this is a feels-like-football day, brisk, breezy and a little damp.

The referee's whistle sounds in earshot of the fans tailgating in the parking lot, signaling the kickoff. Bartlett High, on homecoming day, is hosting Chugiak, which jumps out to a big and ultimately insurmountable lead.

But the score isn't the only thing of note, the players are also worthy of a double-take. This is a varsity football game, but of a different ilk. This is girls flag football, with those in Anchorage getting an opportunity few other female student-athletes in the country have experienced.

I grew up playing catch with my dad and the fact that I get to do that in an actual game is an amazing experience. I quit volleyball for this and I was pretty good at that. But I love this more.
Nikki Kennedy, a senior on Chugiak's flag football team

Flea-flickers, options, naked sweeps, short passes into the flat, hook-and-ladders, the occasional reverse -- all are in the arsenal of a group of girls who have set aside other sports, even their cheerleading uniforms, for a few precious months before the football fields across this state become uninhabitable.

Cheering comes from the sparse gathering in the stands, and on the field, players encourage and incite each other through injuries and bleeding. This is no powder puff game.

Nearly 900 girls in Anchorage are playing competitive flag football during the fall high school sports season, earning a varsity letter and vying for league titles. After a season that began in July, the league playoffs begin this week.

"I grew up playing catch with my dad and the fact that I get to do that in an actual game is an amazing experience," said Nikki Kennedy, a senior for the Chugiak varsity team. "I quit volleyball for this and I was pretty good at that. But I love this more."

Adding opportunities

Love of the game would seem to be the operating principle here for athletes who will not get the opportunity to take this sport to the next level, at least on a competitive level. There is no college flag football for women, putting a definitive ceiling on the experience, but not lessening its impact.

Alaska, the only state in the U.S. without college football, and Florida are the only two states that sanction girls high school flag football. Florida plays the sport statewide and has a sanctioned state championship. Eight teams in the Anchorage Sports Athletic Association compete for a league title in Alaska.

Flag football came to Anchorage out of necessity. Demand has taken it to where it is now, the most popular girls' sport in Alaska's largest city.

Title IX issues prompted Anchorage's high school athletic association to look for more girls' sports opportunities back in 2005. A task force was formed, and options explored.

Among the proposed sports were lacrosse, rowing, badminton and flag football.

"Quite frankly, I think the lawyers just wanted to litigate it, but a few of us got together and said, 'We can solve this,'" said Don Winchester, the president of the Dimond High School Alumni Association who served on the task force.

The task force appealed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that oversees Title IX compliance, and asked for permission to survey the female student-athletes on a range of sports.

"We had them rank them in order of preference," Winchester said. "And flag football finished in the top three."

Courtesy of Michelle Smith

Chugiak and Bartlett high school faced off on the field of Anchorage Football Stadium in a girls varsity flag football game as part of Bartlett's homecoming weekend.

Lacrosse finished first in the survey, snowboarding was second. But Alaska athletic officials had little experience in lacrosse and there would be significant training needed, not to mention equipment costs. Snowboarding was weather-dependent and there were transportation issues. Football, in some respects, won by default.

"Football was a natural thing. We have the facilities, the officiating, the infrastructure and our equipment costs would be minimal, and we had a lot of coaches available with football experience," Winchester said.

League officials, who spent $150,000 to pilot the sport in 2006, hoped they would get 300 girls participating over the first three years, bringing their participation numbers into balance. They got more than that the first season.

Numbers have ballooned to more than 1,000 in subsequent years. This season there are more than 800 girls participating in eight programs at the varsity, JV and C levels. Some programs have more than one C team. Flag football now is the largest girls' participation sport in the Anchorage Sports Athletic Association.

"We would love to have that problem in boys football," Winchester said.

Something different

Julie Oldham and her two daughters moved to Anchorage, where her husband is stationed with the military and currently deployed to Afghanistan, from Utah last year. Both girls played soccer in Utah and when they arrived in Anchorage, both decided to join the flag football team at Chugiak.

"My oldest graduated last year, but she told me that if they had this when she was in Utah, she never would have played soccer," Oldham said. Her youngest daughter, Alexis, is a junior playing on the varsity squad.

For some girls, it's their only high school sports experience -- a chance to play without having put in years with club soccer, basketball or volleyball. For others, it's their second or third sport, and a tuneup for the winter and spring seasons.

"I have basketball players, soccer players, wrestlers, I even have a couple of cheerleaders on our team," Bartlett coach Stephen Stansbury said.

Dimond's Haley Martin was cut from the school's volleyball team as a freshman. Now a senior, she is one of the football team's top running backs and a starter on defense.

"I thought, if this doesn't work out, I'll try football," Martin said. "I scored my first touchdown and I thought, 'Hey, I might be kind of good at this.' I ended up loving it. It was fun for me that it wasn't something that everybody else has done."

Dimond quarterback Tara Thompson plays high school soccer in the spring and competitive soccer through the summer.

"I feel like this helps me prepare," said Thompson, who was the league's co-offensive player of the year as a sophomore this season. She's thrown for 1,138 yards and 21 touchdowns and has rushed for 707 yards and five touchdowns.

Thompson said the girls have a bit of friendly competition going with the boys who play on the varsity football team.

"Sometimes we joke that we are better than them, after all, we are undefeated and they aren't," Thompson said with a smile.

Tim Brady's daughter, Rachel, plays flag football at Dimond. An assistant coach for the varsity boys team, on which his son is a senior, Brady was working the chains for his daughter's game when the boys team started to make its way into the stadium. The schools often schedule doubleheaders, putting the girls game ahead of the boys on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons.

"The girls absolutely love it," Tim Brady said. "Make no mistake, it's very competitive, but the girls are just having a blast. My daughter got featured on a local newscast last week and my son, well, he took it pretty well."

Pure fun

Kathleen Navarre has been coaching flag football at Dimond, which leads the league heading into the Cook Inlet Conference playoffs with a 12-0 record, since the teams were formed. Hers is the largest program in the league with more than 80 girls playing on four teams.

The youngest of 11, with seven older brothers, Navarre grew up with football.

"If they had this when I was in high school, I definitely would have played," Navarre said.

Navarre said she picked up on the sport quickly after being recruited to coach.

Courtesy of Michelle Smith

Flag football earned its varsity status to help Anchorage come into Title IX compliance. Girls voted it their third choice, but athletic officials chose it for the existing infrastructure.

"It was a pretty easy learning curve. We had training and video and we got some of the basics of the game," Navarre said. "When we started, speed definitely won a lot of games. Bartlett had the high school state track champions and they played flag. That first year, if you got on the outside you were gone."

Jon Schroeder , who had coached boys football in the 1980s, was cajoled into coaching the girls team by Tom Huffer, Chugiak's former varsity boys coach.

"The long and short of it is that I had to be talked into it and my original thought was that maybe I would do it for two years and give it up," Schroeder said. "But I haven't left. I'm having way too much fun."

At Chugiak, where Schroeder and his teams have won two league titles, more girls went out for the flag football team this year than boys for tackle football.

"I have been blessed with some unbelievable athletes, kids that went on to play other college sports," Schroeder said. "But we also have had girls who weren't good enough to play some of the other sports and they want to do something. We are giving opportunities to kids who want an athletic experience."

Huffer, who has the gruff demeanor of an old-school high school football coach, lauded the skills of the players. He has served as Schroeder 's assistant, a condition of talking Schroeder into coaching the team.

"The girls have gotten better," Huffer said. "We had one girl when we first started, we taught her how to throw the ball and she threw for almost 3,000 yards a couple of years in a row."

As Huffer is talking, one of Chugiak's running backs finds room outside the blockers and takes off downfield.

"That little one there, she's a soccer player; she has great instincts," Huffer says.

Flag football is intended to be a noncontact game, with strict rules governing blocking and no tackling. But the game between Chugiak and Bartlett was a physical affair with several girls leaving the field with injuries. The lack of contact written into the rules has prevented neither contact nor injuries.

Bartlett players were wearing helmets for the first time, a soft-sided helmet that Stansbury bought from a sporting goods dealer in Southern California.

Schroeder said he had five players sustain concussions last season.

"Up until last year, we had very few injuries, some jammed fingers, a twisted knee, but it's gotten worse," Schroeder said. "We've had concussions, one girl with a broken jaw, knee tears. The game is getting rougher and we need to look at the officiating. I think the inconsistency comes from the fact that we have women's league in town, men's league, co-ed leagues and youth leagues and not all the rules are the same and the same people are officiating all of these games. I'm hoping last year was a freak year."

Martin said she doesn't mind that she won't be able to take her high school flag football experience to college.

Stansbury said that's part of the appeal for his athletes.

"It's pure, and what I mean by that is, nobody is playing for a scholarship, they aren't worried about that, they are playing for fun," Stansbury said. "I think some of these girls are a lot closer to the dads as a result of this. Now they go home and talk about football. I had one dad who would come to every practice and throw the ball with his daughter after practice. It gives them a different kind of connection with their dads, and the girls seem to have a lot of fun."

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