TAMPA, Fla. — Girls flag football in the state of Florida is getting ready to reintroduce itself. Just as last season was heating up, the COVID-19 pandemic ended the season, and in turn, the opportunity for senior players to compete for a title. But, flag football players are strong. They have an inherent desire to right wrongs, even if those “wrongs” (COVID-19) are completely out of their control.
When the pandemic cut Ruskin (Fla.) Lennard’s season, head coach Travis Combs was in the midst of a turnaround. He left Riverview for the job at Lennard, which did not have a junior varsity team at the time. In that year, he put together a top-level team and beat bitter rival East Bay for the first time ever. The Longhorns also notched their first win against a state-ranked opponent, topping Jefferson High School. When the virus hit, Combs kept applying pressure.
“Be ready. We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Combs initially told his players. He met with them over Zoom to watch the film and organize workouts and kept it up.
Combs believes the dedication will “raise expectations that we’re going to do whatever we can no matter the circumstances. We’re going to find a way to get something done.” The Longhorns topped Martin County 26-6 on Saturday.
Martin County, led by head coach Jeff Padgett, entered last season coming off of a state final four. This season, he feels the Tigers began even further behind the eight-ball than other area flag football teams.
“We couldn’t even have tryouts when everybody did, because we were under quarantine for ten days,” he said.
Padgett added that Martin County’s flag football team has a lot of overlap with the school’s soccer team, which was in the final four at the time of the flag football tournament. Still, he is proud of the resilience of his players.
“The girls that we have been stepping up and learning different positions,” he said. The Tigers even trotted out a four-year varsity starter at safety, who Padgett said had never seen a rep at the position in her time at Martin County.
While many teams in the state are looking to rebuild and build on top of that, the heavyweight teams are looking to keep on rolling. Two Hillsborough County teams in Robinson (Class 1A) and Alonso (Class 2A) have sat atop the food chain of Florida flag football for quite some time. Both teams’ excellence and eminence, resulting from each team’s multiple state titles in recent years, led to being noticed by Nike, which filmed a commercial promoting flag football as a whole.
1 million more boys than girls get to play sports in HS.
Because they have football.
Nike and the @NFL pledge $5 million to the pursuit of Women’s Flag as a national varsity sport.
— Nike Football (@usnikefootball) February 2, 2021
Clearly, both teams came into the tournament with sky-high expectations. Both teams delivered. Robinson shut out with Dunedin and Lecanto while scoring 51 and 19, respectively. Alonso staged another shutout in a 28-point campaign over Northeast but allowed 6 points from Crystal River in a 40-point showing.
Alonso is still technically the defending state champion stemming from its 2019 title. Head coach Matt Hernandez still preaches a champion mentality. While lamenting the fact that senior Ravens missed out on the chance to run it back, he was sure to note that the seniors were not the only group that suffered as a result of the pandemic shutting down the sport.
“Every other kid missed a chance to get better,” he said. “We’re so dependent on the development of our players that that lack of opportunity and development is something that we’re still seeing and we’re fighting through.”
Hernandez subscribes to the mentality that the team is making up for a lost time, as well as keeping spirits high when the world is in disarray.
“You can’t lose sight of the effort and the work that it takes,” he said. “What we preach is that we’re not a finished product, and today is today. That goal can happen no matter what happens today as long as we’re trying to get better every day and every game.
The mighty Robinson Knights, based on history, currently pose the biggest threat to Alonso’s aspiration to be the best team in the state, regardless of classification. However, despite Robinson’s notoriety as the best program in the state, the team’s crown jewel, Emily Kemp, graduated last year. Kemp’s stellar junior season was supposed to turn into a senior season for the ages before the pandemic hit.
“We’re not trying to find the next Emily Kemp. She’s a generational player,” said head coach Josh Saunders. “We have a lot of pieces that will make up all that ground.” In addition to chasing his team’s next title, Saunders is tasked with an extra dimension of his flag football team: getting players to college. Flag football is now designated as an NAIA sport for girls to play at the intercollegiate level.
Saunders says that while the sport is not Division 1 yet, “it’s kind of on its way, but the access and the availability, combined with the fact that it’s the most fun sport to play, then I think that’s what’s going to be what pushes it deeper into the nation.”
Girls’ flag football is one of the most intriguing sports in the state. Florida is undoubtedly one of the most boys-football-crazed places in the country. This is partly because talent-rich areas send players to top college programs and eventually to the NFL. While there are no NCAA or even Division 1 college teams, many of these girls possess serious talent.
Girls’ flag football is hardly more than a dot on the large scale of the coronavirus pandemic to most people. However, to these girls, flag football is more than a sport. In addition to the familial aspect, flag football is aiding the ascension of young women in sports and sending them to college. This season, teams are, in the words of Alonso’s Hernandez, “making up for lost time.” When you see the grit and passion of the girls’ on-field product, you would feel Hernandez’s words vibrate across every flag football team in the state. Whether the team is a state championship contender, in a rebuild, or starting with little more than scratch, girls’ flag football is about to leave its mark on the state of Florida. Just make sure you’re around to see it happen.