Girls flag football explodes onto Bay Area high school sports scene

Seven months after the California Interscholastic Federation unanimously gave its 10 sections approval to play flag football, the sport’s popularity has exceeded even optimistic expectations.

Hundreds of Bay Area high school girls are living out a dream.

During a historic flag football season, teenagers in shorts, jerseys, and, in some cases, intimidating eye-black are celebrating touchdowns and victories with smiles and high-fives from the far reaches of the East Bay to the Peninsula.

“This has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl,” said Dublin High senior Sydney Costello.

Seven months after the California Interscholastic Federation unanimously approved flag football in its ten sections, the sport’s popularity has exceeded even the most optimistic predictions.

Because there were not enough spots, some schools, including Pittsburg and Freedom in East Contra Costa County, cut dozens of players during tryouts.

Steve Young, the Hall of Fame quarterback, is an assistant coach on a team that includes his two daughters at Menlo School in Atherton.

“When this came up, I didn’t know if we would have any interest at all,” said Central Coast Section commissioner Dave Grissom, whose office supervises schools from San Francisco to King City. “It just took off. I’m surprised, pleasantly surprised, at how well it’s taken off.”

RELATED: Hall of Famer Steve Young experiences a ‘full circle’ moment while coaching his daughters’ girls flag football team at Menlo School.

The rules of tackle football and flag football are obviously different, but the atmosphere at California High in San Ramon on Tuesday night for a trio of girls games rivaled that of Friday Night Lights.

Cheerleaders and dancers performed routines on the sidelines in front of bleachers packed with parents and students, some of whom held colorful signs bearing the number and name of their favorite players.

Those sights and sounds are almost identical to a tackle football game.

Spectators yelled familiar phrases like “get them” and “that’s not a flag” at the players and officials. During commercial breaks, the latest songs by artists such as Olivia Rodrigo played, and a thunderous “TOUCHDOWN” rang out from the public address system after each score. The only difference between this and tackle football is that there are no pads rubbing against each other.

“Our home games are already big and exciting, and it’s great to see how much support the sport is already getting,” said Brianna Schapiro, a junior from San Ramon Valley, whose team was one of three competing at California.

The games last about an hour because the teams use a running clock except for the final two minutes of each 20-minute half. Field dimensions are 80 yards long by 40 yards wide.

Each team has seven players on the field, as opposed to 11 in tackle football. There is no tackling or contact, and players do not wear pads or helmets. When a flag attached to a ball carrier’s waist is pulled, the play is over.

This fall, Grissom estimates that 30 to 40 of his 152 schools will be playing girls flag football. They all have their own schedules this season — there is no league play — but that is likely to change as the sport grows.

Commissioner Pat Cruickshank of the neighboring North Coast Section, which stretches from the East Bay to the Oregon border, said 32 of his 177 schools are participating this season, with teams organized into traditional leagues.

The CCS and NCS will not hold playoffs this year, but they may begin in 2024.

This fall, the Oakland Section is expected to have seven teams, six from the Oakland Athletic League and one from a charter school. The section intends to hold a championship game just a few hours before the Silver Bowl, which will feature its tackle football teams.

The sport isn’t just appealing to female athletes. Several former high school tackle football coaches are now in charge of the girls’ program.

Mike Janda, the all-time winningest coach in the CCS, is assisting at Notre Dame-San Jose, working under his longtime assistant John Amarillas.

Victor Galli of Pittsburg and Kevin Hartwig of Freedom are back as head coaches for their schools’ flag football teams in the East Bay.

“I think it’s great for football,” Hartwig said in August to the Bay Area News Group. “Gives it a new spark.”

Despite the fact that the sport is off to a strong start, schools still face challenges.

According to Sacred Heart Prep athletic director Jason Armstrong, finding referees has been difficult, and field availability is an issue, as many predicted when the CIF made flag football an official sport.

To get around the problem, school officials are scheduling flag football games during the week. Menlo School and Sacred Heart Prep, neighbors on Valparaiso Avenue in Atherton, faced off in the girls’ version of the Valpo Bowl on Wednesday.

Despite logistical challenges, the excitement is palpable throughout the Bay Area. In that Valpo Bowl, over 500 fans saw the Gators beat the Knights and were entertained by Sacred Heart Prep’s band and dance team, giving the weekday afternoon a big-game feel.

At Pittsburg, 80 girls competed for about 30 roster spots. Galli had to make some difficult decisions after stepping down as the school’s tackle football coach after two decades.

“I’m sure the plan for next year is to do two teams,” Galli said. “I don’t like breaking people’s hearts.”

Few hearts have been broken for those who get to play.

Lilie Parodi of Woodside has been around football for a long time. Mike, her father, is the tackle football coach at Hillsdale.

Parodi scored Woodside’s first touchdown in last week’s scrimmage against Menlo School, a thrilling start to a historic season.

Parodi, who also competes in dance and track, wants other flag football players to have similar experiences.

“I’m hoping it inspires a lot of new girls to come out and see that they can do a sport that’s mostly boy-dominant,” Parodi said. “Girls can come out here and do well, lead a team, and know everything.” Show the boys some respect.”

And they’ll get their chance to shine on the field, which Dublin senior Adrianna Avelar is excited about.

“Now we get to sit in the stands instead of the bleachers,” she said.

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