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Elite girls’ flag football teams meet in inaugural Nike Kickoff Classic

The Alonso (Fla.) Ravens will take on the Robinson (Fla.) Knights at 3 p.m. local time Friday on NFL Network YouTube. (Photo courtesy of Nike)

When organizations like the NFL and Nike throw their weight behind girls’ sports, some amazing things come to fruition.

One such example is taking place this Friday when two high school girls’ flag football teams will face off as part of the inaugural Nike Kickoff Classic to celebrate the return of football season around the country. Highlighting one of the fastest-growing sports for girls on the grandest stage yet proffered, the Alonso (Fla.) Ravens will take on the Robinson (Fla.) Knights at 3 p.m. local time in a game that will be broadcast nationwide on NFL Network YouTube from Ronaldo Field at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.

Interestingly, the schools are both located in Hillsborough County, Fla., and have regularly met face-to-face on the gridiron since the sport first took off in the area in the mid-2000s. So, why bring two teams from the very same county across the U.S. for this marquee matchup? Well, although they are only 15 miles apart, the girls’ flag football teams at Alonso and Robinson are two of the top five teams in the state of Florida, which has been the epicenter of the sport since it was first sanctioned in 2002, long before it caught on in other states.

In 2016, the Florida High School Athletic Association even expanded the sport into two classifications because so many schools had added teams. Alonso is a 2A school, while Robinson is 1A, meaning the schools no longer go head-to-head for the state championship. But that doesn’t mean they don’t still view each other as rivals.

For the Ravens, head coach Matt Hernandez has led the team to the state championship game four times since taking over the program 15 years ago, winning the title in both 2018 and 2019. Josh Saunders, his counterpart at Robinson who’s been with the Knights for 16 seasons, has taken his team to the state championship eight years in a row, winning seven titles and the last six in a row in 1A.

Merely based on rankings and state titles, Alonso enters the game as the presumptive underdog, and perhaps that’s the mindset the Ravens’ three senior captains are instilling in their teammates as they prepare for the biggest game of their teenage lives.

One of those captains, Alonso quarterback Mieke Rowe, led the state in passing yards (5,091), passing touchdowns (91) and total TDs (98) as a junior last season. Eryn Klaus, a co-captain and one of Rowe’s top targets, has been a starting wide receiver on the varsity team for four years, earning first team all-state honors as both a sophomore and junior.

But perhaps the most exciting Ravens player to watch is sophomore wide receiver Makenna Sturgis, who led the state in yards per catch (18.8) a year ago as a freshman and was second in the state in total receiving yards (1,333), receiving touchdowns (25) and total touchdowns (29).

Whereas Alonso has a seasoned and accomplished quarterback in Rowe, Robinson sophomore Haidyn Spano will be the one taking snaps and running the offense for the Knights. It’s the first time since 2015 that the Knights’ starting quarterback has not been a senior and the first time since 2007 that a sophomore has earned that key role for the squad.

Luckily, Spano will have wide receiver Katejion Robinson, a two-time first team all-state wide receiver who led the state in total scoring last year. Leading the defensive efforts for the Knights is senior captain Julia Guillermo, a first team all-state rusher who notched an impressive 98 tackles and 39 sacks last season.

For those new to flag football, the sport resembles the traditional version of America’s most popular sport in most aspects, except, of course, that no tackles are allowed. Instead, a player is considered down where her feet are when one of the two flags from her belt has been pulled free by a defender.

At the high-school level, teams play 7-on-7, with a center, quarterback and five eligible receivers on offense. The field is 40 yards wide and 80 yards long between end zones, with yard lines marked at the 40-yard midfield line and at each 20-yard line. The quarterback can run, hand off or pass the ball, and the team has four downs to progress to the next 20-yard marker.

Touchdowns are worth six points, and the scoring team then chooses whether to attempt a one-point, two-point or three-point conversion. As there are no linemen or blocking, a defensive line of scrimmage is separated from the offensive line by a 5- or 7-yard neutral zone that cannot be entered until the ball is snapped. There are no helmets or pads, but mouthpieces are required.

When you extract traditional tackling from American football, the game is distilled down to one of extreme speed, agility and accuracy, which girls have been displaying on football fields across the country in ever-increasing numbers as flag football spreads like wildfire.

For the Ravens and Knights, Friday’s game is two things at once: the next of many games against a longtime rival and an unprecedented opportunity to showcase an empowering arena for girls in football to the entire country.

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.

Caitlin Clark dunks on Michael Che in surprise SNL appearance

(Julia Hansen/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Caitlin Clark made a surprise appearance on “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend, which quickly went viral.

The Iowa star showed up on the show’s Weekend Update segment to playfully call out Michael Che’s history of making jabs at women’s sports.

It started when Che joked that Iowa should replace Clark’s retired No. 22 “with an apron.” 

When Clark entered, Che said that he was a fan. But Clark wasn’t convinced – especially not when co-host Colin Jost brought the receipts of Che’s jabs.

“Really, Michael? Because I heard that little apron joke you did,” she said, before making him read some jokes of her own in retaliation. Clark finished her segment by shouting out the WNBA greats that came before her. She then got in one final dig – bringing Che a signed apron as a souvenir. 

When Che promised to give it to his girlfriend, Clark delivered her last playful dig of the night.

“You don’t have a girlfriend, Michael,” she said.

Afterward, SNL castmember Bowen Yang told People that the 22-year-old and teammates Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin and Jada Gyamfi – who joined her at Studio 8H – “were so cool.”

“She's so charming and witty,” Yang said. “They were just the most stunning, noble people.

“Athletes just have this air about them. They know they're amazing. I mean, these are people who have numeric attachments and values to their performance. That's something that comedians never have.”

Portland Thorns, in uncharted territory, start NWSL season winless

Portland has started the season winless through four games for the first time. (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)

The Portland Thorns continue to struggle to start the NWSL season, falling 2-0 to the North Carolina Courage over the weekend to remain winless through their first four games. 

It’s uncharted territory for Portland, who has never started the NWSL regular season without a win in four games before.

Following the loss, defender Becky Sauerbrunn voiced her frustrations with the start. 

“It’s hard to find a lot of encouraging things, but what I find encouraging is that people are frustrated,” she said. “People are pissed off that we’re not doing well. We care, and I think that’s really important.” 

She also added that while the team will reflect individually, “there’s going to be no finger pointing.”

“We’re going to look at ourselves and figure out what we should have done, or I should have done better,” she said. “There is a list of things that I could have done better, and I’m going to make sure I know every single thing and watch this game back.”

The Thorns currently sit at the bottom of the league table with just one point, having allowed 10 goals – tied for the worst in the league. They’ve yet to lead in a match. And as questions grow, attention turns to head coach Mike Norris. 

Norris is in his second year as head coach of the club after leading the team to a second-place finish in the regular season last year. When asked about the possibility of pressure growing after the unprecedented start, Norris said that the pressure has been there “from day one.”

“I cannot be driven by my day-to-day and the longer vision of the pressure of the job,” he said. “We’ve got a belief in how we want to play, how we operate. We’ve got to stick with the process of that. While we do it, we have to review and see what is working, what’s not working.

“I’ll be showing up for the team and being there for what they need from me as we approach getting back together as a group next week.”

Maria Sanchez reportedly requests trade from Houston Dash

Mar 23, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Dash forward Maria Sanchez (7) warms up before the match between Racing Louisville and Houston Dash at Shell Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Maria Sanchez, who signed one of the biggest deals in NWSL history just four months ago, has reportedly requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

ESPN was the first to report the news, which was confirmed by multiple sources.

In a statement to ESPN, the team said: “​​Maria Sanchez is under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the Dash worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. At the time, it was the largest contract in NWSL history – something that was eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

The winger was a restricted free agent in the offseason, meaning that Houston could match any offer from another team and retain her rights. Should the team trade Sanchez, her contract would remain as it has been signed with the league. That limits the number of teams that could take on her contract. 

In three starts with the Dash this season, Sanchez has zero goals and an assist. The Dash are 1-2-1 through four games and have allowed a league-worst 10 goals.

The team hired a new coach, Fran Alonso, in December. Earlier this year, former goalkeeper coach Matt Lampson was fired for violating the league’s Coach Code of Conduct and Anti-Fraternization policy. 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close at midnight ET on Friday.

Canada beats U.S. Hockey 6-5 in thrilling World Championship win

UTICA, NEW YORK - APRIL 14: Team Canada raises the Championship Trophy after winning The Gold by defeating The United States in OT during the 2024 IIHF Women's World Championship Gold Medal game at Adirondack Bank Center on April 14, 2024 in Utica, New York. (Photo by Troy Parla/Getty Images)

Canada got its revenge on Sunday, winning the 2024 IIHF Women’s World Championship and taking down the U.S. in a 6-5 overtime classic.

Marie-Philip Poulin, a longtime star for Canada, got her first two goals of the tournament, while Danielle Serdachny had the game-winner. 

"I hate to say you're not trying to rely on it, expect it, but I know I've grown to expect it," Canada coach Troy Ryan said of Philip-Poulin. "Tonight was just a whole other level. I could see in her eyes every time we called her name that she was ready to go. It's just special."

The win came after Canada lost 1-0 to the U.S. in the group stage of the tournament. On Sunday, the two teams met for the 22nd time in 23 tournaments in the gold medal game – and the action between the two teams delivered. 

Among those scoring for the U.S. were Megan Keller, Alex Carpenter, Hilary Knight, Laila Edwards and Caroline Harvey. Julia Gosling, Emily Clark and Erin Ambrose had the other three goals for Canada, giving them their 13th World title after falling to the U.S. in last year’s title game in Toronto. 

This year’s game was held in New York, and it was the second-highest scoring final between the two teams. The U.S. won a world championship 7-5 in 2015. 

"Oh man, that feels good to win it on U.S. soil," Canada goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens said after the game. "We owed it to them and owed it to ourselves to win that one."

Canada also denied Knight a record 10th World Championship win, although she did become the most decorated player in women’s world championship history with 14 medals. After the game, Poulin gave Knight a hug on the ice. 

"We just said 'that was unbelievable,'" Poulin said.

U.S. coach John Wroblewski echoed the sentiment that it was an outstanding game after being asked about ending the game on a power-play after leaving too many players on the ice. 

"Instead of talking about the isolated events of tonight's game, I think that normally that's an interesting storyline,” he said. “But I think the entity of an amazing 6-5 game is an amazing hockey game that took place."

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