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.