Two high school flag football teams, both from the same county in Florida, flew across the country to go head-to-head at the first-of-its-kind Nike Kickoff Classic on Friday, celebrating the return of football season across the country.
Playing at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., in the biggest spotlight of their young careers, the Robinson Knights defeated the Alonso Ravens 12-6 in a tightly contested game between the longtime rivals.
Co-hosted by the NFL alongside Nike, the game built upon last year’s groundbreaking commitment from the two powerhouse companies of $5 million in product to grow girls flag football in high school athletics across the country.
After two days of special events and programming, the teams found themselves on familiar territory, facing each other within the lines of the football field. Opting to defer after winning the coin toss, Alonso found itself on its heels against a surprisingly jitter-less drive led by Robinson quarterback Haidyn Spano. The first sophomore to earn the starting quarterback role for the Knights since 2007, Spano’s youth had both her and head coach Josh Saunders on edge coming into the game.
But on just her seventh pass for her sixth completion of the game, Spano connected with two-time first team all-state wide receiver Katejion Robinson, as she cut across the center of the field and watched her turn on the jets to cover the remaining 20 yards and find the end zone, giving the Knights a 6-0 lead.
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After Alonso head coach Matt Hernandez watched his squad’s first drive come up short, despite several solid gains on short passes to senior running back Sadie Bodie, Spano proved further why she’s the one taking the snaps for Robinson. Perfectly placed passes to Bella Rodriguez and again to Robinson for big gains positioned the Knights with first-and-goal, but they turned the ball over on downs after a touchdown-saving deflection from Alonso junior linebacker Sophie Duong.
The last big play of the half came from Alonso QB Mieke Rowe with 26 seconds left. The reigning state leader in passing yards, passing touchdowns and total TDs, Rowe took the snap from midfield on first-and-15, rolled to her left and cut back center to avoid a tenacious rush from Alonso’s Julia Guillermo. She released a pinpoint pass in stride away from her body that sped through a defender’s arms for a completion to junior WR Carina Annunziata.
Unfortunately for Alonso, Spano played as big on defense as she did on offense and knocked down a pass to the end zone to end the half, protecting Robinson’s 6-0 lead.
Alonso started the second half with its best drive of the game, finally getting the ball into the hands of senior WR Eryn Klaus, the 2022 team MVP. After a long run up the center to put her team in the red zone, Klaus expertly sealed off her defender to notch Rowe’s first passing touchdown of the season, putting the Ravens on the board and tying the game at 6-all.
In the end, the consistent connection between Spano and Robinson proved to be the difference. With her length and speed, Robinson was unstoppable, cutting under when being backed and going deep when fronted.
But it was her senior teammate, Adriana Williams, who scored the decisive touchdown. On third-and-goal at the 1, Williams took a surprise short snap and laid out into the air, diving across the goal line and crossing the plane just before her flag was pulled.
After an impressive full-extension interception by Makenna Sturgis gave Alonso one final possession with about two and half minutes left in the game, a series of incompletions led to Rowe throwing an interception of her own.
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As Spano took a knee and watched the final seconds tick off, the team erupted into celebration, and the sophomore QB and her coach shared a moment of mutual elation — the kind that only comes from having brilliantly risen to the occasion.
“We had a conversation in the hotel lobby, and I just told her the next three years are going to be awesome for us. And there’s going to be some struggle,” Robinson coach Josh Saunders said about Spano. “We saw the awesome, which was the fourth down play for the touchdown, and then we saw the youth on the interception at the end of the game where you’ve got to take care of the ball.
“We’re going to work through all that, but man, we’re very, very excited.”
Regardless of the final score, both teams successfully showcased what the game of girls flag football is all about and why it continues to catch on throughout the country.
Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.