Flag pull: High school girls flag football grows in popularity

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

May 1, 2024

Flag Day is still a little more than a month away in this country. But for a number of high school girls around Western Pennsylvania, they have “flag day” every Sunday this spring.

We’re talking about high school football here but not the kind on fall Friday nights with helmets, shoulder pads — and boys. This is Western Pennsylvania football — on Sundays in April and May. With flags. With girls. With the reality that this sport has taken off in popularity.

Girls flag football is the fastest-growing sport for high school girls in the country, and there doesn’t appear to be any waving of the white flag to this sport’s growth. With backing from the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL, the sport’s popularity has increased dramatically in the past two years in the U.S., including Western Pennsylvania and across the state. In fact, it is very likely that girls flag football will become a PIAA- and WPIAL-sanctioned sport within the next year.

The number of high schools in Western Pennsylvania now fielding girls flag teams says all you need to know about how the sport has fallen into favor with girls. Two years ago, the Steelers started a league for district schools and it had six teams. The league is now called the High School Girls Flag Football League — and has 36 teams this season.

The league has teams from a wide range of schools. Big schools have teams, including North Allegheny, Seneca Valley and Mt. Lebanon. North Allegheny and Seneca Valley actually have two teams in the league. Small schools have teams, including Clairton, Aliquippa, Sto-Rox and Jeannette. Four teams are from City League schools — Brashear, Carrick, Obama Academy and Westinghouse. A few Catholic schools are in the league, as well as three schools that don’t have boys football — Oakland Catholic, Ellis and Propel-Braddock Hills. Games are played every Sunday at central locations. The games are seven on seven, and teams usually play two games each Sunday. Games are played width-wise on the field, and two games are usually played at once.

The league will culminate in a championship tournament at Carnegie Mellon on May 19.

According to a recent report by the National Federation of State High School Associations, nine state associations have sanctioned girls flag football (Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Nevada, Alaska, New York, Arizona, Illinois and California). Montana and Colorado are expected to sanction it this year, and 17 other states have some sort of pilot program. That means half of the country might soon sanction the sport for high schools.

The National Federation also said that in 2023, about 500,000 girls — ages 6-17 — played flag football, an increase of 63% since 2019. Additionally, some colleges are starting to sponsor the sport and will offer some scholarship money. And flag football will be an Olympic sport for men and women at the 2028 Olympics.

The PIAA board of directors will vote this summer on whether to sanction girls flag football, as it did with girls wrestling for the 2023-24 school year. The first PIAA championships for girls wrestling were held in March.

The PIAA requires 100 schools in the state to field teams in a sport before the organization will consider sanctioning it. PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi said there are now 103 Pennsylvania schools fielding girls teams and 2,274 girls are participating. Many of the teams are from the Philadelphia area.

“I think it’s going to continue to explode,” Lombardi said.

Who’s playing?

In Western Pennsylvania, girls have been playing in youth flag football leagues for many years. The Pittsburgh Flag Football League is popular for boys and girls, but there was never a high school league for girls until two years ago. The Steelers youth football department started the league with six teams. Mike Marchinsky is the Steelers senior manager of alumni relations and youth football and is the director of the High School Girls Flag Football League.

Joe Lofton and Kevin Ackerman of the Steelers football development staff have also been instrumental in getting the league going, along with the Pittsburgh Flag Football League. Nike donated uniforms to all new teams for the first two years, but the Steelers started supplying uniforms for any new teams this year.

“The growth shows that football is engrained in Western Pennsylvania, and it doesn’t matter if it’s male or female,” Marchinsky said. “I think what makes it exciting for these girls now is they represent their school. Before, they might have been playing in youth leagues with kids from anywhere on their team or maybe a powderpuff game at their school. But they weren’t representing their school against other schools. Now, these girls are playing against other schools that they might have school rivalries with.”

The girls league has attracted various types of athletes. Some do not play another sport. Some are standouts in another sport. Some are even playing another sport in the spring.

Mallory Daly is a senior who has a Division I basketball scholarship to the University of Buffalo but is the quarterback for Seton LaSalle’s team.

Serayah Leech is a standout goalkeeper in girls soccer who helped Moon win three consecutive state championships. She made the Post-Gazette 10-player All-Area team in 2023 and is an IUP soccer recruit. She also has been touted as one of the top players in the girls flag football league.

Leech started playing flag football when she was younger, and her stepfather, Jason Russell, who played at Woodland Hills and the University of Cincinnati, is Moon’s flag football coach.

“Honestly, flag football has helped me so much in soccer,” the 5-foot-10 Leech said. “It’s helped me be more confident and aggressive in the [soccer] box because you have to be aggressive in flag football.

“I never thought girls flag football would get this popular. The fact that colleges are now starting to give scholarships for it is outstanding. It’s just nice to see that girls will have an opportunity to go further with this sport after high school if they want.”

Who’s coaching?

The district girls league has a wide array of coaches, men and women. Richard Johnson is Bishop Canevin’s head football coach for boys, but he also is the girls flag football coach for the Crusaders’ first-year team.

“My first coaching job was coaching youth flag football eight or nine years ago,” Johnson said. “I’m enjoying every second of coaching the girls. I’m known as a fierce competitor on the sideline, but I can honestly say coaching these young females helps me in coaching the boys because I think it has calmed me down as a coach.”

Johnson is impressed by some of the girls players, especially Leech.

“Some of the catches that young lady makes, I feel like she could put the pads on and play receiver against the boys,” Johnson said. “She could be impressive on Friday nights.”

Sharon Vasquez is in her second year as Woodland Hills’ coach and she is a former player for the Pittsburgh Passion women’s tackle football team. She also used to play for the U.S. national team for women’s tackle and flag football.

Vasquez’s daughter, Carmen, is a Woodland Hills senior who will play basketball at Salem University (W.Va.). But she also is a talented flag football player.

“Flag football allows girls to get into the game of football and with their parents feeling safer about their daughters playing,” Sharon Vasquez said. “Girls have been playing tackle football in youth leagues. But in middle school and high school, girls start to size out and it becomes more of a physical game and it kind of weeds out the girls from participating. Having flag football now gives girls an avenue for football but in a safer way.”

The teams

Here are the 36 teams from Western Pennsylvania in the High School Girls Flag Football League. (Listed are their divisions and records so far this season.):

Central Division: Brashear (5-1), Westinghouse (4-2), Ellis (3-3), Oakland Catholic (3-3), Obama (3-3), Carrick (0-6).

East: Gateway (6-0), Woodland Hills (5-1), Penn Hills (4-2), McKeesport (3-3), Greensburg Salem (3-3), Plum (2-4), Propel-Braddock Hills (1-5), Jeannette (0-6).

West: Moon (6-0), Aliquippa (4-2), Sto-Rox (3-3), Ambridge (3-3), Bishop Canevin (3-3), Seton LaSalle (2-4), Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (2-4).

North: Shaler (5-0-1), North Catholic (4-2), North Allegheny (4-1-1), Seneca Valley (3-3), North Allegheny 2 (3-2-1), Hampton (2-4), North Hills (1-4-1), Seneca Valley 2 (0-6).

South: Clairton (5-1), Upper St. Clair (4-0), Uniontown (3-3), Belle Vernon (3-3), Bethel Park (3-3), South Fayette (2-4), South Park (2-0), Mt Lebanon (2-4), South Allegheny (0-6).

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