Lincoln boasts first title since reopening with win in girls flag football — ‘the next big’ sport

The Seattle Times

February 13, 2023

For a month this winter, between Jan. 7 and Feb. 4, you could see some intense and artful football games being waged at Memorial Stadium, the venerable field tucked into the northeast corner of Seattle Center.

No surprise there. Memorial Stadium has hosted all variety of football for time immemorial, or so it seems. What made these games notable is that these were high-school girls playing flag football — the ground-level participants in one of the fastest growing sports in the country.

Nine Metro League teams took part in girls flag football this season, and last Saturday Lincoln High School earned the championship with a hard-fought 32-18 win over Eastside Catholic. While it is not an officially sanctioned Washington Interscholastic Activities Association sport — yet — the victory still caused elation for the Lincoln girls. It was their first Metro title in any athletic endeavor since the school re-opened in 2019 after being closed down in 1981. The Lincoln seniors, who comprised the bulk of the team, had endured the growing pains of re-establishing athletic programs, so the trophy they received touched their heartstrings. The Lynx went 9-1, most of them blowouts, with the lone loss in the regular season to Eastside Catholic avenged in the title game.

“For the past four years, we had to deal with losing, obviously,” said Zoe Bowles, a four-year starter on Lincoln’s volleyball team and middle linebacker for the Lynx’s flag football team. “We started as just freshmen and sophomores, and we were going up against senior, DI athletes. Freshman year, we won two games, and then coming into our senior year, we still experienced a lot of losses, especially against private schools. So to come to a team that had only one loss was definitely really exciting. And really fun.”

The appeal of girls flag football — one of many, in fact — is that there is no contact allowed. It’s 7-on-7, so it becomes a wide-open game in which speed, agility, misdirection and creativity are paramount. It’s played from sideline to sideline of a regulation field — 53 yards — with two or even three games able to be played simultaneously side by side. Teams field a quarterback, running back, center and four receivers on offense, and everyone is eligible — including the quarterback after a handoff. No blocking is allowed, and when the word “tackle” is used, it refers to the pulling of a flag to end the play.

The Metro League tiptoed into the sport last year with four teams (Chief Sealth, Ingraham, Nathan Hale and Rainier Beach) playing a condensed schedule. With the help of a $250,000 grant from the Seahawks to fund girls flag programs across the state for the next five years, and $100,000 in product donations from Nike, the rest of the Metro jumped in this year. The other hotbed for girls flag football is in Tacoma, and there’s been some talk of arranging a bragging-rights game between Lincoln and the Tacoma champion.

The quality of play throughout the league is wide-ranging, but Lincoln coach Don Biszek says that at the upper levels, it’s exceptional. Especially considering that when he asked at the first meeting how many girls had played organized football, only one out of 30 raised her hand. And she wasn’t among the 20 who wound up playing.

“We had some of the best female athletes I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Just ridiculous speed. You’d see both teams throwing passes all over the field, girls pulling flags with girls sprinting full speed, diving and grabbing a flag as they ran by. And this was all of these girls’ first time playing. It’s only going to go up from here.”

Lincoln’s quarterback was Maddie Rivera, who had little organized athletic experience but was president of the chess club. Biszek raved about her calm demeanor under pressure and said she threw “dozens” of touchdown passes, though no official statistics were kept. He likened running back Hansa Saetia, their offensive MVP, to Saquon Barkley with her jump-cuts, spins and jukes. And Lincoln’s standout two-way player was Clemence Rossier, a Swiss exchange student who not only had never played football before, had never touched one. She wound up winning the “best hands” award for her numerous receptions and interceptions and plans to take a football home with her when she returns to Switzerland. One play that became legendary was a touchdown she scored on fourth-and-20 after catching the ball right out of the hands of a defender.

Like many of Lincoln’s players, Rossier joined the team out of a mixture of curiosity and wanting to be with friends.

“I thought it sounded like fun,” she said.

The learning curve was steep but adroitly executed by the players, many of whom came with volleyball and soccer backgrounds.

“All of us came in not knowing the rules at all,” Saetia said. “Don had to start with the basics. And the first practice, I think most of us didn’t really understand. We just went with it, and then we got the hang of it.”

Flag football for girls is exploding around the country, with the expressed financial support of the NFL, which knows the potential to expand a fan base when it sees it. Just last week, California and New York became the latest of a growing number of states to make girls flag football a sanctioned high-school sport. In 2010, there were 6,235 girls playing high-school flag football. According to the latest survey by the National Federation of High Schools, that number grew to 15,716 in 2021-22.

There are also 18 NAIA schools in 10 states playing women’s flag football this season, according to the Los Angeles Times, as well as a handful at the National Junior College Athletic Association level. There is a movement to add flag football to the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. Many people see flag football as a golden opportunity to even out the number of boys and girls playing high-school sports. Largely because of football, there are currently a million more boys than girls nationwide who play high-school sports, according to the latest NFHS survey.

Casey Johnson, director of information for the WIAA, said he has heard informal talk of a movement to make girls flag football a sanctioned sport in the state, but added that nothing concrete is in the works at this time. A sport becomes sanctioned by the WIAA either by a 60 percent vote of the Representative Assembly, or by becoming a trial sport for two years, which requires 20 percent of schools in the state (roughly 80) to offer the sport. After two years, there would have to be 40 percent of the schools in the state — 160 — offering the sport for it to become sanctioned.

It seems likely the attempt will eventually be made, even though currently there aren’t many schools outside Seattle and Tacoma playing girls flag. The growth of this sport around the country is not a mirage.

“It’s definitely the next big thing,” Biszek said. “I think a lot of people when they hear flag football picture a bunch of little kids with flags on just running around carrying a football and pulling flags. If you saw our championship game against Eastside, these girls were laying it out there. A lot of people were in shock that this is just as competitive as any sport. It may be even more competitive.”

And it could well be coming to a school near you.

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