Football

CIF gives girls flag football the green light. What does that mean for Bay Area high schools?

For more than 100 years, high school football in California has been played almost exclusively by boys. Starting as early as next school year, girls will have their own version of the sport to play.

Girls flag football was officially sanctioned as a California high school sport on Friday, crossing the goal line when the state’s athletic governing body approved the proposal by a vote of 146-0.

Rather than join the tackle football team — usually as a kicker — girls will now have the option to play in their own high school program. Flag football players don’t wear pads or helmets, and there is no tackling and limited contact. Pulling a flag attached to a ball carrier’s waist means the play is over.

For Bay Area parents such as Jason Klein, the California Interscholastic Federation’s unanimous vote couldn’t have come at a better time. Klein coaches his daughter’s middle school flag team in San Mateo County.

Elsa Morin, 17, center right, leads a chant as Redondo Union High School girls try out for a flag football team on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, in Redondo Beach, Calif. Girls flag football officially became a sanctioned California high school sport on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, after the state's athletic governing body approved the proposal by a vote of 146-0. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, File )Elsa Morin, 17, center right, leads a chant as Redondo Union High School girls try out for a flag football team on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, in Redondo Beach, Calif. Girls flag football officially became a sanctioned California high school sport on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, after the state’s athletic governing body approved the proposal by a vote of 146-0. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, File ) 

“It’s the national pastime,” Klein said about the sport he fell in love with growing up in western Pennsylvania. “We shouldn’t deny our daughters from that.”

Club flag football has been offered at youth levels for years but mainly as a co-ed sport. Sommer McCann’s daughter, Billie, began playing in kindergarten for the Next Level program founded by Serra High football coach Patrick Walsh.

Two years ago, Billie “retired” from the co-ed league while in fifth grade to concentrate on club soccer. Thursday, she told her mother that she will unretire if flag football is offered when she reaches San Mateo’s Hillsdale High.

“She just loved it,” McCann said. “Each year she’d say she was going to retire, and then she’d come out of retirement. It was hard because she was pretty much the only girl out of hundreds of boys on the field. She’d get nervous about starting each year.

“Then when she’d get out there, she’d have so much fun. She loved the competition. She was always one of the best on the team. She loved playing safety. She would play in the back, and with her soccer skills — she plays defense in soccer — no one could get by her. She would pull their flag and politely hand it back.”

Sa'Mir Braccey, 17, throws a pass as she tries out for the Redondo Union High School girls flag football team on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, in Redondo Beach, Calif. Girls flag football officially became a sanctioned California high school sport on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, after the state's athletic governing body approved the proposal by a vote of 146-0. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, File )Sa’Mir Braccey, 17, throws a pass as she tries out for the Redondo Union High School girls flag football team on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, in Redondo Beach, Calif. Girls flag football officially became a sanctioned California high school sport on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, after the state’s athletic governing body approved the proposal by a vote of 146-0. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, File ) 

While the news Friday is certainly a positive step for aspiring players, don’t expect many sign-up sheets just yet at Bay Area schools.

Though administrators say athletic programs could offer the sport next school year, there are infrastructure hurdles to clear to make that a reality — namely the availability of fields, coaches and game officials, as well as student interest and when the sport will fit on the calendar.

The CIF approved girls flag football as a fall sport, completing a process that began when the Southern Section presented the proposal last year.

Sections are not mandated to play the sport in the fall, administrators say. But if they don’t, their teams would not be eligible for regional and state championships if the CIF adds them for flag football.

At this point, it remains unclear who’s in.

The North Coast Section, which extends from the East Bay to the coastal side of the Oregon border, has a clear path for its schools to start right away because many of its members do not offer an outdoor sport for girls in the fall that requires a football-sized field.

NCS commissioner Pat Cruickshank said this week that there is quite a bit of interest in his section, noting that schools have called his office asking about it.

“It feels like this is going to go and probably pretty quickly,” he said. “I won’t even begin to predict how many teams. But I would think we could have a significant amount of teams in the first year to get started, and I think it would just go from there. There’s an excitement about it that I don’t think I have seen with any other new sport.”

There is interest in the neighboring Central Coast Section, too, but also more challenges.

About three dozen of its schools, including many from the section’s most successful athletic programs, offer field hockey for girls in the fall.

“I don’t have a very good feel right now on who would or wouldn’t offer the sport,” said CCS commissioner Dave Grissom, who presides over an area stretching from King City to San Francisco. “But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t offer it.”

If flag football were added to the fall season, it would create scheduling obstacles — not just for games but for practice — and could affect field hockey rosters as girls take up the new sport.

If flag football was played in the winter, it would compete with girls and boys soccer for field availability. In the spring, track and lacrosse teams use the fields.

“A lot of our schools’ biggest issues were when they’re going to do it,” said Bill Murray, commissioner of the South Bay’s Blossom Valley Athletic League, a 26-school league in the CCS. “No matter where you put it, there will be issues. But I think overall everyone thinks it’s a good idea, and eventually it will start popping up. The logistics are what everyone has to figure out.”

Since Billie McCann’s retirement, Next Level has added a flag football league specifically for girls, broken into divisions by age group. More than 100 players signed up last fall, said Klein, who brought the idea about a girls league to Walsh so that Klein’s daughter, Zoya, would feel comfortable playing in middle school.

Now, programs such as Next Level could become de-facto feeder teams to high schools. The girls league has three divisions and plays its games on Saturdays at Aragon High in San Mateo.

“I coach a lot of different sports. It’s just the most fun — I am biased — but the girls love it,” Klein said. “It’s a ton of fun. It’s just a great game.”

Elsa Morin, 17, right, holds up a flag she pulled from Aaliyah Young, 17, left, as they try out for the Redondo Union High School girls flag football team on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, in Redondo Beach, Calif. Girls flag football officially became a sanctioned California high school sport on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, after the state's athletic governing body approved the proposal by a vote of 146-0. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, File )Elsa Morin, 17, right, holds up a flag she pulled from Aaliyah Young, 17, left, as they try out for the Redondo Union High School girls flag football team on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022, in Redondo Beach, Calif. Girls flag football officially became a sanctioned California high school sport on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, after the state’s athletic governing body approved the proposal by a vote of 146-0. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, File ) 

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