February 22, 2024
Interest in flag football is surging; 44 teams throughout the San Diego Section plan to play this fall.

By John Maffei | The San Diego Union-Tribune

The CIF-San Diego Section added girls flag football as a fall sport in April.

At one school, interest was immediate.

“We sent out an information form to our students and we were hoping maybe 20 would show some interest,” Our Lady of Peace Athletic Director Kevin Soares said. “But we got 40-plus returns, so the response has been great.”

Now the Pilots are starting from scratch. An all-girls Catholic high school located in Normal Heights, OLP has no history of tackle football. The Pilots have no fields to play on, either. They’ve been practicing at local elementary schools — Tuesday’s workout was at St. Therese Academy, 20 minutes away from their campus — and plan to play all their games on the road.

Still, there’s no denying the passion for the non-contact, 7-on-7 sport. OLP plans to field both varsity and JV teams this season.

“We look at this as a great opportunity for our young ladies,” Soares said.

San Diego, CA – August 15: Our Lady of Peace flag football head coach Maurice Douglas and Hannah Abbuna celebrate during practice at St. Therese Academy on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023 in San Diego, CA. Our Lady of Peace will play its first-ever season of football this year. (Meg McLaughlin / The San Diego Union-Tribune) 

All-in in Year 1

OLP is one of 44 schools that will play flag football this season. That includes 17 schools in the City Conference, seven in the North County, 14 in three leagues in the South Bay and six in the desert.

OLP isn’t the only non-football-playing school to suit up for the girls flag season. San Dieguito Academy dropped tackle football in 1995 after 59 years; Canyon Crest Academy doesn’t field a boys football team, either.

Field space isn’t a problem at SDA and CCA. Both schools have large and functional stadiums.

All about girls flag football

The rules• All games are 7-on-7• Games are made up of two 20-minute halves. The clock runs until the last 2 minutes of each half• Halftimes are 5 minutes• Fields are generally 40 yards wide and 80 yards longThe costs• Each team will pay an estimated $5,000 for flags, balls and uniformsWho’s playing?• This year, 44 San Diego-area teams will field girls flag football teams.

At San Diego High, Syd Reed — the head boys tackle football coach — is also in charge of the girls program. The girls flag football team will practice from 4 p.m.-5:30 p.m. daily, with the two-hour boys tackle football practices starting at 5 p.m.

The teams will share the field for a half hour.

“I have great assistant coaches, so I can spread the load,” Reed said. “I know I can delegate tasks, and they’ll get done.

“There is a mutual respect on our campus among the boys and girls. The boys are out there cheering the girls, giving them pointers.

“It’s a school-pride thing.”

San Diego, CA – August 15: Our Lady of Peace players work through drills during practice at St. Therese Academy on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023 in San Diego, CA. Our Lady of Peace will play its first-ever season of football this year. (Meg McLaughlin / The San Diego Union-Tribune) 

San Diego High benefits from being a part of the San Diego Unified School District, which offers flag football to middle-school girls. It should serve as a built-in feeder program for the high schools that play.

“We want the girls to have the same experience as the boys,” Reed said. “We have a number of girls who have a good grasp of the game. And we have one girl who can throw a football 25-30 yards.

“We think this can be a great learning experience for the girls. We want them to take pride in ownership. We want them to be proud to be a Caver.”

At Madison, boys basketball coach Mike Stutz will coach girls flag football.

“I wanted to help get this sport up and running,” said Stutz, the league rep for the City Conference. “We have about 22 girls playing.

“We’re not a big school (about 840 students), so our athletes are spread kind of thin. … I can see this sport growing. They play it professionally in Spain. And it will get added as a college sport sooner rather than later.”

Currently, 15 colleges — all NAIA institutions — offer women’s flag football. La Sierra University in Riverside is the only California school that plays.

San Diego, CA – August 15: Our Lady of Peace flag football players celebrate during practice at St. Therese Academy on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023 in San Diego, CA. Our Lady of Peace will play its first-ever season of football this year. (Meg McLaughlin / The San Diego Union-Tribune) 

Early challenges

The launch of girls flag football in San Diego hasn’t been all smooth sailing.

Originally, around 75 schools expressed interest. That shrank to 55, and now 44. Most teams will play their first games Aug. 29, later than initially planned.

“There have been some bumps in the road, but the fact is that we have a good, solid group of schools that jumped in this first season,” said CIF-San Diego Section Commissioner Joe Heinz.

San Diego, CA – August 15: Our Lady of Peace senior Bella Loiselle passes during practice at St. Therese Academy on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023 in San Diego, CA. Our Lady of Peace will play its first-ever season of football this year. (Meg McLaughlin / The San Diego Union-Tribune) 

“And we’re very happy with that. There are a lot of schools waiting for a year to see how it goes. So we could see a large influx of teams next season. We still need to figure out a playoff system, and the minimum number of games teams must play to qualify for the playoffs. But we’re ready to launch, and that’s good.”

Soares admits there’s “a huge learning curve for everyone involved” at OLP.

“We didn’t want to cut anyone, so we figured if the girls were interested, we’d field two teams,” he said. “Academics are a big thing at our school, so the girls realize the stress and challenges of balancing the books and athletics. But they want to play.”

Soares compares the start of girls flag football to the launch of girls beach volleyball three years ago.

“When beach volleyball started, we didn’t make cuts at our school,” Soares said. “Last year, we had to cut 15 girls. That’s how fast it grew and how popular it has become.

“And girls flag is way ahead of where beach volleyball started.”

San Diego, CA – August 15: Our Lady of Peace players laugh with one another during practice at St. Therese Academy on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023 in San Diego, CA. Our Lady of Peace will play its first-ever season of football this year. (Meg McLaughlin / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego, CA – August 15: Our Lady of Peace players work through drills during practice at St. Therese Academy on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023 in San Diego, CA. Our Lady of Peace will play its first-ever season of football this year. (Meg McLaughlin / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego, CA – August 15: San Diego, CA – August 15: Our Lady of Peace flag football head coach Maurice Douglas, far left, and team huddle up after practice at St. Therese Academy on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023 in San Diego, CA. Our Lady of Peace will play its first-ever season of football this year. (Meg McLaughlin / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

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