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Homecoming tradition now a gridiron scramble

In two years, flag football has drawn more than 800 Hillsborough County girls each season.

By AMANDA PALLESCHI
Published May 4, 2007


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Michael Cooper has 30 giggling girls at attention with a quick snap and the point of an index finger.

"Linebackers, over here! Wishbone, red!" he barks.

Cooper is used to giving commands. For the past few months, though, the former Army captain and men's rugby coach has been trying them on a new audience: the East Bay High School girls' flag football team.

"Every guy thinks they are a future NFL star. Here, they play because they love the game, " he said.

Cooper's players scramble into position to scrimmage. The remaining girls on the sidelines practice throwing.

Others critique their teammates on the field, hands on their hips, pausing to gossip about the weekend's prom at one moment, strategizing about the weekend's big game the next.

In two years of state sanctioning, the sport has drawn more than 800 Hillsborough County girls each season. Competition wraps up with state finals this weekend.

The sport started as a way to increase the county's gender-equity quota under state and federal Title IX law, which requires Florida high schools to report the numbers of girls participating in athletics. If that number is not comparable to boys' participation numbers, schools can lose state money.

Flag football "helps schools stay competitive from a business standpoint, " said Jack Watford of the Florida High School Athletic Association.

Fall football rosters can draw more than 100 boys each year, making it difficult to generate equal girls' participation numbers, said Bob Hosack, former athletic director of Pinellas County schools.

Hosack, whose Pinellas County flag football program was the first to be recognized by the FHSAA in 2003, knew that Florida schools would have to get creative or face cutbacks in funding. His thoughts turned to a homecoming-weekend tradition.

"I knew there was an interest in powder-puff flag football because every school did it. You'd get 150 girls to show up to that."

Yet the idea of turning an annual homecoming tradition into a competitive sport didn't initially make much sense to Riverview High School athletic director Ron Wardlow.

"I was like, oh, it's just powder-puff stuff, " Wardlow said. "But this is really something. These girls play hard."

So hard, in fact, that the sport takes up more time than any other on the Riverview High School athletic trainer's schedule.

So hard that many interested girls can't hack it: Of the 93 girls who came out for flag football at East Bay this season, 38 remain on the roster.

So hard that it has attracted a following. Crowds of more than 100 people gather at East Bay home games, a size seldom seen outside of boy's football games, Cooper said.

The explanation for the crowd is simple, he said: "It's football, and it's girls."

Many girls are attracted by the idea of joining a girls' version of a boys' club.

East Bay sophomore Chelsea Westbrook first spent a lot of time observing. She went out for flag football with her cheerleading teammates.

Cheering from the sidelines wasn't enough to satisfy their enthusiasm for the game, she said. Now she's hooked.

Other girls are already top athletes who see the game as their next challenge, having tackled softball, basketball and volleyball.

"I was just pumped up to do it, " Riverview senior Michelle Trugillo said.

Trugillo and her twin sister, Marissa, juggle playing for Riverview's top-ranked flag football team with varsity track during the spring. During the fall and winter seasons, they are key contributors to Riverview's swimming, basketball and volleyball teams.

It's multisport athletes like the Trugillo twins that may be keeping other Florida schools from adding the sport.

It has caught on so quickly that some districts hesitate to add it because they fear it will rob a school's other teams of top players, Watford said.

There are no scholarships yet for girls flag football, but Cooper said his team works as hard as boys vying for full rides to top college programs.

"When we lose, coach makes us run until we die, " said Adrienne Harrow, a senior who plays center for East Bay. "I love it."

Amanda Palleschi can be reached at apalleschi@sptimes.com or 813 661-2456.

[Last modified May 3, 2007, 07:06:30]


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