Girls Flag Football

The future of flag football is bright in Arizona thanks in large part to clubs like Gilbert’s Lady Ghosts club team and the creation of teams at all five high schools in the Chandler Unified School District.

Near the end of the 2021 school year, Sierra Kuhn walked out of class at Hamilton High School and saw a flyer outside of head coach Matt Stone’s classroom.

The flyer, headlined Girls Flag Football, led with three phrases: Full Season Sport, College Scholarships and No Experience Needed. The next day, Kuhn spoke with Stone and joined the program, excited to play football in high school and for an all-girls team.

Today, she is one of the Huskies’ leaders as the team prepares to enter a season critical to the future of girls flag football in Arizona high schools.

Starting in March, six teams from the Chandler Unified School District — Hamilton, Chandler, Basha, Arizona College Prep, Perry and Casteel — and Mountain Pointe High School in Ahwatukee will play the first organized schedule for girls flag football in Arizona high school history.

“I think it’s going to go really well,” Kuhn said. “It’s a really necessary sport to have at the high school level.”

With approval from athletic associations in states such as Alaska, Florida and Nevada, girls flag football is one of the fastest-growing high school sports in the country. Nike and the National Football League recently announced a $5 million initiative to expand girls flag football in high schools and the number of colleges offering scholarships for the sport is increasing.

As club teams and leagues are abundant in the Grand Canyon State, there is optimism that girls flag football can be the latest sport elevated to emerging sport status by the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

“I think they're going to work real hard at making this successful,” AIA Executive Director David Hines said. “And I think that they will. I think that people can see that there's a real interest, that kids want to be involved.”

Under emerging sport status, a sport has between one and five years to showcase growth in the number of participating schools and athletes. If it does, a conference — 6A in the case of Hamilton and a majority of Chandler schools, for example — can make a recommendation for championship status, the top level of AIA approval currently held by sports like football, basketball and soccer.

For Stone, a Special Education Teacher at Hamilton, this season has been years in the making. Involved with girls flag football since 2007, he helped organize the team at Desert Ridge High School, which played in the first inter-school flag football game in Arizona in 2012. He has also researched the sport’s growth nationwide and networked with coaches from across the country to help the sport be adopted in Arizona high schools.

Last year, one of his most important allies in this quest became CUSD Director of Secondary Athletics and Auxiliary Programs Shawn Rustad, who is friends with the coach of one of Alaska’s top girls flag football programs. Stone remembers Rustad telling him that her team had roughly 130 players and “if that can work in Alaska at that number, we can certainly build here.”

Even though the CUSD is the only district holding a girls flag football season this spring, its schedule is the longest for girls flag football in state high school history.

“When I told Shawn, ‘This is the work that I've been putting in for the past 15 years,’ he knew that I would not yield,” Stone said. “I was going to take on all the work on myself and I had the experience to do it in that I wouldn’t quit. If there was a Shawn Rustad in Gilbert that had that same faith and trust in me, I think Gilbert would do it.”

Flag football interest in Arizona is already high. According to Frank Moreno, the defensive coordinator of the Lady Ghosts Flag Football Club, more than 250 girls showed up for a football camp coordinated by the Arizona Cardinals and over 200 girls play in the Glendale Middle School League.

The CUSD’s decision may create even more popularity, as Moreno said that the Lady Ghosts’ practices moved from Peoria to Chandler because of the upcoming season.

The roster numbers are promising ahead of the spring, as Stone said Hamilton’s roster numbers roughly 20 and Perry sophomore Samantha Cocke estimated 15 for the Pumas. This follows the success of the Oct. 30 jamboree, in which five of the Chandler schools participating this spring played in six games at Hamilton.

For Mountain Pointe head coach Sergio Ramirez, who also runs an organization that handles leagues and tournaments called The Flag Game, he is confident about the future success of girls flag football in the Grand Canyon State.

“I foresee probably every school here in Arizona having a team at some point and being just as big as boys tackle football,” he said.

According to Steve Brody, the defensive coordinator for Hamilton and the Founder and Director of the Gilbert Youth Football League, expanding girls flag football to Arizona high schools is crucial since the sport grows quickly. Nevada’s participants went from 785 to more than 1,900 within four years and Florida has 320 schools playing a season this spring.

“If we don't do this now, we're going to be falling behind in the country,” Brody said. “It’s already at the college level and these girls have to have an opportunity to be able to compete at (the) college level. If they don't get experience in high school, they're going to fall behind.”

Brenna Ramirez, the first girl from Arizona to play flag football as a collegiate sport, believes that the sport’s approval by the AIA will allow girls to gain more exposure from colleges.

Meanwhile, Amaya Moreno — a 13-year-old quarterback playing on the Lady Ghosts’ 17-and-under roster — said that girls flag football in high schools will help players continue their passion on the next level.

Ramirez, a senior at Gilbert High School who recently signed with Keiser University in West Palm Beach, Fl. and will play with the 2022 U.S. Girls 17U Flag Football National Team this summer, thinks the upcoming season will demonstrate how popular the sport is in Arizona.

“It's going to be a fun experiment and just to see in Arizona how girls’ skills for flag football are set,” Ramirez, also a member of the Lady Ghosts, said. “A good amount are new (and) maybe haven't played before and so, they’re that stepping stone to building this program and seeing what happens in the coming years.”

The season will kick off on March 3, with the playoffs — containing the top four teams — planned for April 26 and the championship game set for April 29.

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