St. Francis Sharks wide receiver Maya Calfee (with ball) has her flag pulled by Watsonville High's Regina Senties (right) as fellow teammates Fatima Gonzales-Solis (28) and Monique De La Mora Rocha close in during the opening quarter of their flag football scrimmage at St. Francis High on Sept. 12. (Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian)

Girls’ flag football entered a new era on the high school level last week when Saint Francis High squared off with Watsonville High in the teams’ season and program debut.

Under cool gray skies, the Sharks charged onto Strawberry FIeld at St. Francis to take on the WIldcatz—minus the helmets, body pads and cleats—in a friendly scrimmage Sept. 12.

“We’re charged up and ready to go,” said Wildcatz’s head coach, Zachary Cook, moments before the coin toss. “There was a plethora of girls signing up to join our team — like 60. We had absolutely no problem filling out the roster. There’s a lot of enthusiasm out there for this sport.”

St. Francis receiver Maya Calfee said she felt the Sharks were a “pretty good team” going into their debut against the ‘Catz. 

“I’m a little nervous today,” she said moments before the opening whistle. “But I’m anxious to see how we do out there.”

In February, girls flag football was declared  an official California Interscholastic Federation sport. Schools within the Central Coast Section and around the Bay Area are making strides in accepting the game.

The contests consist of two 20-minute halves, with a running clock until the last two minutes of each half. The structure is intended to allow a game every hour, providing for the possibility of multiple games in a day, such as in a jamboree.

St. Francis and Watsonville will participate in a jamboree against Hollister, King City, Sacred Heart Cathedral and host Salinas all day on Saturday morning.

The 7-on-7 structure, with all offensive players eligible to catch a forward pass, shows a similarity to the action-packed offensive showcases in 8-man tackle football played at small high schools, including nearby Anzar High in San Juan Bautista.

Other key rules include the field length of 60 yards, with a width of 40 yards. There will be no screening or blocking and no leaping or spinning, in an effort to reduce the injury risk.

Earlier discussions with the leading Southern Section and within the CIF looked at putting the sport on the spring schedule. The fall season was chosen instead, as it was felt conflicts with popular spring sports such as lacrosse could hinder participation.

The CIF’s Southern Section approved the sport last Sept. 22 by a vote of 61-26, putting the proposal on the CIF state agenda in an October meeting. 

That led to a positive vote at a subsequent state council meeting this past February, followed by a rulebook that was written and distributed publicly the following month. 

Approval at the February meeting set the table for a Fall 2023 launch throughout California, with each section able to manage the sport with their own schools. 

Other states have also been progressing with girls flag football. 

A National Federation of State High School Associations survey last year showed 15,716 girls participating in prep flag football in 2021-22, an increase from 11,209 in 2018-19. At that time, there were 15 colleges offering the sport and that number is certain to grow fast.

Popular acceptance and a view of the on-field action in California came last spring. The NFL’s Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers, in partnership with USA Football and Nike, sponsored the Los Angeles League of Champions. Competitive high school girls flag football play (not under the CIF) took place and was successful.

“They’re excited today,” St. Francis coach John Ausman said. “They just got their uniforms today and I think they’re charged up and ready to go.”

In last week’s season-opener, St. Francis quickly set a tone of domination with swift passing plays—some 20-30 yards—and a strong rushing attack that left Catz defenders in the dust.  

St. Francis racked up three touchdowns early in the game and stayed ahead en route to their lopsided 36-6 win over Watsonville.

The WIldcatz, however, showed off their strong defensive skills with numerous stops behind the line of scrimmage. The offense attempted several brisk rushing plays that sent the ball slipping out of their control, while short lob passes worked strongly in their favor throughout the game.

On several occasions referees had to explain rules to coaches as each team settled into their new sport. There was no shortage of support and encouragement emanating from the stands.

“It’s really fun,” St. Francis center Mackenzie Ridgway said. “I used to play this in middle school so I was anxious to get back into it in high school.” 

*Additional reporting by Gordon Kass 

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Tarmo Hannula has been the lead photographer with The Pajaronian newspaper in Watsonville since 1997. More recently Good Times & Press Banner. He also reports on a wide range of topics, including police, fire, environment, schools, the arts and events. A fifth generation Californian, Tarmo was born in the Mother Lode of the Sierra (Columbia) and has lived in Santa Cruz County since the late 1970s. He earned a BA from UC Santa Cruz and has traveled to 33 countries.


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