HOLMDEL – This coming Saturday, Shore Regional senior Madison LaRosa will try to close out her athletic career by medaling in the javelin during the NJSIAA Track & Field Meet of Champions. But before that, she and her teammates had some revenge to exact and history to make on the gridiron.
LaRosa tossed five touchdown passes, two to Anna Papageorge, while the Blue Devils’ defense smothered a previously undefeated Holmdel team to lead the way in a 33-0 victory on Wednesday night at Bob Roggy Memorial Field that gave Shore the inaugural championship of the Shore Conference girls flag football league. Julian Schussler, Cassie DeSantis and Rylee Drahos also caught touchdown passes and LaRosa added an interception (worth two points) on defense as the Blue Devils avenged their only loss of the season to take home the title.
“This has been an amazing ride,” LaRosa said. “We’re so happy we got this opportunity to show how athletic we are and actually play football. It’s amazing the bond we made.”
The two teams met during the regular season with Holmdel winning by a touchdown to hand the Blue Devils their only defeat. Shore was eyeing a rematch ever since.
“That was a tough loss and we beat ourselves more than they beat us,” LaRosa said. “This time we came out on fire and we were like ‘that’s not happening this time. We’re going to beat them when it matters’.”
“We were fired up,” said Shore head coach Marc Costantino, a Shore Football Coaches Association Hall of Famer who has led the Blue Devils’ football program to four NJSIAA sectional titles during his 29-year tenure. “We wanted to them but I told them not to look past Middletown North. We’ve been working on Holmdel for a month.”
Shore defeated Middletown North, 27-12, in the semifinals while Holmdel (7-1) scored a 29-12 victory over Pinelands in its semifinal game.
Shore finished the season with the championship trophy plus the No. 1 scoring offense (31.9 points per game) and the No. 1 scoring defense (8.4 points per game). Holmdel was averaging 29.3 points per game entering the championship game.
The Start of Something Special
The site of an energetic crowd on a picturesque Wednesday night at Holmdel High School cheering on four girls flag football teams competing for a conference championship was years in the making for Steve Antonucci.
The inaugural Shore Conference girls flag football playoffs marked the culmination of efforts throughout the Shore coupled with help from the likes of Nike and the New York Giants, but at the same time, it’s just the beginning for a sport that organizers are confident will explode in the years to come.
“I knew this was going to happen because this was the intention,” said Antonucci, the Hall of Fame head coach at Middletown South who has led the Eagles to six NJSIAA sectional titles and five undefeated seasons during his 23 years at the helm. “There’s been so much buzz around the Shore Conference about this and everywhere I go I get compliments about the girls and the competitiveness. We’re already excited about next year and we probably have eight to 10 more teams ready to join. This thing is going to take off.”
Two years ago, Antonucci began working with Jen Welter, who became the first female coach in NFL history when she was an assistant for the Arizona Cardinals in 2015, on starting a Shore Conference flag football league for girls. Welter has helped multiple areas around the country pilot girls flag football leagues. Once the framework was in place he reached out to New York Giants Director of Community Relations and Youth Football Ethan Medley to see if they wanted to be involved, Nike got on board to provide uniforms and the process began to find teams, coaches, and players.
Nike and the New York Jets teamed up to create a similar league in North Jersey, which played its championship game last week at MetLife Stadium.
This inaugural season had eight teams: Shore, Holmdel, Pinelands, Middletown North, Middletown South, a combined Middletown team, Mater Dei, and Matawan. Antonucci said Brick Township, Brick Memorial, Jackson Memorial, Jackson Liberty, Central Regional, Southern Regional, Wall, and Manasquan have all expressed serious interest in forming teams for next season.
The three games played on Wednesday night were fun, fast-paced, and full of wow moments. From jukes and spins to avoid flag pulls, to leaping catches and pinpoint throws, it was an impressive showcase considering most of the players had little to no football knowledge two months ago.
“Our first practice, no one knew what a route was,” LaRosa said. “We couldn’t tell you what’s a slant or what’s a flood.”
“It’s been amazing,” said Pinelands head coach John Tierney. “Our first practice on a soccer field I told a girl, “you’re a SAM (strong-side linebacker)’ and she said, ‘no, I’m Molly’. It was comical. Then yesterday at practice the girls are calling out coverages and option routes and they’re watching film on Hudl.”
“I call them sponges,” Antonucci said. “You coach for as long as we’ve been coaching and then you get a new group of girls who don’t really know much and all they want to do is learn. You’re building a foundation and you see the smiles come to their faces when it starts to click, the little things we take for granted.”
Many of the athletes who decided to play flag football this season are athletes in other sports, like LaRosa, Holmdel four-sport senior standout Lindsay Cannon, Pinelands sophomore volleyball, and track & field athlete Molly Quigley-Sanborn, and countless others. For them, it was a quick decision to join the team.
“I was stoked but also a little nervous because I was going to have conflicting practices,” said Quigley-Sanborn, who had to juggle the volleyball season, which was moved from the fall to the newly-created Season 3 (March 1-April 24) because of COVID-19, plus track and field and flag football this spring. “I’ve always like flag and I played it in sixth grade and elementary school. And I have to be honest, I’m a little bit of an aggressive person so being out on the field is where I’m supposed to be.”
Others needed some convincing.
“At first, I thought nobody was going to do it and I was not really interested,” said Pinelands sophomore Zinnia Moon, who plays soccer in the fall but is known more as an accomplished musician on the ukulele and guitar. “Then a bunch of my friends joined and I saw a bunch of videos and thought it would be fun. I decided to join and it was probably the best decision I’ve made.”
With the league and nearly all of the players starting from the ground up, experienced coaching was a must. The Shore Conference has that in droves thanks to its 43-team football conference, which includes many of the best programs in New Jersey with several of the best coaches. Between Antonucci, Costantino, Tierney, Middletown North’s Steve Bush, plus Middletown’s Marc Tomo they have well over 100 collective years of coaching experience.
“I ran it like I would my varsity practices,” Costantino said. “We worked on flag pulling, basic routes, catching the ball and we just kept building every week. It took us a few weeks but we were having fun every day in practice. They know I’m a little crazy and they were great young ladies; so funny, always busting my chops and we laughed the whole time.”
“I’ve coached for 50 seasons (across multiple sports) and this was my first with girls and it was absolutely phenomenal,” Tierney said. “It’s been great to watch them grow. They’re my family now, my 27 daughters. We only had one senior and one junior with 18 sophomores and five freshmen so I’m excited about what we have coming back next year.”
“It’s been tremendous to see how the girls have responded to it,” Antonucci said. “These two teams playing for the championship, they’re special, but all our girls, it seemed like every week everyone got better. I’m so proud of what’s going on here.”
They will always remember that first practice, green as ever and wondering if this was really going to work, to the transformation they were able to make in just two months. For players like LaRosa and Cannon, their senior year had an experience they’ll never forget. For the underclassmen, it’s just the beginning.
“That first practice, it was bad,” Moon said. “Nobody knew anything. It was funny and a bit of a joke to everybody. But as the practices went on and after our first game when we lost to Shore, we came together and said, ‘We have to get our heads in the game, this is for real’. “I’m proud of all the girls for stepping up and taking on the responsibility of learning a new sport.”
“I really didn’t think we were going to make it to where we are today,” Quigley-Sanborn said. “Starting that first practice we didn’t even know what a SAM or WILL was, but Tierney coached us so well to be awesome players on and off the field.”
‘I’ve loved football since I was little playing at the beach, but there was never an opportunity to play,” LaRosa said. “This was amazing for me to do in my senior year. I hope it becomes a varsity sport.”
If Year 1 was any indication, that time will come sooner than later.
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Shore Conference Girls Flag Football Championship Game
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