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Aptos Girls Flag Football Champs! — Times Publishing Group, Inc. - FlagSpin

Aptos Girls Flag Football Champs! — Times Publishing Group, Inc.

By Denise Russo

The Aptos High School Girls Varsity Flag Football team bravely did a hard thing on Oct. 28 by becoming the undefeated SCCAL league and tournament champions in the inaugural high school season for the sport.

This first-ever Mariners team believed in themselves and posted a “Team 1” season record of 11-2. The players and all-female coaching staff became a part of Mariner history, or as the team would say, “making herstory.”

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When the California Interscholastic Federation unanimously voted in the spring to make Girls Flag Football a varsity high school sport, Aptos High School’s athletic director, Travis Fox, didn’t have far to look for a coach.

I had coached Aptos Junior High School flag football since its inception over a decade ago. I was also very connected to AHS: In addition to being a mother of three Mariner alumni athletes, my husband is a part of the AHS tackle football coaching staff, and I am a photographer for the school, capturing countless athletic and performing art events.

The transition to AHS varsity flag football coach seemed an exciting challenge to accept.

And excitement there was. More than 70 athletes responded to a spring survey about interest in flag football. Between summer training and tryouts, 46 athletes stepped onto the gridiron. Several were past AJHS players whose time playing football was interrupted by COVID. They were grateful to have a chance to play the sport again.

According to Siena Black, a junior whose season was cut short in her 7th grade year at AJHS, “Football gave me an outlet to just be. Not care about school or drama but just have fun and live in the moment. Junior year and high school in general is really stressful, so having that fun and supporting space was life-saving.”

Since many had conflicts with club teams and other simultaneous sports, attrition occurred, and by the end of October, 28 players had completed the inaugural flag football season.

Flag Football Times Publishing Group Inc

Team bonding began in the summer with running drills, pool time, Hunger Games, Barbie night, beach play, and “breaking bread and beading” movie nights. New players were added to group chats and integrated in a way where it became hard to distinguish at which point anyone joined the team.

I realized we were bringing together a group of athletes from different sports and in different class levels who would need to have chemistry together if they were going to succeed as a team.

Success for this team was measured not just by wins but by creating a united team to participate in a sport now available to high school girls.

In addition to coaching athletes, I am a professor at Cabrillo College. My research and teaching methods prioritize equitable teaching practices that support diversity, equity, and inclusion, particularly for students in STEM.

For me, coaching girls flag football was an extension of this. #makingherstory became the catchphrase as these athletes caught footballs and made “tackles” (pulling flags) on a gridiron, an activity in competitive sports primarily available to men. While differences exist between tackle and flag football, similarities include running routes to advance the ball, playing to the down marker, and “tackling” to stop the opponent. Through this high school experience, these players became included in a language and strategy of playing a sport previously unfamiliar to most women.

The Mariner teammates embraced the challenge of learning the nuances of a new sport. Practices were five days/week, with games most Saturdays. Athletes juggled multiple sports, homework, and demanding AP classes with the rigor of learning plays and new positions.

Team Captain Izzy Graff even made a Kahoot for her teammates to learn routes. Players also helped each other through challenging times. Before the first day of school, the juniors and seniors calmed the freshmen’s nerves by telling them how to navigate a big campus and took them on tours to find their classes.

As Nina Duke, a senior, said, “This was my first year playing any type of football, and it taught me so much about dedication and teamwork. Our team dynamic was silly and fun, but we still held each other accountable and dedicated a lot of time to improving as much as we could. I’m so proud of how far we made it!”

The team’s commitment to attending practices, the leadership of the upperclassmen, the chemistry created, and their camaraderie was a cornerstone of their success.

Another vital component of the team’s success was the all-women coaching staff.

I reached out to past AJHS players to ask them to volunteer as assistant coaches. Gabby Fely, a sophomore at Cabrillo College, has coached with me at AJHS for the past two years. Angela Chmelicek (AHS, 2016) and Gabriella Russo (AHS, 2016 and my daughter) also played in the Central Coast Flag Football League, which was started by a group of community members, including the Russos.

According to coach Angela, “It’s been amazing being a part of “herstory,” and being able to grow as a human being while also watching these young women learn and succeed has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I am so proud of every player and coach on this team.”

This strong group of female role models supported the team dynamic while helping players to learn football.

Success for the AHS Girls Flag Football team went beyond what was posted on any scoreboard or their winning record. The players became a football family.

As one parent said at the end of the season, “There just was no drama with this team.”

This was apparent at the finale, with players hugging, crying, and slowly leaving the Mariner “A” in the middle of the field where they had spent many hours learning together.

At the season’s close, I ended it the same way I started each game, with an empowerment quote. I told my players, “Be brave. Do hard things. Believe.”


Team Roster: Alexa Flores (Sr), Angelique Nunez (Sr), Annika Routh (So), Ashlyn Cassar-McConnell (Fr), Ava “Gavin” Churchill (Sr), Dakota Bamford (Fr), Elenah Esquivel (So), Ellie Marta Fr), Emi Gansaeuer-Pilcher (Fr), Emma Welch (So), Gaby Dow (Jr), Izzy Graff (Jr), Janelle Navarro (Jr), Julia Silveira (So), June Zelmon (Fr), Lauren Galster (Fr), Maddie Barrington (Sr). Madi Pollack (Fr), Mia Parello (Jr), Mia Sanchez (Jr), Mikayla Newcombe (Fr), Nancy Cervantes (Sr), Natasha Newcombe (Jr), Nina Duke (Sr), Siena Black (Jr), Sofia Aguilera (Sr), Val Hernandez (Fr), Vianca Tavera (So).

Coaches: Denise Russo, Gabby Fely, Angela Chmelicek, Gabriella Russo

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Travis Burnett

Travis Burnett

A pioneer in the flag football community, Travis helped co-found the Flag Football World Championship Tour, FlagSpin and USA Flag. Featuring 15+ years of content creation for the sport of flag football, creating and managing the largest flag football tournaments on the planet, coaching experience at the youth and adult level as well as an active player with National and World Championship level experience.

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