Quarterback Saylor Swanson dodged a pass rusher, glanced downfield and let loose a perfect throw. Sara Walker caught the ball in stride and danced in the end zone with her teammates.
That was the spark to Arvada West’s 34-14 runaway victory over Cherry Creek in the title game of the Broncos Girls High School Flag Football championship tournament Saturday at the Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse.
The Wildcats, runners-up to Chatfield last season, won four games Saturday at the Broncos complex to finish their season a perfect 22-0.
Swanson’s 30-yard bomb was just one of a plethora of highlights in a day that showcased 16 teams from the Front Range and athletic girls who showed why high school flag football is spreading like wildfire.
“Today was so much fun and just so crazy,” said Sawson, a junior who wears No. 18 in homage to former Broncos QB Peyton Manning. “I’ve been thinking about this game for a while now, so I was a little bit nervous coming into today.”
She sure didn’t show it.
Moments after the first of her five TD passes, Swanson intercepted a pass to set up the Wildcats’ second touchdown — a short toss from Swanson to junior Molly Schellpeper.
Swanson grew up playing backyard football with her father, Denver Swanson, and her older brothers.
“We always played and they never took it easy on me,” she said. “I’ve always loved football.”
A-West coach Mario Lopez said the girls were fueled all season by their loss to Chatfield in last year’s title game.
“They were so motivated, and we pushed them hard to get here,” Lopez said. “And we made big plays all day today, especially Saylor. She made a difference right from the beginning. She’s the real deal when it comes to flag football in this state.”
The Colorado High School Athletic Association approved a three-year pilot last fall with the goal of making flag football a sanctioned sport in 2025. The game’s popularity might make CHSAA sanction it as soon as next year.
Last year, 27 teams from 21 schools in Denver, Cherry Creek and Jefferson County public school districts competed. This year, Douglas County, Adams County Five-Star and Aurora school districts added flag football, bringing the total number of teams to 72.
Nothing is set in stone, but according to Bobby Mestas, the Broncos director of youth and high school football, there is hope that the sport will be under CHSAA’s umbrella next fall.
“We could always find out that — nope — we’re not quite ready and that we need more growth outside the Denver area, but the hope is to get there by 2024,” Mestas said. “There’s been a lot of growth and we have room for more. As you can see, the girls are loving it.”
USA Football, the NFL and the International Federation of American Football are pushing for flag football to become an Olympic demonstration sport in 2028 in Los Angeles. The NAIA declared women’s flag football an emerging sport in 2021 with 16 colleges fielding teams, and the National Junior College Athletic Association also is adding the sport to its roster.
Flag football in Broncos-crazy Colorado allows girls to showcase their speed, athleticism and teamwork. There is no tackling or blocking, but the sport produces non-stop action.
Lillie Woolfolk, a player for the Mountain Vista junior varsity team that qualified for Saturday’s tournament, switched from the pom-pom squad to football this fall.
“I wanted to play a fun sport where I could be part of a team,” she said. “I loved my teammates and I loved our coaches.”
Lillie’s father, Don Woolfolk, who played high school football at Thomas Jefferson, had to teach his daughter the basics this summer, starting with how to catch a football.
“She said she wanted me to live my dreams through her because I don’t have any sons,” Don said. “It was kind of a funny conversation. I was a little surprised — but happy. I loved football growing up, and her uncle, Andre Woolfolk, played in the NFL (for four seasons with the Tennessee Titans).”
There were a lot of cheers and more than a few tears Saturday on the practice fields where the Broncos usually roam. Mostly, there was a passion for football.
“It’s been a part of my life for forever,” said Ralston Valley senior Gianna Tate, who caught a touchdown on the final play of a quarterfinal game to beat Chatfield and send RV to the semifinals. “When I scored that touchdown, it was one of the best moments of my life.”