At the time, Nick Damoulakis thought it was nothing more than a “fad.”
It was the fall of the 2020, and the 44-year-old was coaching what he believes is Maryland’s first organized all-girls youth flag football team.
The Lady Ravens, an age 11-12 Frederick County Division of Parks and Recreation team featuring girls from Urbana High’s school district, more than held their own while competing against other teams whose players were predominantly boys, winning more games than they lost and inspiring children and adults alike.
Nonetheless, the thought of the Lady Ravens becoming trailblazers never entered Damoulakis’ mind.
“We would just play one season, it would be done, and onward,” Damoulakis recalls thinking at the beginning of the season.
“They’re still out there having fun, but they’re good athletes, and they’re competitive,” he said.
The Lady Ravens continued playing, and their participation could prove groundbreaking on various levels.
Interest in girls flag football has grown so much over the past 16 months that Parks and Recreation will plan on starting an all-girls football league for 11-12 and 13-14 age groups this spring.
“Parks and Recreation creating an all-girls league makes me really excited because I think that all girls should be able to play any sport that they want to, and it makes me feel good that my team has helped create a huge milestone,” Lady Ravens team member Elise Faulkner said.
Tina Lehman, a recreation specialist at Parks and Recreation, said the interest started skyrocketing last fall, pointing to the participation of the Lady Ravens at the 13-14 level and a newly formed 11-12 team — a product of younger girls who drew inspiration from watching Lady Ravens games in the fall of 2020.
Lehman hopes the league, which begins in late March and extends through late May, will have anywhere between eight and 12 teams per age group.
“The demand was definitely there as people started catching wind and saw the girls competing at a super-competitive level, and everyone wanted to be a part of that,” Lehman said.
Damoulakis points to that competitiveness and a high level of athleticism as being crucial to the staying power of the Lady Ravens.
After they completed their inaugural season, Damoulakis said, team members immediately started looking toward the future, firing off text messages among themselves regarding the possibility of continuing to play. It was a no-brainer: They decided on playing Parks and Recreation flag football in the spring of 2021.
“We all continued to play because we all love to play flag football, and we formed a strong bond as a team, which made it really fun to play,” said Faulkner, 14, an eighth-grader at Urbana Middle School. “We also didn’t stop because we were determined to do better and continue to break through barriers.”
The Lady Ravens caught the eye of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, who invited the youth flag football players to M&T Bank Stadium. There, they played an intrasquad exhibition during halftime of the NFL Ravens’ preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints in August.
All the while, parents and players started expressing an interest in establishing flag football at the high school level. In a letter to Frederick County Public Schools supervisor of athletics Kevin Kendro, Damoulakis and Jeff Pontius, both parents of Lady Ravens team members, expressed an interest in making girls flag football a varsity-sanctioned sport in Frederick County.
Their cause received a big boost from the NFL’s Ravens, who announced in a press release last October that they would provide the MPSSAA with $250,000 in grant funding to develop high school girls flag football, with the intention of competition to begin as early as this fall. Their partner in the mission, Under Armour, has committed to provide uniforms for each team. A month later, the team reiterated that goal in a TikTok video that included coach John Harbaugh giving his full endorsement of making girls flag football a varsity sport.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, NFHS member associations sponsor the sport in five states — Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Georgia and Nevada. Damoulakis emphasized that high school flag football players have opportunities to earn athletic scholarships.
“If I could play flag football in high school, I would be really happy because I love to play, and it gives girls a different choice to play than the more traditional sports,” Faulkner said.
If girls flag football is indeed on the verge of being a varsity sport, Damoulakis made it clear that his players didn’t get to this point without being challenged mentally.
Much of the feedback the Lady Ravens received during and after games was positive. However, players received their share of jeering from coaches and players from opposing teams. Damoulakis recalls one adult saying something along the lines of, “Hey Tommy, watch your hands when you pull the flags from the girls.”
Because the girls were armed with skill, confidence and focus, Damoulakis said, the comments hardly fazed them.
“Those girls just took that all in, and they’re like, ‘You know what, I’m just going to compete and beat you,’” he said.
They took that same attitude into an NFL-sponsored all-girls flag football tournament last fall at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., where the Lady Ravens defeated two nationally ranked teams.
Now the Lady Ravens want to keep that momentum going on a local level.
In an attempt to garner even more interest for Parks and Recreation’s new league, Damoulakis will head a girls flag football clinic from 5-7 p.m. Feb. 22 at the Sugarloaf Recreation Center in Urbana.
“Now with this girls league starting, they’re still having fun doing this, but they feel like they accomplished something so much [more],” Damoulakis said.