When Catholic athletic director Daniel Veres approached Whitney Toole about coaching a girls’ flag football team at Catholic, Toole couldn’t exactly say no.
“We have three seniors and they were the ring leaders of starting flag football,” Toole said. “The girls were the ones. They begged Daniel Veres and it’s not like we are overflowing with female coaches, so I did it for them. They wanted to play and they needed a coach to play. It was a way to spend more time with them.”
Center Kayleigh Everage, quarterback Andy Aiken and wide receiver Leona Sanford will be at the forefront of the first high school flag football game ever played in the River Region on Tuesday when Northside Methodist travels to Montgomery to play at Catholic at 5 p.m.
The Alabama High School Athletic Association, using a grant from the National Football League, started flag football in 2021, becoming the fifth state with girls’ flag football after Georgia (2020), Nevada (2016), Alaska (2005) and Florida (2002). At the same time, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) started flag football at 15 private schools, offering high school stars a chance to continue their careers at the collegiate level.
Catholic’s flag football team has all the characteristics of a start-up sport. The Knights tried to piece together a schedule, using the area teams that indicated they wanted to play the sport this fall, but neither Elmore County nor Park Crossing actually fielded teams. In Catholic’s area (Area 1), two teams didn’t participate (Park Crossing and Fruitdale) while two others (Northside Methodist and Emmanuel Christian) jumped in late, forcing the Knights to arrange a schedule that is still a work in progress. (Tuesday’s game, as an example, was supposed to be a doubleheader, but Emmanuel Christian already had a game scheduled for that day).
Toole, meanwhile, had to learn about flag football, which has similar field dimensions to eight-man football and a set of rules unique to the sport. On screen blocking (shielding the quarterback from rushing opponents), for example, the players must have their hands behind their backs. Ball carriers cannot shield their flags from opponents and the ball is dead when fumbled.
Tailback Ann Cobb found out another rule after she ran over a potential tackler in the Knights’ first game: you must try to avoid contact and cannot initiate it. She was penalized for her enthusiasm.
“Sometimes I wish I had shoulder pads,” Cobb said. “She was in the way.”
In addition to trying to put the 17 players in the best positions, Toole also had to learn on the fly which plays work best in the sport.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of our head softball coach taking the role of head flag football coach, the first in the city to do it,” Catholic football coach Kirk Johnson said. “She is doing a phenomenal job with it and I’m not just talking about on the field. The girls are excited to be there. She’s embraced them and made it fun. She comes to me about plays, comes to other coaches about plays and made it hers on something that she really didn’t even want to do.
“She went to Coach (Jake) Campbell, our defensive coordinator; she went to Cody (Hodgens), our offensive coordinator; she talked to (tailback) Jeremiah Cobb and (defensive backs) Brennan Binns and Will Belstering. She’s not one who says I know what to do. She wants to learn. And the girls are having a blast.”
With a highly successful football program as her guide, Toole talked to everyone about the best plays to use during the Knights’ two weeks of preseason practice leading up to a jamboree with Central-Phenix City on Aug. 30. That’s when she discovered flag football isn’t the same.
“I thought it was going to be similar and we kind of went into the first game thinking it was,” she said. “I don’t want to say it’s trick plays, but it’s more stuff like that. It’s just learning the rules. Some of (the players) know the rules, but they know regular football rules.”
They went into the jamboree with flags borrowed from Central (the Knights’ flags had been delayed in shipping) and didn’t play very well, but went back to practice with new plays and working on their first-game mistakes. Two weeks later, they defeated Northside Methodist 30-0 and Dothan High 25-6 in the season opener. Suddenly, just fielding a team isn’t the goal. Winning Area 1 and beating an Area 2 opponent to be in the quarterfinals with a chance to play in the AHSAA Super 7 becomes the goal.
“It’s not just let have fun with it,” Toole said. “From the beginning, it was like, we want to have fun, it’s the first year, but we want to win.”
Her 17 players are separated into offensive and defensive units, although a handful play both ways. More wanted to play, but the administration didn’t want to detract from other sports so fall sport participants (volleyball and cross country) can’t play flag football.
“Pretty much, everybody out there plays something else (in the winter and spring),” Toole said. “It started as something that was just fun to do. After the first scrimmage, it changed to we don’t want to just have fun, we want to win.”
Now, Toole finds herself as a spokesman for the sport after coaching the only flag football team in the River Region.
“I think a big part of it is it just gives (girls) something to do in the fall other than volleyball,” Toole said. “We have too many athletes that don’t participate in volleyball and don’t have anything else to do in the fall. I think it’s just going to get bigger. I wish we would have participated last season.”
Her sport will be on display for the first time in the area on Tuesday afternoon at Catholic. Among their fans will be a group of football players taking a break from their undefeated season to watch their female counterparts.
“We haven’t gotten a chance to support them because they’ve had games on Tuesdays at Central-Phenix City and in Dothan,” Johnson said. “When they come out here, we’re going to pack it out.”