When Alina Hsu took the field as part of the first-ever girls’ flag football team at her high school, she really didn’t have much experience with the sport.
“I actually didn’t know anything about football,” she says. “I was nervous to play, didn’t know how to throw, or the rules. My teammates reassured me, saying, ‘You’re going to learn as you go.’ It’s been a lot of fun.”
Hsu, a Torrey Pines High School senior, is a nearly year-round athlete. She’s going to play lacrosse at UC Berkeley next year. But throughout her high school career, there was never a fall sport for her to join. In the past, she’d play club lacrosse on the weekends, go to the gym, and go for runs, but she wasn’t part of a fall high school team.
That changed this year when the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), approved flag football for girls statewide. It meant school districts could, for the first time, officially field teams. San Diego Unified funded the sport right away, and now, 15 out of the 17 high schools in the city have teams.
The decision gave athletes like Hsu a chance to compete in the fall and become a part of history.
“Being a part of the first-ever Torrey Pines flag football team was a really cool experience, so I wanted to just try it out,” she says. “We had a really big group of girls, which was really nice. Everyone got along and it consisted of a lot of other off-season athletes. I got to learn a lot about the game. And it was fun just creating new memories with new people.”
It also helped her to stay in shape for spring lacrosse. Hsu decided to play running back because, while she was worried about being able to throw or catch the ball, she knew she could run.
“I was kind of terrified that I didn’t know the rules, I couldn’t really throw, obviously, so I couldn’t be quarterback. I was not that great at catching at the start,” she says. “So my teammates were like, ‘oh, Alina, try running back.’ I’m like, ‘what do you do for running back?’ And they’re like, ‘you run?’”
That she could do. Playing also helped her improve her lacrosse skills with speed-change, dodging, and sprinting drills. Her coach, Ryland Wickman, called Hsu his star running back. Their team went undefeated for the season, only losing the last game—a heartbreaking loss in the finals.
Wickman used to play professional football and has been a coach for over a decade, so when he heard flag football was coming to high schools, he threw his hat in the ring for the position.
“I felt this was a great opportunity for me to be able to jump in and take the lead and be able to implement a lot of my own stuff and have some fun,” says Wickman. “I know the girls here, they had a blast this year and I just really enjoyed watching them learn a new sport and figure it all out.”
For tryouts, 120 girls showed up, so he kept three teams to give everyone a chance to play: one varsity and two JVs. He said about 80 percent of those girls were brand-new to football, while a small group had played on boys’ teams. He started by teaching terminology.
“The name of the positions, the name of the areas of the field, all that stuff,” he says. “And then just teaching them some of the fundamentals, how to run routes, the correct way to catch, using your hands, right, not your body […] and then we always do some speed and conditioning.”
Wickman says it’s been amazing to watch the improvement since the start of the season. “I have a really great group of athletes that are smart, too, and so they’ve been picking up things,” he says. “Now they come off the field and they tell me things that they see which they wouldn’t even have known in the beginning.”
Torrey Pines Principal Rob Coppo says he was thrilled to give girls a chance to play a sport in the fall because the school only offered field hockey, making sure they had the field space and the staffing.
“It’s been a dream come true,” he says. “Going to games is amazing, the level of joy you see on the athletes’ faces when they leave the field…”
After the CIF decision, San Diego Unified decided to start flag football for girls because it gave them more fall sports options. Plus, being involved in after-school sports increases students’ overall performance at school, says Scott Guisti, director of PE, Health, and Athletics at San Diego Unified.
“Seeing how popular doing the powder puff game is when juniors play seniors, seeing the excitement of girls getting to play flag football, I knew it would be extremely popular,” he says. “And it is, and it will continue to grow. This was an experience year, and it will blow up even more next year.”
For Hsu, this is her last year in high school, so she won’t get to be part of flag football’s continued growth. But she did help her team establish a record for future years.
“I hope that our record alone hopefully inspires the future girls on the team to be the best they can be, and hopefully we establish a certain level of excellence with the flag football community,” she says. “I’m bummed that it started my senior year because I wish I could have played all four years. It’s so much fun.”