Flag football for girls has always been somewhat of a novelty.
They enjoy playing it, until they get to high school and pursue their “real” sport. Flag football has been nonexistent for them in those high school years, save for the occasional powderpuff game.
Matt Leinart Flag Football League is working to change that.
The organization has announced that it is sponsoring a 10-team high school girls’ flag football league in Orange County this fall. The school-based league would be the first of its kind in Southern California.
Leinart, who played quarterback at Mater Dei High and USC before a seven-year NFL career, noted that the NAIA instituted women’s flag football at the college level this spring. His youth league, founded in Newport Beach in 2010, has welcomed all-girls teams and co-ed teams the last several years and runs in conjunction with the NFL Flag Football program.
But the league has stopped after eighth grade, which has meant game over for the girls. League president Ryan Bertoni said there are about 300 girls who play among the 3,500 total kids in the organization, which has eight different leagues including ones in Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach and Newport Beach.
“We thought, how cool would it be to try to bridge the gap?” Leinart said. “In eighth grade, these girls love playing and they can’t play anymore. Maybe they go back to soccer, volleyball, whatever other sport they want to play. Maybe they don’t play a sport at all, and they just go to high school.
“We’ve seen the passion that these girls play with, and how much fun they’re having. Why can’t they have an opportunity to play flag football at the high school level as well?”
Leinart said an all-girls camp held April 17 at Bonita Creek Park, which featured Dr. Jen Welter, was very successful. Welter is an advisory board member for the organization who was the first female to coach in the NFL, for the Arizona Cardinals during their 2015 training camp.
“Can we get enough girls to want to play and participate?” Leinart said. “The answer is yes. We know we’ll get enough girls out there, and it’ll be competitive as hell, for sure.”
The seven-on-seven high school girls’ league would run in September and October, and games would take place at 3 p.m. on weekdays. Leinart said the eventual goal is to see it become a CIF Southern Section-sanctioned sport.
It is unclear which Orange County high schools will be selected for the inaugural year of high school girls’ flag football, though Leinart said there have been preliminary talks with some schools. What is clear is that there is plenty of local interest for such a league.
Edison High girls’ soccer coach Kerry “Mac” Crooks made a Facebook post this week to try to gauge interest for the Chargers. Crooks knows her daughter Riley, an eighth-grader at Huntington Christian School who will be a freshman next year at Edison, wants to play in the Matt Leinart league.
Riley plays soccer but also has been playing flag football for four years. She currently plays in a private schools league, going both ways — offense and defense — and lining up at running back due to her speed.
“There’s so many good things about football,” Kerry Crooks said. “It just brings all kind of sports together. Their quarterbacks are softball players, and they’ve got volleyball players out there. She makes a lot of friends in all different groups. It’s awesome.”
Suzanne Audiss of Corona del Mar has two daughters who also play soccer. Her older daughter, Sarah, is a sophomore on the Sea Kings’ varsity basketball team. Her younger daughter, Grace, has been playing flag football for years through Friday Night Lights, a competitor of Matt Leinart Flag Football.
Grace is currently in eighth grade and plans to play soccer for CdM next year. Football would be fun, too.
“We had one coach that got so mad that his boys lost to us, he threw a whole cooler and water spilled all over,” Suzanne Audiss said. “Our girls purposely wore skirts and pigtails … and they just had a blast. Now the boys are getting too big, outsizing the girls, and the parents are afraid that the kids are going to get hurt. So, a girls’ league would be super fun.”
Bertoni said Matt Leinart Flag Football is trying to find a niche that allows the high school girls to play as many sports as possible. He added that discussions he’s had indicate the NCAA will likely be adding women’s flag football as a sport within the next three or four years.
“With that kind of momentum, it’s just natural to create the platform for these girls to continue from youth to high school,” Bertoni said. “Hopefully in three or four years, these girls are getting Division I scholarships to all of the top colleges in the country.”
High schools interested in participating can contact Leinart’s brother Ryan Leinart at (949) 422-5864, for more details about starting a team.
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