Is girls flag football going to be played in Peoria?
Peoria High and Richwoods likely will field teams when the Illinois High School Association debuts its newest female sport starting in the 2024-25 school year. “We are planning on participating,” Peoria High athletics director Brien Dunphy said.
Peoria High already had purchased uniforms, soft-shelled helmets and flags, and tabbed longtime Peoria Public Schools coach Marilyn Woods as head coach. Dunphy says the program is scheduled to start a three-week intramural period right after spring break, beginning on April 8. That timeframe could be extended if interest for flag football is high.
“There’s no reason we can’t go a little bit longer than that,” Dunphy said, “but I wanted a dedicated three-week segment to actually launch this and get kids interested and playing, and get some coaches involved, so that if we are able to field a team come August, we’re ready to go.”
Illinois high school football 2023:Peoria Journal Star player of the year, all-area team
Some intra-squad scrimmages and even a spring tournament with a round-robin played at Peoria Stadium are on the table at Peoria High. Recruiting players, though, is the biggest priority right now. Plus, Dunphy wants to do that without taking away from the already established spring sports. He wants kids not already signed up for soccer, softball and track and field to “come and get interested in flag football.”
Dunphy has shared the April schedule with Richwoods and Manual, who also want to start a team. Knights athletics director Jeff Crusen, who credits Dunphy for spearheading the movement to get flag football going among the Peoria schools, is just beginning the process of putting out information to students about flag football starting for the Knights.
Crusen says he’s very optimistic about the potential for solid participation numbers.
“We’re going to start working on building some interest amongst our female students,” he said. “… Another opportunity for our female student-athletes is definitely something that we want to show that we’re serious about and invest in.”
The NFL’s role in flag football
For the last three years, the NFL’s Chicago Bears have undertaken the responsibility of serving as the organizing body of Illinois prep girls flag football. In 2022, a state championship series was founded. Chicago Lane Tech won the nine-team 2023 state championship this past October at Halas Hall in Chicago.
According to NFL FLAG, youth participation in sports has declined 13% over the last decade, but flag football has become one of the fastest-growing youth sports in the country. The number of kids aged 6-12 playing has increased by 38%, to more than 1.5 million, since 2015, according to a Journal Star story from last June.
IHSA member schools in December 2023 then voted 464-82 (with 181 absentees) to make girls flag football an officially sanctioned sport this fall.
And the NFL is helping grow the sport in Illinois. Representatives from the Bears met virtually with the Big 12 Conference ADs in mid-January to give a presentation on the sport, as well as the types of grants the NFL franchise offers.
Richwoods’ Crusen said the Bears have been “super supportive,” noting these grants will aid with startup costs as well as any other financial help program’s needs. Funding also will help purchase equipment, hire IHSA-patched officials and defray any travel costs.
Which schools are playing flag football?
As of now, there are 112 schools unofficially committed to playing within the IHSA. The two Peoria high schools, Danville of the Big 12 and Kankakee are the only four schools south of Interstate 80 that anticipate playing. The other 108 schools all hail from Chicagoland or the Rockford area.
But the IHSA officially doesn’t open the 2024-25 state series registration database until this summer, so any number of teams could emerge before that entry deadline. Several Bloomington-Normal schools are in the process of possibly forming teams, according to Dunphy.
How around around Peoria? Discussions within the Mid-Illini Conference are still ongoing about the next step on a league-wide basis. Several factors are in play including five fall sports already offered to girl athletes, plus facility availability and the general appeal of having a new sport to play.
East Peoria athletics director Denee Menizone can only speak for the Raiders athletics department, but she’d be on board with adding another sport. “I would love any opportunity for our kids to get involved with anything,” she said.
Fall practice will begin Aug. 12 with the season concluding at the inaugural state finals Nov. 30. Teams are allowed to play a maximum of 25 games before the postseason begins. All players must participate in at least nine practices before their first game.
So what does Dunphy think about playing a flag football game as prelim to a boys game under the Peoria Stadium’s Friday night lights?
“I love that idea,” he said. “I think that would be the goal.”
Adam Duvall is a Journal Star sports reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on X.com @AdamDuvall.