At Pioneer Central School, exciting football games are no longer limited to Friday nights in the fall. And they’re no longer only for the boys, either.
Pioneer became the first Big 30 school to field a girls’ high school flag football team this spring, a year after a pilot program introduced it to New York State schools.
Despite little to no experience for the 21 girls on Pioneer’s inaugural squad, results on the field have been spectacular. After an undefeated regular season and three playoff wins, Pioneer will play Clarence Wednesday night at Sweet Home High School for the Section 6 championship.
Pioneer went 7-0 in the regular season, earning the No. 1 seed in the sectional playoffs — a 15-team bracket featuring schools of all sizes. Last Friday, Pioneer held off Williamsville North in the last minute to win a 26-20 semifinal at home.
Pioneer’s Lilly Kless made a game-saving stop at the goal line to save her team’s sectional chances.
“THIS YEAR, there’s only one section, so the school size doesn’t play a role,” Pioneer coach Chris Edwards said. “So we were playing Williamsville North and they had the ball on the 1-yard line with four seconds left in the game and we got a stop. Lilly made an amazing play on the goal line and it was great. Just so exciting.”
The atmosphere in the stands matched the excitement on the field.
“We’re excited for this opportunity,” Edwards said. “I think the sport of girls flag football, in all honesty, after being someone who coached varsity boys football, it’s going to take off. The pace of the game is amazing. Friday night for our game, our stands were packed and people had to line up along the fence to watch the game. It’s a really cool spectator sport. People are really starting to love it.”
EDWARDS, who stepped down after a long and storied tenure as Pioneer wrestling coach at the end of the winter and was a boys football assistant for 17 years, gladly took on the opportunity to try a new sport.
“Last year was the pilot program in New York state; we weren’t part of the pilot program but once we saw the game, we loved it and we just thought it would be a perfect fit for our community. Our athletic director William Weidner, he was just a huge supporter of it. Once he saw it, he wanted it right away. It just took off from there. It’s been an awesome experience.”
As for the players, Edwards noted, “They were excited for the opportunity that it could bring them, but they didn’t really know a lot about what it was, to be honest.”
Pioneer’s 21-girl roster includes three seniors, while the majority of the squad are freshmen and sophomores.
“It’s been a huge learning curve for all of us, myself included,” Edwards said. “I was an assistant football coach at Pioneer for 17 years and I played college football, but learning the flag football game with the rules and the nuances, I’d like to say that I’ve learned it all but we’re learning every day in this game, the kids and myself. It’s been a great learning experience. We’ve just kind of watched games, other than our own games. I’ve gone to games as a spectator and just tried to take in as much of it as possible.”
TEAM LEADERS include senior quarterback Brooke Eastman, a 1,100-yard passer, senior running back Hannah Drennan and the coach’s daughter, Shay Edwards, a two-way starter who leads the team in receiving yards and interceptions (7).
How did this group adapt so quickly to a new sport?
“First … they’re a group of really good athletes. That’s always a nice place to start,” Edwards said. “They’re extremely hard-working, they’re competitive, they’re coachable and in all honesty they genuinely like being around each other. They’re a really hard-working group of girls. I absolutely love how coachable these girls are.”
Pioneer got a glimpse of its strong potential early on, defeating the Division II finalist from the pilot season a year ago in Week 1, 25-22.
“I think that that was where the girls realized that they could be a pretty special team right from the opening gates,” Edwards said.
While the NYSPHSAA will establish its first state girls flag football tournament next spring, the winner of Pioneer and Clarence’s sectional final will advance to a season-ending Far West Regional against the Section 5 champion on Monday at the Buffalo Bills’ Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park.
“I think they realize how special it is,” Edwards said of the sectional final. “We’ve talked about it. Even though we’re a younger team, you never know what’s going to happen, so you’ve got to seize the opportunity.
“The girls understand not only how special it is but how important it is and they’re looking forward to it. I think the fact that we’re a first year team and we’re playing in the sectional finals kind of speaks volumes to the girls, their hard work and how resilient they are.”
(Sam Wilson, a Times Herald reporter and Salamanca Press sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)