The football players exited the locker room and went up the dugout steps to the playing field, the enormity of Center Parc Stadium opening up before them. They saw the video scoreboard and television cameras positioned from all angles.
“We just seemed so tiny on that huge field,” recalled Calvary Day School junior Mahkayla Premo. “It was like, ‘Wow, we finally made it. This is crazy.’
“We thought, all right, this will be kind of cool. But actually stepping foot on the field itself was surreal.”
Girls flag football became very real this school year, the first as a sanctioned sport by the Georgia High School Association. In a little over two months, from mid-October to the state championship games Dec. 28 in Atlanta, just under 100 teams competed across the state.
To those involved, flag football meant more than just another girls sport — wedged between fall season stalwarts cross country, softball and volleyball, and winter’s basketball and wrestling. This was an opportunity to include girls athletes in the shared experience that is “regular football” on Friday nights in the state. In fact, boys tackle football state championship games followed the two flag football finals that day in Atlanta.
“That was our goal: to make these girls feel just as important as these guys do on Friday nights,” Calvary Day athletic director and flag football coach Chad Griffin said. “If you ask any of the girls, or girls who played flag football from around the state, that’s all they ever wanted was to have these same feelings that the guys get to feel on Friday nights, and they got to do that.”
Premo, whose main sport is basketball, said the Cavaliers’ run to becoming the first Division I (Classes 1A-5A) state flag football champions legitimized the program.
“A lot of people going in were kind of skeptical,” she said. “There were some people: girls flag football, what will this be like? I feel like we were able to be on a platform so we could really prove ourselves and I think we ultimately did.”
Champion Cavaliers:Calvary Day captures state title in flag football’s 1st year
Griffin described the girls’ audible excitement when they took the field to play Portal for the title, and their reactions bringing “ear to ear” smiles to the faces of GHSA Executive Director Robin Hines and Assistant Executive Director Ernie Yarbrough, the coordinator for flag football.
Yarbrough said that 200 schools had committed to the inaugural sanctioned season but the impact of the coronavirus pandemic cut that number by more than half. He lauded the commitment of the 97 schools’ players, coaches and administrators to introduce a new sport under trying circumstances.
It was an unusual, certainly, but only the beginning.
“It’s not just a one-year flash in the pan,” Yarbrough said. “We are fully are committed to making this thing not only something the kids can look forward to but also a big, big activity for our schools.
“We’re playing the girls flag football at the same time we’re playing the 11-player, regular boys football. We’re playing them at the same state championship stadium. It is something important to us. It was on TV (live on GPB as well as online). It’s something we are totally committed to and look forward to it being bigger and better next year.”
The GHSA sent out a survey this month to state high schools tallying the “intent to participate,” with the final results due March 1. (See the Savannah Morning News’ survey of local schools attached to this story.) When the high school sports scene gets closer to normal, Yarbrough expects the numbers to increase and the GHSA to adjust teams’ divisions geographically for reduced travel.
Big and small together
For the inaugural season, the only Coastal Empire schools fielding teams were Calvary Day, a Class A Private program, and Class 6A Effingham County and Richmond Hill. They shared Area 2 with Dodge County and Portal for scheduling purposes.
“It’s nice to play a team we wouldn’t have any business playing normally,” said Richmond Hill coach Tony Dragon, who also coaches boys and girls tennis.
“The big thing is who’s coming next year. All the coaches in our region, we email and text and talk on and off. I think we’re all excited about the thoughts of who might come in next year.”
In the Augusta area, Greenbrier, Evans, Lakeside, Grovetown and Harlem had teams, while the Athens area did not.
Judging by the number of phone calls Griffin received on the way back from Atlanta to Savannah — not just congratulations but from coaches wanting to pick his brain about starting a new program — there will be more teams in the near future.
“It’s going to grow because the interest is going to grow because it’s fun,” said Yarbrough, whose organization got financial support for flag football from the Atlanta Falcons and team owner Arthur Blank. “Every kid that played, whether they won or lost, that was the one thing they all said that they had a lot of fun.”
The fun factor
Karli Eubanks knows soccer. The Richmond Hill sophomore, 16, has been playing the sport since fourth grade.
She thinks she played flag football in first grade, but that inexperience didn’t stop her from coming out for the Wildcats’ new team.
“I thought it was going to be fun,” Eubanks said. “I didn’t think we’d get very far. Obviously we exceeded that expectations. It was really fun.”
The Wildcats won two playoff games, and along the way, Eubanks said was it was enjoyable to meet people and make new friends.
“We were all really close as a team,” she said. “The sport is fun overall.”
Making progress:Richmond Hill girls flag football team learning keys to victory
Her coach said the biggest hurdle might have been getting the word out to students and their families that flag football was one of Richmond Hill’s varsity sports, not a travel team or school club.
Now with one season under its belt, Dragon would like to see the program expand to include a junior varsity team. This season he had 21 players on the roster — about a third also played soccer, about a third softball and the others were new to sports.
“I really think it can be like soccer and softball,” Dragon said. “If you look at the growth of lacrosse in the last five years or so, I think flag football can grow faster than that. I think the skills in flag football might be a little bit easier to learn than the skills in lacrosse.”
Griffin already developed a junior varsity-type team within the program for the 7-on-7 sport, and he envisions a future with middle schools also fielding flag football, becoming feeder systems to the high schools like for other sports.
Playoff run:What started as a chance to have some fun will end in a shot at a state title for Calvary flag football team
He described the benefits of offering new sports such as flag football, esports and bass fishing to better serve a diverse student population. One next-level benefit to flag football is the availability of college scholarships and financial packages for women’s players.
Calvary senior Nevaeh Hamilton, who made the title-securing interception and also was the Area 2 1A-5A Player of the Year, has received offers from Florida Memorial and Webber University in Florida, Griffin said.
“It’s just one more opportunity for females to find their way to school if they want to play sports,” Griffin said. “Girls flag, who would have thought it? Here we are three months later talking about scholarship offers and state championships. Now a girl is thinking about, ‘Maybe I could play flag football in college. If I do this and enjoy it, I can turn this into something a little bit more.’”
Survey says …
Coastal Empire high school athletic directors were surveyed on their programs’ interest in adding flag football for the 2021-22 school year. All-boys schools Bethesda Academy and Benedictine were not included. Calvary Day, Effingham County and Richmond Hill fielded teams in 2020-21.
Of 15 respondents, two replied yes, four answered no and nine would consider the possibility.
Factors determining the additional sport included the results of student surveys for participation; the impact on other girls sports; field space; finding coaches; scheduling; and whether Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools would be playing only within the district due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Bryan County’s Marcy Smith noted the school added wrestling this year and will add volleyball next year, so new sports such as flag football would not be considered during that time but could be in the future.
Memorial Day and St. Andrew’s School are members of GISA, which at present does not sanction flag football, but the athletic directors would gauge interest if the sport was offered.
South Effingham’s Jeff Faith said the Guyton school added bass fishing in 2020-21 with plans for flag football next fall.
— Nathan Dominitz
Nathan Dominitz is the Sports Content Editor of the Savannah Morning News and savannahnow.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @NathanDominitz