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With help from the Carolina Panthers, Wake County Schools launches inaugural girls flag football season - FlagSpin

With help from the Carolina Panthers, Wake County Schools launches inaugural girls flag football season

There is a new sport for female athletes in North Carolina’s largest school district — flag football.

Thanks in part to a $50,000 grant from the Carolina Panthers, Wake County Schools will operate a girls flag football league this winter, opening the door for female athletes in the district to participate in competitive football.

“The goal is to create more opportunities for female student-athletes. We know that any student who participates in has greater outcomes in their education and they’re a more productive citizen … so finding an opportunity to get girls and young women out on the field in an exciting, fast-paced sport that has high energy, I think it’s just a great opportunity,” said Deran Coe, the athletic director for Wake County Schools.

In all, Wake County Schools has 19 of its 25 high schools participating in the inaugural season. Cardinal Gibbons High School, a private school in Wake County who is a member of the N.C. High School Athletic Association, will also field a team, giving the league 20 total teams.

“When I pitched the idea to our athletic directors … the idea was a pilot program to see how it would go. I figured maybe we would have seven or eight teams, and we left it as an option to the 25 high schools in our school system,” Coe said.

There are over 500 student-athletes participating in the first season, and there are others who want to participate.

“The excitement has been completely off the chain. I’ve actually had calls and emails from student-athletes at some of the schools who chose not to participate this year who were a little disappointed and hopeful they’ll jump in next year,” said Coe.

Wakefield High School junior Brianna Riehle, who is also a standout softball player and runs cross country for the Wolverines, said she grew up throwing the football with her brother. Now having the chance to compete in the sport for her school means a lot to her.

“The homecoming powder puff games, we have so much fun but they only last a day. So the fact this is going to last more than one and the team bonding we’re going to have, it’s just super special,” Riehle said. “I play competitive sports and competing is my favorite part.”

Derrick Walker, who is an assistant coach on the Millbrook High School football team and will serve as the head coach of the girls flag football team, has experience coaching women’s flag football at the adult level. He thinks people are in for a pleasant surprise when they see the sport for the first time.

“It’s more competitive than you think. People hear ‘flag football’ and you think it’s just touch football … when you watch this sport on a higher level, you see that real competitiveness and you see how it goes down with these ladies. I think when (fans) watch it, they’re going to be like, ‘Wow, this sport is really competitive.’ I think they’re going to enjoy it,” Walker said.

Panthers want to see girls flag football become a sanctioned sport in NC

Launching the flag football program in Wake County was made possible by the Carolina Panthers. As the state’s NFL franchise, the Panthers gave the district at $50,000 grant to fund the league, set up the schools with jerseys, provided training for coaches, and structure and support for administrators.

“The Carolina Panthers have been great … they’ve reached out a few times, we just wanted to make sure the timing was right and that we did this in a way that was scalable so we knew this would be successful for our female student-athletes,” Coe said.

This isn’t the first time the Panthers have done this though. Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools was the first district to add girls flag football in partnership with the Panthers. After three seasons, there are now 29 teams playing the sport in Mecklenburg County. Since then, Union County Schools and Cabarrus County Schools have adopted the sport, and New Hanover County Schools is slated to jump into the mix later this year.

“The sport of women’s high school flag football is growing like wildfire across the country. Several states have already sanctioned it as a varsity sport in which girls in their states are actually competing for state championships in flag football,” said Riley Fields, the Director of Community Relations for the Carolina Panthers. “What Wake County Public Schools is doing this winter in launching their program is the next step in us getting to a point where women’s high school flag (football) can be considered for sanctioning by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, and really that’s our ultimate goal — that in the not too distant future, girls in our state are going to have the opportunity to compete for state championships, representing their school in the sport of girls flag football.”

It’s possible that sanctioning girls flag football could be closer than most expect. NCHSAA bylaws say if half the schools in a classification field a team, the sport can be considered for sanctioning. It would require a vote by the Board of Directors. The most recent sport sanctioned by the NCHSAA was girls wrestling, which is in its first year as a sanctioned sport.

The North Carolina chapter of USA Wrestling played a big role in getting girls wrestling started in the state. The Carolina Panthers are playing a similar role in girls flag football.

“One of our other primary objectives is to provide increased access and opportunities in the sport of football for girls in our region. When you look at how girls and women are engaging with the sport of football now compared to 15 years ago, it’s an entirely different space,” Fields said. “You’ve got women that are officiating in the Super Bowl, you’ve women that are on NFL coaching staffs, you’ve got a woman who scored points in an SEC football game several years ago. So the last great barrier really is competition and being able to compete in the sport of football. Flag football provides that new opportunity.”

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, nine state associations report sanctioning girls flag football teams. In those states, 913 schools field teams with 20,875 participants. Coe expects North Carolina will join that list at some point.

“I know it will happen,” Coe said. “I am very, very confident that it will happen. Just knowing the high school association and their support for student-athletes … I know that once the number of teams meets the threshold in the bylaws of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association … they will sanction the sport.”

Coe said there are already discussions between school districts and the NCHSAA about moving forward with sanctioning the sport in the coming years, including aligning schedules so all schools are playing in the same season.

“We feel confident that it will happen, and we know the high school association will be supportive, just as they are for any opportunity for growth of athletics — especially for female student-athletes just past the 50th anniversary of Title IX,” he said.

Wake County girls flag football teams will begin competition on Saturday, Jan. 27. Games will be played at Athens Drive High School and Green Level High School beginning at 9 a.m. The last games will begin at 2 p.m.

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Travis Burnett

Travis Burnett

A pioneer in the flag football community, Travis helped co-found the Flag Football World Championship Tour, FlagSpin and USA Flag. Featuring 15+ years of content creation for the sport of flag football, creating and managing the largest flag football tournaments on the planet, coaching experience at the youth and adult level as well as an active player with National and World Championship level experience.

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