Volleyball means a lot to sophomore Holly Hales. When she missed tryouts this fall, she was in search of a different team — a new community.
Freshman Kathleen Ellis grew up throwing the football with her dad. But opportunities were limited to get involved with the sport outside her home.
Both Hales and Ellis — like thousands of girls nationwide — found what they were looking for in girls flag football, a surging sport that made its debut at New Trier High School this school year.
“It’s more than a team; it’s actually a support system,” Hales said. “I came out (for the team), the coach was really supportive, no one really knew what they were doing, and we came out here and had a blast and all the girls fell in love with the sport.”
First-year programs like New Trier, Loyola Academy and Highland Park High School are among more than 100 high schools in Illinois that boast a girls flag football program.
The sport received a serious boost locally when the Chicago Bears and Nike backed Chicago Public Schools and the High School Girls Football League in 2021. The following year that league was more than 50 teams strong, and programs began to form outside the city, at schools like Willowbrook High School in the west-suburban Villa Park.
This year, the North Shore and northern suburbs have gotten on board in a major way. Longtime New Trier football coach Mark Colegrove is proud to be a part of it.
When an opportunity to contribute to a flag football program arose, Colegrove — who said he finds joy in building confidence in student-athletes — got involved and he wants New Trier to build a strong program.
So far so good. In its inaugural season, New Trier has 36 players, and there will likely be more where that came from. North Shore Trevians Youth Football has a booming flag football program with more than 100 participants.
“We’re reaping the benefits of the youth program, and there are kids who have been doing this for five or six years who aren’t even (at the school) yet,” Colegrove said. “So it’s going to build. Next year I think we’re going to have a full JV schedule and we’ll continue to have a varsity schedule.”
The trend isn’t just happening in Illinois. The National Federation of High Schools annual participation survey shows that flag football has seen nearly doubled in size since 2018-2019, going from 11,209 participants to 20,875 in 2023.
Seven states host a state championship series, according to the NFHS, with more on the way. The Illinois High School Association has its eye on the sport, as well.
Loyola Academy’s flag football director Melissa Klein said the sport has presented a new opportunity for many student-athletes who want to compete but are not involved with a fall program.
“We have a lot of athletes at Loyola and sometimes kids don’t get to play the sports they want because of our numbers,” said Klein, whose program has more than 30 participants. “They like to be competitive. We have soccer players, hockey players, track girls, girls who have never played the sport.”
At Loyola and New Trier, most of the flag football players come from the sophomore and junior classes. That means the future is bright, but also the learning curve is steep.
The Ramblers had a 2-2 as of Oct. 6, and the Trevians recently notched their first victory — a positive sign for New Trier. One of the team’s priorities is to get better every day — or as they say, “improve the baseline.”
“We’re definitely doing that every day we’re out on the field,” Hales said. “Hopefully next year, (flag football) is an official sport.”
But winning is far from the only benefit to a surge in girls flag football.
Roster spots are limited on high school sports teams, especially at large schools like New Trier where hundreds of students will compete for a couple dozen slots. Many of those students have played their sport for years, making friends and connections along the way. Jumping into a tryout like that is intimidating.
Flag football was new. Very few had played an organized version of it before. And there were no cuts, creating a more accessible path to competition.
“I heard from a lot of people who never really played organized sports before,” who were interested in joining flag football, Ellis said. “I think it’s a really good opportunity to feel safe and be part of a community and a team, which is hard at New Trier. It’s been a really good, welcoming environment.”
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