Winnetka, Sports

Chicago Bears, IHSA clear a lane for girls flag football — now an official IHSA sport

Enjoying what one IHSA official called “unprecedented” local growth, girls flag football scored a crowd-pleasing designation by the state’s high school association this month.

The IHSA Board of Directors on Feb. 4 approved a state series for the sport, less than three years after programs started popping up in Chicagoland. The IHSA kept its decision quiet until Valentine’s Day, Wednesday, Feb. 14, when the Chicago Bears welcomed IHSA officials and local athletic directors, coaches and players to celebrate the momentous occasion at Halas Hall in Lake Forest.

Bears CEO Kevin Warren opened the event by saying that more opportunities in football is important to the Bears.

“Not only do we owe it to the future, we owe it to the past, to all the young girls who wanted to participate in this great game,” he said. “… But now is the time for us to do it, to do it the right way, to set the tone.”

Girls flag football has surged in Illinois since Chicago high schools began fielding teams in 2021, with a boost from the Bears and Nike.

More than 100 high schools competed this past fall.

“This type of growth for a sport is unprecedented in our history,” IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson said of girls flag football. “We already have over 100 schools committed to play in the first state series.”

New Trier will be one of those schools, according to Trevians flag football coach Mark Colegrove.

Under Colegrove, New Trier debuted a flag football program earlier this school year with 36 participants — enough for two levels (varsity and junior varsity). Colegrove said in the wake of the inaugural season he has heard from students, teachers and parents who want to know more about New Trier’s flag football program.

“There’s been a healthy buzz, and there is positive support,” he said. “It’s going to be exciting to see how it takes off. I am looking forward to it. There is a lot of hard work ahead, but you get the right group of kids together who believe in the culture and believe in each other and that’s what matters. The rest will come.”

Colegrove was disappointed he couldn’t be at Halas Hall Wednesday to celebrate the occasion, but said he and his fellow area coaches have already begun trying fill out a 2024 schedule.

New Trier’s Manya Prabhu (left) and Jordyn Cohen celebrate Prabhu’s scoring run in October.

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 and an unofficial state championship was held — Willowbrook High School (Villa Park) won the crown.

Talks between the Bears and IHSA were already underway to get the sport sanctioned.

Anderson said on Tuesday that to make that happen the IHSA formed an advisory committee and waited for at least 80 Illinois high schools to found programs. It didn’t take long.

This past fall, first-year programs like New Trier, Loyola Academy and Highland Park High School were among more than 100 Illinois schools to field a team. Lane Tech won the second non-IHSA state championship.

The sport’s growth 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.

At least eight states hold state championship series, and Gustavo Silva, the Bears manager of youth and high school football, said that at least 30 colleges have flag football programs and some offer scholarships.

“Three girls from Illinois have scholarships,” Silva said. “A girl in the room has offers.”

Many, including Colegrove, think the best is yet to come.

The New Trier area has a thriving youth flag football program. The North Shore Trevians debuted girls flag football in 2022 and welcomed more than 80 participants.

Colegrove can’t help but feel lucky.

“(Flag football is) well supported by our athletic department and well supported by our little league,” he said. “They do a great job of really teaching some fundamentals and even mastery of some skills. … I think I’m walking into something that is going to be pretty great, in terms of kids knowing how to play flag football.”

Girls flag football is the latest in new sports to join the IHSA portfolio, coming just after other recent additions girls wrestling (2022), esports (2022), boys and girls lacrosse (2018) and competitive dance (2013).

Anderson and other officials pledged to keep working to grow the sport from here. He said another 50 high schools, including Regina Dominican in Wilmette, are committed to debuting programs by 2025.

And Silva confirmed that the Bears plan to stay involved and invested in the growth.

“One of the goals of the Chicago Bears is to grow the game of football by making it inclusive, accessible, diverse and equitable,” Silva said. “… Everybody should have access to the great game of football and everything it has to offer.”

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joe coughlin
Joe Coughlin

Joe Coughlin is a co-founder and the editor in chief of The Record. He leads investigative reporting and reports on anything else needed. Joe has been recognized for his investigative reporting and sports reporting, feature writing and photojournalism. Follow Joe on Twitter @joec2319

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