As flag football spreads across the southeast, the girls team at Windermere High looks to prove that the football field isn’t just for guys anymore.
There’s an unfortunate reality in the world of sports, where different sports lead to stereotypes.
Football, for instance, is known as a manly sport — defined by its brute strength, unfathomable speed and of course, the fact that it’s played by men.
But what about the girls and women — who make up nearly 50% of the NFL’s viewing audience — in the country who have a passion for the sport? Where do they turn?
Luckily for the girls of high-school age, the game of flag football has taken ahold here in the southeast and it’s growing faster than just about any sport out there. The sport’s rapid growth is something that Michael Stringer — the girls flag football coach at Windermere High — is more than happy to see.
“The girls are very competitive — you’ll be shocked to see how (hard) a girl in our program takes a loss, and how much it leaves a sour taste in their mouth,” Stringer said. “Just to see that competitive edge in flag — translating over from the boy’s side in regular football — is kind of what got me into it. It’s sometimes higher than what the boys are doing.”
Stringer had been serving as the assistant coach for the team since it started up two seasons ago, but officially took over as the head coach after the end of this previous season following Russell Williams being named the school’s new athletic director.
Having been with the program since the beginning, Stringer has seen the girls flag football team develop into something to be proud of.
But like any fledgling program, the Wolverines’ first season was — for lack of better words — not great. The growing pains were there, and most of the girls who showed up to participate in the first year had never played before.
“We probably only had — on our varsity — four girls who played flag football when they were at West Orange,” Stringer said. “So for the most part, this was a brand-new sport for a lot of our girls.”
Two of those four girls — Brinley Griffitts and Felicity Kaley — are rising seniors. Both Kaley and Griffitts were introduced to the sport when they were at West Orange High — though they did it for different reasons.
For Kaley, who used to play soccer, it was all about trying something new and exciting, while for Griffitts it was something that she was naturally drawn to — thanks to growing up with two older brothers who played football.
“I loved it so much, because it was a fun sport and (there) was nothing too serious about it at West Orange,” said Griffitts, who plays both wide receiver and linebacker. “But then when we moved to Windermere it just got more fun and competitive too — I’m a very competitive person.”
When she first arrived at Windermere High, Griffitts said there was also a big change to how she was used to practicing.
At West Orange High the girls on the team were familiar with the sport and therefore they could practice at a bit of a faster tempo.
It was a process that required patience, but was totally worth it, she said. And being one of the few players with experience changed up her own role on the team, as well.
“It made me become more of a leader than I had been, and I just loved teaching the girls and looking at their progress,” Griffitts said. “Just being a leader to them and seeing how well our team went from zero to 100 (was great).”
“Just to see that competitive edge in flag — translating over from the boy’s side in regular football — is kind of what got me into it. It’s sometimes higher than what the boys are doing.”
— Michael Stringer
Among the girls new to the sport included fellow rising senior Julia Neves, who picked up flag football when she was in her sophomore year at Windermere High.
“It was a new sport, and all my friends were doing it, so I thought, ‘Why not?,’” said Neves, who plays linebacker. “I’ve met some of my best friends doing it, and I’ve improved so much since I started.”
In their second season, the Wolverines would start the season off 0-6, but would turn a total 180 — going 5-1 to finish off the regular season. That turnaround alone, and the growth that comes with starting a new culture, is something that tells Stringer and his players that something is starting to click.
A culture shift is difficult, and it’s not something that just happens without hard work and gritty players like Griffitts, Neves and Kaley. And it’s because of players like them that they see their sport grow bigger than anyone could have ever imagined.
But the question remains — why is this sport growing so fast? If you ask the players, they’ll give you the real answer.
“As society changes and as everything slowly starts changing, girls are starting to get more into a sport like flag football,” Kaley said. “And I think when someone starts playing flag football, they see how fun it is and as it goes on, it spreads outward.”