Defense, toughness and grit: Horizon girls flag football’s identity key to 2024 success

In its third season, Horizon High’s girls flag football team finished the regular season 13-2 and has its sights set on a deep playoff run.

Senior Miriam Athay is a do-it-all player for Horizon, but she’s most valuable as a leader and ball-hawking safety.
Senior Miriam Athay is a do-it-all player for Horizon, but she’s most valuable as a leader and ball-hawking safety.
Sam Albuquerque
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When asked to describe what the identity of the 2024 edition of his team was, Horizon High girls flag football coach Ethan Mankoff pointed to three words he thought perfectly summed up what the Lady Hawks were all about. 

“Defense, toughness and just grit,” he said. 

That identity was on full display in Horizon’s final game of the season against its rival, the Windermere Wolverines. 

In the waning moments of the fourth quarter, Windermere charged down the field with one final chance to flip the Hawks’ 6-0 lead into a 7-6 Wolverines win. Despite Windermere having the ball, the momentum and the chance to win the game, Horizon wasn’t fazed in the moment. The Hawks just leaned into their identity. 

As the ball was thrown down the field by the Wolverines’ quarterback, Horizon senior captain Miriam Athay did what she’s done countless times before — jumped the route and intercepted the pass. Game over, Hawks win.


Last season, Horizon made a huge jump from its inaugural season — going from a 2-11 record in 2022 to a 14-2 record in 2023 — but missed the regional playoffs after a 27-0 loss to Harmony High in the district playoffs.

This season, Mankoff knew to take the next step as a program, his team needed to up the level of competition.

“Because our first year we went 2-11, I wasn’t sure how we were going to develop in Year Two, so I scheduled a kind of lighter run of games,” Mankoff said. “ We ended up going 14-2. So, this year, I was like, ‘I’m scheduling all the best teams in Orlando.’ I really wanted to see where we’re really at compared to the historically best teams in Central Florida. So, we went on the road to Apopka (High), Dr. Phillips (High) and Winter Park (High) and won two of those three games. … We played a really tough schedule, because I wanted to get ready for the playoffs, and we ended up 13-2. So, I’m really happy.”

Junior Madison Strain is both literally and figuratively at the center of the Hawks’ defense at the linebacker position.
Sam Albuquerque

Senior captain Kylie Will has been able to see the difference the tougher scheduling has made in this season’s Hawks team. 

“Last season, we were able to run up the scores against other teams, win most of our games by like 40 and shut out the other teams in a lot of games,” Will said. “This season has definitely been more of a challenge for us, but we’ve been able to elevate our game and continue to crush it. … I think our schedule is an advantage, because we play harder games than some other teams in the area, and honestly, going through it and doing (well) has helped us become more confident and believe we can make it as far as we want, if we continue to push ourselves.”

The challenging schedule means that close games — such as Horizon’s one-score win over Windermere — happen more often. The key to winning those games is having the right mentality. 

“We have this ability to stay positive, no matter what happens in a game,” Mankoff said. “That lets us keep fighting to the last second. We’ve gotten down in a few games this year, and we’ve always responded really well to that; by not letting ourselves get mentally down at all. We’re just always like, ‘OK, that’s cool. They scored, but we’re going to get back out there and focus, so we can get back in this game right now.’ And that’s been a big part of our season.”


The mental toughness and grit that allow the Hawks to keep fighting in those tough close-game moments often can be seen one play after they allow the opposition to score a touchdown; when Horizon is trying to stop its opponents from converting an extra-point attempt.

“We’ve won … five games by six points or less this season,” Mankoff said. “Because we’ve been in a lot of close games, we’ve really harped on extra points being a huge part of the game. They’ve honestly been the difference in some of those games.”

Unlike tackle football, flag football doesn’t have kicked extra-point attempts following touchdowns. Instead, there are three extra-point attempt options — executed in the same way two-point conversion attempts are in tackle football. After scoring a touchdown, a team can select between extra-point attempts worth one, two or three points. To receive one extra point, teams have one play to reach the end zone from the three-yard line; for two points, they start from the 10-yard line, and for the three extra points, they have to convert their single attempt from the 20-yard line. 

In close games, successful attempts can mean the difference between winning and losing.

“We’ve just kept focusing on stopping those extra points,” Mankoff said. “Because we know how important they are, we’re able to stay positive when we give up points. … We know we have to stop this extra point, so you can’t be down on yourself, you can’t be negative right now, we have to stop it. And we’ve done a really good job of getting those extra-point stops this season.”


As Horizon enters the playoff in its third season, this group, more than any previous Hawks team, has shown it has what it takes to go on a championship run.

That run starts with its defense. 

“I harp on defense, because there might be a day where we come out and we’re not playing up to our ability on offense, but you can always play well on defense,” Mankoff said. “Defense ... is desire and technique. … No matter what’s going on, you can come out with energy and motivation, and you can play defense.”

Led by star safety Athay and linebacker Madison Strain, the Horizon defense has smothered its opposition — allowing an average of just 5.47 points per game. The Hawks only have allowed two opponents to score more than seven points this season — with no team scoring more than 20. 

On D, communication has been critical to the Hawks’ success.

“We’re really good about being able to talk to (one another) without getting upset,” sophomore Jordan Schwenneker said. “I see a lot of teams fall apart when they get upset with (one another), because of mistakes their quarterback makes or one of their receivers drops a catch. Everybody makes mistakes, and our team is great at realizing that and moving on to the next play. That really pulls us together and helps us in a lot of our games. We never get on (one another) about anything like that; it’s never one person’s fault.” 

That sort of communication helps do two things: Breed a positive environment that allows this team to thrive in pressure-packed situations, and it helps the team develop chemistry on and off the field. 

“We’re all pretty good at reading (one another) and … knowing certain things about (one another), both as players and people,” Athay said. “We know when one of us is getting upset and how to calm each other down, and that’s helped us a lot this season. We also know what we like to do on the field. Just knowing our players is what’s helped us a lot to develop a good bond with each other and the coaches. That understanding definitely shows in our play.”

Combine those factors with a young offensive attack that’s shown flashes of brilliance, and this Hawks team is on its way to accomplishing something special this season. 

“These last few years, I feel like we’ve been building something really great,” Mankoff said. “It’s ... really exciting, because the girls are really getting into the sport and are having a lot of fun, as well.”

Sam Albuquerque is the Sports Editor for the Orange Observer. Please contact him with story ideas, results and statistics.

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Sam Albuquerque

A native of João Pessoa, Brazil, Sam Albuquerque moved in 1997 to Central Florida as a kid. After earning a communications degree in 2016 from the University of Central Florida, he started his career covering sports as a producer for a local radio station, ESPN 580 Orlando. He went on to earn a master’s degree in editorial journalism from Northwestern University, before moving to South Carolina to cover local sports for the USA Today Network’s Spartanburg Herald-Journal. When he’s not working, you can find him spending time with his lovely wife, Sarah, newborn son, Noah, and dog named Skulí.

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