Girls playing on Fox Valley-area youth football teams in recent years certainly is not anything new.
But in the case of the Elgin-based Crusaders youth football program, it's the quantity of girls playing in the program that is impressive.
The Crusaders, the feeder program for St. Edward High School in Elgin, have six girls playing throughout its four teams, with three of those girls playing on the 7th-8th grade combination team (unlimited weight). The program was founded in 1999 by the late Rich Sanders (former St. Edward head football coach) as a way to feed more players into St. Edward. It has about 110 players in the program.
That trio includes eighth-grader Talia Schneider (Abbott Middle School in Elgin), seventh-grader Zoie Lewis (Ellis Middle School in Elgin) and sixth-grader Sophia Olech (Wredling Middle School in St. Charles). Schneider is in her third year with the program, while Lewis is a second-year Crusaders player and Olech is new this season.
On the team, Schneider and Lewis start at outside linebacker and rotate in at tight end, while Olech plays defensive tackle and nose tackle.
Coach Joe Kenny, a 2002 St. Edward graduate who played under Sanders, said Schneider and Lewis played 85-90 percent of the team's snaps in the season opener against the Harvard Stingers. Schneider also caught a 14-yard pass. Lewis had 6 tackles on defense in that game.
"Both (Schneider and Lewis) were big contributors on both sides of the ball," Kenny said. "These girls get out there and get after it. It's awesome to see them compete against the boys."
Kenny said the fact Schneider, Lewis and Olech are female makes no difference with the rest of the team.
"The boys like having them on the team," he said. "They treat them like anybody else and they don't go easy on them. At the same time, the girls don't shy away. We're not out there creating special practice plans for them. It's plug and play. The girls go out there and compete."
At the same time, Kenny has not noticed any negativity from opposing players, coaches and fans.
"Nobody is taking a run at them during a game," he said. "They know they are playing against girls. You can see the long hair and the braids coming out of the helmets. I've never once felt like they are in danger. We're proud to have them on our team."
The trio also is well-versed in other sports. Schneider plays volleyball and softball, while Olech plays softball. Lewis recently played on a youth boys baseball team at Elgin National Little League and had 5 home runs, Kenny noted.
"They are great athletes outside of football, and that makes them even better when they play the game," Kenny pointed out.
Lewis became interested in the sport after seeing her brother play.
"I started liking it a few years ago after seeing my brother," she said. "A few years ago, my dad finally let me play for the Elgin Bears. I like catching the ball and running with it."
Schneider also watched her brothers play the sport.
"My brothers played the year before I started," she said. "Another girl had tried out, but I'm not sure if she played. She was the reason my parents let me start."
Schneider said football keeps her plenty busy.
"I'm a bit of a neat freak," she said. "It gives me something to do during the day, especially before school got started. I always like having something to work on and to improve at every year. I'm also very competitive."
Newcomer Olech had a history with Kenny prior to joining the Crusaders.
"Coach Kenny coached my brother's baseball team so I've known him a long time," she said. "He got me into football. He kept telling me I should play and, finally, I decided to play."
Olech enjoys the hustle-and-bustle of the defensive line.
"You have to get through the other team's offensive line," she said. "It's fun to push through the line and get through it and make the tackles."
Backing up what their coach said, the trio said they aren't treated any differently because of their gender.
"The boys don't care," said Olech. "They treat you like everybody else treats you. They don't think of us as girls."
Schneider added: "If they do have a problem, they sure don't show it. The guys on our team are nice."
Lewis said, with the Crusaders, hard work is the main focal point, not if a player is a boy or a girl.
"We all work hard and we all like football," she said. "We play together. Nobody has a problem with us."
Looking to the future, for two of the three girls on Kenny's team, this is the end of the road for them when it comes to football.
"This is my last year playing," said Lewis. "My dad doesn't want me to get hurt when the boys start getting older."
Schneider also is hanging up her football cleats at season's end. "I told myself over these last four years that this would be my last year," she said.
And Olech is unsure of her football future due to Kenny transitioning into a new role next season.
"I'll be helping out where needed," said Kenny, who helps run off-season weightlifting for incoming St. Edward freshmen players.
"I don't know if I'm playing or not next year," Olech said. "My mom won't let me play for anybody else."
But if this is the end of the line for the trio, they have zero regrets.
"What we've been doing is really fun. It's the only way I can describe it," said Schneider.
Olech added: "There's always been a positive energy here."