'Now that we have it, it's amazing': High school girls flag football is growing in the suburbs
Heck yes, Emma Anderlik wanted to play football.
“As a kid growing up I think that a lot of girls want to play football, just seeing it all over television, and it being the sport in America,” said the Willowbrook High School senior.
“Not being able to have that as a girls sport was kind of like hard to fathom, but now that we have it, it's amazing.”
It is amazing, the growth of girls flag football.
According to National Federation of State High School Associations surveys, the number of girls playing flag football rose 86% from 2018-19 to 2022-23, from 11,209 players to 20,875.
Nationwide 913 schools played the sport in 2022-23 (to 13,670 boys 11-player teams) and seven states sponsored a state championship.
In 2022, with players like receiver-defensive back Anderlik, in Willowbrook's first season the Warriors won a state title at Halas Hall, a regional title in Ohio, and advanced to the NFL Flag Bowl championship in Las Vegas on Feb. 5.
On Aug. 24 the Warriors were among four girls flag teams to play in the second Nike Football Kickoff Classic at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon.
Willowbrook is among 109 Illinois high schools who participate in girls flag football this fall. A shortlist includes Addison Trail, Dundee-Crown, Fenton, Grayslake North, Larkin, Libertyville, Maine West, Round Lake, Stevenson and Streamwood.
“I'm confident — obviously not 100% yet, but confident — it will be an IHSA (Illinois High School Association) sport next year,” said Rachel Karos, Willowbrook's co-head coach.
A former three-sport star at Naperville North who plays with the Chicago Surge in the Chicago Metropolitan Sports Flag Football League, Karos leads Willowbrook along with a great ally — head boys varsity football coach Nick Hildreth, a Willowbrook graduate.
Together they've got enough girls, 37, to field varsity and junior varsity teams, and have established a feeder program within the Villa Park Warriors.
“You come here on a Sunday, we have 64 young girls already getting involved in the sport. It's accessible financially, it's a sport that is accessible to all,” Karos said.
Stevenson's pilot program debuted this year. Around 70 girls tried out. After co-head coach Kelsey Patten said some “realized maybe it wasn't for them,” there are 23 Patriots on the varsity, about 20 more on junior varsity.
The varsity will play five regular-season games in the six-team Lake County MegaConference and add nonconference scrimmages. On Oct. 6 Stevenson will host Oak Park-River Forest before the boys varsity game.
“It's going to be really cool,” Patten said.
On June 2, Stevenson won its first game in history, 42-0.
“We're really excited just to have this opportunity and to start something new here at Stevenson that's never been done,” Patten said.
Support by the National Football League has been key.
Gustavo Silva, the Chicago Bears' manager of youth and high school football, said the Bears or Bears Care provided funding or equipment to all 109 Illinois high school teams.
Illinois girls flag football grew from 22 Chicago Public Schools teams in 2021 to 60 teams statewide last fall, expanding to the western suburbs and Rockford area. Karos first heard of it from an Oak Park coach.
Five new leagues and more than 40 programs begin play this season, Silva said. On Aug. 19 at Englewood STEM High School in Chicago, 36 teams and about 700 girls played in the Bears' third High School Girls Flag Football Jamboree.
“It was just a matter of giving them the right opportunity,” Silva said. “We knew that (interest) was there and it's our goal as the Chicago Bears to grow the game of football. But we want to do it in a way that makes the game inclusive and makes the game accessible.”
Silva said he could see 200 teams in 2024 and expects flag football will gain IHSA sanctioning.
Craig Anderson, IHSA executive director, also attended the Jamboree, watching the girls play on seven flag fields.
“I found the level of play to be really top-level in the skill set of the girls, the plays they were running,” he said.
“Obviously, with the number of teams that's created momentum toward the IHSA adopting a state series. We have a board policy that would say when 10% of our membership is competing in a particular sport, that's the time that the (IHSA) board could consider adopting a state series,” Anderson said.
Membership stands at 814, he said. A 7% threshold is used to discontinue a series, a fate boys gymnastics and debate suffered in June.
First steps, which Anderson said may happen this fall, include establishing an advisory committee and member schools approving season and contest limitations, such as a first day of practice and length of season.
Right now, though, Willowbrook quarterback Marli Smrz is concerned only about what she can control: “Keeping your head on your shoulders and knowing where you're at. And the effort that you show and also knowing who you're playing for,” she said.
“Because not only are we playing for ourselves, but we're playing for the ladies who didn't get a chance to play when they were our age.”