June 12th, 2024

‘Burst into football’: Blue Bombers get in on growing sport of girls flag football

By Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press on April 13, 2024.

Elyssa Cadieux, a grade 9 student from CSLR high school reaches for Solape Obasa’s flag, a grade 11 student in Elmwood High School, during a Blue Bombers High School Girls Flag Football League game in Winnipeg, Wednesday, April 10, 2024. Flag football organizations are hoping to see an influx of athletes as the sport will be introduced in the next olympic games. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

WINNIPEG – Standing on a field of green turf at a sporting facility in Winnipeg’s south end, Solape Obasa keeps her eye on the football, waiting for the moment she can catch it and run.

But before the 17-year-old at Winnipeg’s Elmwood High School got the chance to wait, she had to work for the opportunity to get on the field at all as part of a new high school girls flag football league.

“I’ve always liked the idea of girls playing flag football since the guys have football. I always wondered why no girls were allowed on the team,” Obasa said in an interview.

The teen doesn’t call herself a football fan, but said she loves to jump at trying something new that taps into her athletic abilities.

But that opportunity ran into a roadblock at Elmwood High, which previously had a boys tackle football squad but nothing on the gridiron for girls.

Obasa and other students pushed staff to establish a girls flag football team. They were told if they could find 15 participants ready to play, they would be in.

It didn’t take much for the team to fill up, said the team’s head coach, Zhanna Samborski.

She credits the speed of the game, the camaraderie of the sport and the chance for girls to “elbow (their) way into a male-dominated field” as the reasons for the interest.

“We need to have more of a female presence in these spaces. Women have fought long and hard for these types of opportunities,” said Samborski.

With more girls taking up flag football, Obasa hopes to see it last.

“I really want the sport to go far,” she said.

Flag football, particularly the girls’ game, has already come a long way in a short time to become one of the fastest-growing sports in North America.

The girls league was launched earlier this month by the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

More than 200 players from 19 teams will compete in six weeks of games.

Wade Miller, president and CEO of the Bombers, said they saw a gap in who got to play, and worked to fix it.

“We wanted to create this program just to encourage more high school-aged girls to get involved in football. We hope this turns into some going and playing tackle or flag football year-round,” said Miller.

The sport has been added to the Olympic program for the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

“No sport that has gone to the Olympics has gone from recreational straight to it being an Olympic sport faster than flag football,” said Jim Mullin, president of Football Canada.

“One or two of these young women (in the Winnipeg league) might end up being on the team. It’s within that realm of possibility.”

The essence of the game, where opponents pull a flag off a player rather than tackle him or her to make a stop, is the key to its development, said Bill Johnson, executive director of Football Manitoba.

The fact it doesn’t require a whole lot of equipment or infrastructure to play also helps a lot, particularly to grow the game in rural and northern parts of Manitoba, said Johnson.

Mike Watson, who coaches the Morris School’s girls team, adds, “It’s a great way to burst into football.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces to football. If you can learn those moving pieces without the fear of getting hit, confidence comes.”

It’s estimated 20 million players in more than 100 countries, including Canada, participate in flag football.

Canada’s national teams are among the best in the world. The women’s squad claimed the bronze medal at last summer’s Americas Continental Flag Football Championship in Charlotte, N.C.

Back in Winnipeg, Darci Epp is returning to the game she started playing as a child.

When the chance to play flag football for her school in Morris came up, the 16-year-old jumped at the chance to head back onto the field, to grab the ball — and hope others catch some inspiration.

“I am excited for the next generations of girls coming up in our school and other schools being able to see this as a new sport for them to play,” said Epp.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 13, 2024.

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