Senior Marissa Ulie gets up at the crack of dawn for practice four days a week at Lane Tech High School on Chicago’s North Side. She’s a captain, quarterback and linebacker for the school’s first-ever girls flag football team.
The sky is pitch black when they meet at 6 a.m. on a recent Tuesday. While many students sleep, the girls at Lane Tech are running laps and practicing their hand-eye coordination. It’s their first year in the league, and they plan to dominate.
“There’s something so special about being the first and kind of having something to prove,” said the Lane coach, Caroline Schwartz. “Like, this isn’t a boys sport. Girls can play too.”
And the girls are really into it.
“Everyone’s really supportive of each other,” said Marissa, who also plays basketball at Lane. “It’s tough getting up that early, but we’re having a good time and we’re winning so far, so it’s very fun.”
Flag football started last year with 22 Chicago public school teams. Now, the league has grown to include 50 schools, with teams in Rockford and the western suburbs. CPS also built a new website to track game schedules and scores. The goal is to be recognized as an official sport by the Illinois High School Association by 2024.
The teams are split into smaller conferences based on geography. Most games take place on Saturdays because of a referee shortage, according to Juliana Zavala, senior manager of elementary sports at CPS.
Zavala helped start the league along with Gustavo Silva, manager of youth football and community programs at the Chicago Bears. She said they were inspired by similar programs in Georgia and Florida. Now that more colleges are incorporating women’s flag football, they want to make sure recruiters stop by Chicago, too.
Fifteen colleges launched programs last spring through the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. It’s the first time any division has officially recognized flag football as a sanctioned sport.
“[It’s] just so exciting to see the girls and know that you’re part of building a foundation for these girls to play at the collegiate level,” Zavala said. “Because some of these girls might not have an opportunity.”
Coach Schwartz said she would have joined football back in high school if she’d had the chance. She played in college at the club and intramural levels.
Now, Schwartz works to train the next generation of women players. She volunteered to form a team at Lane after being hired to teach computer science last year.
“It was pretty much fate,” she said.
South Siders trying to stay on top
Over on the South Side, Back of the Yards High School is training to defend its title. The girls were crowned city champions after defeating Prosser Career Academy, in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood, 16-6 in the finals last year.
They practice after school on a field they typically share with the boys soccer team.
Last year, the Bears, the National Football League and Nike stepped in to provide free cleats, jerseys and helmets for the girls. Free gear allowed more students at Back of the Yards to participate.
“I feel like if we didn’t have that support… we probably wouldn’t have had a team last year,” said coach Alicia Maxwell.
Now in their second year in the league, coach Maxwell says she tries to shield the girls from feeling too much pressure to win. She’s already turned down several requests to scrimmage with other teams outside of official games.
Most players this year are lowerclassmen, which gives her a chance to grow the team over time. The girls work hard but try to keep things light on the field. They crack jokes in Spanish and English and cheer each other on after every play.
“Obviously it’s not all about flag football,” Maxwell said. “It’s about life, how you treat other people and how you treat yourself.”
Senior Brenda Macias, a captain on the team, said the girls are feeling confident this season. They’re focused on having fun and growing together.
“It’s good that we acknowledge our success but to not get cocky with it and keep learning from it and contributing to it,” Macias said.