At the first meeting for flag football in the spring, coach Lisa Koehler had 40 girls show up. Over the summer, though, only a handful of athletes participated in open field workouts, prompting worries that there might not be enough interest in the new sport to field a team in the fall.
But following volleyball and soccer tryouts, Koehler held her own tryouts for Flathead’s newest team, and ended up with 22 girls on the roster.
“I figured we could work with that,” Koehler said. “Clearly the interest is there for a new sport. I think girls in this area are just excited to play everything. I know if I’d had this available to me as a young female athlete, I would have been very excited and all into it.”
In 2021, the Montana High School Association (MHSA) voted to add girls flag football as a sanctioned sport at the high school level, becoming the seventh state to offer the sport, while several others currently have pilot programs. Four schools in the state initially expressed interest in adding the activity but one dropped out, leaving just Butte, Flathead and Glacier. With the highest concentration of athletes located a mere three miles apart, just like with the start of girls wrestling in 2021, Kalispell is again breaking ground as the state’s hub for women’s athletics.
Nationally, flag football is centered in Georgia, where the Atlanta Falcons partnered with the state to pilot the women’s sport at the high school level starting in 2018. Georgia sanctioned the sport two years later and this fall 230 schools are expected to field teams across the state.
The sport is seeing growth outside the high school scene as well. Several junior colleges and 15 NAIA schools have sanctioned the sport, increasing scholarship opportunities for women’s athletics at the college level. Flag football is also on the short list to become an exhibition sport during the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.
“If you do the math, that’s really the prime time for the girls who are starting now with this inaugural season,” Koehler said. “They have infinite opportunities coming down the line.”
The Bravettes roster includes several senior multisport athletes, including their captains Akilah Kubi, Payton Walker and Tali Miller.
“That senior leadership is so important, and certainly a harder role to step into here, because those girls aren’t able to draw on past seasons of experience,” Koehler said.
Taking on a whole new sport in year one levels the playing field among teammates – from the seniors who have earned all-state honors in other sports to freshmen new to the world of athletics, everyone is starting from scratch and learning together.
Trinity Boivin was part of the inaugural class of girls wrestling in 2021, and is now diving headfirst into another new sport
“The thought of trying something new made me excited to try it out,” Boivin said. “I’d say that plus the idea of teamwork and getting to bond with my teammates.”
Courtney Hendrickson, another Bravettes player, also loves the idea of taking part in a new sport.
“It’s kind of mentally risky to put yourself out there in a new setting,” Hendrickson said at a recent practice at Legends Stadium. “It’s definitely been hard trying something totally new, but at the same time everyone’s learning, not just me.”
The team practices at Legends Stadium, alternating days on the turf with the boys team to put them on equal footing.
“Usually football is considered the masculine sport, and my hope is that people will treat us like athletes, like football players, not as girls,” Hendrickson said.
Koehler said the benefit from the Georgia pilot program is huge, from having rules to draw on, film to watch and a partner in the Atlanta Falcons.
“If you Google girls flag football, you almost get too much information,” she said. “Each league is a little different, there’s 5-on-5, 7-on-7, 8-on-8; some leagues have rushing, some have screening. My pitch to MHSA was to follow the rules already in place in Atlanta. They built the bones of this, so we might as well use that structure.”
Across town at Glacier, coach Mark Kessler has roughly 30 girls on the Wolfpack roster and he’s bringing 25 years of football coaching experience to the game. Even with a deep understanding of the adjacent game, though, there’s a big learning curve with the new rules and teaching a green crop of athletes.
In Montana, flag football will be played 7-on-7 style. All members of the team are eligible receivers , much like 6-man football. The playing field is shorter, rushing is allowed from the line and the defense can do screen blocking.
“Just like basketball, it’s a non-contact, contact sport,” Koehler said. “Without blocking, the game also ends up being super fast paced.”
With only three teams, Montana’s inaugural flag football season will be short, culminating in a state tournament in Missoula on Oct. 1. Starting last weekend, the teams will compete five straight weekends playing each team.
“The more we showcase it and the more we play, the more hype and excitement we will get for it,” Koehler said. “The ultimate goal is that after this, the rest of the double A and single A schools will jump on board next year.”
“We’ve talked about it with the girls extensively that they are trailblazing this for so many other girls you don’t even know,” Koehler added. “Those little girls who may come to a jamboree, see it and want to follow along, they’ll have the images of this first wave in their mind forever. I get kind of emotional thinking about it.”
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