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‘The sport took off’: Nevada among leaders in growth of flag football

Updated December 26, 2023 - 4:32 pm

Akemi Higa fell in love with flag football.

Growing up in her native Hawaii, Higa started playing the sport at a young age and was the only girl quarterback in a league made up of mostly boys.

At the time, opportunities to continue to play the sport she loved in Hawaii were limited for high school-aged girls. Either she could play tackle football with the boys or try to find a travel team to play on.

To continue to pursue her dream of playing the sport, Higa’s family decided to leave Hawaii and move somewhere with more opportunities. As they researched cities, Las Vegas popped up as an environment with a growing flag football scene.

“When we decided to move (to Las Vegas), we saw how many girls really liked this sport and how much growth it’s making,” said Higa, a sophomore quarterback at Desert Oasis. “It’s really become a sport people are passionate about.”

Higa and hundreds of other high school girls are playing the sport in Las Vegas, and many more are playing the sport on the club level. Nevada was the second state, behind Florida, to add flag football as a sanctioned high school sport.

Nevada high school flag football is played seven-on-seven, allows for a running game and has contact blocking and blitzing.

“These girls that are willing to push it and go for it, they’re going to have some really incredible opportunities over the next five years,” Shadow Ridge coach Matt Nighswonger said. “Our girls here in Nevada are really lucky to have an opportunity where the world is going to be opening up for them with this sport in the next five years.”

According to participation numbers from the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association, 1,636 students played flag football during the 2022-23 school year at the 41 Southern Nevada schools that offered the sport. (Flag football is a Southern-only sport in Nevada.)

The number is an increase of more than 8 percent from the 1,508 participants during the 2021-22 school year with 38 schools offering the sport, and an increase from 1,447 participants from the 2019-20 school year.

Eight states have sanctioned varsity flag football — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, New York and Nevada. California added flag football this fall, and several other states are running pilot programs to look at adding the sport.

Many states are adopting the NIAA operations manual to implement the sport.

It isn’t just the high school game that is growing. Seventeen National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics junior colleges have women’s flag football teams, and the sport was added for the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

There are 10 athletes from Southern Nevada high schools on the roster of Ottawa University in Kansas, the three-time defending NAIA national champion.

“It’s been incredible,” Coronado senior quarterback Maci Joncich said of the growth of flag football in Las Vegas. “I’ve played ever since I was a little girl, and seeing it grow, hundreds of more girls are playing. High school flag football wasn’t even a thing a little bit ago. Seeing this come along has been amazing to see.”

‘Proved to be successful’

Flag football becoming a sanctioned NIAA sport can be traced back to a major change in girls soccer, NIAA executive director Donnie Nelson said.

From the 2000-01 school year to 2011-12, the top classification of girls soccer was split, with Northern Nevada playing the sport during the fall and Southern Nevada playing in the winter.

Without a unified state champion in the top classification, parents went to the NIAA saying it was a Title IX issue. The NIAA unified girls soccer as a fall sport for the 2012-13 school year.

But another issue arose with a girls winter sport being taken away. Right as the process began to unify girls soccer, the Clark County School District sent out a survey to families asking which sport they would like to see fill the winter void.

Flag football, lacrosse and girls wrestling were among the final three. Flag football won, and its first season as a CCSD-sanctioned sport was the 2011-12 school year.

“The district had transportation, coaches, stipends, had uniforms and equipment provided, had officials, and all the things that needed to happen for a sport to get sanctioned,” Nelson said. “It proved to be successful.”

The NIAA Board of Control approved flag football to become a sanctioned sport with an official state championship for the 2016-17 school year.

“The sport took off,” Nelson said.

Even when it was just a district sport, schools across Las Vegas saw immediate interest.

“We’ve always had good numbers,” Green Valley coach Kellen Bush said. “It was shocking to see how many girls actually wanted to give flag football a shot. … At our school, we’ve always had a lot of girls coming out. Some haven’t been very familiar with the sport. They’ve never played, but some of them have become our best players. It’s weird. The sport has grown so much.”

‘Blowing up so fast’

When Todd Thomson became the coach of Desert Oasis for the 2021-22 season — his first time coaching high school flag football — Bush gave him some advice.

“He told me the first thing you do when you get there is to meet the soccer girls,” Thomson said.

Before Thomson became the Desert Oasis coach, his Apex Predators club flag football program became the first to add girls teams. He said now is the “perfect time” for girls to start playing high school flag football because the sport “is blowing up so fast.”

“In about six years when those girls that have been playing since they were 8 are in high school, it’s going to be a whole new level because those kids who have been playing most of their lives are now playing in high school,” Thomson said. “That level is really going to go up.”

More girls are not just playing the sport, but are devoting more time to it and making flag football their focus.

“In the past, this wasn’t anyone’s primary sport,” Nighswonger said. “Girls were doing other sports, and kind of flag football. But for a lot of girls around town, it’s their primary sport. They’re doing it year-round outside of their high school season.”

Bush, who has coached flag football at Green Valley since 2012 and became the head coach before last year, said one of the program’s best players was originally a soccer player.

“One of our girls, Jazlyn Camacho, was a big club soccer girl. She stopped playing soccer, took flag seriously then went to college for it,” Bush said. “She’s a three-time national champion and one of the girls on (the 2023 U.S women’s national team). It’s just amazing what’s happening, and it’s getting more people to jump on board.”

‘Being a pioneer’

Liberty’s Kiona Westerlund started playing flag football four years ago for the Apex Predators club team. She played volleyball and ran track, and said she wasn’t looking to play but wanted to give it a try.

“I remember that I was terrible and I didn’t know how to play, but I just felt a little spark,” Westerlund said “I felt like I could get better. I always put my all into it. I’m glad that I did and have that drive because it kept me pushing to love the sport.”

Not long after, Westerlund was featured with her Apex Predators teammates in the NFL’s 2021 kickoff commercial. She was one of three athletes from Las Vegas who participated in last summer’s Junior International Cup, representing USA Football. Westerlund and Joncich played on the 17-under team, and Higa was on the 15-under team.

“I definitely love being a pioneer,” Westerlund said. “Being one of the first young women to play on the USA team was a great opportunity. And I’m glad that I was an example to the younger girls coming up. I have a little sister, she’s a quarterback, and I also love that I was able to do that and show her the example.”

Nighswonger said he’s confident NCAA schools will add flag football as a sanctioned college sport within the next five years, and gave credit to the Raiders for hosting all-star games and preseason tournaments for local high school teams.

Thomson said the opportunities to play in college and the Olympics are the “light at the end of the tunnel” with obtainable goals the girls can reach playing flag football.

Joncich received an invite to try out for the 2024 U.S. national team. She began playing flag football with her brothers over 10 years ago and was the only girl until about four years ago, she said. Getting the chance to play college flag football or compete for an Olympic gold medal was unimaginable when she started playing.

“I’ve been playing for so long, it’s been amazing climbing the ladder,” Joncich said. “Once I made Team USA, I was like, ‘I can’t really go up from here.’ But now my goal is to make the Olympic team.”

Along with the additional opportunities to play the sport is the chance for current Las Vegas high school athletes to become role models for the next generation of flag football players.

“We are the team paving the way for other little girls around the world that want to play that don’t have the opportunity yet,” Higa said. “We’re paving and trying to lead the way for them and tell them they can do whatever they want. They don’t have to limit the stuff they can do. We’re setting an example for them.”

Contact Alex Wright at awright@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlexWright1028 on X.

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