That Sudbury Sports Guy: Flag football league still going strong

Emma White, middle, of the Lasalle Lancers, attempts to run between two Lockerby Vikings players during flag football action at James Jerome Sports Complex in Sudbury, Ont. on Wednesday September 25, 2019. John Lappa/Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network

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With five very solid teams in the senior ranks and another six playing in the junior loop this fall, it’s been suggested that high-school boys football in Sudbury is currently in pretty good shape.

That being the case, I am not quite sure what superlative I should be using to describe the state of girls flag football at the secondary school level, with no less than 18 teams representing 15 different schools taking to the turf of the James Jerome Sports Complex with regularity this fall.

And this, only two years after the group made the much-debated move from 12-on-12 format to the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association-preferred 7 v 7 version.

“The biggest change this year is that teams have adapted,” noted Confederation Chargers junior and senior coach (or, more precisely, A and B division coach) Brad Smith. “It’s the second season now and the offences are getting more complex, which causes the defences to adapt. The throwing game has dominated every game that we’ve played.

“My team, generally, has been more of a running team, so this is challenging, but fun, and it’s still growing. It just keeps getting better and better. It’s a lot more offensive, a lot more creative. In the old 12 v 12, you would have one or two ball carriers and not a ton of passing. This has more people involved and there’s more space, which makes it a much more entertaining game to watch.”

Yet the attraction to a more wide-open game is but one of the lures for high school girls in Sudbury, who continue flocking to fall tryouts, more than just slightly aware of the branding of the sport of football, at all sorts of levels, at this time of year.

“This is the closest that girls can get to playing football, which is a male-dominated sport,” noted 15-year-old Abby Redmond, now in her second year with the St. Benedict Bears. “This way, we get to play a sport that is almost identical to theirs, with a few little tweaks, and we get to show them that we can do what they can do.”

One could certainly argue that football fever, in general, has taken over the south end school.

“We do have strong boys teams, but I believe the girls can be just as strong in football,” said Redmond. “Their coach, Mr. Labrosse, is really interactive with all of the students, so he’ll talk to the girls and the guys about plays in class.

“Most of us go out and watch the boys’ game, so we can see the similarities. It’s not that different, other than the whole hitting part.”

And lest one think that the fairer sex tackles their football involvement with substantially less intensity than the lads, well clearly, they have not been on the receiving end of a very determined flag grab from an ultra-focused defender.

“A good flag grabber is someone who is not afraid to go out there and grab the flags and have lots of aggression, grab it with two hands and not be afraid, because you’re not going to hurt the person,” said Redmond. “You’re just going to grab the flag and move on — and don’t be afraid to get dirty.”

It’s not just at school where the young ladies are being taught the tricks of the trade, not with fathers all over the region glued to their NFL games every weekend. Sam Paris, a 14-year-old Grade 9 St. Charles College student blessed with outstanding speed, has quickly been making her mark on the league, averaging more than a touchdown a game.

“I messed up a lot of the plays when I first started at the practices, so I would go home and practise with my dad and we would run the plays,” said Paris. “I’m more comfortable with the plays now.”

An 86-yard dash earlier this week, where she split the seam of defenders and bolted by in a flash, was a testament to just how quickly she has grasped the game.

“I always hope to be out in the open, but if I have to run through a crowd, then I will,” said Paris. “You want to move your hips a lot, because that’s where your flags are. You always want to try and keep that moving.”

Perhaps no school has adapted to the recent changes better than Lasalle Secondary, who snapped a seven-year Marymount Regals run as SDSSAA flag football champions, albeit in an altered rendering of the sport.

“I feel that we are a school that has a lot of good track athletes and cross country and stuff like that, and this is really a running game now, compared to before, when it was a more physical game,” noted Grade 12 veteran Sydney Wachnuk.

“We really excel in the running part, it plays to our strength more than 12 on 12. We also have an amazing offensive coach, Mr. Patrie, who brings in plays from outside of the school that he personally does in his flag football league, so that kind of gives an extra aspect to it.”

Fair to say these outings are not all just fun and games, that there is actually some serious effort going into the task of devising a game plan that increases the likelihood of success.

“It’s a little different, because our coed games for adults, we play on a quarter of the size of the field,” said Patrie, who also has experience coaching in the boys high school football grouping. “Speed doesn’t kill as much as it does in this game here. It’s a little different, but it’s the same types of ideas as far as conceiving plays to try and get certain people open, or in isolation.

“Last year was a bit of a feeling-out process, trying to find out what plays are going to work, what plays are not going to work. And this year, our quarterback can really pass, so that opens up the playbook. You can have more of a well-balanced offence and get everyone involved, instead of just two to three runners.”

And that, apparently, has mass appeal, to the girls even more than the boys.

Randy Pascal is That Sudbury Sports Guy. His column runs regularly in The Sudbury Star.