Flagged for expansion: Girls football program goes statewide

Confetti falls and the Chiefs of Cherokee (front) and five other girls football teams react as the Atlanta Falcons announce that in 2020 Georgia will become the fourth state to officially sanction girls high school flag football, during a rally before the Girls Flag Football Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019, in Atlanta. CURTIS COMPTON/CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

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Confetti falls and the Chiefs of Cherokee (front) and five other girls football teams react as the Atlanta Falcons announce that in 2020 Georgia will become the fourth state to officially sanction girls high school flag football, during a rally before the Girls Flag Football Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019, in Atlanta. CURTIS COMPTON/CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Trailblazers. That word was bandied about Wednesday as the first statewide Girls Flag Football Championship series was celebrated at Mercedes Benz Stadium. Only six counties participated in the sport. But it will become a Georgia High School Association-sanctioned sport across the state beginning with the 2020-2021 school year.

It was the second year the Atlanta Falcons hosted the championship, hoping to get teen girls more involved in exercise and team sports.

Although it was their first year, in the championship game Wednesday, Columbus Blue Devils brought skills, passion and five busloads of school spirit to beat veterans Collins Hill High School 31-0 in the final game. With three touchdowns, Columbus player Faith Knoedler was named the game MVP.

“I play soccer and decided not to play basketball this year. When flag football came up I said, ‘Why not?’ ”

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The senior has already signed with North Greenville College on a soccer scholarship. “I hope in college I can play flag football in intramurals or something like that,” she said. “This is such an adrenalin rush! I love it!”

Ashley Chu, a tenth grade running back at Forsyth High School, is all for expanding the program. All though she doesn’t plan to make sports part of her college or career goals, she appreciates the good feeling, fun and camaraderie the sport provides. In one game she ran 65 yards for a touchdown.

“It felt amazing,” she said. “We get so much support from each other and the coaches and friends. It’s a really special time and a really special experience.”

In response to the low number of girls’ sports offered in Georgia the Falcons and the Blank Foundation approached Gwinnett County Public Schools, the largest district in Georgia, in 2018 offering to fully fund a girls high school flag football program in its 19 high schools. Hundreds of girls tried out in the first year, drawing interest from other schools. In 2019 five additional counties joined in: Cherokee, Forsyth, Henry, Muscogee and Rockdale, with a total of 52 high schools across the six counties.

“We knew the need for more girls’ sports in Georgia was there, and that was enough for us to get started,” said Falcons president and CEO Rich McKay. “The goal was always to get this program to become an officially sanctioned sport and give girls more opportunities to play sports in high schools and we are thrilled that the GHSA shared the same vision. It’s an exciting time for high school sports in Georgia.”

It joins an array of GHSA-sanctioned activities, not all of them played on a field or court. They include, for example, one-act plays and, another recent addition, bass fishing.

Although the flag football programs are less expensive than full-pad football, there are still costs involved for uniforms, travel, coaches, equipment, etc. To make sure financial issues don’t keep school districts from participating, the Blank Foundation will continue to provide grants for those that need them.

“It will be an application process and the grants will go to the neediest districts,” said Chris Millman, vice president of community relations for the Atlanta Falcons. “We’ll send out information in the spring.”

Georgia will be the fourth state with a statewide girls flag football program, behind Alaska, Florida and Nevada.

“This is really the beginning. We’d eventually like to see this across the country — across the globe,” said Millman. He added that the Falcons have had conversations with school officials in Montana about piloting a program there.

Gwinnett County athletic director Jon Weyher said he’s glad to see more athletic options for girls.

“Girls love to win and have fun. Why not have them play football.”

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