Girls flag football is off to a flying start with first Arizona championship this year

By Phil Latzman
Published: Thursday, September 28, 2023 - 5:05am
Updated: Tuesday, January 16, 2024 - 10:52am

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At the girls-only Xavier College Preparatory in Phoenix, football was something that used to be only played across the campus at the adjoining boys-only school, Brophy Prep.

But not anymore.

“It’s very, very popular and the girls all watch football along with their families and they support Brophy football, so they know football. This is more fun than a barrel of monkeys. I love it,” said Sister Lynn Winsor.

Sister Lynn has been a familiar face around this campus for decades.

After attending the school and graduating in the early '60s, she returned to Xavier as a faculty member and eventually its athletic director as the groundbreaking Title IX was being implemented in the late 1970s.

“Of course when it came in, nobody paid any attention. Nobody even knew what it was,” she said.

Team members sit on the grass
Phil Latzman/KJZZ
Xavier Prep’s Girls Flag Football team stretches before a home game on Sept. 12, 2023.

Soon, everyone would. The Title IX amendments made it illegal for schools to discriminate on the basis of sex, and it opened up a brand new world of sports for girls that Sister Lynn has since overseen.

“When I came here, we had softball, basketball and volleyball. And now I think we have 14 sports. There’s so much opportunity for the girls and I think that’s great,” she said.

But even Sister Lynn could not have foreseen this opportunity for girls on the gridiron.

“Now, I know there are girls who play regular boys football. But for most of the girls, that’s unattainable. They’re not big enough, they’re not strong enough. This is perfect. You can offense, you can be defense. Everyone has a spot,” she said.

Freshman Maryiah James plays running back and defensive back.

“I tell people I play football and they say that makes sense, that makes sense. Because I walk around with my shoulders rolled up, sleeves up, and they’re like ‘oh, football swag,'” James said.

Sophomore linebacker Zoe Alexander is the daughter of former Arizona Cardinals player Lorenzo Alexander.

“Well, my dad’s one of the coaches. And then he was a professional player, so it’s nice that I can take after him.”

Alexander says it’s not just for fun. 

“Yeah, it’s definitely very competitive. People are trash talking and bodying people. Just as rough as the guys’ games," she said.

Team members and Cardinals player stand on field
Phil Latzman/KJZZ
Arizona Cardinals linebacker Dennis Gardeck talks with members of Xavier Prep’s girls flag football team before a game on Sept. 12, 2023.

Flag football has become one of the most popular new sports for girls.

David Hines is executive director of the Arizona Interscholastic Association, which is sanctioning the sport for the first time this year after being played on the club level in 2022.

“All of the sudden, 57 schools said we’re gonna join in, so instead of it being an emerging sport, we had so much attention, we actually made it a state championship sport in its first year,” he said.

Hines says girls sports of all kinds in Arizona have been experiencing rapid growth in recent years.

“(A) few years ago, we put in beach volleyball and that’s gone through the roof. Girls wrestling, we added girls wrestling and that’s doubled or tripled since we started. And now flag football. These kids are really excited about jumping in and doing this,” Hines said.

The sport is so new that the AIA actually had to come up with its own set of rules to govern it.

The NFL has also been heavily involved in helping promote the girls game.

Nicole Bidwill said wishes she had something like this growing up in the football family that owns the Cardinals. She’s now a team vice president.

“We are so excited for these girls. We’ve been working on this for a long time, to develop girls flag football in high schools and have it be an officially sanctioned sport. So we are just thrilled that they now get the opportunity to play the sport they love and still have it recognized by the AIA," she said.

"All of the sudden, 57 schools said we’re gonna join in, so instead of it being an emerging sport, we had so much attention, we actually made it a state championship sport in its first year."
— David Hines, Arizona Interscholastic Association executive director

Star Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray was present for the opening game last month. The popular Cardinals linebacker Dennis Gardeck was on hand to flip the coin before kickoff against Mountain Ridge High School.

“You know, they play it in the neighborhood, but they weren’t allowed to after school, and it’s so cool to see them have a league of their own. And it seems like its growing and progressing and next year is supposed to be even bigger, so it’s exciting,” he said.

Even though there’s no tackling, Gardeck believes there’s plenty of strategy.

“Still football. You know, for me right now it’s trying to figure out their formation tendencies, is there anything going on that way. What’s allowed and what’s not allowed. And excited to be out here to watch, observe and maybe pick up on some things,” he said.

It’s all a dream come true for Sister Lynn Winsor, who’s been on the front lines of gender equality in sports for nearly 50 years.

“The most important thing for girls being on a sports team, it’s not winning, but it’s making friends and having fun, and I think that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

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