SARANAC LAKE – After 100 seasons of organized varsity soccer, Saranac Lake introduces a girls varsity soccer team – or rather, a different approach to the sport.
In the upcoming spring sports season, Saranac Lake will compete with 10 other schools in Section VII in girls’ flag soccer. Games are played primarily on the weekends, with home games being played at Wilson Raymond Field.
The team is led by Sean Ryan, who has spent the past few fall sports seasons coaching the boys’ JV football team.
Ryan, who will also join the boys’ collegiate football team as an assistant in the fall of 2023, said when he first heard about the possibility of flag football becoming a girls’ sport, he was intrigued by the possibility of getting the girls involved to help try something new.
“I love football and I want it to reach all levels and all people,” said Ryan. “Because of the success of the Pumpkin Bowl – even while I was still in high school – it was something I knew girls always wanted. As soon as the opportunity arose, I had to take it.”
The Pumpkin Bowl is an annual girls’ flag football tournament hosted by Saranac Lake High School during Homecoming Week.
Around 25 girls will compete for the inaugural Red Storm Flag Football Team, according to Ryan. Most of the participating girls will also compete in a second sport or a main sport in the spring.
“You are engaged” he said. “They can play softball, track and lacrosse, and after they’re done with that, they come over and we start playing soccer.”
Ryan said he has a lot of great athletes on the team, and he’s not wrong – some of them have earned cross country and softball league honors.
“The beauty of it is that they have the skills that they can bring from their other sport.” said Ryan. “We can put our lane runners or long-distance runners out and let them throw the ball deep. We also have softball players who are used to running and sprinting as hard as they can. I’m very excited because we have a chance and our team allows us to do a little bit of everything.”
While Saranac Lake and many of the other schools in the section began practicing about two weeks ago, the sport is already a year old for some programs in upstate New York.
Last year the state created a “pilot program” with some of the larger sections in New York, such as Long Island and Buffalo. According to Section VII girls flag football coordinator Matt Mills, the program expected about 24 teams to compete in the 2021-22 season, but the final figure was 51 teams.
Mills said that girls’ flag football is the fastest growing sport the state has ever seen. He added that the NYSPHSAA has already approved a state championship for next year.
“We’ve tripled in numbers from the pilot program to this year,” said mills. “Now we already have 150 to 160 schools. Many of the schools that piloted it are moving forward with a joint venture and modified program.”
Much of the growth of the sport in New York State has been accomplished with the help of teams from the National Football League, New York Giants, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, NYSPHSAA and Nike. The organizations have helped fund and provide opportunities for girls to play flag football.
According to Giants.com, the official website for the NFL’s New York Giants, the Giants will support Section VII’s inaugural season this spring with a $30,000 contribution to support eight schools planning to have a flag football start a program for girls.
Section VII teams have grown since February when the Giants announced their entry. In addition to Saranac Lake, teams include AuSable Valley, Beekmantown, Keene, Moriah, Northeastern Clinton, Plattsburgh, Peru, Saranac Central, Schroon Lake and Ticonderoga.
While most of these schools probably won’t come as a shock to sports fans, as most of them have a boys’ varsity football team, two smaller schools probably stand out – Schroon Lake and Keene.
The combined high school enrollment number (87) for these two schools is nearly 100 lower than the third-smallest school district — Moriah — at 182. But those numbers don’t matter to flag football.
“You only need seven girls on the field, so we’re playing Keene and Schroon Lake,” said Ryan. “It opens it up for more schools to get involved.”
Mills, who is also the athletic director of Keene Central School, said one of his biggest goals at Keene is to create opportunities for girls to be part of a Keene team and not have to merge sports.
“We’re trying to rebuild our spring sports program and have kids on campus,” said mills.
In the spring, Keene only offers golf. However, students may compete for Lake Placid’s baseball, softball, and track teams. But Mills saw the potential in girls’ flag football.
“The writing on the wall here is, ‘We haven’t had softball in a very long time, so what can we offer these kids that’s sustainable?'” said mill. “Since we only need seven, eight or nine girls to really make it happen, it’s really a perfect opportunity for us.”
Last December, Mills sat down with Section VII Executive Director Matt Walentuk to assess what flag football would look like for girls in Section VII. Mills said he wasn’t sure how many Section VII girls or teams would be playing, but still thought it was a good opportunity.
“We just brought it up to the section and we’re like, ‘Let’s try to make this happen.'” said mills.
Mills said the Keene Flag Football Team currently has 12 girls on the roster, and much like Saranac Lake and many other schools, most of them practice dual sports.
Because the sport is so new, Mills believes most schools will allow their girls to play dual sports.
“I think a lot of schools are just trying to give it a try and see where that goes over the next few years.” he said.
Mills said that he, along with the other schools in the section, thought very carefully about how they plan to schedule girls’ flag football games.
“We looked at the course map and the softball schedule and worked on it as best we could.” said mills. “We knew that once spring came we would have cancellations and things like that. But we wanted to make sure we had one game a week, just like the boys’ soccer program – Friday nights, Saturday nights and Thursday nights.”
Coaching with new rules
While girls in the state are allowed to play tackle football on high school teams, not many do. Most play roles like foosball.
There is no tackling in flag football and the game ends when an opposing player pulls down the flag of the player with the ball. The game is also played 7v7 with a shortened field with 48 minutes playing time divided into two halves of 24 minutes each.
“The basics are still there as long as you still have a quarterback and you still have someone to snag the ball.” said Ryan. “It’s different and I think it’s going to be a bit faster too. So far just trying to move the ball and throw the ball.
“We are doing more – I wouldn’t say reactionary – but we have a plan”, he added. “With tackle football we have film, we have things like that. As this is brand new we don’t have that. So we really have to rely on ourselves and be the best version of ourselves.”
As coach of Boys Tackle Football, Ryan said that flag football’s approach to coaching was completely different.
“You always feel like you’re learning how to tackle and the safety of everything. You spend a lot of your time learning proper tackling and the rule book.” said Ryan. “This year with the flag is different because you don’t have to devote the time to it. We can go straight into a playbook. It’s different, of course, because we teach those skills from the ground up.
“The boys who play football have years of practice behind them,” he added. “Throwing, catching and learning positions. It’s a skill to start from scratch.”
With the sport in its inaugural season, Ryan said he really just wants his team to have fun.
“That’s the goal this year, to learn the game – and hopefully win a few games,” he said. “But this is a growing sport. Next year they will compete in the state championships.”
So far it seems pretty fun. Ryan said his team comes into training with a smile on their face.
“They are ready to listen and to work. They gain weight so quickly.” said Ryan. “I hope they are having fun. It seems they are.”
At this point, it’s safe to say that Saranac Lake is known for its love of football, and according to Ryan, the community has been super supportive of a girls’ flag football team.
“I think the community is behind us. Everyone is excited.” said Ryan. “I’ve spoken to a lot of women who just wished they had this sport when they were in high school.”
Ryan said he and Saranac Lake athletic director Forrest Morgan opened a team store to sell merchandise.
“We get so many community members helping us and buying gear.” said Ryan. “They are incredibly supportive. That’s what I try to tell our girls over and over again. We are very fortunate to live in the community we live in. We have a very large football community – with or without a flag.”
During the season, Ryan said he plans to use one or maybe two of his training pitches to give back to the community.
“Maybe we’ll clean downtown windows or clean up some parks.” he said. “I’m just trying to let them know that they have so much support.”
The Red Storm will play their first game on the road against AuSable Valley on Saturday, April 22 at 2:00 p.m. Meanwhile, Keene will take on Schroon Lake in his first game on Thursday, April 20 at their home field.
“We play them right here, right behind the school on our soccer field,” said mills. “We’re going to host it specifically for flag football. As it is a new field and we make our own forage here. It’s a beautiful setting with the mountains surrounding us. I feel like it’s one of the best in the section for every sport.”
Mills said he plans to broadcast some of the spring games.
The two schools will meet at the Home Opener in Saranac Lake on Friday, May 5 at 4:30 p.m
“I hope our entire community shows up,” said Ryan. “We will still play at Wilson Raymond Field. We’ll have pre-game music and stuff like that. I hope everyone comes because it’s a special year and a special new sport. I hope people just take the time to come and check it out.”
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