The Lincoln and Mission high school football teams faced off on Tuesday, almost five months after Turkey Day.
It’s the same two schools that competed during the Thanksgiving tradition, but this game looks a lot different, and no, it’s not fútbol.
The football that is being played is the Academic Athletic Association’s inaugural season of girls’ flag football, the first varsity league of its type in California.
Five San Francisco public schools (Balboa, Burton, Galileo, Lincoln and Mission) are participating and the San Francisco Section expects the participating schools to double in the next few years.
“Wherever they put it in, it grows like wildfire,” said San Francisco Section commissioner Don Collins, who, along with the section’s board of managers, was the driving force behind starting the league. “I would even go so far as to say, within the decade it’s going to be in college.”
The game is significantly different than the traditional, full-contact, 11-on-11 version seen on Fridays and Saturdays during the fall.
The flag football version is 7-on-7 and played on an 80-yard field. The goal posts, normally used for field goals and extra points, are not used. Instead of needing 10 yards to get a first down, there are four 20-yard “zones” and any time a team reaches a new zone, a first down is awarded. As the name indicates, tackling is prohibited and so is full-contact blocking (“screen blocking,” which most coaches compare to a screen in basketball, is allowed). A player is ruled “down” when her flag is pulled, and guarding or manipulating that flag is a penalty.
“It’s like backyard football,” said Mission coach Joe Albano, who also coaches the full-contact boys’ team in the fall. “[Mission athletic director Scott] Kennedy asked me to coach, and I was kinda on the fence at first, but I thought it would be fun to meet some new students and have some fun.”
The San Francisco Section’s venture may be the first varsity league in California, but the sport has relatively deep roots in Florida. High school flag football has also caught on in New York City and Anchorage, Alaska, but Florida started the trend when it sanctioned the sport at the state level in 2002.
According to Gary Pigott, the senior director of athletics for the Florida High School Athletic Association, the state’s inaugural season included about 80 participating schools (10 percent of the state’s high schools) and is now up to 177 (more than 22 percent of the high schools).
“There’s been growth and a development in the sophistication of game plans and play-calling,” Pigott said. “There are also some general trends. Successful flag football teams have good girls’ basketball players and girls’ soccer players, which are both winter sports [in Florida].”
After defeating Mission 27-0 on Tuesday, Lincoln is undefeated and alone in first place, riding the play of speedy quarterback Devon Simmons.
Simmons runs a version of the option offense, which similarly led the Lincoln boys’ team to a Turkey Day title in the fall. Despite the lopsided result in their first meeting, Mission has a 3-1 record behind the solid play of sophomore running back and linebacker Kali Rice and is the favorite to challenge Lincoln in the AAA title game scheduled for April 20 at Balboa High School.
Being the only league in California, those involved in the AAA’s first season have even amped up the meaning of the first San Francisco Section flag football championship.
“Whoever wins our flag football championship is the state champ,” Collins said with a hearty laugh.
Different brand of football