Teenage boys sat in the stands next to Gov. Thomas Johnson High School’s football field. They bustled around the sidelines handing out water bottles. They stood along the end zone in uniforms, cheering as their female classmates rushed in for a touchdown to send the school to the Frederick County girls flag football playoffs.

Last year, this scene could only have been reversed. Seniors Olivia Dahl, Nayramis Rodriguez Lugo and Riley MacDonald would have been in dance uniforms and Kianna Reese in a cheer uniform, rather than in the brand-new flag football uniforms with the little Baltimore Ravens logo on the neckline.

On Feb. 1, National Girls and Women in Sports Day, Frederick County Schools signed an agreement with the Ravens and Under Armour to start the first varsity girls flag football program in the state.

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It was a historic moment, and the girls involved are well aware of the significance.

“We’re making history!” Rodriguez Lugo exclaimed months later as the girls around her, fresh off of a victory over Frederick High School, cheered.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh sees the program as a way to spread the many lessons football teaches and offer an opportunity for all types of athletes to be part of a team.

“It’s so much fun to play. And, you know, why shouldn’t girls get a chance to play?” he said. “And this provides that opportunity.”

This energy — bolstered by the recent announcement that flag football will be a part of the 2028 Olympics — has united players across the county, leading to opposing teams posing for group photos together and hugs and handshakes between opposing coaches after games.

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But, make no mistake, the unity does not dim the competition. They’re here to make history, but they’re also here to win, which should be on full display during the semifinal and championship games at the Under Armour facility in Port Covington on Wednesday.

The Thomas Johnson Patriots celebrate after winning the last regular season game against the Frederick County Cadets, and clinching a postseason appearance in the first girls flag football season offered by Frederick County Public Schools in partnership and the Baltimore Ravens, at Thomas Johnson High School, on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023 in Frederick, MD. (Wesley Lapointe / for the Baltimore Banner)
The Patriots celebrate after winning the game to clinch a postseason berth. (Wesley Lapointe/For the Baltimore Banner)
Frederick County Cadets freshman Maya Robinson runs the ball against the Thomas Johnson Patriots during the final minutes of regular season play in the girls varsity flag football season at Thomas Johnson High School, on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023 in Frederick, MD. (Wesley Lapointe / for the Baltimore Banner)
Frederick County freshman Maya Robinson runs against two defenders during the closing minutes of the final regular-season game. (Wesley Lapointe/For the Baltimore Banner)

Getting it off the ground

The NFL has embraced flag football as a growth opportunity in recent years because that, under commissioner Roger Goodell, is what the NFL does: It looks for ways to expand the game and make even more revenue. When the Ravens traveled to London to play the Tennessee Titans, some players participated in a flag football clinic for local kids.

In practice, though, the push to reach girls interested in flag football — which dates to the New York Jets donating $50,000 in 2011 so that public school students in the city could play — has created long overdue opportunities. For women who always wished they could play, yes, but also for parents who want their daughters to pursue whatever they dream of.

Harbaugh knows the first person and is the second. He has no doubt his wife, Ingrid, who is extremely athletic, would have killed it on the football field, as would their daughter, Alison. He also had front-row seats to his daughter’s high school years and what football has done for young men.

“Everybody wants to be a part of something — boys and girls — but I saw it with my daughter, so I understand how it is with girls,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the challenge of knowing who you’re gonna eat lunch with in some type of setting … but then you’re part of the team. You’re gonna go with your teammates doing that. There’s just more to it than meets the eye, a lot of layers to the whole thing.”

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The Ravens followed the Jets and Falcons in the push to grow girls flag football. In addition to holding clinics for boys and girls, they started talking to the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association about starting a high school program. As conversations progressed, it became clear they needed to start county by county to get it off the ground. The MPSSAA encouraged interested counties to reach out to the Ravens.

Thomas Johnson Patriots quarterback Riley MacDonald and Frederick County Cadets defensive back Kaitlynn Morton collide after MacDonald’s flag was pulled in the final minutes of the first girls flag football regular season at Thomas Johnson High School, on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023 in Frederick, MD. (Wesley Lapointe / for the Baltimore Banner)
Patriots quarterback Riley MacDonald and Cadets defensive back Kaitlynn Morton collide after MacDonald’s flag was pulled. (Wesley Lapointe/For the Baltimore Banner)

“We’re role models for the people that are right [after] us.”

Nayramis Rodriguez Lugo, Gov. Thomas Johnson player

Frederick County did not hesitate. Its supervisor of athletics, Kevin Kendro, said the county continuously looks for new athletic opportunities for students, and it knew there was interest. Two schools, Urbana and Oakdale, already had formed club teams and had been itching to make competition more formal.

“We wanted to take the lead, and we wanted to give this new experience and this new option for female student-athletes, and then, hopefully, pave the way for future participation across the state of Maryland,” Kendro said.

Additionally, one of the biggest obstacles to creating flag football leagues has been the complaint that the sport will eat into other girls’ teams. Frederick County had a solution to that, because it allows students to be dual-sport athletes.

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So it put together a board, led by Frederick High School athletic director Keivette Hammond (“We definitely wanted a female leader,” Kendro said), with representatives from the Ravens and Under Armour to work alongside athletic directors, coaches, officials and the community. Under Armour donated uniforms, while the Ravens provided grant funding for costs such as coaching stipends, transportation and equipment (the Ravens declined to say how much they’ve spent, but told The Banner they are “committed to grant funding for the next several years to help programs get started.”)

And, on Aug. 30, Maryland hosted its first varsity girls flag football games.

Home team Thomas Johnson Patriots and visiting Frederick County Cadets shake hands after the Cadets won their final regular season game of the first  Frederick County Public Schools girls flag football season, on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023 in Frederick, MD. (Wesley Lapointe / for the Baltimore Banner)
Players slap hands after the game. The pioneering nature of girls flag football has brought opponents together. (Wesley Lapointe/For the Baltimore Banner)
Patriots coach Lauren Perkins hypes up players after halftime. (Wesley Lapointe/for the Baltimore Banner)

Made from scratch

Brunswick coach Cindy Wilhelm called out routes to her players.

“All right, I want you to run a streak. I want you on a slant,” she said.

She received a bunch of blank stares in response.

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Wilhelm has coached boys in flag football before. She’s coached girls in basketball. But she’s never coached girls in flag football, much less a group of high school students who had never played the sport — and in some cases had never played any sport. Coaches across the county faced the same situation: Out of the 280 athletes participating, 142 didn’t play a sport the year before and 71 were freshmen, so there was no data about their experience.

A former star athlete in Frederick County (she holds scoring records in field hockey and basketball), Wilhelm has always loved football and would have leapt at the opportunity to play flag herself.

“No questions asked,” Wilhelm said. “I would have played for sure.”

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But she’s also a business owner, a single mom and a varsity coach, so she didn’t consider adding another job when she first heard about the new sport. Then one of her basketball players came to her asking if she’d volunteer because she felt a woman should be leading this experience.

So Wilhelm called in help. She pulled out her playbook and asked her sons to help her freshen it. She called her daughter, who works in sports performance, for help with drills to test athleticism. She recruited her basketball players and bargained with coaches of other fall sports; it would be OK for her players to miss practices in order to focus on their original sports, as long as they could attend games. She just needed to field a team.

A few of those athletes joined the team, with participants from basketball, volleyball, poms and cheer. But it was very obvious many had never played a sport. Even those who had or who had been football fans had been passive observers rather than active, so Wilhelm and the other coaches taught the sport almost as a developmental league, something most high school coaches don’t have to do.

It hardly mattered to Wilhelm that Brunswick wasn’t winning games. Simply fielding a team — starting something new that others could see and want to become a part of — was the point. She’s seen girls discover their athleticism. She’s seen them grow in confidence. She’s watched the wide smiles when they finally make a catch.

Wilhelm’s sons have seen it too, and shared their brutally honest — but completely satisfying — assessment: “They actually don’t look too bad anymore. They look like they’re playing football.”

Thomas Johnson Patriots merchandise table attendants, Sherry Apperson, left, and Dawn Buckley, center-right, sell TJ apparel following the final regular season game of the first varsity flag football season at Frederick County Public Schools, on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023 in Frederick, MD. The Baltimore Ravens helped fund the FCPS girls flag football pilot program this year. (Wesley Lapointe / for the Baltimore Banner)
Merchandise table attendants Sherry Apperson (left) and Dawn Buckley (center) sell Gov. Thomas Johnson apparel during the game. (Wesley Lapointe/For the Baltimore Banner)

Youth building a better future

As they learned to leap and spin and move in rhythm, Dahl, Rodriguez Lugo and MacDonald never imagined those skills would one day translate to the football field.

When they heard about the new opportunity, though, they talked among the dance team and decided to show up to summer football workouts.

It was a chance to do something fun and new, and to be a part of something historic. With graduation coming, they’re not looking for a long-term future in football. Instead, they’re trying to build it up for those who come after them.

“We’re role models for the people that are right [after] us,” Rodriguez Lugo said.

Their goal, along with the Ravens’ and their administrators’, is that it becomes a statewide sport. Already, Wilhelm has had other athletes approach her saying they want to be involved next year, and younger girls in the crowd have told her they can’t wait to get to high school. Kendro has fielded questions from school systems, including Montgomery and Cecil counties, across the state.

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The girls want to see it expand into college, something Rodriguez Lugo said she wishes were an option for her. There are a few NAIA schools that offer scholarships, and Kendro and the Ravens have received inquiries from schools such as Stevenson and Hood College. The Ravens and Frederick County Public Schools will host an informational session for school systems and colleges after the season ends.

Although they got in at the building stage, the seniors found other benefits from the experience. Reese and MacDonald found new ways to bond with their dads, and MacDonald, who wants to go into sports marketing, got a behind-the-scenes look at the Ravens’ facilities. Dahl and Rodriguez Lugo are simply proud to say they were a part of something. Carrie Andresen-Strawn could see her daughter Lily, who’s a freshman, coaching or working in an adjacent job now that she’s getting a closer experience to the game.

It might be too late for them, but these seniors, along with all the girls who came in at the start, want little girls to be able to dream of the Olympics just like boys dream of the NFL.

“It would be really cool and a great opportunity for those who need it,” MacDonald said.

giana.han@thebaltimorebanner.com