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Here's why Peoria high schools are launching girls' flag football programs this fall

A girl playing organized flag football dives for the end zone.
Illinois High School Association
A girl playing organized flag football dives for the end zone.

Marilyn Woods is no stranger to football.

As a mother of boys, she enrolled them in the Junior Football League of Central Illinois when they were young, where she became the league’s director and a coach. She also watches football a lot with her brother-in-law and her nephew, giving her a unique love for the sport.

Now, she takes on her newest football endeavor at Peoria High School: girls flag football coach.

“It adds a new avenue for girls to participate, because some girls want to play with the boys and by having this, it’s safer and it’s something geared towards the girls,” Woods said.

The Illinois High School Association (IHSA) announced that girls flag football will become an officially sanctioned sport for the 2024 fall season, with the state finals to take place Oct. 18-19. The sport joins girls wrestling and esports among the newest IHSA offerings the past few years.

Over 100 schools are committed to play this fall, although only a handful of them reside south of Interstate 80. In the Peoria area, Richwoods, Manual, and Peoria High will take the field in 2024 and will be joined by Danville, Kankakee, and O’Fallon this year as well as some other Central Illinois schools in the near future. Dunlap and Pekin are anticipated to join in 2026.

The NFL’s Chicago Bears helped kickstart the sport in the state, providing funding and opportunities as well as training for coaches. In January, representatives from the Bears came to an IHSA Big Twelve conference meeting to discuss the emerging sport, as Danville brought up the initial interest and connected the team to the Central Illinois league.

From that meeting, Richwoods and Peoria High got involved, with Peoria athletic director Brien Dunphy taking charge of contacting Peoria Public Schools administrators for approval. As one of the first schools to also offer girls wrestling, Richwoods athletic director Jeffrey Crusen couldn’t miss out on the chance to get in on the ground floor.

“I think the goal is to just give our female student-athletes an opportunity to do something that historically they haven’t had the chance to do,” Crusen said.

The interest at Richwoods stemmed from the school’s powderpuff flag football games, a competition between the girls at the school that’s conducted every homecoming. Crusen says these games are super intense and cutthroat, as it’s often boys football players coaching the teams and the lack of structure makes the competition hectic.

As a more organized opportunity, Crusen hopes the IHSA backing of the sport will allow the student-athletes to flourish. He’s already planned a training camp for after spring break, exposing the girls to football in a more structured way while teaching them the rules, positions and responsibilities.

“Giving these girls a chance to actually learn the game, learn the ins and outs of the sport and practice and improve and get better, I think you’re go find that we’ve got some very competitive athletes that wanna get out there and have fun,” Crusen said.

The games will be played with seven players on each side, featuring a 70-yard long, 30-yard wide field. Only forward passes and direct handoffs are permitted, and the play is blown dead whenever a player’s flag is pulled or their knee hits the ground. These rules make it a less physical sport and could make it more appealing to some of the participants.

“For some girls who are hesitant to play aggressive sports like basketball or soccer, flag football is aggressive but not as physically aggressive as the other sports,” Woods said.

With most of the opponents up in the Chicagoland area, both schools have had to get creative with scheduling. Crusen suggested that Richwoods will play three to four games in one day when taking a trip to another city, something that is very doable as each match only lasts about an hour and doesn’t have the physical commitment a boys game does. He hasn’t figured out if they’re playing the Chicago-area teams yet, but the girls team will open up Danville’s new football stadium to begin the season in August.

Richwoods still needs equipment and uniforms before they’re ready to play, but Peoria High has locked in their gear and their head coach. Dunphy approached Woods at a boys football game asking her to coach the flag football team, and said the rest was history.

“I thought it was a great idea,” Woods said.

Woods has scrimmages planned for April, as she hopes to achieve a winning season in her first year on the job. Most of all, she hopes the student-athletes get what they need out of it.

“[Hopefully] the kids learn to enjoy something different and have fun doing it,” Woods said.

The future of the sport is bright, as all across the country girls flag football is growing, especially among the youth. In 2023, nearly half a million girls between the ages of 6 and 17 played, a 63% increase since 2019. It’s also set to debut at the summer Olympics in 2028.

The Chicago Public League was the first to start a high school girls flag football program in Illinois, crowning a champion among area high schools the past three years with the number of teams increasing each season. Crusen anticipates the Big Twelve will follow this trend, and hopes one day girls flag football will be as revered as the boys at Richwoods.

“It’s just another opportunity for our female student-athletes,” Crusen said. “I talked about how it hasn’t been one that they’ve had an opportunity to, so we wanna build this program.”

The sport still has a ways to go until everything is ready in Illinois, including hiring officials and finalizing schedules. One thing is clear: Peoria is ready for it.

“I always love a challenge,” Woods said. “It’s an opportunity for me to learn and grow with the girls because it’s new all around.”

“We wanna make sure we’re not cutting any corners because it’s new,” Crusen said. “We want make sure that our kids have what they need and that they are proud to be out there representing Richwoods.”

Updated: March 28, 2024 at 11:25 AM CDT
A Peoria Public Schools spokesperson says Manual High School is also launching a girl's flag football program, in addition to Peoria High and Richwoods.
Mason Klemm is a reporting intern for WCBU. He is studying sports communication at Bradley University and is expected to graduate in May 2024.