Girls Flag Football: The First Championship Team


Emily Sun

The team huddles up on the field.

Sydney Gaw, Staff Writer

As soon as the whistle blows, the members of the Girls Flag Football team spur into action, executing one of the meticulously practiced plays included in their playbook wristbands. Within seconds of the start, the quarterback makes a break for the end zone as her teammates keep a strong hold on the opposing defense, scoring the first touchdown of the game and proving that the team is a force to be reckoned with.

After winning seven games throughout the season, the Girls Flag Football team dominated the championship bracket, beating Woodbridge 20-7 in the final match and becoming the champions of the inaugural Matt Leinart Girls High School Flag Football League on Nov. 17. However, despite its on-field success, not much is known about the program or the team.

“A few of us played flag football in elementary school and middle school,” sophomore founding member Riley Hertstein said. “At first, we were an all-girls team in a boys league, which was super fun. Then we found out that the league we played in—Matt Leinart Flag Football—started a league for girls across high schools.”

According to sophomore and founding member Leah Schulman, gathering students to form a full team was the hardest part. Afterwards, however, everything clicked, and they were able to start training.

“This is the first [girls flag football] team in the history of Uni,” Schulman said. “I think it’s been so cool to see everything come together, and we’ve really put all of our energy into this sport.”

Schulman, whose father also coaches the team, noted that one of the highlights of her experience was playing with her fellow founding members Hertstein and junior Kate Stenta. With the help of their coach, Justin Schulman, they were able to continue playing in high school.

“I coached Leah, Riley Hertstein and Kate Stenta for many years and thought they’d never get the chance to play again after aging out after 8th grade,” Coach Schulman said. “When this league was formed, I knew I had to get involved and continue working with these girls. The chance to be a part of the inaugural season has been really special.”

Although some members were familiar with the sport, this was the first time Matt Leinart Flag Football hosted a girls’ league at the high school level, so team members had mixed expectations for the season.

“These were new rules from when I started playing in middle school and we didn’t even know what other teams would be doing, so we didn’t really know what to expect,” Hertstein said. “But just seeing everyone so excited and putting in the work was amazing. Everyone improved both offensively and defensively, and we got into the mentality of wanting to get better, which I think was a really big motivator.”

Even though many of the girls were new to the sport, hours of hard work and consistency, along with the support of their teammates and coach, prepared them for league. 

“As quarterback, I have to know which routes my receivers will be running. At first, it was an adjustment, but Justin [Schulman] worked with us to the point where we could pretty much run any play in our playbook effectively,” senior Alexis Rabold said.

Given that this was the inaugural year of the program, most of the team’s preparation for the season was a learning experience. When facing other IUSD school teams, the competitive nature of the athletic community in Irvine drove the team forward. Overall, the season proved to be a positive experience for everyone.

“I have truly loved working with these girls over the past few months,” Coach Schulman said. “They have pushed for us to have practice and many even wanted to do Zoom film sessions to watch our games or our opponents. Most of the girls have never played organized football prior to this league, so it’s great seeing them get better and enjoy being out there.”

Despite its collective success, the team has been met with opposition from school administrators. Not only was the team denied school endorsement, but it also faced challenges with publicizing its games.

“We faced a lot of challenges, especially with publicizing [flag football] to the school. We couldn’t make flyers. We couldn’t ask teachers or ASB to publicize it because it wasn’t allowed yet. So we had to do that on our own,” Leah Schulman said. “We designed T-shirts that we’ve worn. We have an Instagram account that has gained a lot of followers, and we’re just trying to spread the word because the school won’t.”

According to Coach Schulman, in order for schools to recognize flag football as a high school sport, the league must work with the district to outline rules and regulations—a process that would have delayed league play and required more coordination among league officials. While the group still hopes that flag football will be officially recognized in schools, much of the work that the school athletic department would normally handle has become the responsibility of parents and team members.

“It’s really been a grassroots effort […] In addition, some of the comments made by staff to the girls have been less than supportive,” Coach Schulman said. “But if anything, it’s created a really strong bond among the girls. They want to show that this is a sport now and though it may not be a formal club or varsity team, the girls want to be recognized for their efforts and success.”

Despite the opposition, the team finished at the top of the league with nine wins and even received a shoutout on the NFL Network show Good Morning Football for its achievements. Even though the 2021 season has concluded, players look forward to expanding the program next year and encouraging other athletes to try out for the team.

“It’s really just a fun experience that is very different from anything I’ve ever done, so I really really encourage anyone that is remotely interested to reach out to try to join the team,” Stenta said. “It’s a really fun sport, you build great relationships and it’s just a great experience overall.”