Flag football offers Alaskan student-athletes a fun, competitive alternative

football flag

For Olyvia Mamae, flag football is a fun way to train that turned into a way to rekindle her love for the sport.

Kali Hibbert uses her time as a quarterback to hone her skills as a point guard on the Dimond High basketball team.

While few student-athletes count flag football as their primary athletic endeavor, it has developed as a fall alternative for hundreds of girls in Alaska.

Hibbert is a senior at Dimond and plays point guard on the school’s women’s varsity basketball team. She is also the starting quarterback on the flag football team.

“I’ve always liked soccer,” Hibbert said. “I used to pass the ball with my brothers when I was younger, and I always looked at it. But when I found out that I could play in a real game instead of wearing pads, I thought it would be fun to do it.”

Speed ​​is a key component of the game, but so is the ability to distribute the ball, which is why basketball players tend to be the best quarterbacks in flag football, according to Kathleen Navarre, head football coach at longtime flag in Dimond.

“Point guards are good quarterbacks,” Navarre said. “They understand the plays and are great dealers.”

Dimond's Kali Hibbert tries to avoid defenders

Hibbert believes his skills on the field transfer well to his responsibilities on the soccer field.

“Both require leadership in some way,” he said. “I can talk to my team and memorize plays and usually I know where to put people and I know where they should be.”

Mamae, a senior at Bettye Davis East High, is an athletic star and the current state champion in the women’s 100 and 200 meter dash. She was named the 2021 Alaska Girls Gatorade Player of the Year when she was a junior, when she also won a state title in the 100 hurdles.

Flag football helped kick-start her return to competition after she was stuck in a kind of COVID hibernation.

“For me personally, a lot of mental issues came up with COVID,” Mamae said. “I stopped eating, I stopped wanting to do anything physical and I just wanted to stay home. It was definitely a tough time because coming back here felt like a chore at first until I had to rekindle my love of sports.”

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She believes her track and field background gives her an advantage in flag football, especially when it comes to getting to the edge of opposing defenses and upfield in a hurry.

“When you get to the touchline it’s like a 100m sprint, you’re running as straight as you can,” Mamae said. “I always forget to cut because of the track. You don’t get disqualified like on the track for getting out of your lane. I try to intervene a lot, but a lot of times I focus so much that I just need to run in a straight line.”

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Her speed helps her quickly approach ball carriers from her safe spot and eliminate angles even though she admitted it took her a while to get the hang of angles.

“At first I was like, ‘Why can’t I just go to where she is now?’ but the flag is a game of angles. You have to go where they go,” Mamae said. “My speed helps, because if I’m that far back, I can still get that angle and I’m fast enough to catch up with that girl.”

Navarre was Dimond’s first flag football head coach and built the program into a perennial powerhouse. He led the program from 2006 to 2020, when she retired from teaching, but remains a member of the coaching staff as defensive coordinator.

After Chugiak and Bartlett met to decide the first three conference championships, Navarre and the Lynx claimed five of the next six from 2009 to 2014.

“We’ve been pretty successful since we got the system up and running,” Navarre said.

Navarre said there has been some negative stigma attached to flag football because some programs believe it will drive their best athletes away from other fall sports.

“It doesn’t,” she said. “What it does is it gives volleyball boys who get cut, they go out, it gives soccer girls who may not be doing anything in the fall except maybe play (competitive club league), they go out and they are phenomenal flag players.”

He said it also gives kids who thought they weren’t cut out for sports a chance to find something they’re good at.

“You can find a place for anyone,” Navarre said. “Of course speed is huge, but you don’t have to be the fastest or the smallest or the most athletic to find a role on the flag football team.”

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Dimond regularly recruits players who play basketball, softball and soccer to play flag football, and it’s one of the main reasons they’ve won four of the last five conference titles and are poised to win their third straight crown this year. .

Dimond's Mai Mateaki runs upfield

Mai Mateaki is a junior at Dimond and one of the best Lynx players on both sides of the ball. She is a soccer player first and foremost and is a four-time champion, having won back-to-back titles in both sports in each of the last two years.

Her sister, who also played for the Lynx, inspired her to play flag football and a desire to find something productive to do after school when she’s not playing competitive football.

“She did it, so I did it,” Mateaki said. “The practices are really boring, but the games are fun and I can do something after school. It was either this or cross country and I’m not going to run in circles.”

Navarra believes that footballers are the best defenders.

“They know how to do, they know how to get to where the girl is going and not where they are,” he said. “They understand what it means to mark a player. They have speed and are great athletes.”

Outside of Anchorage, the only other city that has high school flag football is Fairbanks. There will be no further growth and expansion of the sport until the other districts join.

“We’re trying to get the Valley and the (Kenai) Peninsula involved to start with,” Navarre said. “For an ASAA-sponsored state to meet, it must have four different conferences or 60 percent of the population.”

football flag

High school flag football came to Alaska in 2005 because the Anchorage School District was not Title IX compliant.

A survey was conducted to gauge interest among students, and since traditional soccer fields were available, adapting to play on a field with dimensions larger than those normally played on would make it more feasible from the start. the financial point of view.

“If you look at the other flag football rules, the field is supposed to be thinner and it’s only 80 yards,” Navarre said. “We thought that we would adapt to the soccer field that we already had because of the cost of starting.”

The sport took off in Alaska, prompting articles from ESPN and other outlets to examine the growth. Before COVID, Navarre said the Dimond program averaged more than 100 girls and the other schools in the city also had high participation numbers.

“They did flag football, and it really took off,” Navarre said. “The pandemic hurt us a little bit with the numbers, but it really took off, and I think it was the second highest participation of girls in sports and maybe even the highest for a while.”

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