Red Storm scores flag football team

Saranac Lake joins 10 Section VII schools forming a girl’s flag football team

Saranac Lake’s Phoebe Peer takes off with the football during a girl’s flag football practice on Saturday. (Enterprise photo — Parker O’Brien)

SARANAC LAKE — After 100 seasons of organized varsity football, Saranac Lake is introducing a girls varsity football team — or, rather, a different take on the sport.

This upcoming spring sports season, Saranac Lake, along with 10 other schools in Section VII, will compete in girls flag football. Games will be played mostly on the weekends, with home games held at Wilson Raymond Field.

The team will be guided by Sean Ryan, who spent the past few fall sports seasons coaching the boys JV football team.

Ryan, who will also join the boys varsity football team in the fall of 2023 as an assistant, said when he first heard about the possibility of girls flag football becoming a sport he was intrigued about the opportunity of helping the girls to try something new.

“I love football and I want it to reach all levels, and all people,” Ryan said. “With the success of the Pumpkin Bowl — even when I was back in high school — it was something that I know the girls always wanted. Once the opportunity arose I had to jump on it.”

The Pumpkin Bowl is an annual girls flag football tournament put on by the Saranac Lake High School during homecoming week.

Around 25 girls will compete for the inaugural Red Storm flag football team, according to Ryan. Most of the girls playing will also compete in a second sport or a primary sport during the spring.

“They are dedicated,” he said. “They get to play softball, track and lacrosse and after they are done with that they come to us and we start doing football.”

Ryan said that he has a lot of amazing athletes on the team, and he’s not wrong — a few of them have earned league honors in cross country and softball.

“The beauty in that is that they have those skills that they can bring from their other sport,” Ryan said. “We can put our track runners or long-distance runners on the outside and have them throw the ball deep. We also have softball players who are used to running and sprinting as hard as they can. I’m very excited because we have an opportunity and our team allows us to do a little bit of everything.”

The start

While Saranac Lake and many of the other schools in the section kicked off their first practices about two weeks ago, the sport is already a year old for some programs in New York state.

Last year, the state created a “pilot program” with some of the bigger sections in New York, such as Long Island and Buffalo. According to the Section VII girls flag football coordinator Matt Mills, the program expected there to be around 24 teams competing in the 2021-22 season, but the final number ended up at 51 teams.

Mills said that girls flag football is the fastest emerging sport that the state has ever seen. He added that NYSPHSAA has already approved a state championship for next year.

“We tripled in numbers from the pilot program to this year,” Mills said. “Now we already have up to 150 to 160 schools. A lot of those schools that piloted it are pushing forward with a JV and a modified program as well.”

A big part of the sport’s growth in New York state has been through the help of National Football League teams, the New York Giants, the Buffalo Bills, the New York Jets, the NYSPHSAA and Nike. The organizations have helped with funding and creating opportunities for girls to play flag football.

According to Giants.com, the official website of the NFL’s New York Giants, the Giants will support Section VII’s inaugural season of play with a $30,000 contribution this spring to support eight schools that intend to start a girls flag football program.

The number of Section VII teams has grown since February when the Giants announced its contribution. Along with Saranac Lake, the teams include AuSable Valley, Beekmantown, Keene, Moriah, Northeastern Clinton, Plattsburgh, Peru, Saranac Central, Schroon Lake and Ticonderoga.

While most of those schools likely won’t come as a shock to sports fans, because most of them have a boys varsity football team, two smaller schools probably stand out — Schroon Lake and Keene.

The combined high school enrollment number (87) for both of those schools is almost 100 less than the third smallest school district — Moriah — at 182. But for flag football, those numbers don’t really matter.

“You only need seven girls on the field, so we’re going to be playing against Keene and Schroon Lake,” Ryan said. “It opens it up so that more schools get involved.”

Mills, who is also the athletic director at Keene Central School, said one of his biggest goals at Keene is to create opportunities for girls to be a part of a Keene team and to not have to merge sports.

“We’re trying to rebuild our spring sports program and have kids on campus,” Mills said.

During the spring, the only sport Keene offers is golf. Students can, however, compete for the Lake Placid baseball, softball and track and field teams. But Mills saw the potential in girls flag football.

“The writing here on the wall is ‘We haven’t had softball in a really long time, so what can we offer to these kids and something that is sustainable?'” Mill said. “With only needing seven, eight or nine girls to really make it happen, (this) is really a perfect opportunity for us.”

Last December, Mills sat down with Section VII Executive Director Matt Walentuk to gauge what girls flag football would look like in Section VII. Mills said he wasn’t sure how many girls or Section VII teams would want to play, but still thought it was a good opportunity.

“We just put it out to the section and we’re like ‘Let’s try and make this happen,'” Mills said.

Mills said the Keene flag football team currently has 12 girls on the roster, and much like Saranac Lake and many other schools, most of them are doing dual sports.

With the sport being so new, Mills said he thinks that most schools will allow their girls to do dual sports.

“I think a lot of the schools are just trying to feel it out and see where this is going over the next few years,” he said.

Mills said that he, along with the other schools in the section, have been very deliberate about how they plan to schedule girls flag football games.

“We took a look at the track schedule and the softball schedule and we worked around those as best as we can,” Mills said. “We knew that once spring hits we were going to have cancellations and stuff like that. But we wanted to make sure we had one game a week, just like the boys football program — Friday night, Saturday and Thursday nights.”

Coaching with new rules

While girls are allowed to play tackle football on high school teams in the state, not many do. Most play roles such as kicker.

In flag football, there is no tackling and the play ends when an opposing player pulls off the flag of the person with the ball. The game is also played 7-on-7 with a shortened field with 48 minutes of game time divided into two halves of 24 minutes each.

“The basics are still there as far as you still have a quarterback and you still have someone snapping the ball,” Ryan said. “It’s different and I think it’s going to be a little bit faster pace as well. As far as, just trying to move the ball and throw the ball.

“We’re doing more — I wouldn’t say reactionary — but we have a plan in place,” he added. “With tackle football, we have film, we have things like that. With this being brand new, we don’t have that. So we need to really rely on ourselves and be the best versions of ourselves.”

As a coach of boys tackle football, Ryan said the approach to coaching flag football is completely different.

“There is always a sense of learning how to tackle and the safety of it all. You spend a major portion of your time learning to tackle correctly and the rule book,” Ryan said. “This year with flag, it’s different because you don’t have to spend the time on that. We get to go straight into a playbook. It is of course different because we are teaching these skills from the ground up.

“The boys that are playing football have had years and years of drill work,” he added. “Throwing, catching and learning positions. It’s an ability to start from the ground up.”

With the sport being in its inaugural season, Ryan said he really just wants his team to have fun.

“That’s the goal this year, to learn the game — and hopefully to win a few games,” he said. “But this is a growing sport. Next year, they are going to have state championship involvement.”

So far, it seems like it’s been pretty fun. Ryan said his team comes into practice with a smile on their face.

“They’re willing to listen and to work. They’re picking up so quickly,” Ryan said. “I hope they are having fun. It seems like they are.”


At this point, it’s safe to say that Saranac Lake is known for its love of football, and according to Ryan, the community has been super supportive of a girls flag football team.

“I think the community has our back with this. They are all excited,” Ryan said. “I’ve talked to many women, who only wish they had this sport when they were in high school.”

Ryan said he and Forrest Morgan, Saranac Lake’s athletic director, opened up a team store to sell merchandise.

“We’re getting so many community members helping us out and buying gear,” Ryan said. “They’re incredibly supportive. That’s what I keep trying to tell our girls. We’re very fortunate to live in the community that we do. We have a very big football community — whether its flag or not.”

During the season, Ryan said he plans on using one or maybe two of his practice slots to give back to the community.

“Maybe we’ll wash windows downtown or clean up some parks,” he said. “I’m just trying to let them know that they have so much support.”

The Red Storm will play its first game on the road against AuSable Valley on Saturday, April 22 at 2 p.m. Meanwhile, Keene will take on Schroon Lake in its first game on Thursday, Apr 20 at their home field.

“We’re playing them right here, right behind the school at our soccer field,” Mills said. “We’re going to line it out specifically for flag football. Since it’s a new field and we do our own lining here. It’s a beautiful backdrop with the mountains surrounding us. I feel like it’s one of the best in the section for any sport.”

Mills said that he is planning on broadcasting some of the games in the spring.

The two schools will clash in Saranac Lake’s home opener on Friday, May 5 at 4:30 p.m.

“I hope our entire community shows up,” Ryan said. “We’re still going to be playing on Wilson Raymond Field. We’re going to have pre-game music and stuff. I hope everyone shows up because it’s a special year and it’s a special new sport. I hope people just take the time to come check it out.”


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