Prose and Kohn: Ryan Kohn
You don't have to wait until the fall to get your high school football fix.
Flag football is happening right now, and the competition is fierce, especially at Lakewood Ranch High.
The Mustangs (5-2) are having a strong season, their fifth season under Coach Elijah Weaver, and are quickly becoming a program for college coaches to recruit. Yes, flag football is a collegiate sport. In 2020, the NAIA partnered with the NFL to bring the sport to its institutions. Midland University, in Fremont, Nebraska, was the destination of two 2020 Mustangs alumna, Spencer Mauk and Allison Maulfair. They're both freshmen on the Midland flag football team, which is 4-7 with three regular season games remaining before the NAIA playoffs begin.
Another Mustang will soon be joining them: senior Nadiya Simpson, who committed to the school in December. Simpson is a running back and linebacker at Lakewood Ranch, and she plays physical. You don't have to take my word for it. One look at Simpson's puffy eye she suffered after taking an elbow to the face in a game against Braden River High while trying to pull an opposing flag will have the same effect. She always gives flag football her all.
In the four years since she joined the program, more players have taken Simpson's mindset, she said. But it was not always that way.
Before Weaver became the head coach five seasons ago, it was Tina Hadley's program. Weaver said Hadley, the girls basketball coach who led the Mustangs to the Final Four, used flag football as a training ground of sorts for her basketball players and a few JROTC students. It was always secondary, a way for kids to stay in shape during the offseason while having fun. When Hadley left, Weaver — who played football at the University of South Alabama — took over. He knew immediately that he wanted to open the sport to more than just basketball players. He wanted to make it legitimate while still keeping it fun.
"There are some great athletic programs at this school," Weaver said. "We want to fit in with them."
According to his players, Weaver has succeeded in that task. The Mustangs are outscoring opponents 153 to 68 this season. Simpson said the team can "get a little rowdy" on game days because everyone is excited to play, a good problem to have. Senior Shivanie Ghansiam said the environment that Weaver and his assistant coaches have created is a welcoming, supportive one, and that's proven in the number of girls in the program.
Lakewood Ranch has 21 players on its varsity roster and 24 more on its junior varsity roster. There's a development pipeline now, something that will create even more talent in the coming years. Ghansiam said the growth of the program's talent level between her freshman season and her senior season is vast.
While watching the Mustangs go through reps April 1, I saw plenty of laughing, but plenty of skill, too. Weaver would act as the quarterback whenever going through a new play or set of plays, walking through what he wanted his offense to do, then he would let the girls run it, over and over, until every facet of the play was perfect. It's what any tackle football team would do, after all. Why should flag's attention to detail be different? I also saw some great throws and some great contested catches and interceptions.
The Mustangs will finish out their regular season slate with two home games on April 15 and 16, against Southeast and Hollins high schools, respectively. Both games start at 7 p.m. I recommend you attend one of them, to get an idea of what I witnessed.
In the next five to seven years, as flag football gains footing at the collegiate level, the sport is going to boom in popularity. Better get on the bandwagon now; these pioneers deserve it.