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Braden River flag football showcases super team talent

The Pirates flag football team hasn't lost a regular-season game since April 2021.

The Braden River sideline erupts after big plays.
The Braden River sideline erupts after big plays.
Photo by Ryan Kohn
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Historically, flag football has been treated as more of a social activity than a serious sport. 

Don't tell that to the female students at Braden River High. 

Led by Head Coach Amanda Porco, the program has been able to corral some of the school's top athletes. Members of the school's basketball, soccer and volleyball teams, among others, are in the flag program, with players in each sport having so much fun that they convinced some of their teammates to join. In that way, the flag football program is something of a Braden River super team. 

"It's contagious," Porco said of the sport. "People just needed to see how fun it is. They keep coming back." 

10. Braden River High junior Cydnee Brooks quarterbacked the flag football team to a 14-3 record.
File photo

At Braden River, the game is treated with the same respect as any other sport, including the boys' tackle football program. That is partly because they share members of the coaching staff.

Porco and flag football defensive coordinator Casey Fabianski are co-head coaches of the school's junior varsity football team, and flag football offensive coordinator Malcolm Belton is the varsity running backs coach. The connections don't end there. Pirates football Head Coach Curt Bradley is the PA announcer for flag football games, and members of the varsity team act as the flag football chain gang. 

Teams that can't match Braden River's dedication, or talent, have had a difficult time competing. Braden River went 11-0 in the 2022 regular season before suffering a 20-0 playoff defeat to Newsome High, which eventually reached the Class 2A state championship game.

In 2023, the results have been much the same as Braden River is 8-0 as of March 30 and is outscoring its opponents 207-37. The latest example came March 30, when the Pirates won a home game 40-6 over Dunedin High (2-6).  Despite not having lost a regular-season contest since April 2021, Porco is modest about what the team has accomplished thus far. 

"I don't know if I would say we have been super dominant," Porco said. "I think we have been consistent. That makes a huge difference. It is something we preach to them every day. We work hard, and how we work in practice is going to translate to games."

The team is led offensively by junior quarterback Cydnee Brooks, who played the sport for the first time as a freshman. Brooks said she played one season on the junior varsity basketball team, but after not getting much playing time, she decided to try flag football on the recommendation of some of her basketball teammates.

Brooks took to the sport right away, at first playing running back because of her speed behind current Florida State women's basketball guard O'Mariah Gordon. Coaches noticed her strong arm, too, and by her sophomore year, Brooks had made the transition to quarterback. 

Brooks threw for five touchdowns and ran for another in the win over Dunedin, showcasing good decision-making and a strong arm, occasionally completing passes 25 yards downfield. Brooks said the play calls she gets from Belton involve a lot of go routes in the hopes of using the Pirates' speed at wide receiver to attack the deep parts of the secondary. Porco said the team's strategy, much like the tackle football program's strategy, is to tailor playbooks around the talent they have. When that talent is made up of proven athletes like Brooks, and seniors Courtney Kawcak (volleyball), Monica Schwalbach (basketball) and Hannah Ferguson (volleyball), it becomes easier, Porco said. 

Braden River senior Hannah Ferguson puts a move on her teammates during warmups.
Photo by Ryan Kohn

Flag football is played on a field 80 yards long instead of 100 yards. There are "flag pulls" instead of tackles, and teams have to declare on fourth down whether they are punting are going for a conversion (as there is no rushing the punter allowed). Otherwise, the game plays much like the football everyone knows — complete with high-powered passing attacks and big plays. Against Dunedin, Schwalbach made a falling sideline catch that caused the crowd to holler. 

"You might see that one on (SportCenter's) top plays tonight, folks," Bradley said over the PA system. 

The high school sport is relatively new to the Bradenton-Sarasota area, but it has existed since 2002-2003 in other parts of the state and it continues to grow.

In 2023, there are 277 Florida High School Athletic Association schools competing in flag football. The FHSAA state championships will be held May 12-13 in Jacksonville at Mandarin High. 

As opportunities to play flag football at the college level increase, Porco said, she suspects that growth will only accelerate. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics currently sanctions the sport, and in 2021, the National Junior College Athletic Association announced it would be adding the sport, with 30 teams initially committed to building programs. It began play this spring as an "emerging sport" alongside women's wrestling, men's volleyball, competitive cheer and clay target shooting. 

Even the NFL is getting involved. The league aired a commercial during February's Super Bowl LVII showcasing the abilities of flag football quarterback Diana Flores, who helped Mexico win a gold medal at the 2022 World Games. 

While many members of the Pirates are playing flag football to stay active, Brooks is hoping to take the field in college after graduation. Not only because she's good at it, but because she believes in the sport's power. 

"It's better than boys' football," Brooks said. "It's exciting seeing girls succeed, seeing how fast they can throw or how well they can pull flags. It's an experience." 



Ryan Kohn

Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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