‘It’s kind of cool seeing a bunch of girls playing football’: Flag football gets underway at Analy High School

Of the Sonoma County high school teams playing flag football, the Tigers have had the biggest turnout for the newly sanctioned sport in its first year of competition.|

The Analy faithful packed the house like they would for any Friday night football game — students showing off school spirit with creative fashion, parents bundled up in blankets, old-timers hanging on the chain-link fences that surround Chip Castleberry Field. But this was not any ordinary football game.

This gridiron meeting Tuesday night in Sebastopol was the first of its kind: the official debut of the Tigers girls flag football team.

Of the four Sonoma County high school teams playing flag football — five if you count Rio Lindo Adventist Academy from Healdsburg, Analy’s opponent Tuesday, which plays as a club team with a different format — the Tigers have had the biggest turnout for the newly sanctioned sport in its first year of competition in California. They entered Tuesday’s historic game with a roster of 42 players.

“That says it all right there,” Analy Athletic Director Joe Ellwood said as he set up the press box before the game. “That proves its viability, that this can grow.”

Rancho Cotate, Casa Grande and Petaluma are also fielding teams this year and other schools are exploring adding teams next year. All four teams are playing as freelance nonleague programs this fall. The North Bay League will likely bring the sport into the fold next year once there’s a clearer picture of the number of programs. The North Coast Section is also not holding championships for the sport this year for similar reasons.

Though a historic night for Analy, Tuesday’s game belonged to Rio Lindo Adventist, which beat the hosts 38-13.

While the sport was just sanctioned by the California Interscholastic Federation this past spring, Rio Lindo — a boarding school of just over 100 students in the Healdsburg hills — has actually been playing the sport since the 1990s.

They play as a club team primarily against other Adventist schools from California and use a different set of rules than the ones the CIF has installed. One of the bigger changes for the Spartans to adjust to was playing seven-on-seven rather than six-on-six.

“Just this afternoon we did a walk-through with seven on seven,” said head coach Kevin Hardesty, who’s been coaching the sport at RLA for 14 years.

RLA is still playing a club schedule this fall, so Tuesday’s game was technically a scrimmage for the Spartans.

Scrimmage or not, the Spartans impressed.

Running a fast, deceptive offense, RLA scored on its first six possessions of the game, leading 38-0 before the Tigers found the end zone twice in the closing minutes.

Chitalu Munanga had three touchdown passes, Kaia Miller had three touchdown catches, a rushing touchdown and two touchdown passes and Belen Hernandez had two touchdown catches and an interception.

Analy got its points on two great passes from quarterback Abby Silvestrich, who hit Lily Bloom for an 11-yard score with 2:30 left in the second half and then Ava Anderson on a 20-yard connection with 10 seconds to go.

“The first half was not good, but the second half we really pulled it together, got a touchdown. That’s a win in my book,” Silvestrich said after the game. “I think we really came together there. It was really nice to see all the other girls playing.

“It’s kind of cool seeing a bunch of girls playing football.”

Both Hardesty and Analy coach Abby Morales echoed that sentiment. Hardesty said if the sport continues to grow locally, RLA would “definitely want to be a part of it and support it,” adding that the atmosphere Analy created Tuesday — cheering section, announcer, etc. — enhanced his team’s experience.

“All of our stuff is on a grass field with fans standing on the sidelines, no announcers,” he said. “It was a cool environment to have this many people and that many fans like oohing and aahing over the little stuff that we’ve been doing for 20 years.”

As for Morales, an Analy alum who is now a teaching assistant at the school, she said she wanted to play flag football when she was in high school but never had the opportunity. Now, she’s able to help other girls live out that dream.

“Just making history with these girls is amazing,” Morales said. “No matter win or lose, we came out and did the thing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Gus Morris at 707-304-9372 or gus.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @JustGusPD.

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