NEO girls flag football kicks off season with record number of teams participating

Mar. 29—The screams of euphoria were something Lexi Berwald had heard before.

But this time the screams were different. They were coming from the other sideline. But somehow, that didn't matter to Berwald, who smiled nonetheless.

The Madison girls flag football team had just scored a touchdown on its opening drive against Berwald and her Mentor teammates. When Valeria Mendez connected with Addy Wesley for the score, the Madison crew screamed excitedly since it was the first drive of their first year playing in the Northeast Ohio Flag girls league.

"After they scored their first touchdown, they went nuts," Berwald said. "It was so cool to see. That's how we were when I was a freshman and we scored our first touchdown. We reacted the same way. It's cool to see them get that excited."

Excitement has overcome the NEO Flag high school girls league. What started as a five-team venture four years ago has blossomed more than anyone could have imagined. When the league kicked off its annual spring season March 29 with four varsity games and a pair of JV games at Mentor's Jerome T. Osborne Stadium, it did so with 51 teams signed up to play high school girls flag football.

"Four years ago, we started as a rec program and we had five teams playing," said Bob Berwald, vice president and co-founder of the league. "We went to nine, then 20 and then now we have 51 teams involving 30 schools.

"When you look at it from the outside, yes, it's pretty good growth," he continued, "but now I look at it like, 'How can we get bigger and continue to grow this sport?'"

Girls flag football is growing to the point that many area schools now offer it as a club sport, and hopes are in the future to have it added as an OHSAA-sanctioned spot.

Hannah Lee of the Cleveland Browns was on hand for opening night March 29 at the JTO. She marvels at how far the sport has come in the area in a very short period of time. She harkened back to four years ago when she was hired as an intern with the Browns.

"Girls flag was my key project I was working on, trying to develop it," she said, noting her internship quickly turned into a full-time, paid endeavor. "To see it go from five teams to where we now is so cool and fun to watch."

The Browns hosted a New Era Summit on March 21 at Cleveland Browns Stadium, where teams were invited to come and hear presentations from the Browns and NFL office personnel regarding stations such as community relations, equipment, nutrition, player engagement and other areas of football. Then each team posed for photos at a jersey-reveal event where this year's teams received their new uniforms, sponsored by the Browns.

"I think flag football is so special because you can be any age from any background and be great at it," Lee said. "It connects girls that might not have otherwise been best friends in school. But if you put them out here on the field, they connect.

"I don't think a lot of them grew up thinking flag football was an option for them. But over the last three or four years, it's been shown that girls have a place in football."

The opening night at the JTO was chock full of highlights, including the Madison program playing in its first game. Katie Sowko, an All-Ohioan for Lake Catholic's repeat state championship volleyball team, had a slick pick-six and also a handful of sacks for the Cougars. Berkshire's Alyssa Lawson showed her elusive running skills in getting to the end zone, and Lexi Berwald showed strong scrambling skills to avoid a pass rush to throw multiple touchdown passes for Mentor.

"It's so crazy to see all the new teams," Lexi Berwald said. "Every year there are more and more. My dad keeps telling me, 'Oh, we have this new school,' or, 'Oh we have that new school.' It's great to see this sport taking off all across Ohio."

This year's league will feature games being played all across the north coast, including at Perry, Lake Catholic, Euclid, VASJ and Berkshire — just to name a handful. The season will wrap up May 5 for the annual playoff and flag Super Bowl games.

"The growth is tremendous," Bob Berwald said. "The infrastructure is in place. Now it's about how do we continue to grow it?"