Varsity Flag Football Grows, Bright Season Ahead

POUGHKEEPSIE – While seven players on each side are allowed on the field in varsity girls flag football, a team can play with a minimum of five.

For some games in its inaugural 2023 season, that’s how many players the Poughkeepsie team had in uniform.

“It was very hard,” senior Maritza Juarez said. “We were playing with sometimes five on a team. The other teams weren’t sensitive about it, they would send seven out there.”

This season, the Pioneers have a different problem.

“We actually ran out of jerseys,” first-year coach Kristina Antonucci said. “We have to order more. It’s a great problem to have.”

More than 25 players are lined up to play for Poughkeepsie, as the Pioneers hope to grow in their second season and the third overall that flag football has been a varsity competition in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association.

Poughkeepsie is slated to open the season at Monroe-Woodbury 5 p.m. Thursday. Their home games – the first of which is April 9 against North Rockland, will be on the high school’s turf.

The goal, senior quarterback Ka’Nayharae Pascual said, is to earn the first win in Poughkeepsie’s history. Juarez’s aspirations are loftier: “The goal is to win the championship,” she said with a wide grin.

Juarez pointed to Pascual as the team’s leader. “Kay Kay,” as the team calls her, sets the tone in practice and often offers advice despite being a first-year player herself.

Pascual transferred to Poughkeepsie this fall. Though she has no formal football experience she was an accomplished amateur boxer in Newburgh, a sport that, like football, values the ability to bob and weave.

In flag football, every player wears belts with two flags on them and a ball carrier is tackled if a defender can swipe one of the flags.

“It’s just like playing tag,” said Pascual. “Just move out of the way.”

Flag football is largely a non-contact sport, without pads and helmets. The dimensions of the field are smaller and teams have to gain 20 yards to earn a first down. There are no offensive and defensive lines, though there is a center who snaps the ball. Defensive players can still rush at the quarterback after the snap, and offensive players can impede their progress with non-contact blocking.

Poughkeepsie grew its ranks this year by spreading awareness of the team around the school and encouraging any students interested in joining to bring a friend with them to tryouts. Antonucci, a ninth-grade global history teacher, said she emphasized participation as a low-pressure way to join a school group.

“It wasn’t tryouts that they would try out and get rejected,” she said. “It was, ‘If you want to try it, come try it.’”

The sport itself is growing. There will be 26 Section 1 schools with teams, up from 16 a year ago.

The preseason included a bit of star power. On March 19, Poughkeepsie attended the annual Section 1 Girls Flag Football Jamboree at Somers High School, which included a clinic featuring New York Giants Daniel Jones, Jalin Hyatt and Bryce Ford-Wheaton.

“It was an experience,” said Juarez, who was the team manager a year ago while recovering from injury but eager to play this year. “We learned brand new things that we can use this year to help us win some games.”

Antonucci said the first week of practice was devoted to the basics, including how to hold and throw the ball. Some students have never played a sport, let alone football, she said.

As quarterback, Pascual said she feels pressure only when thinking individually.
“My stomach gets the little butterflies,” she said. “But when I’m with them, I’m like, we can do it. I’m not thinking about me. We can do it. I trust my team.”

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