Northport Girls join growing sport of flag football

Northport Girls join growing sport of flag football

All photos by Steven Zaitz

Early March is a rare quiet time on the Northport High School athletic calendar.

Winter sports have just about gone final, as athletes and coaches on spring teams mark the time until they can get back outside and play.

But on a wintry Wednesday night last week, in an otherwise empty building, Tiger Head Football Coach Pat Campbell is putting his players through their paces. 

No, they are not members of Campbell’s boys team that went all the way to the Suffolk County final game at Stony Brook four months ago, tuning up for September — it is a tryout for hopefuls who are vying for a spot on the inaugural roster of the Northport Girls flag football team.

A group of about forty Lady Tigers will step on the gridiron for the first time ever when they travel to Center Moriches on April 1.

Girls football? It’s not an April Fools’ prank. Like any other athletic endeavor at Northport, it is serious business, and the expectation is to win, despite the newness of it all. 

“Being a member of this team will definitely make us part of history at Northport High School,” said junior Allie Murdock, who is competing for the job of starting quarterback and was also a part of the leadership tandem that hatched the idea of such a team to school administrators. “This is an amazing opportunity for not only this group of girls, but future generations to play football.”

It was no small coincidence that Murdock, who had played in a mostly boys local flag football league since she was 10, made these remarks on what is recognized as International Women’s Day across the world. 

This is the second year of competitive flag football on Long Island. Last year, 17 teams participated and in 2023, it has expanded to 41, with crosstown rivals Huntington, Harborfields and Half Hollow Hills jumping on board. Walt Whitman High, the defending Suffolk County champion, is a charter member, as are the Ward Melville Lady Patriots.

Campbell, who completed his sixth season as Tiger Head Coach this past fall, is excited for this opportunity. The list of girls on his potential roster is dotted with accomplished athletes in other sports but they have decided to roll the dice on this trailblazing journey. 

“We have a great group of girls. Interest has been off the charts,” said Campbell, who is also the East Northport Middle School girls basketball coach. He knows a thing or two about coaching girls and football, just not at the same time — until now. 

“I’m excited to be a part of getting this thing off the ground, and I look forward to the challenge of the teaching aspect of football to those who may be new to the game,” Campbell said. “Some of the girls know more, conceptually or schematically, about football than others. But from what I’ve seen so far, they are all eager to learn.”

Campbell’s preliminary roster includes girls like Brooke Kershow, a junior and a star on the Lady Tiger basketball and golf teams. She was the first to show up at the Wednesday workout. Her hoops teammates, sophomores Lily Beamer and Isabella Bica, were also there. Soccer stars Jamie Inzerillo, Ava Mir and Caitlyn Muzyka also suited up as did New York State Champion field hockey players Julia Cavallo, Brenna Malerba, Caeley Monez, Daniella Santagata, Grace Wickard, Caitlin O’Malley and Sophia Cox. Cox, also a track and field athlete, was eager to learn how to snap the ball through her legs and get an overall feel for the game of football.

“It’s something so new and such a great opportunity for the girls to be able to play football,” said Cox, a sophomore. I think this is the start of a greater journey and I’m excited to be a part of it.”

Cox, who last year ran spring track, will not be allowed to participate in both sports as girls flag football has been officially sanctioned by the Section XI governing body as a true varsity sport in 2023. In 2022, it was a club sport and girls could play football and another spring sport if they so desired.

Kayleen Mulry, a junior who is a close friend of Murdock, had to make that hard choice and opted to stay with the legendary Tiger girls lacrosse program. Despite this, she lobbied hard alongside Murdock to bring girls football to Northport High.

“With football being such a male-dominant sport, seeing the growth of girls flag football throughout the area and the country was really inspiring and it opens up new opportunities for girls that hadn’t previously been available,” Mulry said. “It should never be looked down upon for girls to want to play football, which I think sadly it has been. Having a chance to take an interest and turn it into reality is what Allie and I did. Girls don’t have to feel like the only way to be a part of the football community is cheerleading, marching band or the Tigerettes. With the National Football League sponsoring high school flag football teams, they are promoting the involvement of women in football and changing the status quo. This is a great thing.”

The New York Jets have been a pivotal part of the growth of this program on Long Island and throughout the Tri-State area from both a financial and facilitative standpoint. Over 100 high schools from Hudson Valley, Long Island and New Jersey will participate in the Jets High School Girls Flag Football League. All new schools, including Northport, received implementation grants, uniforms and equipment from the Jets, with Nike and Gatorade also serving as corporate partners. 

The league will culminate with New York State and New Jersey Championship games at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center in Florham Park, New Jersey, on June 10. 

“We went from less than 20 schools total in the Tri-State area in 2012 to 170 that will play this year,” said Eli Hodges, who is the Jets director of community relations and the unofficial commissioner of the JHSGFFL. “We are always looking to grow the game and the interest has exploded. I’ve heard so many stories of girls approaching athletic directors and high school principals saying, ‘we want this,’ similarly to what happened at Northport, and we are happy to help get them what they need to get it off the ground.”

Walt Whitman lost to Bellmore-Merrick 30-20 last June at the Long Island Championship game, which was hosted by Hodges and the Jets. Northport would love to visit Florham Park this summer but will be at a slight disadvantage in that 17 teams on the Island got a jump on them by playing last year. Nevertheless, at Northport, the expectation, as always, is to win.

“We’re building a program from scratch,” said assistant coach Perry Marinelli, who is Campbell’s defensive coordinator with the boys football team as well as one of Rich Castellano’s lieutenants on the Lady Tiger basketball team. “It’s up to Pat and me to foster a winning team and hopefully that will start Year One.”

Already a member of the Lady Tiger football team’s fan base is Northport Mayor Donna Koch, Class of 1979, who rose from the ranks of village clerk to the highest elected official in town.

“These girls are leading the way for younger generations and I’m proud of them,” Koch said. “Girls have the ability to play any sport and do anything that the boys can do and you never know, but maybe the next Tom Brady can come out of this.”

The mayor also said she would try to clear her calendar to make it to the opening home game on April 11 against Harborfields. Along with Koch, the team looks forward to the full-throated support of the student body and the village community at large. 

As the games generally will not be played on Saturdays, the girls will miss some of the trappings and fanfare that the boys football team enjoys — one of which is the team bursting through the breakaway Tiger banner with a team captain leading the way and carrying an American Flag. This is a long-standing tradition at home football games for many teams across the county.

“I hope every girl on that field can get the feeling of excitement and know what they are doing is so inspiring,” Mulry said. “Not only to the community but to all the young girls that will now be looking up to them and watching them from the bleachers. That feeling will be just as indescribable as busting through that banner.”

When the Lady Tiger Flag Football team lines up for their opening kickoff next month, they will be breaking through something much more significant than a banner – they’ll be breaking new ground for generations to come.