The news site of Evanston Township High School's student newspaper

The Evanstonian

The news site of Evanston Township High School's student newspaper

The Evanstonian

The news site of Evanston Township High School's student newspaper

The Evanstonian

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A ‘league of their own’

ETHS inaugural girls flag football team takes the field
The+ETHS+girls+varsity+flag+football+team+kicked+off+their+season+on+Sept.+14+against+Lane+Tech
Nate Greenwald
The ETHS girls varsity flag football team kicked off their season on Sept. 14 against Lane Tech

On Sept. 14, just minutes before kick-off, the ETHS’ first-ever girls varsity flag football team formed a huddle. As the girls redirected their gaze to the sea of orange and blue, and pre-performance nerves circulated throughout, head coach Luella Gesky’s words set the tone for the evening. With no hesitation in her voice, Gesky reinforced a novel message.

“Everyone here is making history, don’t forget that,” she affirmed.

In 2021, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) took part in a joint venture with the Chicago Bears, Nike, USA Football and NFL Flag to launch the first-ever high school girl’s flag football league in Illinois. In recent years, the rising costs associated with youth sports have restricted under-resourced communities, making it nearly impossible to reap the long-lasting benefits. However, through the donation of equipment, uniforms and accessories, the National Football League (NFL) actively remedies this disheartening reality.

“Every player showed up without having to worry about an expense,” said Juliana Zavala, the Senior Manager of Elementary Sports and Girls Flag Football Coordinator for CPS.

Senior Alyssa Williams bulldozes past a Lane Tech player at the season’s opener. (Nathan Greenwald)

With Zavala and Chicago Bears Community Youth Program Manager Gustavo Silva in the driver’s seat, the pilot program commenced with 21 teams. Since its inception, the Chicago Public League has tripled in size; with 60 teams this fall, the program is an indisputable example of the sport’s soaring popularity. Both Zavala and Silva aim to celebrate female athletes and help them overcome traditional sexist tropes in the male-dominated sport of football.

Currently, eight states have sanctioned flag football as a girls high school sport; however, the sport’s inclusive and cost-effective nature is driving momentum towards widespread adoption.

“It’s not just for the city,” Zavala said. “The goal is to make it a sanctioned sport in Illinois.”

Zavala stepped into her role with a clear vision in mind and throughout the course of her involvement, she has watched—from the sidelines—as her dreams enter the world of tangibility. With eight conferences and over 100 schools participating, the internal growth in the city has expanded beyond mere physical boundaries, into the suburbs of Chicago. In fact, the program’s current landscape aligns with guidelines developed by the IHSA, which assure that the board will entertain proposals to add a new state series when ten percent of member schools engage in a regularly scheduled competition in the sport.

“The recent expansion that [the program] has had is really phenomenal, and I don’t anticipate it slowing down,” said IHSA executive director Craig Anderson. “The rapid growth in the last few years warrants the institution towards a potential state series where we’d crown a high school champion in girls flag football.”

Last spring, Silva presented the opportunity to the Central Suburban League, and ETHS, along with numerous other local high schools, decided to take part in the movement. Upon commitment to the program, schools received a flag football kit with 10 footballs and 50 flag belts.

“It was too good of an opportunity to pass up,” said ETHS athletic director Chris Livatino. 

I asked one of the girls why she decided to give [flag football] a try, she said, ‘No one here is experienced. No one plays club. Everyone is on the same playing field, and it motivated me to take a risk.’”

— Juliana Zavala, Senior Manager of Elementary Sports and Girls Flag Football Coordinator for CPS

The promotional efforts to generate interest proved a worthy feat. Surging numbers required the adoption of both varsity and junior varsity programs, with volunteer coaches Gesky and Carlton Rosemond guiding the aspiring athletes through these uncharted waters.

“The community has been so supportive,” Livatino said. “Everyone welcomed the new opportunity with open arms.”

For decades, there has been an unwavering focus on representation in ETHS athletics; while certain teams face stagnant growth, girls flag football has been a redeeming feature. The program has unified female athletes from every corner of Evanston.

“It’s one of the most diverse teams that we’ve seen,” Livatino said.

Across the state, schools are at different points in this journey, however there is a common thread; for a number of girls, flag football is the first high school-affiliated sport that they were inclined to participate in.

“When I asked one of the girls why she decided to give [flag football] a try, she said, ‘No one here is experienced. No one plays club. Everyone is on the same playing field, and it motivated me to take a risk,’” Zavala said.

While years of involvement in track and field has taught her the importance of discipline and character, flag football has offered junior Nyel Rollins a new perspective; being a part of a team takes sacrifice, especially when everyone is a newcomer.

“I haven’t been involved in a serious sport where there is so much [emphasis] on teamwork. I think that’s the biggest takeaway I’ve gotten,” Rollins said. “We are all growing and learning together.”

For girls across the country, the growing infatuation with flag football was sparked on Feb. 12— Super Bowl Sunday. In an effort to pay tribute to the women driving the movement, the NFL launched the “Run With It” campaign, featuring female flag football star Diana Flores. The 25-year-old quarterback for the Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team has been recognized for breaking barriers.

Coach Luella Gesky talks with one of her players mid-game (Nathan Greenwald)

“On Aug. 19 [of this year], we had a [preseason Jamboree] at Englewood Stem High School with 42 teams participating,” Zavala said. “The Chicago Bears flew out Diana Flores from Mexico City [to be] our speaker for the day. It was truly inspirational, and it is just [heartwarming] to see female athletes supporting one another.”

Courtesy of the Bears, a major opportunity arose for athletes interested in playing college flag football nine months earlier. In Nov. 2022, the Bears invited 120 girls to participate in a flag football showcase in front of numerous NAIA coaches. One of those athletes was Saniya Shotwell, a recent graduate from Oak Park River Forest High School. While Shotwell had no prior flag football experience going into high school, she quickly excelled at the sport, earning a scholarship to play flag at Pratt Community College in Kansas.

“[The recruitment process] was unbelievable. Honest to God, I didn’t think I was going to play [in college]. My mindset was that I really love flag football but I didn’t know that much about football,” Shotwell said. “When my coach was like, ‘You could have all these opportunities,’ I felt [discouraged] because I thought schools wouldn’t be able to see [my potential] but when I actually got offers, I was jumping through the roof.”

I haven’t been involved in a serious sport where there is so much [emphasis] on teamwork. I think that’s the biggest takeaway I’ve gotten. We are all growing and learning together.”

— Junior Nyel Rollins

Following her commitment, Shotwell and two other college-bound flag athletes were invited to attend a Bears training camp practice and meet-and-greet with players and coaches at Halas Hall—the Bears headquarters in Lake Forest—in late July. For Shotwell, the experience was one she’ll never forget.

“When we broke out of the huddle and got autographs from [Bears quarterback Justin] Fields, [Bears wide receiver Darnell] Mooney, and all of the players, it was so crazy. They felt like our big brothers that were creating a way for us to play the game too,” Shotwell said. “I’ll never forget it. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

As girls flag football programs continue to be added across the state, Anderson is thrilled to watch each athlete flourish in their role.

“I think it’s great when we can gather student athletes to represent their school in a particular sport or activity and be recognized by their peers and community members,” Anderson said. “[This program] will help shape and mold youth to become stronger citizens for the future.”

Although ETHS fell to Lane Tech 14-0 in their first game on Sept. 14, the team is excited to continue to grow throughout the rest of their inaugural season. Junior Hannah Honore emphasized that the future of the program is limitless.

“[This program] is really important because there’s so many girls that would enjoy this type of thing,” said Honore. “Realizing that we’re the first people [on this team], it’ll only get better from here.”

This sentiment is being reflected by women’s sports advocates all across Illinois.

“Female athletes now have what we call a ‘league of their own,’” Zavala said. “These girls are pioneers and they’re not only writing their own story, but they’re making history [as well].”

On Sept. 14, just minutes before kick-off, the ETHS’ first-ever girls varsity flag football team formed a huddle.With no hesitation Head coach Luella Gesky reinforced a novel message. “Everyone here is making history, don’t forget that.” (Nathan Greenwald)
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About the Contributors
Jilian Denlow
Jilian Denlow, Executive Editor
Hi! My name is Jilian Denlow (she/her). I am a senior and one of the Executive Editors, overseeing Feature & Sports. As a freshman, I immediately felt welcomed and encouraged to be a part of the community. My utmost priority is to make others feel like they belong in this space. In my role, I hope to depict a more inclusive, whole and authentic snapshot of the community at-large. Outside of the Evanstonian, I play soccer for ETHS and a local club team. In my free time, I enjoy spending time with friends and going to the beach.
Owen Chiss
Owen Chiss, Digital Sports Editor
Kupu Sumi
Kupu Sumi, Artist
Nate Greenwald
Nate Greenwald, Staff Writer
Hello! My name is Nathan Greenwald (He, Him, His). I am a Junior at ETHS and this is my 2nd year on staff for The Evanstonian. In the past two years I have worked as a photographer, working my way through various sections of the paper. I take photos for The Evanstonian, because it provides a place for young people to share their perspectives with the very large community at ETHS. As a photographer, I can help display these certain ideas, events, and perspectives, through stopping time in those moments. Outside of The Evanstonian: I swim and play Water Polo for ETHS, play saxophone in the ETHS Jazz Band and Symphonic Band, and take part in a few other clubs as well. For work, I have been teaching Learn To Swim, and have been working at my synagogue; both are jobs I thoroughly enjoy. Outside of school, I enjoy Art, cooking, watching movies, hanging out with friends/family, and playing all different kinds of sports.
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