North Allegheny, 5 other schools join Steelers-sponsored girls flag football league

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Saturday, April 30, 2022 | 10:01 AM


There’s a new high school football league in Western Pennsylvania sponsored by the Pittsburgh Steelers and created entirely for girls.

North Allegheny was one of six WPIAL schools to field a team this spring for a flag football pilot program for girls in grades 9-12, with Ambridge, Ellis School, Moon, Shaler and West Allegheny also taking part.

The league played its first games April 24, and NA coach Michelle Ruiz is already hoping that success this spring will lead to more seasons and even more teams.

“The hope is to turn it into a sanctioned high school sport,” Ruiz said. “I’d love for that to happen. I’ve waited half a lifetime for something like this, so I’m super excited about it.”

This year’s five-week season culminates with games May 22 at Heinz Field.

The contests are held on Sunday afternoons with all teams playing at the same host site. Ambridge served as the Week 1 host and North Allegheny’s Newman Stadium was chosen for Week 2 on May 1.

The football field is divided into thirds, allowing three games to be played simultaneously. The teams play widthwise across the 53 1/3-yard field, turning the sidelines into end zones. The games use a five-on-five format with a center, a quarterback and a combination of wide receivers and running backs.

“We have some pretty athletic girls who can run and cut and turn and catch and throw,” Ruiz said. “It’s really awesome.”

North Allegheny has a playbook that Ruiz continues to expand. The team had only five practices to get ready, so the girls have learned the game on the go.

“They’re really excited and they really want to prove themselves,” Ruiz said. “I think their fear is that it will go away, that it will be here and gone. They’re having so much fun with it that they want to see it stay.”

Ruiz said the team received money from the Steelers for their uniforms, the footballs, the flags and officials.

Since 2016, the NFL has worked to increase girls flag football participation nationwide. According to the NFL, 14 franchises have committed to sponsor pilot programs and seven states have already sanctioned the game as a varsity sport: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, New York and Nevada.

Ruiz, a middle school teacher, has organized annual flag football games for eighth grade girls for five years. Earlier in her teaching career, Ruiz worked at schools in Virginia and North Carolina, where flag football was common for girls.

Since returning to Western Pennsylvania, she’s made it her mission to expand the sport here.

“It was really odd to me when I got back here that it hadn’t grown this far,” Ruiz said. “It’s kind of like lacrosse. It took a while for lacrosse to build up and now it’s one of the fastest growing sports. That’s kind of what’s happening with girls flag football.”

North Allegheny has 19 girls on its roster.

More than half also play another sport such as soccer, volleyball, basketball or lacrosse, Ruiz said, but for some, this was their first time playing a school-sponsored sport.

“There are a lot of different personalities with a lot of different girls from a lot of different sports,” she said. “The cool part about it is that everybody is there for a common goal and everybody is supportive of one another.”

Her daughter Ally, a sophomore, caught the first touchdown in North Allegheny girls football history on a Week 1 pass thrown by sophomore quarterback Addy Celender. Yet, Moon celebrated a 2-1 win in the opener, creating an instant rivalry.

“I keep telling them I really don’t think you’re going to see flag football go away,” Ruiz said. “Too many girls are interested. Too many of us are having so much fun. I think you’re going to see more WPIAL schools getting on board.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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