With 2 teams in emerging league, North Allegheny coach encouraged with growth of flag football

Saturday, April 20, 2024 | 11:01 AM

Girls flag football was popular in southeastern states when Michelle Ruiz was teaching there earlier in her career, which motivated her to later make it an annual tradition for middle school kids at North Allegheny.

But to her delight, the sport might soon become sanctioned statewide for Pennsylvania high schools, an indication of how quickly the game has grown in popularity here.

“This year, it just blew up,” Ruiz said. “And it’s so awesome.”

A month after the PIAA crowned its first girls wrestling champions, PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi said girls flag football has reached the 100-team threshold needed to move forward as the next emerging sport.

Lombardi said 103 schools statewide sponsor girls flag football. But he also noted some logistical hurdles that remained, while speaking with athletic directors at the WPIAL annual meeting April 17.

For one, Lombardi said a large number of the teams come from schools surrounding the state’s two biggest cities, where NFL franchises sponsored girls leagues. The Steelers-backed league has 36 schools playing a seven-week schedule that ends with championship games May 19 at Carnegie Mellon.

This is the third year for the league and North Allegheny was one of its original teams. Ruiz had enough players to field two high school teams for the second spring in a row: Varsity Gold and Varsity Black. She oversees both along with assistant Luke Trocchio, who she calls her co-head coach.

The NA rosters combined have 19 players.

“I love the confidence it gives the girls when they’re playing,” Ruiz said. “Predominantly, football is a male sport. I love the fact that the girls can play flag. It’s been a huge sport in the south for a very long time and I’ve wanted it to come here.”

Along with the three dozen schools in the Steelers league, the Philadelphia Eagles’ website lists more than 60 in theirs. But before flag football becomes a sanctioned sport, the PIAA hopes to see participation increase in other regions of the state.

“I know the NFL is very involved in this and behind it,” Lombardi said. “But we need to get some growth outside of the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia areas.”

Adopting a rulebook is another concern. The National Federation of State High School Associations doesn’t have one for flag football, but Lombardi said it’s in the works. However, he said it likely won’t be ready before next school year.

“There are some other rulebooks out there,” he said, mentioning one written by the National Intramural and Recreational Sports Association. “Georgia has taken a blend of NIRSA and their own policies and wrote their own. We’ll probably keep an eye on some of our brother and sister state institutions to see what they’re doing.”

Lombardi said there is debate nationally about whether teams should have five or seven players on the field. The Steelers league has increased to seven, which Ruiz said was good for the game. She’d also like to see the field expanded from the current 35 yards wide and 50 long.

“Traditionally, boys play 7v7 flag football on a full field,” Ruiz said. “Even if we went to 45 across, I think they can do that.”

Ruiz’s daughter, Ally, is one of eight seniors on the roster. She credits them for laying a foundation for what someday could be a PIAA-sanctioned program.

“I’m super proud of them because they’ve all stuck with it and they love it,” Ruiz said. “These girls would’ve loved to see it happen before they graduate, but I’m encouraged with where it’s going.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.


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