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Girls football stretches into Utah County

By Evan Cobb daily Herald - | May 14, 2018
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Utah County running back Tila Malungahu, 14, evades a defender during the game against Herriman at the Midvale City Park on Saturday, April 21, 2018, in Midvale.

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The Utah County girls high school football team circles up before their game against Herriman at the Midvale City Park on Saturday, April 21, 2018, in Midvale.

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The Utah County offense prepares to snap the ball against the Herriman II team at the Midvale City Park on Saturday, May 12, 2018, in Midvale.

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Utah County's quarterback Hope Brennan, 16, races upfield during the game against Herriman at the Midvale City Park on Saturday, April 21, 2018, in Midvale.

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Utah County players Sarah Ostler, 15, left, and Marilla Burke, 15, right, practice lateral movements during their practice at Willowcreek Middle School on Wednesday, May 2, 2018, in Lehi.

The Utah County Avalanche, the all-girls football team in the Utah Girls Tackle Football League, made the playoffs for the first time in the team’s history with a win on a rainy Saturday at the Midvale City Park. The team doesn’t have a long history in the league, because 2018 was the first year that Utah County has ever been able to field its own teams.

This year, Utah County had three teams competing in the three league levels: an elementary level team, a junior high level team, and a high school level team. In the year before, Utah County players were a part of the Riverton team.

The growth in the number of players in the league has been constant from the league’s beginnings in 2015. The first turnout was 50 players. Over the years, the league has grown to 300 players. Crystal Sacco, league president and co-founder of the Utah Girls Tackle Football League, attributes this growth to the benefits that come for each individual player.

“I think that part of it is knowing that when they play the game, that their position is important and it doesn’t matter what position it is. It takes every single person on the field to make the touchdown happen,” Sacco said.

This ability to consistently contribute to the success of the team is what Sacco believes brings girls back each year. Sacco estimates that first-year players return about 70 percent of the time after their initial year playing.

With the growth, the league has also evolved. Initially the program played eight-on-eight, rather than the traditional 11 players per team. Also, the league started with a draft style layout for team selection and has since become a league filled with location-dependent teams.

Tila Malungahu, 14, a running back for the Utah County high school team, has been a part of the league since the beginning. Malungahu, who has always loved football, was encouraged by other girls to try the league out and she jumped at the opportunity to support it. The biggest takeaway from her experience within the league is the high quality of sportsmanship that goes into football and how that impacts her life on and off the field.

David Burke, the head coach of the Utah County team, understands that football isn’t for everyone, but thinks that there are unique opportunities for the players. “They can use their talents in a new sport and it may be a sport that they have always watched and they didn’t know it was available,” Burke said.

Burke notes that sometimes there are conflicts with scheduling for the players and that each player must then make a decision on what event to attend that day.

Also, like other sports, football offers an opportunity for new players to meet other athletes from around the area and become friends. Burke sees the camaraderie that gets built throughout the year and how the girls, who attend various schools in the area, become a cohesive team.

Because the sport is still taking many new players each year, the focus in practice is form and technique. The coaches are certified by USA Football, a nationwide program aimed at youth coaches’ education on safety and health, which educates the newer coaches on the sport. The league also doesn’t perform special teams, which Sacco believes is a large contributor to high-impact injuries.

The league’s size also allows for board members to attend the games and provide additional oversight if there are ever any questions.

With all of this growth, there have been negative reactions about safety and gender roles that sprout up online. Sacco said she initially took offense at comments like “girls belong in the kitchen,” but has since been able to not pay attention to this negativity.

Burke and Sacco both believe that the league has plenty of room to grow and envision the league continuing to spread into other counties and states. They have seen some growth outside of the state. In 2016, the Indiana Girls Tackle Football League was started with a similar model to the Utah league. For Utah, Sacco would like to see the league grow into Davis County in the near future and continue to spread to other areas.

A lot of this growth can be attributed to word-of-mouth from players, who encourage others that may be interested.

“I would just say that it is a blast and even if you’ve never played football before I think to come out and try it anyways, because you might love it,” Hope Brennan, 16, the quarterback for the Utah County Avalanche, said.

Brennan has been a part of the league for the last two years and is enjoying the impact that her experience and knowledge impact her ability on the field.

Sacco sees this growth as validation that there is interest in the sport. “I think now we can show that there would be interest, that is where the success comes in,” Sacco said.

Both Burke and Sacco see girls’ teams making their way into the high school in the future. “Once we break that barrier, it is going to happen all over the United States,” Sacco said.

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