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The fastest growing sport in Section V is off to a flying start in Williamson and Marion this spring.

The neighboring school districts have combined to form the Williamson-Marion (Wil-Mar for short) flag football team, a squad consisting of 22 girls in grades 9-12.

“I am just excited for the opportunity to have the girls come out and play a new sport and combine with Marion,” Williamson Athletic Director Andy Kritall said. “Having the two communities come together and offer a new and emerging program is great to see for both communities.”

Marion Athletic Director Lori DeLyser agreed.

“I think that it is a great opportunity,” DeLyser said. “Football is such a popular sport, and the girls are having a lot of fun.”

The growth of flag football has been exponential at the local, regional and national levels. Section V started flag football in 2022 as eight teams took the field. The number grew to 18 last season when the first Section V championship games were contested. A total of 31 teams are playing in Section V this year and the New York State Public High School Athletic Association will conduct state championships for the first time on June 1 and 2 in Cortland.

There are several reasons behind the growth of flag football. The sport is relatively inexpensive to start and teams in New York state have received financial and other support from NFL teams. The Buffalo Bills hosted the 2023 regional championships at Highmark Stadium and also welcomed teams from across both Section V and VI to a clinic in their fieldhouse on March 24.

Watch: https://www.facebook.com/williamsoncentralschool/videos/6939769179461457/

Matthew Coon, a high school business teacher in Williamson, is the team’s head coach. Coon has coached football in Section V at the junior varsity and varsity levels for more than two decades.

“It’s great, it’s an incredible amount of fun,” Coon said. “I have wanted to coach football here in Williamson for 20 years and it’s just a great opportunity. The girls are really hungry to learn, really hungry to work hard and they have a lot of fun in practice.”

After dropping its opening contest, the team won its first game on April 10 in the first flag football game ever played at Williamson. The team has a 5-3 record after eight games and wraps up the regular season on May 6. The team is currently seeded third in Class B2 for sectionals.

While the wins have been great, the players say they are enjoying other aspects of the experience even more.

“I would say that the best thing is definitely the atmosphere and getting to know different people,” said Kenzie Bailey, a senior at Williamson who plays quarterback and linebacker.

While Williamson and Marion have fielded merged teams in the past, including girls basketball the last two winter seasons, they also compete against each other in sports such as soccer and volleyball.

“The first practice was a little awkward, but we’ve put our soccer rivalry behind us and we are all good friends,” said Mia Hosbach, a senior at Marion who plays wide receiver and defensive back for Wil-Mar.

The players have continued to grow closer as the season has progressed.

“They have been nothing but great teammates to each other,” Coon said.

The team-building was helped by the fact that all of the players were starting from the same place. Although some had played back-yard football with family members in the past, the concept of playing on an organized team was new to everyone.

Three of the biggest challenges this season have been learning the rules, remembering the plays and completing passes.

“Definitely trying to catch the ball when you are running,” Hannah Roegiers, a senior at Marion responded when asked what has been the most difficult aspect for her. “There is a lot going on at once.”

Keira Robinson, the lone ninth-grader on the roster, agreed.

“The routes, those are really hard,” said Robinson, who attends school in Marion. “I think that’s why I like defense better, although flag-pulling takes a whole lot of hand-eye coordination.”

In a unique twist, the team also features three players who are attending Williamson through the AFS foreign-exchange student program. Luisa Libovichova is from Slovakia, Amanda Palavicino is from Chile and Eyhildur Ragnarsdottir is from Iceland. None of them had played football before.

“It was new and we wanted to be a part of it,” Ragnarsdottir said.

Libovichova, who also participated in volleyball and track at Williamson, said her family was surprised when she told them she was trying flag football.

“My Dad tells me that I am turning into an American,” she joked.

The historical significance of this season is not lost on the players, who raved about the opportunity of being able to practice in the same facility where Josh Allen and his Buffalo Bills teammates do.

“It is a really big opportunity to play a sport that is fastly growing,” Bailey said. “If you think about it, years and years ago women were not allowed to play sports, so to be able to a play a sport that was ‘male dominant’ is really cool.’”

DeLyser, who was a standout four-sport athlete during her days as a student at Marion, appreciates that fact, as well.

“I definitely would have played flag football if they had it when I was in high school,” she said.

The hope is that other girls will seize the opportunity as the sport and program continue to grow.

“The players love it,” Kritall said. “They are out there competing and learning and that is all that we can ask. We’ve got a lot of underclassmen coming back and hopefully those players can keep the program rolling for years to come.”

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