South Salem won the title at the eight-team flag football state tournament May 11 at the Nike campus in Beaverton.
South Salem won the title at the eight-team flag football state tournament May 11 at the Nike campus in Beaverton.

It didn't take long for girls flag football to take off in Oregon high schools.

After debuting in the spring of 2023 with eight teams, the sport blew up this year with 575 players from 32 schools. It is making steady progress toward being considered as an officially sanctioned OSAA sport.

Flag football has become wildly popular at some schools, with South Salem, St. Mary's Academy and South Eugene fielding two teams each. It is proving to be a viable option for girls in the spring.

“They see it on Friday nights in the fall, and I think there was an interest in developing skills and understanding the game,” said South Salem coach DJ Correa, who also is the offensive coordinator for the boys team. “And it was a new opportunity. Everyone gets to start brand new when they show up on the field for the first time.”

Flag football is living up to the high expectations of Rebecca Brisson, one of the league's organizers.

“We kind of knew in our belly that this was going to be great and this was going to happen,” Brisson said. “We were very pleasantly surprised that it basically tripled from Year 1 to Year 2.”

Gresham, a new team this year, had nearly 40 players participate in tryouts. Coach Adam Meyer said the Gophers had to make cuts because the budget allowed for only 25 uniforms.

“That was really unfortunate after seeing all the interest, but it was great to see the interest,” said Meyer, who teaches at Gresham and is an assistant for Barlow's boys team.

Flag football has met the threshold of 25 schools to be recognized by the OSAA as an emerging activity. It can earn that distinction in October when it comes up for vote at the next OSAA delegate assembly meeting.

If it passes, flag football would remain as an emerging activity for two years. If it reaches 50 schools by the end of that period, then it would be eligible to be sanctioned by the OSAA.

“The plan is to have 50-plus teams next spring and then go sanctioned,” Brisson said. “It's growing like crazy.”

With her extensive football background, Brisson has been a catalyst for flag football's growth in Oregon. The daughter of a high school football coach in Michigan, Brisson is a longtime high school football official and has owned the Portland Shockwave women's tackle football team for more than two decades, including a 13-year playing career.

Sarah Sowers of Nike contacted Brisson three years ago to propose the idea of a girls flag league. They contacted the OSAA in the fall of 2022 and connected with athletic directors to get the ball rolling, buoyed by financial aid from Nike.

Brisson reached out to the state's football officiating associations and organized a video meeting to review the flag football rulebook. The associations embraced flag football and have been working the games.

“It was so rewarding because so many times a lot of the officials would send me a note and email after games like, 'The girls had so much fun, and I had so much fun, this is so great,'” Brisson said.

A large contingent of the coaches come from the boys football teams and some are from other sports. To help get them up to speed on flag football, many joined a video call with USA National Team 15U assistant coach Matt Hernandez, a three-time state champion coach in Florida, where the sport has been sanctioned by the state association for the past two decades.

Eleven state associations have sanctioned flag football and 17 others are in various stages of pilot programs. California voted to sanction it last year and Colorado approved it this year. Washington voted it down in May when it failed to reach the 60-percent approval it needed to pass.

Flag football is a 7-on-7 game played on an 80-yard field and resembles the passing leagues that many boys teams play in the summer. Like boys football, some teams are run dominant, others prefer to air it out.

Oregon teams played a six-week schedule this year, with some teams getting as many as 10 games. The 32 teams were divided into eight geographic pods, with the top team from each pod advancing to the eight-team state tournament May 11 at the Nike campus in Beaverton.

South Salem defeated Tillamook 45-7, Banks 58-46 and Central Catholic 33-14 to take the title. Correa said the Saxons, who had 65 players in their program, took a major step forward from the first season.

“We saw a lot of improvement,” Correa said. “I saw the most improvement in just being comfortable on the field. I think the spatial awareness on a football field is something that takes about a season to get used to.”

Many flag football players pulled double duty during the season, either in high school spring sports or in club sports such as volleyball and soccer.

South Salem's lineup included standouts from the volleyball (Malena Mathis, Briella Mathis) and basketball (Izzy Flores, Sadie Paterson) teams. The Saxons' quarterback in the second half of the season was freshman Leah Ioane, who competed in varsity track, basketball and volleyball during 2023-24.

Correa said winning the championship “meant a lot” to his players.

“It brought a lot of attention to what they could do on the football field, a place where they're not normally recognized for their athletic achievements,” he said.

Correa enjoyed the experience, too.

“It's the most fun I've had. I'd like to do it for a while,” he said. “I'm extremely hopeful that it becomes an OSAA sport.”

Gresham's Meyer said his players “had a blast” this season.

“The very first night, I went home and told my wife, 'This is really fun. This is really cool. The girls are just loving it,'” Meyer said. “I don't know if it's because it's a new sport, or just something they haven't been able to do, but it correlates with a lot of other sports. Between soccer and basketball, and other things like that, the girls just picked it up and really enjoyed it.”

Brisson was impressed with the intensity of the games.

“These girls were out there to play,” Brisson said. “It was not that traditional thought of powder puff, by any means. They were competitive and hyped up – play cards and the whole thing. It was just amazing.”

Brisson is hopeful of growing women's tackle football in the region – the Shockwave and two sister teams put on a clinic in the spring that attracted about 60 girls – but she sees flag as a good option to tackle for those who “don't want to put on all the pads and get hit but love the sport.”

“Flag is a non-contact sport just as much as basketball and soccer are technically non-contact,” she said. “But you do have some contact. Whether some of them transition to tackle football or just play flag for the next 30 years, I'm happy.”