Flag football is no longer just a novelty in the Shore Conference. Now in its third season, the sport has taken off with the number of teams growing each year.
Holmdel High School junior Julia Saporito, who was one of the trailblazers for flag football when it was first introduced in 2021, has witnessed the sport’s growth not only on her team but throughout the Shore.
“I’m not surprised by its growth,” she said. “The sport is so great. We have a lot of new freshmen which is great to see.”
Saporito is also an outstanding discus thrower on Holmdel’s track and field team. With flag football being a club sport, spring athletes can still compete in their varsity sport and play flag football.
“The freshmen view [flag football] as their prime sport,” she remarked.
Holmdel Head Coach Melissa Mendez has noticed the change as well.
“The first year, we had a lot of cross-over athletes,” she recalled. “Last year, there were fewer. This year, the freshmen have chosen flag football over all the other sports.”
Steve Antonucci, Middletown South’s head football coach who helped introduce flag football to the Shore Conference, sees this trend as the future of the sport. He noted that with American Youth Football giving girls the opportunity to play the sport before high school, that will enable them to have flag football as their priority sport and, with it, the post-high school opportunities available. Antonucci pointed out that NAIA colleges have been offering flag football scholarships.
With flag football now in its third season, the quality of football played has gotten better each year.
“They are varsity-caliber athletes who have a competitive nature,” he said. “Honestly, whey you see them play on the field, you see how athletically gifted they are. There’s a lot of talent around [the Shore Conference].”
Antonucci’s goal in bringing flag football to the Shore was to have it develop into a sanctioned NJSIAA varsity sport. Everything is going in the right direction. The sport is being played throughout the state with the numbers increasing.
The Shore Conference has expanded to 14 teams in 2023 and will be divided into two divisions, North and South. The North Division will have Matawan, Holmdel, Keansburg, Raritan, Middletown North, Middletown South and Henry Hudson. The South Division has Trinity Hall, Rumson-Fair Haven, Long Branch, Shore, St. Rose, Central and Pinelands. There will be an eight-game regular season followed by playoffs.
It’s not just teams that are increasing but participants as well. Antonucci said he didn’t want to do it but had to make cuts this spring. He has 35 players on this year’s Middletown South team. Increased participation leads to schools forming JV and freshmen teams as well.
After three years, the teams are starting to develop fan bases as well – another sign that flag football is here to stay.