In case you might have missed it, there’s a new sports team in town, and it’s not one you might expect. It’s girls’ football, flag football to be exact, and the Kingsway Lady Dragons just wrapped up an impressive inaugural season in the game.
Created partly through an initiative of the National Football League, and sponsorship by the Philadelphia Eagles, Kingsway is playing in the West Jersey Flag Football League, which aims to bring the sport to girls at the high school level.
The Lady Dragons were so successful in their opening campaign that they ended up in a playoff tournament last month that featured the top four teams in the league.
But we’ll get to how their season ended in a moment. First, we should look at how all this began.
The move to start flag football for high school girls in our region started last year across the river in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania suburbs, also with support and funding from the NFL and the Eagles. This year it was expanded to include South Jersey, with 14 teams forming the West Jersey League, and Kingsway was ready to get in and participate immediately.
“I knew Kingsway would be one of the first to start the program having a large number of female athletes,” said school Athletic Director June Cioffi. “It wasn’t a question if we were going to have interest. I approached our Superintendent, Dr. (James) Lavender, and he immediately said yes without hesitation.”
The combination of big-league support and a high school administration willing to play along meant the program was off and running.
“We are always up for trying something new and bringing different opportunities for our students,” Cioffi said. “The Philadelphia Eagles have been wonderful throughout the process supporting the South Jersey schools that started the program this year.”
Enter the new Lady Dragons Head Coach Susan Massara, who is in her first year teaching Health and Phys-ed at Kingsway after a stint of teaching and coaching field hockey, lacrosse, basketball and track at Woodstown High School.
“I’m excited to be a part of the Dragon family,” Masara said. “Ms. Cioffi came to me early in the fall and asked me about flag football, and I was 100 percent on board with whatever she needed me to do. The fact that Ms. Cioffi and Kingsway jumped on it and said absolutely yes, they always at this school give opportunities when they’re offered.”
Massara said that being named coach of the new football team was a perfect fit for her and meant a lot personally. “I’ve been a football fan my whole life,” she said. “I always wanted to play football.”
Massara said she did play in a recreational flag football league for a summer many years ago, and often played in pick-up backyard touch-football games as a kid, but otherwise her experience, like most girls and women, has been mainly as a spectator.
“I’ve always been a huge fan,” she said. “But I never really got to be a part of the game until this year.”
Early on, before the season got underway, a meeting was held to gauge student interest in joining the team. Massara said about 60 girls came out for that meeting, showing the overwhelming need for the sport at the school. But she said the number was cut down significantly once it was explained that the team would be a full-time commitment, and that players wouldn’t be able to play other spring sports if they joined flag football.
The coach said the group naturally settled out to a perfect number of about 25 players joining this inaugural squad, meaning they ended up with the right size team without the need to make any cuts.
“We had unbelievable talent come out,” Massara said.
Once the rosters were set across the league, the Eagles helped the teams kick off the season with a jamboree at their Nova Care Complex in Philadelphia. The teams’ uniforms, provided by Nike were revealed and handed out to the players.
“The Eagles sponsored all the teams,” Masara said. “They gave them a stipend and bought their uniforms. They gave them a kit with flags and footballs. They’ve been amazing through this whole thing.”
While at the jamboree, the teams scrimmaged a bit against one another and had the opportunity to meet some of the Eagles players.
“It was just a really fun event for the kids to go to,” the coach said.
Now the season was underway, and it was time to get down to learning the game of football, for both the players and the coach. “I’ve learned so much,” Massara said. “My assistant coach, Mike Husni, was the brains of the operation. He was amazing.”
Husni, a former quarterback for the Rowan University football team, now teaches at Kingsway, and Massara credited his knowledge of the sport for much of their success this year.
“He knew all the plays and taught the girls everything they know,” she said. “He taught me everything I know. We were like bread and butter, coach and assistant. It worked out really well.”
This version of the game is played as a 7 vs. 7 competition, and Kingsway competed in the Tri-County Conference division of the league, which also included Willingboro, Pennsauken, Mastery Camden, Burlington City, Pemberton and Washington Township.
The league features a second division, the Cape Atlantic Conference, with teams representing Ocean City, Middle Township, Cedar Creek, Oakcrest, Hammonton, Absegami, and Mainland.
“Technically it is an intramural sport, however we treated it as an actual spring sport,” Massara said. “We tried to play every team twice, and we ended up having 13 games. It was awesome.”
Awesome is an understatement. As mentioned earlier, the team ended up in the top four of the league, earning a trip back to the Eagles’ Nova Care Complex on May 17 for a tournament showdown for the championship.
Kingsway faced off against Camden Mastery in the TCC semi-final, and Mainland took on Cedar Creek to round out their final four.
The Kingsway squad ended up losing a tough battle, 6-0, with Camden Mastery, who went on to win the South Jersey title by beating Cedar Creek in the championship game.
The Lady Dragons can definitely hold their heads high, finishing the season with a final record of 10-2-1.
“It’s been really cool to watch the girls all learn a brand-new thing together,” Massara said. “They brought excitement and happiness every single day. They were never in a bad mood. They were just pumped that they were there and just getting to play football.
“I think that a good chunk of them are going to come back, and hopefully we’ll get back to where we were and win it next year.”
Massara said the majority of the team is made up of sophomores, with a handful of juniors and freshman players, but very few seniors.
“When you’re starting a brand-new program in the spring of their senior year, not many seniors are going to want to do it,” she said.
One senior who did take the opportunity to play despite it being her final year at the school was Sydney Hopkins, who Massara said was easily the team’s best player.
Hopkins, 18, from Swedesboro, also played basketball for Kingsway and played receiver and cornerback for the football team.
“Growing up I watched football and always wanted to play football,” Hopkins said. “But I didn’t because girls don’t usually play football prior to having the girl’s flag option.”
There’s no question she’s glad she had the opportunity and enjoyed her time playing a new sport.
“I love playing. It was my favorite sport by far,” she said. “It meant the world to me to be a part of it. I wish I had more time.”
Riley Lewin, 16, from Swedesboro, was one of the team’s many sophomore players. The linebacker said she absolutely plans on coming back for more after her experience this season.
“I really enjoyed playing, especially with my team,” Lewin said. “It was such a great environment. Our team and coaches made it into an amazing experience. I looked forward to every game and practice with my team. We always had fun and were up for any challenge.”
With this new opportunity for a team to play a new sport comes opportunities for players to learn new lessons, such as those experienced by 16-year-old sophomore safety Kaitlyn Monteiro, of Mickleton.
“I learned that your confidence as a player plays a big role in how you perform in sports,” Monteiro said. “The memories that I have gained from being a part of this team will never be forgotten.”
Sophomore linebacker Tatum Rieger, also 16 and from Swedesboro, made a point to thank her coaches for making the season so memorable and for building a program that could mean so much for the school community as a whole.
“My coaches played a huge role in my experience for this sport, and I am so grateful for both of them and what they have done for me,” Rieger said. “I think that this program will do wonders for the school. I believe that this provides a great opportunity for so many people.”
For the team’s quarterback, 16-year-old sophomore Ava Valente, of Swedesboro, the experience seemed to take on more significance than just trying out a new sport.
“It was an honor to be able to step out and make history doing a sport I have loved all my life,” Valente said. “To be doing it with my team, which turned into my family, just made it more special to me.”
As for advice for future players, perhaps senior Ericah Wakiaga, puts it best.
“I would 100 percent recommend playing flag,” Wakiaga said. “You don’t need to be super athletic to succeed, and I don’t think there is a single person on our team who has not found a position that they like. Take a chance on something new and the opportunity to make history.”
Like Hopkins, Wakiaga is beyond thrilled she got the chance to play, but disappointed it was only for one year.
“Sadly, this is my first and only season playing flag football for Kingsway since I am a senior,” she said. “But if my college offers it as a club sport, I will definitely be participating.”
The significance of being among the first at the school to play on such a team was not lost on the 17-year-old receiver from Mickleton, who has also played soccer and basketball for Kingsway.
“Knowing that you were making history every time you stepped onto the field is a crazy feeling,” she said. “Knowing that we are laying the foundation for the sport to continue to grow and hopefully become an official NJSIAA sport gives you a feeling of pride and responsibility.”
If and when the sport will become an officially recognized NJSIAA competitive sport is still unknown, but based on this first season, Coach Massara is optimistic.
“I do think it will happen eventually,” Massara said. “I don’t think it’s going to happen next year. It’s going to take a little bit of time to gain some momentum. There are still schools that are losing teachers to budget cuts, so it’s tough to bring in something new and budget for it.
“As long as the Eagles are on board with being so supportive as they’ve been, and they’ve been amazing, hopefully it’ll stick around for a little bit and snowball into an NJSIAA sport.”
Athletic Director Cioffi seems to be on board with that assessment as well.
“For the short term we plan to continue with the West Jersey Girls Flag Football league with the 14 schools that started the program, and the Eagles are willing to support any new schools wanting to add next year,” Cioffi said. “We hope to expand to more teams and grow the sport in South Jersey.
“As far as the NJSIAA, we believe down the road in a few years it will become an official sport as they are supportive of the program as well.”
But for now, Coach Massara and her team can relish in their success and the knowledge they were there at the beginning of something that’s hopefully around for years to come.
“They had an opportunity to be a part of something for the first time ever,” Massara said. “I’ve never even had that opportunity. For that to even be presented to them is insanely amazing.”
By Joe D’Aquila