Flag football scores big at Mesa
November 16, 2023 by Ben Munaweera, Arizona State University
Ben Munaweera is an ASU Cronkite School of Journalism student assigned to cover Mesa High School for AZPreps356.com
Now that flag football is an officially sanctioned sport in the state of Arizona, there’s still lots of room for growth and opportunity going forward.
In previous years, multiple schools across the East Valley, such as Mesa High School, had their own club teams competing for fun. However, it was the high schools in the Chandler Unified School District that created and ran their own league that initially got the sport going. Flag football gained the interest of other districts, leading to them create and run their own club leagues until officials decided to take the idea of it being a sanctioned sport to the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA).
The AIA received the requests and after a year of discussion with the state board, reviewed other states’ leagues then created its own sanctioned league with its own rules. This year’s inaugural season included two divisions, a 6A, and a 5A division, with plans to add more to ensure fair competition in the future.
The sanctioning of the sport was something that has been in conversation for more than nine years, according to AIA executive director David Hines. He’s thrilled it’s a reality now.
“We’re really excited,” Hines said. “This isn’t the ol’ powder-puff girl football league. These girls can play. They’re very aggressive and very skilled.”
The sport has received massive support across the state and country, and flag football has been added to the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Within the state of Arizona, numerous organizations have financially supported the sport, such as the Arizona Cardinals, Nike, and the NFL. They all partnered and gave the AIA a $100,000 grant to help pay for uniforms, which benefitted more than 40 schools.
Members of the Cardinals including quarterback Kyler Murray and owner Michael Bidwill have attended games to help promote the sport.
At Mesa, the sport has gotten off to a great start with funding, local support, and participation. Mesa was one of the schools that benefited from the Nike grant and the team also has received support from local businesses.
David Klecka, Mesa’s athletic director, expects flag football to “hit the ground running” going forward, and is thrilled about the educational and financial opportunities it will create.
“It gives the girls another opportunity to showcase their skills and bring a high reputation to Mesa High,” Klecka said. “The support has been very exciting. It's so brand new and it's only going to get better.”
While the sport has grown over the past year before it was sanctioned, it was only being played in certain districts, such as Mesa. That created some problems early on, according to Mesa coach Carl Bandura.
“I had too many girls. We wanted to set up a JV team and make sure everyone gets an opportunity and to get them quality coaches,” Bandura said. “But early on, there wasn’t enough participation from other schools.”
This year Bandura was brought back to coach Mesa's official statewide inaugural season and is happy for the opportunity and for all the support the team has received.
“Last year, we had a really good team,” Bandura said. “It was a lot of fun. I was honored that they decided to stick with me as the coach, and the district has done a good job with it.”
Now that the girls have the financial support and opportunity to play in a competitive league, Mesa already has fielded some stars.
Mesa’s Leah Alcala earned the defensive player of the year award as well as making first-team all-defense in the region. Alcala plays wide receiver on offense and strongside linebacker on defense and loves the sport and what it means for the girls going forward.
“I think it’s great to get the opportunity,” Alcala said. “ As the sport keeps getting better, the talent will keep getting better. We can be better than the boys!”
Alcala also has big dreams for the future.
“During the season, we were talking about putting the pads on,” she said. “I think we could take it to the next level!”