This is part of a series of blogs from Noble campus representatives to give a deeper look at campus life.
Girls can play football, too.
This is what Anthony Leigh, football head coach at Mansueto High School, set out to make sure that everyone knows. With that goal in mind, he launched Mansueto’s first ever girls flag football team in 2021. That year, Mansueto became one of 22 schools in the city to launch the inaugural Chicago Public Schools flag football league.
“It was an easy decision as an athletic director to bring in the sport… I wanted to make sure we could offer as many opportunities as possible to our female athletes,” Leigh said.
He also said it was easy because he loves the game of football and wanted to provide a non-collision version to athletes who wanted it.
The team makes adjustments at halftime led by Coaches Anthony Leigh (center) and Paulina Victor (right). Photo Credit: Anthony Vivian, Class of 2024
Flag football is one of the fastest growing sports in America, according to the NFL. In Chicago, the number of schools offering flag football grew from 22 to 66 in one year alone. The state of Illinois had 78 total programs this past season and forecasts a number in the 100s for next school year. Colleges are starting to notice this rapid growth. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) launched 15 collegiate flag football programs in the summer of 2020. Young ladies across the country can now be recruited to play flag football at the collegiate level and earn athletic scholarships.
Serenity Hodges is a Leopard who is making that her goal.
“Last year was my first year playing flag. Honestly, it was tough. It didn’t go well for me. I constantly felt like quitting. I told myself I wasn’t going to join the team again,” said Serenity, a junior at Mansueto. But even after the rough start, she kept going. She’s now just completed her second season with the team.
“I’m glad I came back though. I’ve improved so much. I learned the importance of never giving up,” Serenity said, “ You win some and you lose some.”
Leigh was also ecstatic that Serenity returned for her junior season.
“Serenity is a tremendous athlete who has grown so much in her time with the team,” Leigh said, “Her ability to dominate the game was on display in our victory over Hubbard High School. In that game, Serenity accounted for 32 of our 34 points.”
During the game, Leigh said she had three offensive touchdowns and one two-point conversion. She also had two interception returns for touchdowns – including one of 95 yards!
Serenity Hodges, Class of 2024, breaks away from the opposing defense on her way to a touchdown. Photo Credit: Anthony Vivian, Class of 2024
Serenity’s performance this past season earned her the honor of being selected to attend the NAIA Showcase which was hosted at Halas Hall – the training facility of the Chicago Bears. The showcase featured outstanding flag football athletes from throughout the state of Illinois.
“When I got to Halas Hall I was so nervous. It was a different atmosphere being where the Chicago Bears practice,” Serenity said, “I quickly realized that there was nothing to be nervous about. Every single girl there was nervous too. Every girl there was new to the sport just like me.”
Serenity was joined at the NAIA Showcase by one of her teammates, Sandy Cortina – a senior who just finished her first year of flag football.
Sandy started flag football this year because she wanted to try a new thing.
“I like trying new things. Especially things that help me expand my abilities as an athlete,” Sandy said.
Sandy has been a member of the girls’ soccer team throughout her tenure at Mansueto. A team that won the 2022 Noble League Championship.
“When I joined flag football, I was scared. Nervous. I never even really watched football. I didn’t know any of the rules or positions,” Sandy said, “My coaches and teammates really helped me grow and open up… I have nothing but respect for my teammates, Coach Leigh, and Coach Victor. They helped us build a family.”
Photo Credit: Anthony Vivian, Class of 2024
Coach Paulina Victor had nothing but glowing remarks to share about Sandy.
“Sandy was a co-captain in our latest season. She was named a captain because of the leadership she brought to our team. She showcases discipline, strength and heart. She is able to connect with others so easily and speak about important issues. She is a fearless player who refuses to be anything less than her best both on and off the field,” Victor said.
Sandy was even named the 2022 Noble League Athlete of the Year for flag football.
Like Serenity, Sandy also had an amazing experience at the NAIA Showcase.
“I was really nervous when we first got there, but that changed once we got on the field. We had professional coaches running us through drills. Coaches from the NFL and colleges were there training us, pushing us, and scouting,” Sandy said.
Both players were excited about the collegiate presence at the event.
“All the college coaches pitched their programs. It was really cool to hear them talk about their athletic facilities and scholarship opportunities. It made me really motivated to improve and aim to get a scholarship next year,” Serenity said.
“There were coaches from Florida, Nebraska, Kansas, Wisconsin, Illinois, and more… All the coaches spoke to us and gave us advice. They all emphasized their dedication to helping the sport grow in our country,” Sandy said with a smile on her face.
Coach Leigh and Coach Victor love what the sport is doing for the girls.
“Taking part in flag football is a rewarding experience for both athletes and coaches. As a coach, you are given the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the players who step on the field,” Coach Victor said.
She continued, “For a lot of our athletes, the team acts as their second family – and many of their problems outside of sports fade . Being able to provide students with a healthy outlet is the most amazing pay-off. You help players learn how to approach wins and losses, good and bad days. We instill focus, patience, and persistence that our athletes will carry with them everywhere they go.”