Growing the game
Last Saturday was the start of an exciting stretch for the Niagara Regional Minor Football Association’s flag football program.
It started with a flag football clinic for girls hosted by the Buffalo Bills at Youngs Sportsplex in Welland and will conclude Sunday when the Hamilton Tiger-Cats host the program’s players and coaches at a skill and drills clinic at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton.
Niagara minor football jumped at the chance to partner with the Bills last Saturday.
“We were very excited about it,” said Jim Storin, a director with minor football.
A total of 65 girls took part in the clinic and participants ranged in age to 18 from nine.
“It’s great for Niagara to grow the game of football and, to me, that is the most important thing. I grew up with football and I know what football meant to me,” Storin said. “Growing the game for girls will allow them to experience the whole same brotherly/sisterly love. This is flag focused but it doesn’t mean that they can’t go from this to other avenues, especially with this year being the first year of the Ontario Women’s Football League on the tackle side. It is a great introduction for them.”
The number of girls participating in minor football’s flag football program is growing every year.
“Year 1 we had one or two, Year 2 we had 10 or 15 and this year we have upwards of 30 girls,” he said.
On hand at Saturday’s clinic was Football Ontario’s program manager Emily Todd.
“Niagara minor football reached out to us wanting to promote women and girls football which is what I do with Football Ontario,” she said. “We are trying to create more ways for girls to get involved in football.”
This summer, Football Ontario will launch the Ontario Women’s Football League, which will consist of under-19 and under-16 tackle leagues. Ten teams from across Ontario will play in the leagues.
It’s all part of growing the game.
“Last year was our infancy. We had our first provincial women’s tackle team and now we are gaining momentum. This year at the women’s national tackle tournament we will have two teams representing Ontario,” Todd said. “We have the CCWFL (Central Canadian Women’s Football League) which is the senior women’s league and last week we had a collegiate women’s flag tournament. It was a huge success.”
She estimates there are about 1,000 female athletes playing flag and tackle football in Ontario.
Football Ontario is hopeful male and female flag football will be included in the 2024 Ontario Summer Games.
One of the guest coaches on hand last Saturday was former Buffalo Bills defensive back Marlon Kerner. He played with the team from 1995 until 1999 and has been helping out at community clinics for as long as he can remember.
“Any chance I can get to come out and help the youth of today I do. The game has changed so much from when I played but the techniques haven’t,” he said. “I am helping them understand the game and I love that we are bringing it to girls. Traditionally you didn’t see a lot of girls when I was coming up.”
He has a blast at the clinics.
“I come out here and act a little silly. They don’t know me so it is fun. Every clinic I have been to the kids have been great, just listening and soaking up the knowledge. It makes it worthwhile seeing them get the right technique.”
Kerner doesn’t change his approach when coaching girls or boys.
“Kids are kids and I don’t try to make any distinction. I just try to look at them as athletes and give praise to everyone.”
Storin is looking forward to next Sunday’s skills and drills clinic in Hamilton.
Age groups will be on the field in one-hour blocks running through drills run by Tiger-Cats players and the Hamilton coaching staff will stage a coaching clinic for the flag football coaches. At the end of the season, the associations’s flag football championship day will be staged at Tim Hortons Field.
The season starts on April 29 and runs until Sunday, June 18.
“Our numbers are growing every year. This year we have about 480-500 kids for this spring,” Storin said. “It’s a huge jump from last spring when we had about 350.”
Minor football runs under-8, under-10, under-12, under-14 and under-16 leagues with co-ed teams. It has partnered with Burlington and Ottawa to host recreational tournaments in the summer and will be putting together girls teams to play in the tournaments.