Girls tackling football across the country

Kristina Coyne, a junior kicker at Chartiers Valley (Bridgeville, Pa.), says she was persuaded to try out for football by her boyfriend, Joe Ragni, a two-way starter for the Colts. Courtesy of the Coyne family

Lisa Spangler was 7 years old when she found out how much fun it can be to tackle someone.

She was playing flag football and accidentally knocked down an opposing player while reaching for the flag. During the car ride home, she told her dad that from then on she wanted to play tackle football.

“I told her, ‘Soccer is what girls play,’ ” Larry Spangler said. “And she said, ‘No, I want to play football.’

“My wife didn’t really like it, but she didn’t like my son playing football, either. Lisa’s not real big, but she has a real toughness about her.”

Now a 5-foot-5 sophomore, Spangler is the starting middle linebacker for Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.).

“She gets to the football as fast as she can, and she loves contact,” Fort Vancouver coach Eric Ollikainen said. “I never expected to have a girl be my middle linebacker, but my job is to get the best 11 on the field, and she’s one of my best.”

Spangler is one of a growing number of girls who have decided to tackle high school football. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 1,561 girls played football last season. That constitutes a 17.5 percent increase from just four years ago, when 1,328 girls participated. Numbers aren’t yet available for this season.

Most girls who play high school football are kickers like Brianna Amat, who was nicknamed the “Kicking Queen” and received national attention earlier this month after she made a game-winning field goal on the same night she was elected homecoming queen at Pinckney (Mich.).

But some girls are truly breaking barriers. Take Monique Howard, a 6-foot, 190-pound starting right tackle for Pershing (Detroit). Howard, who is also a power forward/center for the girls’ basketball team, is a rarity because she plays a position that requires so much muscle and strength. She recently received the ESPNHS RISE ABOVE Student Athlete Award.

Like Howard, Andrea Marsh is excelling at a position previously unheard of for girls. In fact, Marsh, a senior cornerback at Panama (N.Y.), has become such an integral part of her team’s defense that she was named one of four captains at the start of the year. She entered October leading her league with four interceptions.

Marsh, who also plays basketball and softball, was always fast — she runs the 40-yard dash in 4.85 seconds and was a running back as a freshman — but now she’s also one of the strongest members of the secondary after she spent nearly every day for the past four years in the weight room.

“She sticks her nose in there as well as any kid,” Panama coach Chris Payne said. “A lot of the coaches think it’s amazing she does what she does. The community’s really behind her.”

Likewise for Kristina Coyne.

The junior kicker at Chartiers Valley (Bridgeville, Pa.), who also plays soccer, was persuaded to try out for football by her boyfriend, Joe Ragni, a two-way starter for Chartiers Valley.

Though kicking in football required using a different part of her foot than in soccer, Coyne found herself making 40-yard field goals when she first tried it. Now she plays soccer games on Mondays and Wednesdays, goes from football to soccer practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and plays football on Fridays.

“My teammates are all supportive,” Coyne said. “Even when I miss they’re like, ‘It’s OK.’ I get high-fives from people [in school] I don’t even know. It’s a good environment.”

Her classmates even made T-shirts with the phrase “Girls Can’t What?” and the image of a female football player on the front, and Coyne’s name and number on the back.

“It’s really surprising how smoothly she fits right in with the team,” coach Chris Saluga said. “I don’t think anyone here even considers it strange.”

How could they?

In a sign of how prevalent female football players are becoming, Coyne and Chartiers Valley were scrimmaging another Pittsburgh-area school when Aliquippa (Pa.) freshman Queenisa Gilbert caught a pass on a slant route. Aliquippa players started celebrating wildly on the sidelines, and Chartiers Valley had no idea why.

“I told Chris, ‘A girl just caught that pass,’ ” Aliquippa coach Michael Zmijanac said. “If you saw her in her uniform, you wouldn’t know it was a girl.”

Zmijanac said Gilbert has been treated the same as everyone else on the team — with one exception. Aliquippa goes to summer camp before every season, and Zmijanac wasn’t able to set up separate accommodations for Gilbert in time.

But Zmijanac promised her that if she sticks with the team, he’d figure out a way to include her at summer camp next year.

“How do you tell them no if they’re physically capable of doing it?” Zmijanac said.

That’s the same question Larry Spangler faced when Lisa told him she wanted to play defense and hit people.

“I’m not very good at catching or kicking,” said Lisa Spangler, who also does jujitsu and is thinking of becoming a professional MMA fighter. “I’m only good at hitting things. That’s about what I can do.

“My friends told me if I was a cheerleader I’d probably go beat someone with my pom-poms.”

Her dad figures that cheerleaders suffer more injuries than football players anyway. His one rule is that if he ever hears Lisa cry on the field, he will pull her out.

“It’s been close,” Lisa said, “but I never have.”