Fans at Palestine Junior High football games can’t help but notice the long ponytails that two of the players are sporting below their helmets.
While eighth-grader Stephanie Molina and Jade-Lynn Laurent, a seventh-grader, garner second glances in their Wildcat football uniforms, when they take the field these girls ask for no special treatment: They are there to play the game.
This is 13-year-old Jade-Lynn’s first time to play, and she credits her interest in the game to the fact that “my dad, grandad and cousins (at Elkhart High) all played.”
PJHS’ 7B game at Van was Stephanie’s first time to take the field and she had several plays at safety, where she broke up one pass play, and she took one snap at quarterback.
“It was a handoff,” Jade-Lynn stated matter-of-factly, “so I had no passes in this game.”
Stephanie plays on 8B, as wide receiver on offense and safety on defense.
This 13-year-old is a veteran of the sport, having played last year as well. Her interest in football was a surprise to her parents, Lorena and Esteban Molina.
Esteban is a self-described “Sci-fi and comic-book nerd” who says neither he nor his three brothers were into sports.
He recalls, “Stephanie first asked Mama and she said no, but I caved in. My daughter’s always managed to persuade me …”
He added that three of Stephanie’s male cousins have played for Palestine in the past.
The Palestine coaches state that they make no special allowances for these players, and Stephanie confirms that.
“The coaches treat me like any other person. Coach (Michael) Coyne said he ‘has sympathy for no one.’ And that’s just the way I want it.”
She adds that Coach Samuel Johnson is probably her favorite coach.
“He’s fun and gave me the most play time in that last game. He inspires me.”
Being accepted in a sport that is traditionally a male-only game has been – a process – and Stephanie has seen a change in her teammates’ attitude toward her.
“Last year they didn’t really like me — said I suck and shouldn’t play ’cause I’m a girl. This year that changed. I guess they grew up, or learned to like me. It’s better now. We eighth-graders have to set an example of good sportsmanship, for the seventh-graders,” she further explained.
Molina may indeed have paved the way for Laurent, who has not felt any animosity from her teammates.
Both Stephanie and Jade-Lynn are slight of build, and the obvious question is: Is it scary, playing against the boys?
“Not really. You just get nervous when you get on the field, wondering, ‘Am I gonna do good?’” Jade-Lynn clarified.
Stephanie echoed, “Before the game you think they will hurt you, but once you’re actually playing, it’s easy.”
Posing that question to their parents might generate a different answer.
Jade-Lynn recalls, “My mom (Samantha Laurent) was scared. Dad didn’t care as long as I don’t come crying when I get hurt.”
So far, that hasn’t been an issue.
Jade-Lynn says she has been tackled in practice but gets right back up. Her dad, Justin Laurent, doesn’t try to hide the pride in his voice as he shares:
“When Jade-Lynn asked me about playing, I told her I wouldn’t hold her back just ’cause she’s a girl. And she’s doing great. Every time she comes home, she’s smiling and telling me all about the game or practice.”
Esteban Molina admits to reservations, noting, “My daughter is still a little girl, but the boys are getting bigger and bigger …”
The unspoken implication is left hanging in the air. In fact, Stephanie is currently nursing an aggravated muscle in her neck after seeing a lot of action at Center last week.
Of course, she brushes it off, like football players do: “I’ll be okay.”
Stephanie says this may be her last season, admitting that against high school-aged boys she would be at greater risk of injury.
But, Molina has accomplished what she set out to do when she joined the team in seventh grade: “I wanted to be different from the rest of the girls — and to make people see that girls can be strong, too.”
Catch PJHS’ teams in action Thursday at home against Bullard, with the 7B game slated for 4:30 p.m. and the rest to follow.