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Gwinnett County takes flag football to Mercedes-Benz Stadium for semifinals

The inaugural girls flag football season in Gwinnett County is down to four teams, and through 14 games they each approach the new sport slightly differently.

Collins Hill’s Frontia Fountain approaches the game like 7-on-7 in padded football, while North Gwinnett’s Eric Wright said he goes a different direction, considering flag football’s permission of rushing. Patrice Allen and Ashley Douglas at Peachtree Ridge say they started from scratch and built up a playbook throughout the season

Grayson coach Rebekah Bullock said the Rams have practiced daily throughout most of the season. Other teams steal practice on three to four days each week.

All four teams are predominantly a mix of soccer, softball and basketball players. Members of North Gwinnett’s lacrosse team makes up a sizable portion of its roster. Bullock and her assistant Jacob Parker have reeled in some converts from Grayson’s soccer team, which both coach fulltime in the spring. Parker has competitive flag football experience, including competitions at the national level.

The season began with loaded tryouts. All teams had to make cuts down to roughly 20 players. On the low end, North Gwinnett had roughly 40 try out. On the polar-opposite end, Grayson had 150 try out. Mill Creek allegedly tried out more than double that.

All three teams have one thing in common, though: Their coaches all believe the semifinals and championship game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday is a test run for an expansion of the sport into other counties next season.

“I definitely wanted to be part of something new and groundbreaking,” Bullock said. “I’m always about giving girls new opportunities. The second we heard rumors about it, I had tons of girls asking about tryouts.”

Collins Hill matches up with North Gwinnett, while Peachtree Ridge meets Grayson for the first two semifinal games at 5 p.m. in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The championship game is set for 6:15 p.m. the same day. Admission to both games is free.

“I definitely think we’ll be able to showcase what girls in the state can bring to football,” Douglas asid. “Some people are going to be surprised.”

Grayson beat Peachtree Ridge 7-0 in the last week of the regular season. Bullock recognized the athleticism of Peachtree Ridge senior quarterback Monique Thame, who has helped guide the Lions to nine wins this season while also playing basketball.

“For this being an inaugural season, I think we’re definitely coming out with a bang,” Allen said. “I know they thought this would be successful, but didn’t know the turnout would be this big.”

Chemistry is also something Peachtree Ridge’s coaches said the Lions bring to the table.

“A lot have formed maybe life-long friends and everybody’s eager to get better and win,” Allen said. “We never have to question whether anyone is going to bring their best. … I think we have a Cinderella story.”

Bullock said it will be hard to beat Peachtree Ridge and its organized offense twice. Grayson, however, stands at 12-1-1 and has positioned itself as an intimidating contender for the championship.

North Gwinnett is the only undefeated team left in the county, 13-0-1, matching up with Suwanee rival Collins Hill. Bulldogs coach Eric Wright, a defensive backs coach for the varsity team, touted the support of the school and his fellow assistant coaches with the varsity team. Some teachers have provided extra incentive by offering extra credit on quizzes for attending.

“They get a kick of me having hand signals and running man-to-man,” Wright said. “I come from a football background. Everything has reason. We’re not just out here running routes. It’s fun for them to see this is how football works.”

The involvement and sponsorship of the Atlanta Falcons and the facilitation of the Gwinnett County Public Schools athletic department has helped with regards to promotion of the league and additional sponsorship. Coaches said Nike has sponsored the semifinal and championship games and will provide jerseys to the final four teams. Gwinnett County can consider itself a front-runner in the flag football space, but it’s also a guinea pig.

According to a press release from the Falcons, six public school systems — Atlanta Public Schools, Cobb County, Fulton County, Henry County, Muscogree County and Rockdale County — showed interest in starting or joining leagues. Georgia has one of the lowest rations in regard to gender inequality for high school sports offered to males and females.

Wright said he could see the state getting involved with the sport, but perhaps the biggest obstacle is that colleges aren’t providing athletics scholarships for flag football, at least not yet. Flag football is an intramural sport at most colleges, open to anyone who pays a fee. If athletes are training for scholarships in softball, soccer, basketball or lacrosse, flag football could take a back seat.

The popularity of the sport in Gwinnett County might be enough to convince spectators that flag football is as serious as the students and coaches involved in it. Despite the multitude of dual-sport athletes involved, it hasn’t taken a back seat in the inaugural season.

“Our team has had a goal since the beginning that we wanted to go to The Benz,” Bullock said, referring to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “We brought the girls out for practice almost every day. We wanted them to understand how the sport was played, and the more we practiced the more understanding, and we developed a team environment.”

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