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More Girls Than Ever Are Playing High School Football

I’m watching what might otherwise be an unremarkable video of a small-school football game between Colorado’s Lyons Middle-Senior High School and Byers High School. The teams are set up for a kickoff. The Lyons kicker knocks the ball downfield, and it disappears out of the frame, somewhere between the 5-yard-line and the goal line. The Byers returner grabs it and runs back into the frame. Lyons’ kickoff coverage is bad—they’re out of position, and the returner is bigger and faster than everyone on the coverage team. Just like that, he’s run past them and into the open field.

All he has to do is get past the Lyons kicker, and it’s an easy six points. He heads up the right side of the field, and his teammates jump up and down on the sideline, celebrating in anticipation of a sure touchdown. But then the kicker closes in and makes a perfect tackle—all 5-foot-8, 125 pounds of her.

“I was shaking,” 16-year-old starter Alexa Karsel recalls later. “I don’t get to hit people very often, but I love the chance to go try and do it. It’s so fun.”

Karsel, a junior at Lyons, had never considered playing football until just two days before her freshman year of high school. She was sitting at the kitchen table with her father, and made a joke about becoming the kicker for the football team (she’s a soccer player). Her dad was supportive of the idea, and told her that she can do anything she wants to. So on the first day of school, she walked up to head coach Jason Yantzer and asked if she could try out.

“I had heard that she wanted to kick for the team, and I had heard that she had a very strong leg,” Yantzer says. “I was eager to see how she would kick a football. She has such a powerful leg and kicking a field goal seemed very natural to her. I was excited to have her join.”

After winning over her teammates with an impressive tryout and shaking off the nerves, Karsel became the first female player to score for Lyons when she made an extra point in a 23–7 loss to Yuma on October 23, 2016. She went 12-for-12 on extra point attempts the rest of the season, as well as made a 42-yard field goal against Estes Park.

Later that fall, the Karsels made a Thanksgiving trip to visit family in the Chicago area, and they stopped in at Ditka’s, the restaurant owned by Chicago Bears legend and Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Ditka. Ditka was there that day, and before he could leave Karsel’s grandfather stopped him for a quick chat. “He was about to walk out, and my grandpa went up to him, and he was like, ‘Hey, this is my granddaughter Alexa. She plays football, and she made a 42-yard field goal,’” Karsel recalls.

“He goes, ‘That’s a great job,’ and he slapped her on the shoulder and shook her hand,” adds Art Karsel, Alexa’s father. “Alexa lit up like a Christmas tree.”

Karsel followed up her impressive freshman season by making 19 of 23 extra points and one of her three field-goal attempts in 2017, and so far this season, she has made both of her extra point attempts.

Karsel is part of a movement—more teenage girls than ever are playing football. According to participation statistics from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), 2,401 girls played high school football in the fall of 2017—the highest number since the NFHS began tracking girls’ participation in the sport in 1974.

Here in Colorado, 141 girls played 11-player football in 2017, according to the NFHS statistics (numbers were not available for 8-player or 6-player teams). Among others, Halle Underwood of Horizon High School in Thornton and Clara Morgan of Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins have each suited up in recent years, and Windsor High School currently has two girls on their roster. Karsel even faced another female on the field this season, as the Lions played Evergreen’s Clear Creek Golddiggers, who feature freshman linebacker Jillian Lupinacci.

As much as she enjoys football, Karsel’s main sport is still soccer, which she plans to play in college. Lyons does not have a soccer program, so she plays at Silver Creek High in Longmont. She led the team with 16 goals this past season, including a game-winner in overtime in the second round of the Class 4A playoffs, and was named BoCoPreps All-Region honorable mention. Just for good measure, Karsel is also a sprinter on the Lyons track team, which finished second at the Class 2A state meet last May.

Still, Karsel understands that when it comes to football, being a girl playing a traditionally male sport gives her a unique position as a role model in the community, and she takes that responsibility seriously.

“I think it sends a good message to other girls out there, that you can do anything the guys can do,” she says. “There are little girls that come to my games and they yell ‘Alexa! Number 11!’ It’s the best feeling to have someone look up to you, I can’t even explain it.”

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