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‘We can do this too:’ Five area girls take on varsity football

A law passed in 1973 would eventually change the lives of current high school girls born near the turn of this century.

That law made it OK for girls to play with boys on high school athletic teams in the state of California. In 1973, two girls — Diane Thompson (Live Oak) and Toni Ihler (Portola) — joined the boys on their junior varsity football squads.

A little more than four decades later, it’s not surprising to find girls on varsity football rosters. But it’s still not commonplace.

The Record found just five girls on varsity rosters in San Joaquin County: Weston Ranch’s Felicity Pitts, Franklin’s Jelani Williford and Tatiana Ugale, Tokay’s Samantha Patton and Lodi’s Paige Ward. Here’s how they feel about the select company they’ve joined:

Pitts embraces size, position

In years past, the most common position for girls on varsity football teams was kicker. But none of the current players in the county are that.

Pitts, at 5-foot-1, plays slot receiver and believes she’s a perfect fit for the position.

“I’m pretty small, so I’m glad I’m not a wide receiver because I can actually get through really quickly,” she said.

According to Cougars coach Seth Davis, Pitts is the first female varsity football player at Weston Ranch. Pitts hails from San Francisco, and has also wrestled, ran track and field and played basketball, softball and volleyball. She also enjoys singing and dancing.

Pitts, a 17-year-old junior, saw some other girls playing Pop Warner as a kid and said, “I thought I’d give it a try.”

Williford fearless in football

The kickoff return can be one of the most violent plays in sports.

Williford, 17, is part of the first-string kickoff coverage team as a “gunner.”

“I’ve got to get there as fast as I can and break down,” said Williford, a basketball and track and field standout at Franklin.

Williford, a senior who also plays safety, started competing in football in Pop Warner. She had a lot of male friends growing up and “they just welcomed me in.”

She’s been met with the same acceptance from the Franklin varsity team, both from her teammates and the coaching staff.

“They’ve been welcoming, ” said Williford, who plays the trumpet and does community service in her free time. “When I … get in the game, they let me know what’s going on.”

Patton savoring her experience

As a kid, Patton tried playing football but was met with hostility from her potential Pop Warner team.

“I’ve just loved the sport all my life … the guys didn’t want me there,” said Patton, a 16-year-old junior and defensive lineman. “It was this big old thing.”

That drove Patton away from the game for nine years, as she focused on cheerleading instead. But she’s back, and having the opposite experience. This time, her teammates have been excellent to her.

“They all love me,” Patton said with a laugh. “We are all super close, and we go do things together. … I couldn’t have asked for better teammates or coaches.”

Patton isn’t afraid of contact, as she enjoys kickboxing in her spare time.

She takes pride in her rare spot as a girl playing varsity football.

“It inspires me a lot, and it inspires the people around me, too. People have told me I inspire them, and I’m really modest, so I’m like, ‘Thank you. You do that all on your own,’” Patton said. “It’s really invigorating and an amazing experience.”

Ugale wired for football

Ugale, who started playing football her freshman year, has been training to play a contact sport since childhood.

“I just like the contact. I’m really rough,” said Ugale, a 16-year-old junior and defensive back. “I grew up rough with my two little brothers and three cousins.”

Ugale, who plays basketball for Franklin with Williford, has received the same positive treatment as Williford.

“It made me feel like part of the team, that the guys would actually accept us to play,” she said, “and treat us like family.”

Ward transitions from flag to tackle

Ward moved to Lodi from Fresno around age 5. She attended a private school in Lodi for 10 years, and began playing flag football in the seventh grade.

Once she transferred to Lodi High as a junior, she made the switch to varsity tackle football.

“I decided I didn’t want to give up football,” said Ward, an 18-year-old senior and cornerback. “It was definitely very different. I was on an all-girls team, and they were really soft. I came to the boys team” and it was tougher.

She’s been mostly accepted by the Flames, she said. Still, there are a handful who are hesitant to tackle her, or who “don’t think girls should be playing football.”

“A lot of times football is considered a guys sport. It’s really cool when girls get out there and are like, ‘We can do this too. It’s not just for you,'” Ward said. “It’s a really good statement.”

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