In the second grade I ventured to a Robinson flag football game.
At 8 years old, my only connection to football was being a cheerleader for my brother's YMCA team. I had no idea a world existed where girls could play football without being surrounded by sweaty boys and tackle gear.
That Robinson game ran on repeat in the back of my mind for years, and now, eight years later, I am a two-time state champion and backup quarterback for the Knights.
Growing up, only the i9 Sports league offered youth flag football for girls, and only a few girls joined. But, somehow, South Tampa reigns supreme in flag football. Plant High School, led by coach Bo Puckett, claimed the Class 2A state title, while Robinson High School and coach Joshua Saunders claimed the Class A title, making this their third state title in the past four years.
How are two schools located only 4 miles apart able to be so dominant?
During my experience as a Knight, I have uncovered some of the secrets of such successful programs. After I finished eighth grade, I immediately started attending summer practices. Although flag football is technically a spring sport, practices at Robinson are year-round.
In fact, after taking home the gold May 20, our head coach gave us a nine-day break before practices resume.
Perhaps the repetition has an impact on our success, but it is not the sole reason. Robinson's flag football team is often referred to as a "machine" because of the dominance, but we see it a little differently.
At both Plant and Robinson, we play the game of flag because we truly love it.
There are no scholarships granted, no chances to play in college. We don't play to get recruited and make ourselves look good, we play for our team. And that is evident on the field.
Although love for the game is a huge factor, Plant and Robinson also have large pools of talent to choose from. Each year, about 80 girls come out to Robinson practices before the season starts to get a sense of the sport and see what all the hype is about.
But each February, the coaches choose 35. A key aspect to the team is the multi-sport athletes who have decided to add flag football to their athletic resumes. Both teams have volleyball, basketball and soccer players.
Plant's starting quarterback, senior Payton Paro, finished this season with 53 touchdowns, but played a role in other sports as well. Paro was the captain of the golf, basketball and flag teams, and is committed to Grand Canyon University to continue her basketball career. She was also one of several Panther seniors who chose playing in the state semifinal in Gainesville over graduation; both events were scheduled within hours of each other.
Robinson's starting wide receiver, captain McKenna Tyson, ended her flag career with 16 touchdown catches this season, 53 overall, and is committed to play volleyball at Indian State River College.
Although the seniors proved to be a powerhouse of athleticism for both teams, two freshmen stepped up to help Plant and Robinson win it all. Plant's Honor Culpepper shattered the freshman record for the most receiving yards in a season with 446 yards.
For the Knights, Emily Kemp broke the state record for the most receiving touchdowns in a season with 33. She had 35 touchdown catches overall, breaking an additional state record.
Despite the success of flag football in Hillsborough County, the sport is not popular in many areas of Florida. The Florida High School Athletic Association considers flag a "recognized" sport, but when will it become a sanctioned sport like football, basketball, baseball, softball and others? Although flag football continues to grow, Pasco and Hernando counties still don't offer it.
I find it hard to understand the reasoning behind the denial of this sport.
Growing up, I was the girl who played everything. I cheered, danced, did gymnastics, ran cross country and track, and played soccer, basketball and softball. But flag is the sport that I have stuck with. It is easy to love and each girl's passion for the sport inspires another's.
Every girl deserves to have that epiphany, like I did in second grade, that football can offer so much. If I had the power, I would ensure that every school offered flag football because every girl deserves the opportunity to be part of such a great sport, team and community.
Macy McClintock, a rising junior at Robinson High, was named the Florida Scholastic Press Association's Emerging Journalist of the Year for 2017. Contact her at email@example.com.