By Kyle LoJacono
Freedom High began its fifth season of flag football March 18 with a 19-6 win over Leto. The sport is still new to Florida, but the Patriots are already leaving their mark.
“It’s great to get my senior season started,” said Gabbie Peek, who is a four-year varsity player in flag football, swimming, track and field and soccer. “It’s really exciting. My family loves football so it’s great to have the opportunity to play in high school.”
Only girls can play in high school flag football. Peek played quarterback last season, but a newcomer has allowed her to move to wide receiver. She also plays safety.
“Gabbie is such a great athlete, so we needed to get her the ball out in space where she can use her skills,” said Dennis Derflinger, who has been the only Coach of the Patriots’ flag football program. “It’s great that we were able to find someone with as strong an arm to move to quarterback this year.”
That someone is senior Olivia Bloemke, who was a catcher for Freedom’s softball team.
“You have to be able to throw to be a catcher, so I tried out and I guess it went pretty well,” said Bloemke who is also on the school’s soccer team. “I didn’t play before because I knew it would be a huge commitment, but some of the players on the soccer team told me I should give it a try. I’m glad I did.”
The switch at quarterback has created a lot of options for the Patriots.
“It allows us to put some more trick plays into our game plan with Gabbie getting the ball and throwing it out of the backfield,” Derflinger said. “That will keep our opponents guessing…It’s great to be able to find someone as smart as Olivia who can step in and become a quarterback so fast.”
Like many of the players on the team, Bloemke is playing organized football for the first time.
“That can be a big hurdle or a good thing,” Derflinger said. “When they first start playing you need to teach them the basics, but that means they don’t have any preconceived notions about how to play football. All I want is girls who are good athletes and want to learn.”
Derflinger himself did not play high school or college football, but like most of his players developed athletic skills while participating in other sports. He was a baseball and soccer player.
“I think having kids who’ve played other sports helps,” Derflinger said. “The soccer players are really good at running and cutting. The basketball players are good at cutting too, but usually have better hands. They all bring their own talents to the field.”
One of the cross-sport athletes is wide receiver and cornerback Shadé Williams, who also plays basketball and runs track.
“I’m a shooting guard on the basketball team and I think playing receiver is a lot like that,” Williams, sophomore, said. “In basketball the point guard gets the other guards the ball and then we have to make their passes count by scoring. It’s the same thing with a quarterback and wide receiver.”
Williams is also in her first year playing flag football, as is the 6-foot tall Lindsay Taggart who is on Patriots basketball and volleyball teams. Taggart plays slot receiver and linebacker for Freedom
“Flag football is a lot different from basketball for me because I play around the basket, so there’s contact on almost every play,” Taggart said. “There isn’t much contact in flag football.
“As a slot receiver I’m not guaranteed the ball on every play,” Taggart continued. “When you play close to the basket you get the ball on every play. In flag football I have to be patient and wait for the ball.”
Freedom plays in District 12 with Steinbrenner, Gaither, Sickles, Wharton, Leto and Alonso. Flag football has only one class of teams.
The Patriots were not eligible for the regional playoffs in its first season in 2006, but still finished 9-0. They then won their district tournament in 2007 and 2008, but were the runners-up last season.
“We lost to Gaither in the district finals and I want to get back to the playoffs again this year,” Peek said. “It’s my last season and I want to go out at least as a district champion and go deep into the playoffs.”
Unlike most sports, only the district champion advances to the playoffs in flag football. In most sports the district runner-up also makes the regional tournament.
If the Patriots return to the playoffs, their coach will have to get the different athletes to work together.
“He’s a great coach and encourages us on the field,” Taggart said. “He answers all our questions and takes the time to make us better. He is doing a great job. I feel confident that we will have a great season with him as our coach.”
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