The origins of SYSO Girls Flag Football can be traced back to an offhand comment made in the spring of 2018.
The daughters of Jennifer Kisslinger and Katie DiChiaro were participating in an after-school intro to sports program run by DiChiaro. After seeing how much all the kids loved playing flag football, Kisslinger jokingly said, “I guess we have to start a flag football league now.”
Since then, Kisslinger and DiChiaro have served as co-commissioners for SYSO Girls Flag Football, an organization whose mission is to “provide an introduction to the game of football and the opportunity to learn and play in a fun, friendly and supportive environment.”
The two come from different backgrounds. DiChiaro has loved football all her life and played in an organized flag football league in college. Kisslinger grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and did not have many opportunities to play sports. However, both share the same passion for providing access to the game of football for any young girl who has the desire to play.
“Why should any girl not feel that they have every opportunity to do anything they want in sports?” Kisslinger said.
Organizations like Nike agree. According to News 12 Long Island, Nike and the New York Jets recently teamed up to donate money for equipment, uniforms, and coaching stipends to form New Jersey’s first high school girls flag football league.
SYSO Girls Flag Football operates in Somers, New York, just more than 30 miles north of New York City limits and not far from the border of northern New Jersey. Any girls in grades K-8 in the surrounding area are invited to participate. When SYSO Girls Flag Football started they had just eight players who were part of the program. In their most recent season this past fall, there were more 150 players who participated in the league.
“The group kept multiplying in numbers because of the interest and love of the game,” DiChiaro said. “Jenn and I were excited to see such a buzz around it. It is so exciting to see how much these kids embraced it from the start.”
Games held during the fall are used as a learning tool for players. While there is a level of competition, the primary focus is learning the ins and outs of football, as well as cultivating skills, teamwork, and sportsmanship. Clinics are held during the winter, so players have a chance to continue to hone and improve upon their abilities during the offseason. Recently, SYSO Girls Flag Football held a clinic that featured current and former players from the New York Sharks and New York Wolves professional women’s tackle football teams. The Sharks and Wolves served as coaches at the clinic and were provided by The Women’s Gridiron Foundation.
Like every sports organization over the last year, SYSO Girls Flag Football has had to make many changes during the pandemic to continue to provide girls an opportunity to play the sport. During the fall, games had to be moved outside, no more than 50 spectators were allowed to attend, the number of players on a team decreased, masks were enforced, and Kisslinger and DiChiaro had to sanitize every ball and flag in between games. But ultimately, all the preparation and organization paid off.
“We had a zero-transmission rate within our league of 150 girls throughout countless games,” Kisslinger said. “It required a lot more logistics, paperwork, and monitoring, but we did it and we can proudly say we did it properly.”
“It was hard for the kids sometimes,” DiChiaro added. “But they were happy to be playing out there and didn’t care what they had to do.”
Moving forward, Kisslinger and DiChiaro hope to implement a travel program so players can compete in regional tournaments in the tri-state area. They also hope to reach out to more girls who aren’t afforded the opportunity to play and learn about football.
“The girls we are pulling into the program are primarily from our town,” DiChiaro said. “Our goal is to interest the other towns in our area, so we have those teams to play. They don’t have the same opportunities or clinics in their towns.
“We’re very fortunate in Somers to have the funding and support of our town. We’d like to help those areas that don’t have these opportunities or can’t afford them. We want everyone to love flag football and have these opportunities no matter what their social status is.”
Kisslinger and DiChiaro hope these same opportunities continue to translate to the high school level in their area. They want to see girls have a chance to continue to play the sport they love even after they age out of SYSO Girls Flag Football.
“A lot of the parents who have spoken to Jenn and I have talked to us about what flag football has done for their daughters’ confidence and how it has changed the way they view sports,” Kisslinger said. “We want a movement of girls being confident, and football is so confidence-building that it makes our hearts happy that these girls are carrying this through the rest of their lives and school.”
SYSO also prides itself on the confidence that girls gain from participating in the program. Kisslinger and DiChiaro want to see the girls’ confidence translate to fearlessness in all aspects of their life as they get older.
“Parents will tell us, ‘my child now has the confidence to do things at such a young age that she thought she was never allowed to do or not capable of doing’,” DiChiaro said. “If she can do something like football and participate and get so much out of it, then she feels fearless in other areas of her life. That’s our goal. It’s what we want for our community and our girls and anywhere we take this. I want them to walk on a football field and never have it cross their mind that they shouldn’t be here, and I want that to translate to other parts of their lives as well.”
Photo Credit: Pexels (header photo); Article photos courtesy of SYSO Girls Flag Football