For years, Julieta Laurens has been a regular spectator for Harrison’s home football games.
But as much as she enjoyed watching the games and the atmosphere on those Friday nights, there was always a hint of despair that she didn’t get to enjoy the same opportunity of her friends and classmates on the field.
This past Wednesday in Harrison, Laurens and 49 other girls from Harrison and Lyndhurst high schools got that experience in what was the first New Jersey high school flag football games between two area teams.
“I would come out every Friday to watch the high school football games and just wish that they had a program for us,” Laurens said. “Now they do and it feels so much better playing it than watching it.”
In front of a crowd of more than 300 people — complete with members of the Harrison marching band — Harrison defeated Lyndhurst, 18-14, as Laurens threw three touchdown passes to Rasha Abdeljalil, the last coming with less than a minute remaining in the game.
Lexi Augustyniak ran for two touchdowns for Lyndhurst.
“It feels amazing. No one else has ever seen anything like this before,” Abdeljalil said. “We’re the first ones to do this. We never expected this, but they gave this to us and now we’re showing what we can do and we’re not going to stop.”
Harrison, Lyndhurst and Nutley are a part of the High School Girls Flag Football League, put together by the New York Jets and Nike. The league, which started with eight teams a year ago, expanded to 40 teams from New Jersey and Long Island this spring, with the Blue Tide, Bears and Raiders among the new additions.
It was the second game for Harrison, which lost to Hawthorne a week earlier. It was the inaugural game for Lyndhurst as well as Nutley, which defeated Morristown in its opener on Thursday.
Each team has eight regular season games, followed by a playoffs that begins on June 1. On June 4, an overall New Jersey champion will be crowned at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center in Florham Park.
“To me this has been a long time coming,” said Harrison head coach Dan Nankivell. “Flag football, for girls to be able to play the sport, should have happened years ago and with the direction the sport is going, it’s a no-brainer.”
As part of the program, the Jets and Nike provided each team with uniforms and flags for 25 players.
The only problem for Nankivell and Lyndhurst’s Rich Tuero was that each had more than double that amount of girls signing up for the program. Many of them did so while playing another varsity sport in the spring like softball or track.
“I was not surprised at all. I knew these girls were competitive,” said Tuero, who himself is pulling double duty this spring as Lyndhurst’s flag football and girls track head coach. “I had no doubt that there were going to be a lot of girls.”
Tuero has had plenty of girls participate in the town’s summer football camp he runs every summer. Further football opportunities for girls became available last year when Lyndhurst started a co-ed flag football program.
For Tuero, the opportunity to be a part of this league has extra meaning because of his two daughters. Among those on the Lyndhurst team was Tuero’s oldest daughter, Sophia, age 9.
“It’s going to be a dream come true when I get to coach my little girl,” Tuero said. “My daughter is really excited to be a part of it. She was on the sideline and it’s definitely an added motivation.”
It may have been a warm Wednesday night in April, yet both Tuero and Nankivell said the atmosphere and emotions on the sideline resembled a cool Friday night in the fall. Both coaches have treated their players and games just like they would for their tackle football teams.
That emotion was especially apparent in the second half as Harrison tried to mount a comeback and eventually did, making a late defensive stand before Laurens found Abdeljalil for a long catch-and-run for the winning score.
But as much as the score mattered to those involved, they all knew there was more at stake on this night. This June will mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination in education and federal programs, such as sports. The law has helped create several more athletic opportunities for young female athletes and the High School Flag Football League is just the latest example of that.
Laurens and others understood the importance of the moment and the impact it has the potential to have for so many other girls in Harrison and beyond.
“It feels really good because we’re the first ones to ever do it in Harrison history,” Laurens said. “We’re creating a path for the future teams. We’re being the role models that the girls in the stands are watching and who they want to be when they’re in high school.”
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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer
Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)