Undefeated Harrison Flag Football reaches NJIC final again

The sport of flag football was a hit in Harrison from the moment the New York Jets and Nike brought the High School Girls Flag Football League to the town in 2022.

Now, as the sport continues to become more established in Harrison and across the state, the initial seeds from that early involvement have begun to blossom and create the next group of flag football stars in the soccer hotbed.

Despite having several underclassmen and first year players in prominent roles, the Blue Tide are a stellar 8-0-1 heading into their third consecutive NJIC Championship Game appearance on Tuesday when they host Leonia at 4 p.m..

“We had a number of kids who were able to just step into that role and excel there and we were fortunate enough to have a really strong freshman class,” Harrison head coach Dan Nankivell said. “We have a handful of newcomers who have been day one contributors and really become excellent football players.”

No place is that more apparent than at running back where Harrison has thrived with the one-two combination of sophomore Mya De Jesus (437 yards, five touchdowns) and freshman Kassandra Rodriguez (289 yards, three touchdowns). In a sport known for pass-happy offenses, the De Jesus-Rodriguez tandem helps give the Blue Tide a very unique look.

“I think that’s one of the things that has set us apart over the last couple of seasons, just the ability to have a run game, but in a multitude of different ways,” said Nankivell. “Whether that be an old school Wing-T or a Pistol set we installed. It’s just traditional football things that have been around forever and applying it and tweaking it to fit the new game of flag football.

“May is definitely this super-aggressive downhill runner. She is as much of a power runner as you can be in the flag football world. Kassandra is just lightning. She’s the fast player I’ve seen as long as I’ve been coaching flag football.”

Both De Jesus and Rodriguez have made their presence felt in the passing game as well, combining to catch eight touchdown passes. Another underclassmen, freshman Nada Bana has emerged as the top outside receiver with Rodriguez seeing plenty of snaps in the slot. Juniors Paulina Niczewski and Serenity Maldonado are the tight ends.

Taking full advantage of all this talent around her is veteran quarterback Hailey Scocco. Scocco, a junior, has thrown for 13 touchdowns and run for another in her second year as starting QB), while displaying a football IQ that rivals any Nankivell, himself a former QB at Harrison, has coached.

Niczewski and Maldonado play significant time on Harrison’s four-person offensive line Julia Suarez is one of the league’s best centers and both Bana and Rebecca Sardinha also can line up on the line.

Sardinha, who was selected to the Phil Simms North/South All-Star Girls Flag Football Game on June 9, headlines the defense at edge rusher, where she has 41 tackles, 10 sacks and 20 tackles for loss, all three are tema highs from the junior.

“She’s a sack machine and if it’s not a sack, it’s a tackle for a loss,” Nankivell said. “She’s been all over the field and our defensive coordinator, Chris McKnight, uses her tremendously.”

Rodriguez is the only down lineman and uses her speed to be a disruption in the backfield with nine sacks and 16 tackles for loss.Sophomore Hanna Medina will also see some time on the line.

De Jesus (39 tackles, three interceptions) and Maldonado (four interceptions) are the main linebackers with senior Danica Carr also playing there in certain situations.

Scocco and sophomore Danna Gomez are the primary cornerbacks.

Medina sees the bulk of her time at the defensive back, but can be deployed nearly anywhere on the field defensively as does Bana.

As a unit, Harrison has allowed just 33 points in nine games and has posted five shutouts.

On Thursday, the Blue Tide punched their ticket to the NJIC final when it defeated Secaucus, 27-15, to earn their third consecutive trip to the NJIC final. The winner of Tuesday’s Harrison/Leonia matchup advances to the semifinals of the North/Central Jersey Flag Football Bracket to play Ridgewood the next day at 7 p.m. in Clifton. The two semifinal winners will get the opportunity to play for the championship on June 15 at MetLife Stadium.

After seeing its season end in the NJIC final with losses to Lodi Immaculate last year and to Hawthorne in 2022, Harrison’s mission has been clear.

“They’re not there yet. To them it was a business trip. We went in there, we won a football game,” said Nankivell. “Don’t get me wrong, they were excited. There were a lot of happy tears and hugging each other on the sideline, but they know that it’s not over. And until they’re at MetLife, they don’t want to stop. That’s kind of their mentality.”

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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.)