OPRF's senior Cydney MacDonald (13) runs the ball 80-yards after a run from scrimmage and scores a touchdown on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022, during a flag football game against Morton at Huskie Stadium in Oak Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

Boys aren’t the only students playing football for Oak Park and River Forest High School this fall. Thirty OPRF girls are playing flag football this year in a new league with five other West Suburban Conference schools as part of the girls flag football initiative supported by the Chicago Bears and Nike.

The OPRF flag football team finished the regular season third in the six-team league with a record of 3-2 and are now gearing up the playoffs with a first-round game against Morton West set for Saturday at 2 p.m. at OPRF. If the Huskies win, they will play second seeded Proviso East on Oct. 21 in the semifinals at 6. The league championship game will be played Oct 21 at 7. All playoff games will be at OPRF at the Lake Steet fields. The league champion will face off against the Chicago Public League champion in a game to be played on the Bears practice field at Halas Hall on Oct. 29.

OPRF ended the regular season by defeating Morton West 36-12 Saturday at Oak Park Stadium. Quarterback Cydney MacDonald got the Huskies off to a fast start with an 80 yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage. OPRF coach Tank Corner had his eye on MacDonald ever since he saw her play in last year’s Homecoming Powder Puff football game between junior and senior girls.

“I was impressed by how she could throw the ball and I was impressed by her footwork and her eyes,” Corner said. “She could see the field real good.”

Once he found out OPRF would have a flag football team Corner stopped MacDonald in a hallway and told her she had to play.

“I’m not giving you a choice, you’re my QB,” Corner told MacDonald.

But it didn’t take any arm twisting to persuade MacDonald, who also plays basketball and softball for OPRF, to play football. She has always loved football. She grew up playing football with her older brother Noah MacDonald when she lived in Allegan, a small town in southwest Michigan.

“When I was younger it was tackle because we were around the same size but as my brother got bigger it kind of turned into two hand touch,” MacDonald said.

MacDonald’s stepbrothers Ben, a sophomore center and Ryan, a senior wide receiver, also play football for OPRF and MacDonald would always toss a football around with one of her brothers when the other one had a game.

MacDonald, who moved to Oak Park for high school, thought that Homecoming Powder Puff football would be all the football she could play at OPRF, but was thrilled to find out that OPRF would have a flag football team.

“It’s really fun,” MacDonald said. “It’s definitely not like anything I would have expected being able to do.”

 MacDonald was always an athletic and active child.

“I have two sisters but they never played like I did,” MacDonald said. “I’ve always kind of been the tomboy of the family. I just like being outside and my brothers were really the only ones who would play with me.”

The flag football team typically has practices three days a week. Because of field constraints they can’t start practice until 5:45 p.m.

MacDonald says she takes flag football as seriously as her other sports.

“I definitely put in as much effort as I would for any other sport,” MacDonald said.

Other standout players for OPRF are senior Saniya Shotwell, known as “Speed”, senior Teshell O’Neal and junior Shardae Spruille.

Flag football resembles a touch football game that kids would play in the park. Each player wears a belt with two flags. A player is “tackled” when a defensive player grabs a flag, really more of a ribbon, off of the belt. The athletes wear foam helmets without facemasks that look like old fashioned leather helmets football players wore a century ago. Seven players, not 11, are on the field for each team at one time. Everyone is eligible to run the ball or catch a pass. A defensive player cannot rush the quarterback until after a count of 3 and the referee yells go. Teams have four plays to go 20 yards, not 10, for a first down. The game is played on an 80-yard field and no runs are allowed within 20 yards of the goal line. Blocking is not allowed and there is not supposed to be any physical contact but there is the inevitable physical contact when players go up in the air for a pass.

Corner, who works as a security guard at OPRF, was a star running back for OPRF in the late 1980’s who went on the play football with Pro Football Hall of Fame member Kurt Warner at the University of Northern Iowa. He would like the rules changed next year to allow blocking.

Corner says that he has enjoyed coaching girls.

“It’s fun, it’s different,” Corner said. “They get intense. They want to learn. That’s the good thing about coaching girls because they want to learn. They get frustrated sometime, but I tell them that’s OK.”

He can be demanding and he wants to win.

“I don’t look at them as girls; I look at them as athletes,” Corner said.

Corner and his assistant coaches had to teach the basics of football to many of his players because they had never played football before.

“We’re trying to teach them football,” Corner said. “It’s like Pop Warner because they don’t know. We’ve got to teach them the basic stuff before we start giving them the harder plays, the harder defenses, whatever it may be.”

The Bears flag football initiative started last year with 22 Public League teams. This year approximately 50 schools have teams. There is hope that girls flag football can eventually become an official Illinois High School Association sport.

“Expanding participation opportunities for high school student-athletes is at the core of the IHSA’s mission,” said IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson in a press release issued by the Bears in May about girls flag football. “Thanks in large part to the efforts of the Chicago Bears, high school girls flag football in Illinois is experiencing unprecedented growth. On this current trajectory, it seems destined to become an official IHSA sport in the future.”

MacDonald and her teammates, many of whom participate in other sports, are enjoying being trailblazers.

“We’ll definitely set the tone for the rest of the years and if we end up going pretty far in the playoffs or winning state, I think a lot of girls will see how far you can really go and what it can get you in college,” said MacDonald noting that some colleges are starting girls flag football teams and even offering scholarships.

Some students are having a hard time taking girls flag football seriously, especially boys at the school.

“I think the guys think it’s funny,” MacDonald said. “We’re definitely not held to the same standard as the boys football team but a lot of people think it’s really cool and a lot of girls are interested.”

Approximately 35 people attended Saturday’s game and the team hopes for bigger crowds at the playoff games.

MacDonald enjoyed playing at Oak Park Stadium.

“It’s definitely very cool,” MacDonald said. “I never really thought I would get the opportunity to play on a field like this.”

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