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GUEST POST: Here's why Arizona just hosted a women's flag football camp

And they even used a football camp day to do it

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Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

I’m excited to pass the sticks today to my friend and regular Extra Points contributor, Andy Wittry. Andy got a lead on something very unique that just happened with the University of Arizona football program….

With a new head football coach, new AD and weeks away from a new conference affiliation, Arizona used one of the 10 summer days when its football staff can host or visit camps to do something many programs would never consider. The Wildcats decided to host players who will likely never play a down of football in the Big 12 or even the FBS, period.

The Brent Brennan Football Camps at the University of Arizona hosted a high school girls flag football camp on a Saturday in mid-June that featured 20 teams from the state. Last fall marked the first season that girls flag football was a sanctioned sport by the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

Here’s the catch.

Even though the Wildcats aren’t recruiting those flag football players for their football team, based on the NCAA’s definition of prospective athletes, the program had to use one of its limited camp days.

“I think anytime we at University of Arizona can open up our doors and do something good for the greater good, why wouldn’t we try to do that?” said Brennan, whom Arizona hired from San Jose State. “That part of it was easy.”

The timing to host the event last year didn’t quite work. It did this offseason, with Brennan now leading the program.

“It was something that was planned long-term. It wasn’t like a pop-up thing,” said Assistant Athletic Director for Football Operations Andrew Sims.

Arizona Coordinator of Football Alumni and High School Relations Brandon Sanders described the initial reaction to how the idea from last offseason materialized into a camp this summer.

“When you’re first to do something, and you find out all the nuances of ‘OK, we’re going to lose a camp day,’ that was tough,” said Sanders, who knew Brennan before Arizona hired him.

The two men shared mentors in the late Dick Tomey and Terry Donahue. Sanders called it a Tomeyism for Brennan and Arizona’s staff to try to lift those around them.

“Sometimes you’re just doing stuff that’s right for football,” Sanders said. “I think when you look at it, that was the bigger picture. I think eventually we’ll get the NCAA and everybody else onboard with what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to expand the game. That’s bigger than just a recruiting thing.

“It’s ‘How can we help evolve the game?’”

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One of Brennan’s goals is that anyone who’s on campus or in the football facility has a positive, welcoming experience. Specific to camps, he wants every player to leave healthy.

“If they have a great experience when they come to the U of A and when they come through the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility, then they’ll want to come back for a game or for another event,” Brennan said. “That’s the way we look at it on a macro level.”

Photo Credit: Mike Christy, Arizona Athletics

The camp represented the three-tiered alignment of football in the state between the Arizona Wildcats, girls flag football and the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, which promote opportunities for girls and women in the sport, including through sponsoring girls flag football teams.

Horace Raymond, the director of community relations for the Cardinals, said there were 54 girls flag football teams in the state in the AIA’s inaugural season. There will be over 100 in year two.

The camp’s 20 participating teams, which have rosters of up to 25 players and many of which traveled from Phoenix, competed into two divisions. They competed in pool play and their record determined their ranking for the camp’s playoffs.

“The game that they play is a little bit different than the flag football that we had with the boys teams that came through here,” Brennan said. “It was fun to watch. They have to deal with actual pass rush and there’s some blocking. They were getting after it. They were competing really, really hard. It was a fun game to watch.”

Sanders and Sims also credited Rae Black, the girls flag football program director and head coach at Casteel High School, for helping organize the event.

“They’re the first college to show major interest like that out of all of our colleges out here,” Black said.

High school athletic directors in Arizona will often refer new flag football coaches to Black or Hamilton High School coach Matt Stone for advice on how to form a team. Black and Sanders are also working on establishing a club-level girls flag football team at the University of Arizona.

Arizona’s coaches split time between the flag football camp and hosting roughly a dozen football recruits on campus for official visits.

“It was a little bit chaotic for us because we had official visits happening at the same time so we were all zipping and zapping,” Brennan said. He later continued, “The way the calendar is now, we didn’t have any choice. Camp season and official visit season are now one in the same where before that was never the case.”

The championship games were held in Arizona Stadium, where the visiting recruits dined as the camp took place below. Some current Arizona players watched at field level.

“Once Brandon said that they can do the championship in the stadium, I knew the girls were going to be all in,” Black said, “because that’s going to be the closest thing right now that they’re going to get to as far as playing on a DI college field.”

The teams coached by Black and Stone – the two coaches who provide advice to their peers on how to form a team – each made the championship in their respective brackets.

Raymond, the Cardinals’ director of community relations, described a play where one of Stone’s players from Hamilton High School, Samaya Taylor-Jenkins, high-pointed a touchdown catch over a defender in the back of the end zone. Last season, Taylor-Jenkins was the Cardinals’ first-ever offensive MVP for girls flag football, and she recently made the U.S. 17U Girls Flag National Team, ahead of the sport’s Olympics debut in 2028.

“We thought she was a youngster,” Raymond said, “but the funny part is that as you show the evolution of the sport and how their skill level’s increasing, the young lady that threw the ball to her – her quarterback – is an incoming freshman for that team.

“It’s like, ‘Wow.’”

A few weeks ago, the quarterback made a viral throw at a camp the Cardinals hosted.

“Marvin Harrison Jr., our first-round draft pick, was like, ‘Oh my god. Did you see that throw?’” Raymond said. “She was in eighth grade a couple of weeks ago.”

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This week, Sanders sent feedback forms to camp attendees ranging from game officials to flag football coaches to Arizona football staffers. His goal is to submit a proposal to the NCAA by the end of July to streamline the experience for schools that want to host girls flag football camps.

“Here’s what’s happening,” Sanders said. “This thing is growing. It’s going to continue to grow and yeah, we’re ahead of it so there’s the headaches and the nuances of ‘It’s a camp day.’

“What we need to do is somehow let them see what’s going on and then everybody engage from top to bottom, meet somewhere in the middle where it can be a better experience for everyone included, and then just help grow it so over the next five to ten years it can continue to do what it needs to do.”

Brennan said Arizona’s football staff will continue to brainstorm how it can maximize its camp days, including hopefully hosting another girls flag football camp in the future. Speaking two days after the camp, he said it was too soon to know exactly what the next iteration might look like.

If there’s a future signing day in June, the sport’s calendar could change yet again.

“It’s cool to know that part of our population has not always had an easy path onto the football field and now with the state of Arizona and state of California having normal, sanctioned high school flag football teams, I think you’re going to see the sport grow tremendously,” Brennan said. “I think it’s going to just absolutely explode, and we want to be involved in that as much as we can. We want to support it in every way we can.”

The teams from the Chandler Unified School District bused to Tucson together. Black said the girls spent the time singing, dancing and braiding each other’s hair. “It’s this really good memory,” she said.

One of Sanders’s lasting memories from the camp was seeing a former NFL linebacker moved to tears when celebrating the camp’s champions.

“He’s going to kill me for saying this,” Sanders said, smiling, “but when we crowned the champions, coach Ricky Hunley, college Hall of Famer, NFL [player], he gave the trophy and literally came to tears when he was talking to them. He literally came to tears. We couldn’t video it but he was choked up in tears talking to them.

That was the moment because their team all went, ‘Awww,’ and he’s just a big teddy bear. To see him almost in tears and crying because of the display of how these young females played and what was going on here at the university that he played at, it was awesome.”

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