A Berkeley High teenager playing center holds a football, preparing to start a play, while her teammates get ready around her.
Center Zay Safi prepares to start a play toward the end of the Berkeley Varsity Flag Football’s first-ever game against Hayward Farmers on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The Jackets Stadium at Berkeley High saw a big first last Wednesday.

The Yellow Jackets’ girls flag football team played its debut game, defeating Hayward High 19-0.

Walking together to the locker room after the game, the girls cheered: “We’re making history,” one said.

Girls flag football is in its infancy, but growing fast. The California Interscholastic Federation voted unanimously to make it a sport following other states like Florida, Alabama and Nevada, making it the state’s fastest growing sport. 

Flag football opens up America’s most popular game to high school girls for the first time. Instead of tackling, the players rip flags off each other to stop play, requiring speed and agility to weave between players.

“I knew it was going to be a bunch of girls who were badasses, and I wanted to be part of it.” — Ali Forbush, wide receiver

Twenty-three tried out for the Yellow Jackets flag football on Aug. 7. Practice started  Aug. 21, and they had three weeks to train and learn the rules.

“Football has always been such a guy’s sport. You have to be so tough,” said wide receiver Ali Forbush. “I like to think of myself as a decently tough person, so I thought, I’m going to throw myself in there and see if I can do this.”

“I knew it was going to be a bunch of girls who were badasses, and I wanted to be part of it,” Forbush said.

Head Coach Israel Carrero Jr. started recruiting girls as soon as he got the job last year. A school safety officer at Berkeley High, Carrero started with students he had built relationships with, and Assistant Coach Don Miller joined him as the defensive coordinator.

Most of the girls had never played flag football, let alone any high school sports. They didn’t have jerseys, so they borrowed ones from the lacrosse team. For practice, the girls walk most days to Tim Moellering Field in South Berkeley while the boys play at Jackets Stadium.

Carrero played football at Berkeley High, where he found his second family. “That was my brotherhood, and I want the ladies to have their sisterhood,” he said.

Now, he plays on a co-ed flag football team. “So many women — oh my gosh, they’re incredible,” he said. “I wanted to show the girls on my team, ‘Hey, it’s a first season, but this is an opportunity.’”

A teenage girl, with a black and red uniform, runs with a football, turning to avoid several members of the opposing team.
Junior Dakayla Glasper completes a play in the last few minutes of the game against the Farmers. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/ Catchlight.
High school boy football players lay on mats watching the girls flag football team in the distance.
The Berkeley High boys football team players watch the newly formed girls flag football team play during their season opener game against Hayward High. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The players were jittery at the debut game as more than 50 students filled the bleachers — not the same turnout for the boys Friday night football games, but more than expected. In the stands, parents quizzed each other about the rules while students chatted about the players. One student asked another about his sister.

“She’s the QB,” he responded.

“Ooh,” the other student said, impressed.

Hayward came out strong in the first few minutes but after a defensive stop by Berkeley, quarterback Shayla Kerr made a long run into Hayward’s territory, the Yellow Jackets began to take control.

Then came the trick play. Kerr passed to Forbush, who ran a slant across the field. The Farmers chased her, not seeing Jamaia Harrison, who plays what the team calls the “X” receiver, sprinting on the other side. The crowd stomped its feet as Forbush threw the ball cross field to Harrison, who sprinted into the end zone for the first touchdown of the game.

The Jackets’ defense kept the pressure on the Farmers. Ninth grader Zatiyah Dunmore had double-digit flag pulls, the equivalent of more than 10 tackles, and rusher Margaret Sandiego forced the Farmers’ quarterback into a lot of bad throws to hold Hayward scoreless.

Harrison scored her second touchdown after intercepting the ball and ran the same trick play with Forbush for her hat trick, scoring all 19 points for the Yellow Jackets. After the game, Harrison, who is also a star basketball player, shrugged off her accomplishment. “My goal was to score four touchdowns,” she said.

After the game, the Jackets celebrated their first-ever victory.

“Who are we?” they chanted. “Jackets!”

A teenage girl prepares to catch a football high in the air during a game.
Isabel Morales prepares to catch a pass during the Wednesday opener against Hayward. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/ Catchlight.
The Berkeley Varsity Flag Football team won 19-0 against Hayward High, with Berkeley High senior Jamaia Harrison scoring every point. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
A group photo of the girls football team in the bleachers. The players wear uniforms and make cute faces in the camera.
Some of the Berkeley Varsity Flag Football team poses for a group photo after Wednesday’s game. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...