Haylee Dornan was right where she belonged.
The junior is certainly no stranger to the game of football, having been a kicker for West Forsyth over the last few seasons. On the soccer field, she’s in a good position to be the Wolverines’ starting goalkeeper in the coming spring, so when she decided to play on her school’s newly minted girls flag football team, playing a position as important as quarterback was the perfect fit.
“Honestly, I like being in control. I'm not going to lie,” Dornan said. “It's a fun position — you get to work a lot and you get to learn a lot. You get to see everything.”
And as she looked across the practice field on Monday at her teammates playing defense, she saw an opportunity. She handed off and took off to her right, all the while pretending to be carrying the ball. The fake didn’t exactly work, with the entire defense running to the opposite side of the field.
“They didn’t take the bait,” she exclaimed to head coach Brett Phipps, who also serves as West’s athletic director.
But as Phipps told Dornan, the play worked more than well enough, with the rusher outrunning her pursuers down the sideline for the score. For Phipps, the opportunity to coach one of the county’s newest athletic offerings has been a rewarding one.
“It's been one of the best things I've done for me in a long time,” Phipps said. “In this job you get a little insulated from kids. It's unfortunate, but you do. It's been 10 years since I taught. I came out of the classroom 10 years ago, so for me to get a chance to work with kids again, I just can't wait to get out of bed and get to work every day. Not that I'm not normally like that, but it's been an extra emphasis. It's been a lot of fun.”
With every Forsyth County public school fielding girls flag football teams this year as part of a new county league funded by the Atlanta Falcons, there will certainly be plenty of exciting plays on the horizon over the coming month. It’s a new opportunity for some, and for spring athletes like Dornan, it’s a great way to stay in shape. But it’s also setting the groundwork for the future: With girls flag football set to become a GHSA sanctioned sport next year, the county league is a perfect trial run. That doesn’t make it any less competitive, though.
“I am excited to play next year,” Dornan said. “We're really focusing this year. We want to win the county. That's our goal. That's what we're going to do, and next year, we want to win state.”
Obviously, there will be certain differences between standard varsity football and the flag football variant. There are only seven players on each side as opposed to 11, there’s no blocking and plays will be blown dead in the event of a fumble. None of those differences make West’s efforts any less serious, though: On Monday, Phipps was teaching his team plenty of football concepts like route running and zone defenses.
“I've told the kids, ‘If you want to be taken serious, you've got to be serious,’” Phipps said. “What I'm doing is a tweaked version of what I did when I coached the boys all those years, because I coached football for 20 years. You just take the linemen out and you've got to figure out a way to account for a center that's eligible, but outside of that, I'm teaching them football. We're doing everything just like we would do with boys.
“The idea that the girls don't know the game or that they can't learn it, that's not true.”
And those changes look to be creating a game that’s very offense-heavy: Phipps noted that a defense might only have to get a few stops to come away with a win.
“It's exciting,” he said. “It's kind of like arena football in that regard. These scores are going to be 65-52, stuff like that. It's not going to be 14-7 at all.”
West will host the league’s inaugural jamboree on Saturday, with the Wolverines playing Forsyth Central for a scrimmage, one of three such games happening that day. No matter how West does this year, adding more opportunities for female athletes will always be a positive.
“It's just pioneering in a way for the future,” Dornan said. “I think this is really important. A lot of these girls are really talented, and I think they deserve to have a place where they can use that talent and hang out with other people who have that talent. I think this is a big step in the right direction.”