Flag football catching on in Westmoreland County
While the big kids donned pads and helmets at practice, the younger set wore T-shirts and belts with dangling ribbons.
For them, flag football is just a game, but Westmoreland County recreation officials see it as a way to reverse dwindling enrollment.
The seven teams in the WPAC-6 youth football league — Greensburg, South Greensburg, Hempfield, Latrobe, Pitcairn, Unity Township and the newly formed Twin City Vikings, composed of players from Arnold and New Kensington — introduced flag football for the first time this year.
Greensburg had 34 children in its youth football program last year and had to shut down its varsity team for older children because of a lack of interest. This year, it has 61 participants, across all ages, and other teams in the league have seen similar growth, said Frank Lehman, league president and director of Greensburg recreation.
He attributes the growth to the new flag program and a change in the way the teams are structured.
“The numbers are dwindling in tackle football, and we needed a way to get kids interested and get kids involved, and see if they like the sport,” said Ron Holtzer Jr., a parent, coach and safety coordinator with Greensburg's youth football program.
It was Holtzer's idea to create a flag football program for the youngest kids.
Some officials were skeptical at first, but their doubts disappeared once sign-ups started, said Beth Bluey, vice president of the Unity Township Youth Football and Cheerleading Association.
“I think parents have a lot more interest in it now that it's not contact,” Bluey said.
Unity has 17 children participating in its flag football program. So does Greensburg.
Concerns about concussions and other injuries are often cited as one reason youth football participation is dropping nationwide.
According to data from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, nationwide tackle football participation for kids age 6-12 dropped about 8.3 percent from 2009 to 2015.
Under the previous system, children ages 6-8 would play in the developmental league, those 9-10 would play junior varsity, and 11- and 12-year-olds would play varsity.
“Trying to visualize in the eyes of parents of that age group, we thought as a league it might be better to convert that (youngest) age group to flag, get them more oriented into football concepts and drills before putting them into a contact situation,” Lehman said.
Now, 5- to 7-year-olds play flag, 7- to 9-year-olds play junior varsity and 10- to 12-year-olds play varsity. Parents and coaches can decide which team to enroll a 7-year-old in, Lehman said.
Sheila Thompson knew her grandson Cameron Rice wanted to play football, but she wanted him to learn the game in a safe environment.
“There's safety; that's why we didn't put him in contact right away,” she said.
Rice plays for the Greensburg flag team. His grandfather Brian Thompson said that's a good way for him to learn the basics.
“You're building a solid base for the kids,” he said. “Then when he goes to the next level, he knows what he's doing.”
Greensburg parent and coach Matt Hageder agreed flag football is a good way for kids to learn the fundamentals.
“I think it's a positive change. Less contact leaves more room for learning the basic skills,” he said.
Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Soolseem.