As the Lane Tech girls flag football team celebrated their state championship victory inside the Walter Payton Center at Halas Hall Sunday night, head coach Caroline Schwartz and senior utility player Sadia Rodriguez were speechless.
Embracing as they cried on each other's shoulders, Schwartz and Rodriguez had trouble processing the fact that a dream they worked toward throughout the past two years just came to fruition.
"It's so exciting. It means everything to me," Rodriguez said through tears.
"This is what we worked for. Having 6 a.m. practice every day, it was all worth it," Schwartz added.
Not only did Lane Tech defeat Phillips for the title, it did so in front of parents and fans in the Walter Payton Center at Halas Hall.
"How many people were watching, seeing this sport, seeing all of their hard work culminating into this and just being in this building — it's incredible," Schwartz said. "To be able to play on this field and have them play together has just been unbelievable."
The Bears, who helped launch the girls flag football program in 2021, hosted the state championships for the second consecutive year in partnership with Gatorade, Buffalo Wild Wings, Nike and Visa.
"It's incredibly gratifying to be able to host a tournament here for something we've played such a big part in as an organization – to create these opportunities for these young ladies," Bears manager of youth and high school football Gustavo Silva said. "It's great to bring people into this facility and watch their reaction to having this once in a lifetime opportunity to compete for a state championship in a new sport in the Walter Payton Center. Making their dreams come true makes us feel really good about what we're doing."
Nine teams from eight different leagues competed in the state tournament – Glenbrook South, Guilford, Lane Tech, Phillips, Proviso East, Resurrection College Prep, Stagg, Stevenson and Willowbrook.
In the semifinals on Sunday, Phillips took down Willowbrook, the reigning state champions, in double overtime. Lane Tech beat Guilford, who placed fourth last year, to advance to the championship game. Willowbrook then defeated Guilford to take home third place.
Having two teams — neither of which made the tournament in 2022 — from the Chicago Public League compete in the championship game was a full circle moment as the inaugural girls flag season featured 22 teams — all from the Chicago Public Schools district.
"It's amazing," CPS senior manager of elementary sport Juliana Zavala said. "I had a preseason meeting and I kind of joked, 'now let's bring the state championship home.' I remember that conversation and being here, having two of our city teams represented, it's the cherry on top of today. To me it's all the hard work that's been behind the scenes. You have two teams — Lane Tech and Phillips — who were the underdogs. They came in and upset the No. 1 team from last year and completely shocked everyone."
Silva and the Bears also brought in the U.S. Women's Flag National Team's star quarterback, Vanita Krouch, to support and watch the state finals Sunday. She also handed out the team awards following the championship game.
Krouch, who holds a 19-1 record in international flag tournaments since 2018, spoke to the four semifinal teams before their games. She discussed her journey toward finding flag football as her passion and encouraged the girls to continue trailblazing and pushing for more opportunities.
"I think it's important for the girls to have a visual role model that they can aspire to be themselves," Krouch said. "I'm honored to be that person and a trailblazer of this sport having played for 16 years and representing USA Football and the Olympic announcement. It's just a dream that all of us can set forth and believe, 'I have something to reach for. I have something to work for.'"
After watching the first two games Sunday, Krouch was impressed by all the talent in Illinois, adding: "these girls are ballers." She also recognized the opportunity for these high school athletes to have a shot at the Olympic team after flag football was announced as a 2028 Summer Games sport.
"They are potential [Olympic] candidates if they work hard and get seen and go through the process," Krouch said. "For me, the announcement is everything – it's amazing. I personally got goosebumps about it. I just feel like I keep getting to live a dream and I'm just like, 'don't wake me up yet. Wake me up in 2029.' I love it and I love that it's going globally across the world."
With the 2023 girls flag football season wrapped up, Silva and Zavala are ecstatic about the continued growth in teams and talent throughout the league. This season featured over 100 teams scattered throughout the state, more than doubling the count from 2022.
Now, the Bears, CPL and the rest of the league will shift their focus toward girls flag football becoming an IHSA sanctioned sport in 2024 and creating opportunities in the sport past the high school level.
"It's been night and day," Zavala said of the league's growth. "From 2021 when we were at the jamboree, the first time the girls put cleats on and so many Band-Aids were given out because the girls had so many blisters and they had no idea how to put a helmet on, to now — they're just all-stars.
"I want girls flag in state of Illinois to grow and be the best. I know that with the talent from these girls – how fast they're growing and how developed they are – one or two of these girls are going to be playing for the 2028 Olympics."
Check out the action from the Walter Payton Center at Halas Hall as the Bears host the Illinois girls flag football championships for the second consecutive year in partnership with Gatorade, Buffalo Wild Wings, Nike and Visa.