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Panthers initiative with high school girls flag football kicks off in Wake County

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CHARLOTTE — It's been said if you're on fire, people will come just to see what makes you burn.

That was essentially the basis of Coco Lavielle's entire plan. She had galvanized and inspired and pulled together both participants and fans alike from her community, with one singular purpose; to show there was a passion for girls high school flag football in the area.

As everyone from parents to students to those just interested in seeing what was going on poured into Apex High School for the annual Powderpuff football game, it quickly became clear that this particular edition of the game would be unlike any other. Because Coco had a passion, and behind it a purpose.

"I would get this adrenaline in me," Coco shared this week, of her desire to play organized girls flag football. "And I would feel like 'wow I really want to play this, I really am so drawn to this, to the point where like, I need to have a uniform I need to have this ball, I really want to play.'"

Like a wildfire, she spread, to not only those at Apex High School but surrounding communities who were full of kindling as well. Now on Thursday, her dream is being realized as Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) Athletics and the Carolina Panthers will celebrate the start of the new WCPSS Girls High School Flag Football League.

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She is but one spark though, a part of a larger push blazing across the state. For the past three years, the Carolina Panthers have worked with school districts across North Carolina, helping to found girls high school football leagues at the grassroots level, with the ultimate objective to have girls flag football sanctioned as a varsity sport by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.

In order to be considered for sanctioning by the NCHSAA, a sport must demonstrate participation 25 percent of all member schools in the state (for North Carolina, that would mean 108 schools) or half of a respective classification (i.e., 2A, 3A, 4A, etc.).

"The sanctioning process requires support and buy-in from school districts across the region. We are excited about the progress which has been made and the prospect for girls flag football to be sanctioned in the future," Riley Fields, Panthers Director of Community Relations, said this week. "The prospect of girls competing for state championships for their schools is exciting."

Of interest, there has been plenty. In just over two years, the Panthers have partnered with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the Cabarrus County Schools and Union County Public Schools, for a total of 36 schools participating already. The addition of the Wake County district will bring another 20 schools into the fold.

New Hanover County Schools is set to bring four more schools into the program in March. With the potential for one other district later this year, the sport will have blown past the 50 percent marker, and be sent to a vote with the NCHSAA to be sanctioned.

"The combustible energy surrounding girls high school flag football is akin to if you've ever seen a dry Fraser Fir Christmas tree catching on fire," Fields said. "That's the type of energy that's surrounding it."

The Wake County school system is the largest in the state. Having the district participating in the effort was always a goal and has been a well thought out process by the district. Getting to this point though, getting to Thursday, took time. The waiting process gave Coco time to drum up excitement amongst her classmates and friends, who were eager to play ball.

"At the beginning when she was like, 'I kind of want to play flag football,' and we suggested, 'just go to the AD to start a club. Like how hard can it be?' Now we know," laughed Thayer Lavielle, Coco's mom. "It was something that I think we felt was going to be, we never envisioned it to be what it is going to be, which is kind of exciting."

It took months of staying in the ears of the right people, organizing massive powderpuff games, and even studying what the school districts who'd already partnered with the Panthers were doing. Coco, who is only just now a sophomore in high school, made sure to attend the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Girls High School Flag Football Championship Tournament hosted by the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium last May. She just wanted to see it up close, a reminder that her dream was possible.

With every moment of required patience and persistence, Thayer reminded her daughter to "lean back in," and don't get pushed out.

"I feel like when I started seeing progress, it felt really good," Coco explained. "Things that will sometimes push us back would help us, keep us on track, and just keep you going."

When the Wake County school district announced their intent to bring girls high school flag football to their winter sports calendar, Coco knew the time had finally arrived for her and girls across Wake County. Coco's efforts and desire to play flag football were noticed by the Panthers, who selected her to serve as the team's "Keep Pounding" drummer at a pre-season game, in which she represented all girls flag football players from across the region. She will also be presented with a framed jersey on Thursday night by the Panthers.

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"The engagement of the Wake County schools, leading up to the program launch, has been gratifying and amazing," Field said. "The schools and the school district have set a terrific standard of treating the program as a varsity sport, which makes the experience even more robust for the players."

It won't be the only jersey to be revealed, however. All 20 teams in attendance at the league's public launch, held at Raleigh's Milbrook High School, will receive their custom uniforms, a collaboration between the Panthers and Nike. They'll take the field through the Panthers game day tunnel, which is making the special trip to Raleigh for the celebration, and kick off the inaugural season for Wake County women's high school flag football.

As part of the program launch, Carolina Panthers charities will provide WCPSS with a $50,000 grant (each school will get $2,500) to support the program and offset a variety of league expenses, which will be incurred by participating schools. To date, Carolina Panthers charities has provided over $200,000 in grant money across the state to other school districts, to support girls high school flag football. The Panthers, in partnership with USA Football, will also provide flag kits, including footballs and belts, as well as field equipment, practice planners and play books; providing the key essentials schools need to play flag football.

It's the next step in what the Panthers hope is a continued wave across both North Carolina and South Carolina.

"It's become a quest," said Fields, before expounding, "it's more than a quest. It's a mission. We think the opportunity to advance girls high school flag football, create opportunities and access for girls to engage in the sport of football in new ways, and then ultimately, working with our school district partners, and the NCHSAA to sanction the sport in the future will create a lasting legacy."

If you're on fire, people will come just to see what makes you burn. Through the work of the Panthers and their partners, countless people zealous about the goal, local athletic directors, coaches and most importantly, the passion of the athletes, little sparks have lit across the state. Another will burn bright Thursday night in Raleigh, creating a light for so many girls, who just love the game.

View photos from the inaugural girls high school flag football championships of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, held at Bank of America Stadium on May 15. The event concluded a successful launch of the new high school sport launched by CMS and the Panthers in 2022.

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