By Antonio Rossetti
The Pittsburgh Steelers sprint through the tunnel at Acrisure Stadium to the blaring music of “Back in Black” by AC/DC. Come springtime, however, the Sto-Rox Vikings girl's flag football team takes their place and hits the field.
On April 2, the first-ever Vikings flag football team went to Acrisure Stadium for a scrimmage game against Oakland Catholic.
“When they announced their names, I got chills when I was there,” Josh Kemp, the Sto-Rox athletic director, said. “Seeing them, and the fact that they get to have their moment, and run out through the tunnel that the Steelers run out, it was surreal.”
Lauren Ferragonio, Sto-Rox flag football head coach and a women’s tackle for the Pittsburgh Passion, loved seeing her team take in the moment of playing in an NFL stadium.
“They made each kid and each team that was there feel like they were important with the way they had set everything up and to have the jerseys presented in the locker,” Ferragonio said. “It was a super cool experience. They love getting out there and scrimmaging against another team and that was definitely probably one of the highlights for me.”
The season officially kicked off April 16 and the Vikings are off to a hot start, winning the team’s first five out of six games in the Pittsburgh Flag Football League.
Sto-Rox accomplished early success, but the team came together quickly.
Ferragonio, a two-time league champion for the Passion, and a gold medalist for the 2017 US National team provides security at Sto-Rox High School. It didn’t take long for a teacher to recognize who she was. Joseph Krajcovic approached her and suggested the idea of an intramural sport for flag football.
Ferragonio contacted one of her teammates, Sharon Vasquez and she gave her ideas on how to structure the team.
Vasquez, who coaches Woodland Hills’ girl's flag football team, informed her about the Steelers pilot program that offers flag football for high schools. Ferragonio reached out to one of her teammates who works for the Steelers, Chelsea Zahn, and she got her connected with Mike Marchincsky, who helped get Sto-Rox into the league.
In a short amount of time, it was made official. Sto-Rox formed its first girl's flag football team in the Pittsburgh Flag Football League.
Kemp commended the efforts of the Steelers for expanding the women’s flag football league.
“They've been extremely supportive and I think the sportsmanship has been awesome,” Kemp said. “There's one goal here and that’s to get [girl’s] flag football sanctioned by the WPIAL and eventually it will be, so it's been nothing but positive vibes throughout the league, from our perspective.”
Both the Pittsburgh Flag Football League and the Pittsburgh Steelers as part of the NFL Flag Football League began the girl’s high school league with six teams. This year, the league tripled in size to 18 teams.
Ferragonio elaborated on the efforts.
“Those two organizations work together to come up with the schedule,” Ferragonio said. “The Steelers provide some financial assistance to help with transportation. Nike pays for uniforms, Cam Heyward donated the money for the flag belts and the footballs… What they're doing is trying to make flag football a PIAA state-sanctioned sport.”
Ferragonio mentioned that the Eagles are also running a similar program on the eastern side of Pennsylvania.
Flag football is not a WPIAL sport yet, but that doesn’t relinquish the benefits the flag football program has on the players.
“It teaches them discipline, accountability, counting on your teammate, trusting your teammates, and all that you have to have to play the game of football,” Kemp said. “I believe that it's helped them out a lot and we have a standard as far as grades. It’s actually helped our women keep their grades up as well. It’s been a good thing all around.”
Kemp added that flag football helps bring the girls together.
“They love it,” Kemp said. “It’s just a joy, seeing the smiles on her face. Some of the girls never played a sport before, but are now active. Some girls have played plenty of sports, so it's just nice to get my girls involved, and potentially be involved in more sports for athletic programs.”
Ferragonio knew the players before the team formed. Now she gets to know the girls on a personal level and she sees how much they are growing as leaders.
“I love every second of it,” Ferragonio said. “It's truly awesome. I get to work with them every day. I'm really on them making sure their grades are right…I set the expectations at the beginning of the season on just being respectful, respectful to everybody. You need to be leaders. You're a student-athlete, so that means you're a student first before athletics.”
Ferragonio added that the team exceeded her expectations. She loves how the team has meshed. “At the beginning of the season, I had a lot of different personalities, people that don't normally work with each other, and just the way that they've been able to come together and really, truly work as a team and have each other's backs has been super awesome to see,” said Ferragonio.
Alana Eberhardt, a senior flag football and basketball player, enjoys playing flag football and leading the team. She said that flag football was an amazing way to close out her senior year after her last season of basketball.
“A lot of them look up to me as like a big sister,” Eberhardt said. “It's going to be hard when I graduate because I like them a lot and we've grown to have a good bond. Team chemistry-wise, a lot of them get along for the most part. They're all ninth graders and tenth graders, so sometimes we have little ups and downs. But besides that, I feel like our practices go really well. We tend to have a lot of fun.”
Eberhardt said that team chemistry translates into how they play.
“With this being our first year, I felt like we didn't come in and expect to win a lot of games just because everything happened so fast,” Eberhardt said. “I feel that was one of the biggest parts was coming in and winning. Learning how to have chemistry with each other on the field, knowing what to do on the field with each other not getting down on each other, but encouraging each other to do better. If we miss a pass or don't make a touchdown. We encourage each other to do better for the next play. That's the biggest thing is teamwork.”
Eberhardt wasn’t the only one impressed with the team's results. Ferragnoio was blown away by how well they played as a team.
“Our first game we played Aliquippa’s second team and we had done extremely well,” Ferragonio said. “I just thought to myself, “Wow.” I went in with open mind on how things were going to go and they exceeded any type of expectation that I had. I mean, they've just been killing it.”
Kemp said that he is an advocate for women’s sports. He mentioned how talented women are in sports and is glad that Sto-Rox is getting an opportunity to shine on the gridiron.
“There are some talented women out there,” Kemp said. “It's exciting to see. Here in The Rocks, we have so many good athletes. To see them on the field performing their best, and giving it their all, it's just a blessing for me just to see in general.”
Ferragonio said that the league is trending in the right direction and acknowledges all the benefits the league has on high school girls.
“I really see flag picking up, especially with the females,” Ferragonio said. “With my girls, there are girls who haven't really participated in any of the other school sports, but they're very athletic, and some that had come out for flag and it became their absolute passion.”
The sport has become a passion for Eberhardt and she enjoys having Ferragonio as a coach.
“I actually went to a Passion practice and it was very fun,” Eberhardt said. “I got to see how she and her old teammates live and how their practices went. It was very fun. She's definitely a good coach and a good person.”
The team is 5-1, but the season is far from over. Eberhardt will attend PennWest California next year for pre-athletic training. Nonetheless, she has one thing on mind before she finishes high school and heads to college. She is focused on the playoff push. When asked about what the team needed to do, she kept it short and sweet.