Tuesday, September 8, 2015

8th-grade girls play football for Western Reserve

COLLINS, Ohio — Western Reserve eighth-grader Julia Tite was pleasantly surprised when she saw her “really good friend” Mikah Smiley joined her at the first day of football practice.

“Mikah decided to try it out last year with her friend Rachel (Herbkersman), but her friend sprained her ankle and she couldn’t do it,” Tite said.

Eighth-graders Julia Tite (No. 7, left) and Mikah Smiley play football
for the Western Reserve Roughriders in Collins, Ohio.
Photo by Joe Centers/NORWALK REFLECTOR
This is believed to be the first time girls have played on Western’s seventh- and eighth-grade football teams. However, athletic director Ryan Falknor said this isn’t the first time a female has been involved in a male-dominated sport at the school. Senior Emily Rose has been on the wrestling team.

“This would be her fourth year,” Falknor said. “She also does pole vault for us and runs cross country.”

When it comes to Tite and Smiley, Falknor said the coaching staff has done a great job building a team and relationships. He has heard about a lot of support for the two girls. Falknor said he believes that with middle-school athletes, it’s important to have camaraderie, learn to be part of a team and take leadership from the coaches.

“That’s what it’s all about,” the athletic director added.

Smiley’s mother, April Herner, said coach Frank Edwards “set a great tone for the rest of the team” from the beginning by telling the players they need to see the girls as teammates, not females. For Edwards, that means Tite and Smiley aren’t treated any different and nobody plays their position any differently.

“They really don’t care we’re girls,” said Smiley, explaining that gender isn’t an issue on the team.

For purposes of changing into their uniforms, Tite and Smiley use the coach’s locker room.

‘Friends on the team’ 

Initially, Herner said she heard from some parents that the boys on the team wouldn’t like having girls as teammates. But actually, Smiley’s mother said there’s been a lot of support and she’s never witnessed animosity.

“I have never felt it from one player,” added Herner, a 1994 Western graduate. “They have a lot of friends on the team.”

Smiley is an outside linebacker, safety and wide receiver. She also is a place kicker. Smiley said she enjoys playing outside linebacker the most because she gets to hit people.

“That’s really fun,” she added.

Her mother said varsity coach Mike Stoll has been very supportive of the girls’ efforts. High-school kicker Jarett Hreha has helped Smiley with kicking techniques and in-game tips. In addition, Western graduate Sean Nolan, who kicked for the Roughriders in the early 1990s, is training with Smiley on her form.

“She has a really good kicking leg,” her mother said.

Smiley’s main sports interest is soccer. Since Western doesn’t offer it, she decided to try football.

“I’ve always told her I will let her try anything — as long as it’s legal and safe,” Herner said. “She played a lot of flag football.”

Since Smiley is on Western’s seventh- and eighth-grade football team, she plays with her flag-football teammates.

The mother said she’s OK with her daughter playing football throughout middle school. What also helped Herner feel comfortable is that Smiley’s uncle, Mark Arnold, is the defensive assistant coach.

When Smiley reaches high school she wants to continue playing football. Her mother wants her to be a kicker. Herner said she’s concerned about possible injuries, especially since high-school boys are much more developed and stronger than middle-school boys and high-school girls.

“I definitely want to play (in) high school. I’m definitely trying,” Smiley said.

Tite plays defensive end and tight end. To be a good defensive end, she said it’s important to know her plays and when she has to go backward or to the side.

“You have to able to hit people there,” Tite said about being a tight end.

To learn her positions, she uses note cards, which shows what she needs to do on each play. Tite said during practice, her teammates help her and Smiley with their routes and give them advice.

For the last several years, Tite has been interested in football. When she was younger, she played on the playground with her classmates.

Tite and Smiley considered playing football independently.

“I thought about it, but Mikah being there too — that helps out too,” Tite said. “We’re really good friends.”

The eighth-grader was asked what advice she has for other people involved in activities where they’re not part of the majority.

“They just need to find one good friend in there because there’ll be one person who will help out,” Tite said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This feature, written by Cary's Comics Craze creator/webmaster and blogger Cary Ashby, ran in today's NORWALK REFLECTOR newspaper. Look for a feature tomorrow on CCC about how hard Julia Tite and Mikah Stanley are working and how the eighth-grade girls have "mixed in well" with their teammates. That story ran as a sidebar to the feature posted today on CCC.

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