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Football more than a spectator sport for some Maine high school girls

BELFAST, Maine — It was Photo Day 2012 for the Belfast Area High School fall sports teams, and Chris Bartlett was hustling up to the football field at the urging of a colleague to check out a scene that had nothing to do with yearbook pictures.

As he got closer, the Lions’ football coach began to take notice of what the fuss was about.

“I could see the football going end over end through the middle of the uprights with a high trajectory,” he said. “And when I got up there so I could peek over the fence to see the field I could see it was Ashley kicking from about 35 yards out.”

Ashley Littlefield was at Photo Day strictly for soccer purposes a year ago. This fall, she’s in two team pictures, for what began as a jovial back-and-forth in the aftermath of her impromptu kicking display has evolved into a role for the senior not only as a center midfielder on Belfast’s girls soccer team, but as the placekicker for the Lions’ varsity football team.

“The coach saw me kicking and asked how I felt about kicking for him,” recalled Littlefield. “It was kind of a joke at first, but it got more serious and then I went to the football lifting sessions during the summer and it went from there.”

Littlefield has made 12 of her 15 extra-point attempts so far this season, and while her role with the Lions so far has been limited to that specific task, it has been an unexpected opportunity to contribute to a team she watched from the bleachers before this fall.

“I really enjoy it, it’s a lot of fun,” said Littlefield, who also plays basketball and softball. “The boys have become like a second family to me, they treat me like their little sister and make sure nothing bad happens to me.”

Infrequent, but not uncommon

Girls playing high school football in Maine is not without precedent, but it has been infrequent.

According to a sports participation survey conducted annually by the National Federation of State High School Associations, Maine has averaged eight girls competing in 11-player football during a given year over the last decade.

No numbers are available yet for the 2013 season, but girls playing football in Eastern Maine this fall include Kaitlyn Cota and Chassidy Orn of Orono High School, Lillian Wakeman of Washington Academy in East Machias and Shaina Nalley of Messalonskee High School in Oakland.

Cota and Orn are both former soccer players in their first year of organized football.

“I’ve always wanted to play since my sophomore year, but I never had the courage to do it by myself,” said Cota, a senior wide receiver and cornerback. “Since Chassidy started doing it, it encouraged me to do it.”

Orn, a sophomore whose brother Chad is Orono’s starting quarterback, plays offensive guard and nose guard.

“I’m not much of a physical person so it was kind of tough at first,” she said. “It’s different. We didn’t have to run as much as soccer, but it was more drills and contact and just getting you prepped for hitting.

“In soccer I liked having contact, but now I know I’m going to get hit so I know what to do and it just happens.”

The level of contact in football is what separates it from many other sports, and for Cota the acclimation process was enlightening.

“I was really surprised at how hard they actually hit people, and how hard it is to focus on the plays and catch the ball,” she said. “I didn’t think it was as hard as it is.

“The first time I made a tackle was in the first game I played. I was really scared, but after a while I got used to it, figured out how to hit and got the courage to go out and do it.”

Orn has the added advantage of an older brother to lean on, not necessarily during practices but when they’re away from the field.

“I told her before she signed up that there’s going to be battles with other guys who were going to be bigger than her, and that it was going to be tough but she was going to have to deal with it,” said Chad Orn, a senior. “She’s handling it perfectly. She’s struggling with the big dudes, but she’s handling it.

“I see her improve every single day.”

Also noticing Cota and Chassidy Orn’s gradual improvement is Orono head coach Bob Sinclair.

Cota and Orn are the first two girls Sinclair has coached during more than three decades on the sidelines.

“These two girls have done everything all the other kids on the team have done,” he said. “We don’t make an issue of gender here at Orono, they’re just two more members of our 43-player roster. That’s the way we’ve approached it, and that’s the way they approach it.

“In 32 years of coaching football, these are the first two females I’ve ever coached, and I think if you were going to have two girls playing football these are two great kids to do it,” Sinclair said. “They’re doing it for all the right reasons. They’re not trying to make a political statement or a gender statement, they just want to play football.”

Cota and Orn see game action primarily on the Red Riots’ subvarsity team because of their inexperience playing the sport, but both did see varsity duty during a game at Ellsworth last weekend.

“It was nerve-wracking, but you just have to play it out,” said Cota.

A growing trend?

The number of girls competing in 11-player high school football nationally has inched up during the last few years.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations survey, 1,561 girls participated in 11-player football around the country in 2012, while 1,395 girls played two years earlier and 1,035 were on the field in 2006.

That compares to an average of approximately 1.1 million boys who played high school football annually from 2006 through 2012, according to the survey.

During the last decade at least five Maine girls have played high school football each year, up to a high of 12 in 2004 and 2012.

That compares to an average of 3,908 boys who have competed in Maine interscholastic 11-player football each year since 2003, according to the NFHS survey.

“At other levels you’re seeing semi-pro leagues for females now,” said Sinclair, “so I don’t see this as a trend that’s going to go back in the other direction. If anything it may increase.”

Perhaps the most notable achievement by a schoolgirl player in Maine high school football history was a 25-yard field goal kicked by Dexter’s Jana Kenney during the Tigers’ 16-6 victory over Mount View of Thorndike on Sept. 8, 2007.

The fourth-quarter kick is believed to be the first field goal kicked by a girl in a Maine high school football game.

Kenney, who also punted and kicked off for Dexter that season as well as competing on the school’s field hockey team, received nationwide media attention in the aftermath of her feat.

Littlefield’s varsity debut had mixed results.

“It was really overbearing at first,” she said. “I missed the first one and it was really depressing, but my teammates helped me out a lot.”

Littlefield had made six consecutive kicks heading into last Friday night’s game at Hermon, where she made five of six attempts during the Lions’ 49-0 victory. Two of her three misses this fall have been blocked.

That stretch of accuracy has come in great part through focusing on her specific part of the job.

“I can’t think about what’s going on in front of me, I have the guys to take care of that,” said Littlefield. “I know there are 11 guys trying to get through and block the ball when I kick it, but I’ve just got to focus on getting it through.”

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