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.”
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. Read the rest of this entry »
ORONO, Maine — It was a flash in time that took Bob Sinclair by surprise one Friday night last fall.
The Orono High School football coach watched as one of his strongest, most physical players made what looked to be merely glancing helmet-to-helmet contact with an opponent from Stearns of Millinocket during the final play of the first half.
When the player didn’t rise immediately, Sinclair urged him to join his fellow Red Riots in leaving the field, which he did.
But by the time the player reached the locker room and sat down, slumped over and facing the opposite direction from his teammates, Sinclair knew something was wrong.
A trip to the hospital provided confirmation — the player suffered a concussion that sidelined him for the rest of the season.
Longtime coaches like Sinclair and Joel Sankey of Bucksport are optimistic about football’s continued prominence within the American sports spectrum. But they’re also cognizant of the need to be steadfast in everything from teaching proper techniques to recognizing signs that a player might have suffered a concussion no matter how hard or slight the contact.
“You need to know your stuff so as best as you can you can account for every scenario,” said Sinclair after a concussion management seminar for Little Ten Conference coaches held Saturday at Orono Middle School.
“Not every athlete is going to show the classic signs of a concussion, so as we learned today you need to know your kids and you need to do the best you can to be prepared for any situation. In our case we couldn’t quite believe what we were seeing, and it turned out to be very serious. It ended well, but you never want to be in that situation.”
Topics addressed during the two-hour seminar included the evolution and proper fitting of football helmets, tackling techniques, the role of certified athletic trainers and school nurses in head injury management, and determining when a concussed athlete is ready to return to the team and classroom.
“It’s all about education and awareness and being proactive with regard to this issue,” said Mike Archer, athletic administrator at Orono High School and secretary-treasurer of the LTC. “Concussion is the buzzword in athletics now, not just at the high school level but also at the collegiate and professional levels. We need to do everything we can as administrators and coaches to make these kids who are playing football know that we want to put them in the safest position possible, but in doing that knowing we can’t guarantee anything. There are still going to be players who are going to be concussed.”
Bill Rice, regional sales manager for football helmet manufacturer Schutt Sports, acknowledged that “concussions have mushroomed into a public health issue.” He added that rule changes, new helmet materials, attention to tackling techniques, lighter and better-performing equipment and practice contact limits at some levels of the sport all have enhanced player safety.
“The irony is the game has never been safer from a technological and protective perspective,” he said.
Chris Sementelli, director of sports medicine at Maine General Medical Center in Augusta and Waterville, outlined elements of Maine’s recently adopted law that directs schools to develop a team of medical professionals to deal with head-injury cases. He also emphasized the need for school medical personnel and coaches to work closely with each other and with their student-athletes in order to recognize concussion signs and symptoms more effectively.
“Knowing your athlete is critical with this point,” Sementelli said. “Know their bents, and know their attitudes toward adversity.”
Dr. Cameron Truby, a primary care sports medicine physician at the Bangor-based Downeast Orthopedics, discussed the various stages of concussion assessment and recovery a student-athlete must pass before returning to school and practice, and said one of the related challenges is that no two concussions are alike.
“Every kid is different, every concussion is different and every concussion within a kid is different,” he said.
Veteran and newer coaches alike agree that in part due to advances in sports medicine and the attention now placed on such injuries as concussions, their jobs have grown into something far more complex than teaching football fundamentals.
“It’s interesting to hear all the different points of view and all the new material that’s coming down,” said Sankey. “In a sense it’s kind of frightening. I’ve been doing this for a long time, 40 years or so, and you look at it now with the threat of lawsuits and wonder why people would want to get into this. With budget cuts, we went from having a doctor on the sidelines with a trainer to now where we don’t have a team doctor and we don’t have a team trainer. The ambulance crew is always there, but it puts a lot of responsibilities on the heads of the coaches.”
Those same coaches expect their sport will continue to thrive, particularly if health concerns such as concussions can be alleviated.
“I think football will survive as a sport and as a game,” said Sinclair. “It might look different, but in the time I’ve been involved with it, and Joel, too, the types of offenses you’re seeing, the types of strategies that are employed, the types of fields you’re playing on, it’s evolved quite a bit. You’ll probably see more of that, and safety probably will be what drives that, but I think football will survive as an institution.
“It’s a pretty good American game.”