When Tina and Mike Roberts took over the Wharton High flag football team six years ago, they had just 22 girls try out, and very few fans attended their games.
“In years past, no one came to the games, not even the home games,” Mike Roberts says.
Fast forward to the 2018 preseason, and the Wildcats had 50 girls try out for this year’s team. Wharton maintains a 16-girl varsity squad and a 19-player JV team, and while currently unranked has spent most of the season ranked in the Class 2A Top 20 poll, according to FloridaHighSchoolFootball.com.
At last week’s game at Leto, the Wildcats showed off their firepower by throttling the Falcons 46-0. They also brought about two dozen fans along to stock the visitor stands, outnumbering those on the home side.
The victory improved Wharton’s record to 7-3 at the time, with the Class 2A District 7 playoffs looming. But getting out of districts is no easy task, as Plant showed Wharton two days after the Leto win.
The Panthers, the defending Class 2A State champions, beat Wharton 26-0.
Currently ranked No. 3 in the state, Plant isn’t even ranked as the best team in the district — Alonso is ranked No. 1 in the state.
“If you can get through this district, you have a good chance to go far,” Mike Roberts said.
The Wildcats will need some upsets to get out of districts and into the State playoffs. Last year, they shocked Alonso in the District quarterfinals, before falling the following game to Plant in quadruple overtime.
The Roberts family has grown into coaching the sport of flag football. Tina says she came by it by pure accident. She was assigned the sport from the school administration seven years ago when it began. A year later, her husband Mike came on board. A year after that, their son Travis (23) also joined the coaching staff.
“Tina asked me to come on and help after an assistant left that first year and I fell in love with it,” Mike says.
Flag football runs the same way regular football’s 7-on-7 exercises do. Seven players line up in a passing formation. One defensive player is allowed to rush the quarterback and offenses can either pass or run with the ball. The offensive team must gain 20 yards to earn a first down.
Girls flag football has grown from niche sport to one of the most popular offerings for female athletes. It only became an official Florida High School Athletic Association sport in 2003, but has more than doubled its participation numbers to more than 250 teams and 6,000 players competing since then.
“I loved just being a part of the team and having the opportunity to play and have fun,” says quarterback Marinique Reddin, one of the team’s top players.
Starting this school year, middle schools in Hillsborough County — including Benito, Turner-Bartels and Liberty — offer girls flag football. This is expected to help the high school game, which until now has basically had to rely on players competing in flag football for the first time. Tina says for years, most of her players had to be taught the game from scratch, which was a major disadvantage compared to other high school sports.
“It’s going to make the sport that much better,” Mike Roberts says. “Next year, we’ll have eighth graders coming in that know the sport and you’ll see the payoffs.”
The Roberts’ dedication to the sport has helped build Wharton into one of the area’s better programs.
Reddin is tall and athletic and has the skill set to either pass the ball or tuck it and run, and scored four touchdowns in the win over Leto. Lauryn Thompson is another tall player with enough speed to score a touchdown any time she touches the football, which she did twice against Leto while adding an interception.
Both players are just juniors who have found their calling in the still relatively new sport.
“I love how competitive the game is and how the team has become so close, like one big family,” says Thompson. “If one of us needs help, we help each other out without downing each other. I look forward to practice every day.”
On defense, Ja’Nessa Ellis, Sade Seraaj and Mecca Bythewood had interceptions against Leto. Bythewood and Seraaj ran theirs back for touchdowns. Junior Williams rushes the quarterback.
“It’s great to see what these girls can do with the football,” Mike Roberts said. “We put in plays and they execute them.” Look for updates at NTNeighborhoodNews.com.