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Patriots crown Leominster as girls high school flag football champions in inaugural season

After losing a coach and mentor this fall, Leominster honored Ricky White by winning the 2023 New England Patriots Girls High School Flag Football championship.

High school football champions in Massachusetts have been crowned year after year at Gillette Stadium, but things looked a little different as history was being made Friday.

With a narrow 13-12 victory, Leominster took the title over St. Mary's of Lynn, and there wasn't a dry eye on the Blue Devil's roster as they celebrated together, lifting the trophy above their heads and taking selfies with their medals.

The tournament wasn't sanctioned by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, but it crowned a state champion for the inaugural New England Patriots Girls High School Flag Football League launched by the team in April. Either way, it meant just as much to those who participated as any other varsity sport.

"This is crazy. I've been playing flag since I was in sixth grade," Leominster's Melina Montalvo said after winning the flag football championship on her 18th birthday.

"I never thought my high school would have a team for girls. Football was always a boys' sport. It's just so cool. Today is the best day ever, to be honest. Definitely, something I won't forget, my 18th birthday being my last night playing high school flag."

Just days into starting a new job with the New England Patriots Foundation, community relations supervisor Dani Callahan had a big project put on her desk.

As part of an NFL initiative to grow the sport of flag football, it was now her responsibility to get things going at a local level here in New England – specifically, for girls.

Without much experience, she leveraged relationships between the club and the community to get it off the ground, garnering interest and fielding teams at eight different schools in the Commonwealth. In April, teams from Leominster, Chelsea, Fitchburg, St. Mary's Lynn, Needham, Peabody, Woburn, and Ayer-Shirley Regional High School were established to take part in a 14-game season.

"Just being able to tell them they have the support of the New England Patriots – it's something that people are very excited about and proud to have us in their corner," Callahan said.

To support the league, the Patriots provided a $5,000 grant to each participating school to facilitate the emerging sport. Flag football was donated by USA Football and custom uniforms were donated by Nike.

All eight teams were invited to Gillette Stadium in the spring to unbox their new uniforms, but Leominster's had a detail unlike the rest.

Sewed onto each uniform was a patch that read "E4R." In other words, "Everything for Ricky," the man who had been there for the Blue Devils from Day 1.

"A lot of these girls have been playing for a long time, right?," said Leominster defensive coach Becky Curley. "This is not their first rodeo, they've been working hard at flag. But there was a mentor and a coach who was my best friend. He coached almost every division, and he's coached a lot of these girls. He passed away in October. He put in a lot of hard work with these girls. He was always there for them, always doing extra workouts, but he was also our coaching director in our regular recreational league. We've all done everything for Ricky this season. He just meant so much to all of our girls and all of us."

Leominster lived up to the symbolism of the jersey patch all season, with their season reaching its climax on Friday.

The under-the-lights tournament featured all eight teams in an elimination bracket, with friends and family coming from all over to spectate.

For the championship, the Patriots also extended the invitation to a few Boston Renegades players who were happy to do some scouting from the sidelines.

"We could have a Patriots player come out and speak about being a professional football player, but it's not as transferable as seeing a female professional athlete in front of you," said Callahan. "So having them there to speak about their experiences was awesome and they were just so glad to be a part of it."

As noted by the Renegades, something like the Patriots Flag Football League didn't exist when they were growing up. It made the experience just as excited for them.

"It's huge for them. It's huge for us. This is our future in the sport and it's amazing," said Molly Goodwin, who owns the professional tackle football team and seven-time national champions of the Women's Football Alliance.

"It's fun for us to cheer them on and for them to look at our players as mentors. I don't think you should undersell that we're fans of theirs."

The girls showed good reason for that Friday, putting their talent and athleticism on display for all to see, including officials from the MIAA.

Callahan and the Patriots Foundation have a lot of goals for the league, including expanding throughout not only Massachusetts, but New England, and getting girls flag football sanctioned as a varsity sport.

"There's definitely something here, and I think tonight kind of showed it," Curley said.

"This is a sport that's going to offer opportunities to girls who might not have that extra money for that lacrosse stick and those goggles and you know what I mean? All you need is a pair of cleats and they can come out and they can compete."

The league was a labor of love for Callahan, who finally saw her hard work validated by every girl who took part in the inaugural effort.

Watching girls leave it all out there on the field made it all worth it.

"I don't think I anticipated it," Callahan said of how emotional the experience was for participants. 

"I hoped that that will happen, but you almost have like impostor syndrome going through all of it. I just really wanted them to care and have fun. I got to actually to see how passionate they were and that they really cared about this. I know it's something that I put a lot of work in but to see that other people felt so strongly about it was really, really nice."

For Leominster, passion was an understatement. From the beginning of the season until the end, the Blue Devils knew exactly who and what they were playing for.

"I know Ricky would have been here and he would have been so proud of these girls," Curley said. 

"And they're making history, right? They're making history here. You can see all these little girls and boys in the stands. I've been telling them that this is what they're playing for. They're opening the door for all these other kids. That's what Ricky tried to do for them, was to open those doors to opportunities. So now they're given back the same way that he did."

The Patriots hosted the inaugural girls high school flag football championship at Gillette Stadium on Friday, June 16, 2023, featuring eight schools in a tournament-style bracket: Ayer-Shirley Regional High School, Chelsea High School, Fitchburg High School, Leominster High School, St. Mary's Lynn, Needham High School, Peabody Veterans Memorial High School and Woburn Memorial High School. Leominster captured the title in dramatic fashion, rallying for a 13-12 win over St. Mary's in which they made a defensive stand in the end zone on the final two plays of the game to hang on.

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