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It had all the makings of a messy gridiron classic.

A day's steady rain had waterlogged the Tarpon Springs High School football field. Rowdy fans, their bodies painted in class colors, packed the bleachers. Rambunctious cheerleaders frolicked on the sidelines.

But none of this diverted the fans' attention from the girls on the field maneuvering the pigskin.


Yep, girls.

They played Wednesday in the annual Powder Puff tournament, a series of flag football games pitting girls from one class against another, with hordes of boys as their cheerleaders.

It's a spectacle of role reversal that has become one of the most popular social events of the school year at Tarpon High, not to mention the biggest fund-raiser for its student council.

Here and at other Pinellas County schools, including East Lake and Largo high schools, powder puff football is a fixture of homecoming.

Last year, almost 1,000 people attended the Tarpon Springs game. That's about 200 more than usually come to watch the boys play during the regular football season. And the boys draw the biggest football crowds in Pinellas.

Despite the moniker "powder puff," there was nothing fluffy on the field.

Girls pushed.

Girls shoved.

Girls fell down hard.

"We want to get down and dirty," said junior Mara Carideo. "We don't give a crap about our nails."

Tackling was taboo, since the players wore no helmets or pads. But some of the girls wouldn't mind seeing the game become a full-contact sport.

"When you get out there, you just want to make your class win," said senior Andrea Carrion. "You see people out there and you just want to run them over."

Wednesday's soggy weather might have deterred some of the crowds. But 700 people still came out to watch the senior girls capture the powder puff crown by trouncing the juniors 14-0.

Senior Isaac Day, the student body president, wasn't surprised. "I knew it from the get-go," he boasted.

The sophomore girls finished in third place by whipping the freshmen 20-0.

Each of the four class teams, with their 30-girl rosters, had been practicing for about a month, memorizing plays. They don't buy into the theory that football is a man's sport.

"Kick butt, Kelly, kick butt," someone yelled from the stands.

"Get 'em," yelled someone else.

Zorfia Kalafatis came out to watch her sophomore daughter Kally play.

"I'm afraid she might get hurt, but she's tough," Mrs. Kalafatis said.

But some of the boys gave the girls mixed reviews.

"They're doing good, for girls," said 15-year-old Thomas Schumacher, a junior varsity football player.

"Overall, girls can't play football as well," said freshman Trevor Rhodes, a volunteer cheerleader for the freshman girls.

The boys, meanwhile, redefined cheerleading.

The fast hand movements proved to be too much for some freshman boys. Their jumps and twirls gave new meaning to the word "grace."

"We try to be perfect," said sophomore Lisa Capitola, who helped coach the freshman cheerleaders. "But for them it's cool to mess up because everybody laughs when they mess up."

Her troops were dressed as bumble bees in tiny skirts and painted faces.

But the senior boys stole the show dressed as American Indians, complete with colorful head dresses and spears.

Their chanting got the crowd to its feet and their Elvis-style hip gyrations were a real hit. Watching them slide in the mud along the sidelines was a big crowd pleaser, too.

But at the end of three hours of football play, not everyone was happy.

Freshman Niquana Bennett was lamenting her team's loss.

"It was just our first time and we didn't know what would happen," she said.

Better luck next year.