TAMPA — Flag football in Tampa Bay is a big, burly beast stomping all over the state.
The past two years, for instance, the area has won every possible state title: two in Class 2A (Plant in 2017 and Alonso in 2018) and two in Class A (both by Robinson). Robinson also won another state title in 2016, giving Hillsborough County five of the past six crowns.
This year could make it another clean sweep considering Robinson is ranked No. 1 overall in the state, followed by Riverview at No. 2, Alonso at No. 5 and Bloomingdale at No. 13.
So what the heck is happening on the local flag football scene?
It really started picking up about eight years ago when teams like Robinson and Alonso began raising the bar with year-round attention to the sport, traveling to various tournaments around the state and seeing what the best programs at the time were doing: Teams like Seminole Ridge, which won several early state titles.
“I wanted to take it to the next level,” Robinson coach Josh Saunders said. “I was willing to put in the work to get there.”
He did, along with guys like Alonso coach Matt Hernandez, who like Saunders was willing to work with other sports at their school to share athletes.
Pretty much every weekday at Robinson is a perfect case in point, where 11 flag football players also play another spring sport.
That’s why when softball practice ends, six girls drop their mitts and bats and run toward the football field, where they tie a set of flags around their waists and start practicing. Four others from track and another from lacrosse do the same.
Problems? Not really.
“We encourage it,” Saunders said. “It’s really about what the kids want to do, and we feel that we can’t tell a kid what to do with their free time. So far I would say it’s worked out pretty well for everybody at Robinson.”
This year the Knights, who have a 98-4 record since the 2014 season, are 11-0, including two victories over arch-rival Alonso, which is 7-3 but still firmly in the conversation for a state-title run.
“We lost a lot of players to graduation last year and sometimes when you have a bunch of new players in new positions it takes time to get everything working like you want it to,” Hernandez said. “But we’re getting there. I think we can compete (for another state title).”
Robinson, meantime, is rolling along with a new quarterback in Macy McClintock and the reigning Class A player of the year, junior Emily Kemp, who is believed to hold the Hillsborough County record for career touchdowns (83) with more than a year to go in her high school career.
Entering this week, Kemp, who also plays volleyball and soccer, had 20 receiving touchdowns, had thrown eight touchdown passes and rushed for three others.
The run for the defending state champs begins next week with district play set for Monday through Wednesday.
“We’re not taking anything and anyone for granted,” Hernandez said. “We look forward to the challenge.”
“A lot of teams are getting better and that’s a good thing,” Saunders added. “The more competition the better.”