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Sandy Journal

Local girls tackle football team defies first year expectations, wins championship

Aug 01, 2019 10:13AM ● By Ron Bevan

Members and coaches of the Ohana girls tackle football team pose for a team picture. The girls team, based in Sandy, won its division championship despite being the newest team in the league. (Photo provided by Tony Cianflone)

By Ron Bevan | [email protected] 

They weren’t supposed to be this good, yet. They were the upstarts. The new kids on the block. The team thrown together at the last minute.

But Ohana, a girls football team based out of Sandy, surprised not only themselves but their opponents by taking the title in their division of Utah Girls Tackle Football.

“This team was an expansion team; they were not expected to win a single game,” defensive coordinator Tony Cianflone said. “Through hard work and teamwork they managed to beat every team in the playoffs that beat them during the regular season and had an incredible playoff run, which included a overtime win against West Granite and the upset of the year over West Jordan in the championship game.”

Girls tackle football is a relatively new sport. In fact, the Utah Girls Tackle Football League, formed in 2015, was the first of its kind in the nation. It was formed after youth football sensation Sam Gordon made national headlines playing in boys leagues. At 9 years old in 2012, Gordon scored 25 touchdowns and made 65 tackles in a boys league. Her notoriety even got her featured with some of the NFL’s best players in a Super Bowl ad this year.

At the same time, league co-founder Crystal Sacco was contemplating how to get more girls interested in football.

“I played on a women’s tackle football team,” Sacco said. “I love the sport and I saw the potential with youth. I was helping coach some boys youth teams and had girls that told me they would play if I would start a league for girls.”

So Sacco teamed with Sam’s father Brent Gordon to form the UGTFL to help girls who wanted to pursue the sport. At first, the league had only 50 girls playing. It has now swelled to 450 girls playing in Salt Lake and Utah Counties. There are three divisions: elementary, junior high and high school.

After the 2018 season the league wanted to create one more team and have it based in the Sandy area to serve both Sandy and Draper girls who want to play. The problem was, the first team meeting didn’t yield enough players to form an 11-player team.

“We only had seven players show up the first day,” Cianflone said. “So the league opened our team up to anyone who wanted to play, even if they didn’t live in Sandy or Draper. We ended up with players that had never played football before.”

But that didn’t deter the coaching staff. Choosing the name Ohana for the team was a step in unifying the players.

“Ohana means family in Hawaiian. It means nobody gets left behind,” Cianflone said. 

Ohana picked up a few players with experience, most notably Sandy’s Nyomi Houston and Draper’s Stella Cianflone. Nyomi, 11, had played the previous year for a team in Midvale, but jumped at the chance to be closer to home. 

“She didn’t seem to really like it the first year with Midvale, but she was so good we were hoping she would try this year,” Nyomi’s mom, Kierston Anderson, said. “She loved it this year.”

Nyomi has plenty of speed for her age and uses it in both the running back position on offense and cornerback on defense.

“Some of the players in the professional women’s football league started talking to us and told us her skill level was better than we thought,” Anderson said. 

Stella, 12, became fascinated with football at a young age, learning the sport while watching it with her father.

“I liked football since I was 6,” Stella said. “My dad would take me to the Ute games, and I thought I would like to play it, but I was nervous playing against the boys.

Drawing inspiration from Sam, Stella did join a boys flag football league until this season when she made the move to tackle.