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Flag football mushrooms

The Duluth Parks and Rec Flag Football League has mushroomed to 23 teams this fall, an increase from 16 teams in its inaugural season a year ago. "Our department is extremely excited about the number of youths participating in our flag football p...

The Duluth Parks and Rec Flag Football League has mushroomed to 23 teams this fall, an increase from 16 teams in its inaugural season a year ago.

"Our department is extremely excited about the number of youths participating in our flag football program," said Duluth Parks and Rec Director Carl Seehus. "Offering alternative programs such as this are filling a void in our community's recreational needs. The magic that has made this program successful is the hard work and dedication of our recreation specialists. We have a very dedicated team of recreation professionals that truly believe in Duluth quality of life through active youth participation in our city's recreation programs."

"The message got out by word of mouth and promotion in the schools, plus we extended down to the second grade," said Parks and Rec specialist Ross Demant, who directs the second- through seventh-grade boys and girls no-contact recreational league.

Flag football is a nice alternative to tackle football, and teaches youths the fundamentals of the game without having to worry about getting hit or possibly being hurt, said parent Brian Leonard, whose son Race plays for one of the Duluth Heights teams.

"And the kids really have fun. Both boys and girls who can compete equally in this format," Leonard said.

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Boys make up about 95 percent of the participants, even though Parks and Rec in its recruitment efforts doesn't necessarily encourage boys and discourage girls. Some of the best players in the league are girls. And the girls might someday have a league of their own, Demant says, which could significantly increase participation in the league.

"I would like to see us get to a point where we could have separate boys and girls leagues at the sixth- and seventh-grade levels," Demant said.

Players pay $35 to compete in the seven-week league, come from throughout the city and usually play for their nearest recreation center team.

"We have about 300 players representing teams from Fond du Lac to Lakewood," Demant said. "The league supplies players with reversible jerseys, which they get to keep, and mouthguards and flags."

The league rules are simple. "There's no contact whatsoever and no scoring is kept," Demant said. "Our referees call minor penalties, but their focus is on helping the kids learn the proper techniques of the sport more than calling penalties.

"We also focus on keeping it a noncompetitive league, meaning that it has as low an impact as possible on the families. While some sports practice two, three days a week and play up to two games a week, as a recreational activity we limit it to two hours a week -- one hour for practice and a 50-minute game.

"We're not in competition with the other sports, and want kids to come out and have fun. Our intent is not to take kids from soccer and football. One of the goals is for kids to learn the fundamentals of flag football and possibly to go on to play tackle football."

All games are played on Thursday nights at Wheeler Field in West Duluth.

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"The fields at Wheeler are the best in town, and it works out nice on the one night for families who might have more than one child in the program," Demant said.

The league also has room to grow, and Demant is already planning to handle the growth if it occurs.

"We'd like to accommodate more players, and we have the field space to do it," Demant said. "Ideally, we could use all five fields at Wheeler and, if we had to, we could play five nights a week if every kid in the city became involved."

The league might also add teams next season by reducing the number of players on each team, Demant said.

'Our goal was to have 10 to 12 kids on a team, but we always try to give kids the opportunity to play so some teams have 14 to 15 players," he said. "Ten on a team might be the perfect number."

The league also uses experienced referees who are good with kids.

"Most of the guys also referee touch football, and they do a good job of instructing the kids on the basic rules of the game and explaining to coaches why something is called," Demant said.

Games last 50 minutes, split into halves with running time, and teams switch ends at halftime. There are no kickoffs and punts.

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All coaches are volunteers.

"Nearly all the coaches are dads and moms of the kids," Demant said. "Parents are very good about stepping forward and helping out."

The flag football season started on Sept. 19 and will run through the end of October.

"We guarantee teams at least seven games, but parents and kids would like to extend the season a little longer," Demant said. "We exploring the possibility of starting the season in the beginning of September next year."

A few lucky flag football teams will play a 5 to 10 minute exhibition at select local high school and college football games this fall, and one of Demant's personal goals is to provide the opportunity to every team.

"Two of our teams will play at halftime at the East-Grand Rapids game on Friday at Public School Stadium, and UMD also invites us up," Demant said.

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