Those who haven't heard of the Israeli Women's Flag Football Team, are missing out on a sensational moment in Israeli sports history. This team, coached by Yona Misha'an, just won the largest, most crucial tournament in Europe. Their victory, 33-32 against the French Pygargues at the Flag Oceane Tournament, qualified them for a spot in the EFAF (European Federation of American Football) Senior Flag Championships, taking place September 16-18 in Helsinki, Finland.
The girls' home is the Kraft Family Stadium, on the northern end of Sacher Park in Jerusalem. Robert Kraft, owner of the NFL champion New England Patriots and whom the field is named after, inaugurated the new $500,000 artificial grass in February at a gala stadium re-dedication, which was attended by then-Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin. The women's national team is sponsored by Myra Kraft, wife of Robert Kraft, and John Gilman, owner of "Fieldturf." which recently installed the synthetic grass at the stadium. Other sponsors include Diamonds.com and Heritage Affinity Services.
A team practice earlier this week, illustrates what it is that makes this team a success. Quarterback Shana Sprung throws a perfect pass to Esti Bernstein, nicknamed "Baseball." (She was the only girl on an otherwise all-boys baseball team). The ball gets past her and hits the turf. Watching from the sidelines, Misha'an calls out, "Don't worry Baseball! Next time!"
Not only Sprung's arm but also her morale are strong team assets. She believes the combination of Misha'an's efforts, intense practice three times a week and good attitude all contribute to their success. Sprung hopes the league will grow to include many more successful teams "instilling fear of Israeli teams on playing fields worldwide."
Another pass to Baseball. This time she snatches it out of the air. Baseball, the youngest on the team at age 14, is one of their best receivers and helped bring the team to victory at Le Havre. This girl is all business on the field. To her, besides for winning of course, having plain fun is as important as maintaining a strong connection between the players.
Another toss by Sprung, this time to Meira Harow. After a run and cut, she catches the pigskin with palpable ease. Harow, soft-spoken yet outgoing, is dangerous on the field. Her small figure does no justice to her game.
Harow describes what she likes about the team and what she feels is important to its success.
"Without doubt, Yona is a great role model and is very committed to us as a team and to our success on the field. It's also important to get everyone involved and give every team member an equal chance to play. The girls are great and we communicate well which is essential. I believe this has played a definite role in our achievements so far," she says.
What makes this team special is the fact that they are, for the most part, religiously observant Jews. They keep Shabbat and eat kosher on the road and some of the girls wear self-designed skirts that are as functional as shorts.
Incredibly, in just a year's time, these girls have gone from the sidelines, watching their brothers play, to their own team, making their way to the top and earning the chance to win the EFAF European Championships in Helsinki this month. Hard to believe? Watch them play.
"The enthusiasm these girls display comes from good sportsmanship and a burning desire to win," says Tali Griffel, a newcomer to the team. Married and older than most girls on the team, she joined the team two months ago and devotes her spare time to the game.
"Because women's football in Jerusalem is new, there's an extra component of eagerness and devotion that pushes the team to prove themselves," says Griffel.
Watching the practice from the sidelines, AFI President Steve Leibowitz proudly explains the team's background, successes and proposed future.
"This team started with five girls standing on the side watching their brothers play in the men's league. We decided to approach them with the idea of putting together a women's league and this is where we are today."
Leibowitz says there are plans afoot to bring the best flag football teams from Europe and North America to Israel.
"In June, our national women's team won the championship at the Le Havre tournament in France, and we are going to reciprocate the warm hospitality that we enjoyed there," he says.
Asked about the girls' physical workout regimen, Leibowitz replies, "These girls aren't necessarily professional athletes; they're mostly students. For this reason, we have a physical trainer who comes in to instruct them on how to build stamina and maintain proper fitness."
The Women's American Football in Israel league (WAFI) producer of the players who won in Le Havre plans to begin its second fall season in late October, while the adult co-ed league, the Tuesday Night Football League, is set to kick off in early November.
The 2005-06 AFI season, sponsored by Heritage Affinity Services, will kick off the weekend of October 28-29. The 2006 bowl games are scheduled to be held February 17-19, 2006, when the AFI also plans on hosting its first international flag football tournament.
If you want to see good Israeli sportsmanship, competition brought to a new level and have a reason to be proud of these girls, watch their games and follow their rise to success. These girls have what it takes to bring Israel the recognition it deserves.
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