For nearly 1,500 football players, the season is officially underway in Tampa Bay.
On Thursday, student-athletes from throughout the state of Florida began convening in Tampa for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Girls Flag Football Preseason Classic, presented by AdventHealth. Now in its fourth year, the three-day event will bring together 70 girls flag football teams to compete in the round robin-style tournament, hosted this year at the University of South Florida, just up the road from the Buccaneers' AdventHealth Training Center.
A Tampa Bay Buccaneers Foundation event that continues to grow each year and remains the largest girls flag football tournament in the nation, this year's preseason classic hosts teams representing 17 different counties throughout the state – including 25 teams from Hillsborough County and 12 from Pinellas County.
Competition officially kicked off on Thursday afternoon with welcome remarks from some notable names in Tampa Bay, generating cheers that could be heard across the college campus.
Buccaneers Co-Owner Darcie Glazer Kassewitz, AdventHealth Zephyrhills and Dade City CEO Amanda Maggard, Tampa Bay Sports Commission Vice President of Events Claire Lessinger and City of Tampa Director of Parks and Recreation Sherisha Hills pumped up the crowd of student-athletes, commending the young women for being leaders, blazing a trail and pursuing their passions on the athletic fields.
"This kind of event not only shows the girls who are playing that they're validated and what they're doing is important, but it gives people the ability to witness it and see that this is a very serious sport," said Kassewitz. "When our family first bought the team, none of this existed. Our entire family feels very strongly about gender equality, so it's really been a passion point for our family to make sure that we support women and girls in every aspect of football."
View photos from the 4th Annual Preseason Classic Buccaneers' Girls Flag Football League kick-off event.
Event emcee Tara Battiato, the team's Vice President of Community Impact, helped generate a deafening ovation when welcoming to the stage two of the biggest athletes in the crowd – Buccaneers starting tackles Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs.
"We want to show you our support," said Smith. "I commend you for showcasing your talent and being your very best. You all are the gateway to big things out here in the world. I have a beautiful daughter who is 19 months-old and you all are the standard and setting the way. Shoutout to all of you ladies!"
Preseason Classic games began Thursday afternoon and continue Friday from 2:30–9:00 p.m., with competition running all day Saturday. For the very first time, three collegiate flag football programs competing from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics will take the field – Thomas University, Warner University, and Webber International – participating on Saturday as part of their regular season schedules.
The event helps kick off the Florida High School Athletic Association flag football season, which officially begins play on Monday, March 7.
"It's exciting to be out here," said Wirfs. "I'm from Iowa and we don't really have anything like this up there. I didn't know this was a varsity sport, so it's so great to be out here and watch you all compete. It's exciting."