FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The players were out there competing on the practice turf alongside the fancy glass-sided building with a giant Jets logo painted above one section of the glass.
These weren’t the Jets on the field at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center Saturday night. But this was a special group of players, the first Nassau and Suffolk girls flag football champs vying to be the first Long Island champion in the Jets X Nike High School Girls Flag Football League.
After Irvington beat Hawthorne in the New Jersey championship game, Nassau winner Bellmore-Merrick and Suffolk winner Whitman took over the field and put on a thrilling show worthy of the occasion.
Just like it did against Lynbrook in the Nassau final, Bellmore-Merrick staged a comeback. Again, it was Sofia LaSpina throwing the go-ahead, 4-yard touchdown pass to Gabby Hanellin, this time with 7:05 left.
LaSpina threw three TD passes and Madeline Ryan had three sacks to help Bellmore-Merrick emerge with a 30-20 win.
“They all came together right from Day One,” Chargers coach Anthony Cracco said after his team finished 10-0-1, including the postseason. “They had a goal and that was to get here and give us a chance at a championship. It’s such an unbelievable feeling for them. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
The league kicked off last year in New Jersey. This year, the Jets added more teams in that state and expanded to Long Island. The pilot program took off smoothly with nine teams in Nassau and eight in Suffolk. The Jets are hoping for double that amount of teams next season, and they are hoping to stage this championship game at MetLife Stadium.
“It’s been amazing,” said Eli Hodges, the Jets’ manager of community relations and youth football. “This is something that we just take so much pride in here at the New York Jets, this girls flag football.
“Obviously, we expanded to Long Island, our home for a very long time, getting back there, being able to just help out these teams and just provide equity in the sport that we love … We want to keep giving opportunities to these young women and provide them a chance to play football.”
The chance to play at the Jets’ facility certainly thrilled a Jets fan named LaSpina.
“It was so cool driving in and seeing the whole Jets’ logo and everyone playing and having fun,” said LaSpina, who last year met Joe Namath after becoming the first girls player to score a touchdown in Long Island high school football history. “When we got here, we just saw everything that we always dreamed of, and we were happy that it came true.”
The ultimate dream was to win, and they did after they fell behind 20-18.
Kate Hoffman threw two TD passes in the first half for the Wildcats, including a 79-yarder to her sister, Iris Hoffman. She tossed a 7-yard scoring pass to Mia Stampfel with 12:08 remaining, and then caught the one-point conversion pass from Stampfel.
But LaSpina responded on third down from the 4, throwing to Hanellin in the left side of the end zone.
Then Sophie Orlich came up with a fourth-down sack to stop Whitman, and Ryan had a touchdown run to cap the ensuing drive.
“It’s just awesome to know that we did what we always wanted to do,” LaSpina said.
Whitman had a great first year, too, finishing 9-1.
“It was a great battle between two really good teams,” Wildcats coach Ralph Milazzo said. “I just feel bad for my girls because I know how hard they worked and how hard they fought. They are champions in my mind.”