Girl breaks high school football gender barrier in N.C.

ROLESVILLE, N.C. (AP) — She grew up loving football.

Years before she would break a gender barrier in North Carolina high school football, Sydney McCorkle would spend hours watching the game on TV with her brother, Matthew. He was 10 years older and he loved the sport. And she just loved spending time with him.

Watching football so much, Sydney McCorkle fell in love with it. She started playing in seventh grade at Providence Day, a private K-12 school in southeast Charlotte. She kicked off. She played some wide receiver. She even made a few tackles.

“I remember once in seventh grade,” she said, “I did a kickoff and I was running down the field. I wasn’t paying attention and I got destroyed. It shook me. I wasn’t expecting it.”

But McCorkle, now a 15-year-old sophomore, didn’t stop playing. In fact, she never missed practice or a game in middle school, according to her coaches. Providence Day athletic director Nancy Beatty knew that, eventually, her love for football was going to be a problem.

McCorkle desperately wanted to play in high school. And in high school, Providence Day’s athletic teams play in the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association.

That problem? NCISAA rules didn’t allow girls to play football.

THE LONG ROAD TO PLAYING FOOTBALL

Beatty said she had to get special permission from the athletic directors in Providence Day’s middle school league for McCorkle to play.

“They had no problems with allowing a girl to play middle school,” Beatty said, “and then, in her eighth-grade year, her parents came to me, along with an attorney and a family friend to represent them. They wanted to explore this for her high school career.”

In October 2018, Beatty sent a formal letter to the NCISAA, and a two-year process began to get McCorkle onto a high school varsity team.

Last season, as a freshman, McCorkle played junior varsity football at Providence Day. The NCISAA doesn’t govern JV ball. But Beatty again had to query the athletic directors to get permission for her to play. Meanwhile, she and McCorkle’s parents, their attorney and Providence Day headmaster Glyn Cowlishaw began a series of meetings with the state association.

The first came in March of 2019, Beatty said, and by September of last year, the state had formed a 13-person task force to take on the issue. That group included heads of school and athletic directors from members schools across North Carolina. The group met three times.

“We came up with and designed a proposal to allow girls to participate in football,” Beatty said, “and it went before the (state) board (of directors) in January.”

The board approved the plan. So McCorkle, who had just finished playing her junior varsity season, could play with the boys this fall.

HISTORY OF GIRLS PLAYING IN PUBLIC LEAGUES, PROS

McCorkle played in Providence Day’s season-opening 48-0 win Friday over Charlotte Latin. She became the first girl to play in a private school football game in North Carolina.

She became the first girl to score in one, too. She kicked off once and converted two extra points.

“It was amazing,” McCorkle said.

In the public N.C. High School Athletic Association, there’s been a long history of girls playing high school football.

Three years ago, for example, South Iredell’s Julia Knapp was the team’s regular kicker and homecoming queen. One year later, South Iredell player Shelby Bassinger scored the first touchdown in her team’s conference championship-clinching win over North Iredell. Bassinger wore the same number that her good friend Knapp wore before her.

Last year, Raeann Clayton was the kicker at Rolesville High School. She’s a senior now.

Nationally, Patricia Palinkas is generally considered the first female professional football player. She was the placekick holder for the Orlando Panthers of the Atlantic Coast Football League in 1970. Her husband was the kicker.

Nearly 30 years later, in 1997, Liz Heaston became the first female to score in a college game when she kicked for Williamette University, an NAIA school in Salem, Oregon.

Ten years after that, Abby Vestal became the first female athlete to score in a men’s pro football game, kicking three extra points for the Kansas Koyotes of the American Professional indoor league.

And more female athletes continue to be attracted to the sport.

In 2016, Pop Warner estimated that there were more than 2,500 girls among its 250,000 registered players ages 5-14 playing tackle football. And the National Federation of High Schools says more than 2,400 girls played football in 2018. That was up from 1,900 girls playing in 2016.

And the federation says 47 of 50 states saw an increase in girls participation from 2008-18.

Now, girls can play in North Carolina’s private schools, too.

“I remember when I was going through the process to come here,” first-year Providence Day coach Chad Grier said, “and Nancy (Beatty, the AD) said, ‘There’s a girl on the team. Do you have a problem with that?’”

Grier — a first-year coach whose son, Will, is a quarterback with the Carolina Panthers — recalled quickly shaking his head no.

“I’ll take anybody who wants to be a part of it,” he said. “And she’s never missed a workout. With all the stuff going on in society and all the divisiveness and all the racial issues at the forefront, we talked about being inclusive and making decisions that are about doing the right thing and being good people.

“With Sydney, she’s the only female out here, but she’s never asked for anything special. She wants to be part of the family, and the team treats her like that.”

GAME NIGHT, SUCCESS NIGHT FOR MCCORKLE

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, private school football didn’t begin until Sept. 25, more than a month later than originally scheduled. Providence Day didn’t start until Friday, and the Chargers started fast.

When Channing Goodwin caught a 38-yard pass from Jake Helfrich in the first quarter, the Chargers were up 19-0. Providence Day’s first extra point was missed and Jake Porter made the second.

Then, it was McCorkle’s turn.

“I was nervous,” she said. “I was warming up on the sidelines and this was going to be my first kick on varsity and I didn’t want to mess it up.”

She ran out on the field. Beatty, the AD, held her cell phone in front of her face, arms extended. She hit record, hoping to capture history and send it to Twitter.

The snap was perfect. The hold was perfect. McCorkle stepped into the ball like she always has, ever since she started playing in seventh grade.

Thump.

“I knew it when I kicked it,” she said. “It was a good kick.”

Everybody went crazy when she made it. Only parents of seniors and the players were there as spectators, but they made enough noise to fill the place. Grier gave McCorkle a big congratulations on her way to the sidelines.

“We said, ’You made history!“ That, ‘You’re the answer to a trivia question,’” Grier remembered saying. “I was so proud of her.”

McCorkle kicked off twice in the game and made another extra point, but it’s that first play that everyone remembers.

“I didn’t realize it would be such a big deal,” she said. “I felt like it would be a big deal in my head, for so long. But I was shocked when everybody was going insane in the moment.”

Adam Hastings left Providence Day to become head football coach Indian Land (SC) High School earlier this year. His team won Friday night, his first win at his new school. He admitted to checking his phone immediately afterward Friday to see how McCorkle did.

“I’ve talked about her to our team now,” he said, “just about her selflessness and determination to play because she exemplifies all of that. She was an absolute joy. I was so proud and happy because I know how hard she worked and how hard the school worked to get her out there to play. That was just really, really great.”

Beatty said she went to bed thinking about McCorkle’s kick Friday night and woke up Saturday morning thinking about the same thing.

“It’s what that means to Sydney,” Beatty said, “and what that means for her family and making history and girl power for everyone. Just having that sense of inclusion and acceptance. It’s just a joy to know what she fought for, being a pioneer in independent schools, to be able to play football, it just shows me the courage she has. She could’ve easily said, ‘This is not worth it.’ For me, I can’t put it into words. It was groundbreaking, and my heart was so full of joy for that kid.”

McCorkle said all of the attention has been a little overwhelming, but that she was thankful for her teammates. She was a little worried they might not take her in because of the age and size difference.

“But I talk to them every day,” she said. “They’re like my family. So I just want to work with my team and hopefully get a lot better. I’m so excited to be out here. Football is my favorite sport. It’s everything to me.”