Chance to do something special: Florida Gateway College leads flag football charge

Lake City school, which won first junior college national title, looks to keep growing the sport

Florida Gateway College Timberwolves win 2023 NJCAA National Championship. From left to right: Kayla Desmartin, Ricky Hufty, Zamaria Granado, Kyla Desmartin. (WJXT, WJXT)

LAKE CITY, Fla. – Fifty miles west outside of Jacksonville, a small community college is nestled on the outskirts of town in Lake City.

It’s a small oasis hidden from the world, but not for long.

Not if the Florida Gateway College flag football team has something to say about it.

“When you have the opportunity to attain something like we did, which is special,” Florida Gateway flag football head coach Ricky Hufty said. “What these kids did this year will never be taken away. It’s something that they’ll have for the rest of their lives, and it brings a lot of notoriety to them, to the sport, and obviously to the school and we hope that we made Florida Gateway and Lake City proud.”

This past year Florida Gateway College added a women’s flag football team. In its inaugural season, the Timberwolves had goals they wanted to achieve.

“It’s not hard to talk about what needs to be done, but it is hard to go through it day after day and do all the things that it takes to accomplish what you want,” Hufty said.

One goal was to win it all and that’s exactly what Florida Gateway did. In May, the Timberwolves won the NJCAA national championship in Atlanta at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, beating Hesston College (Kansas), 20-0. They finished their first season 15-1.

“It’s very hard to believe that we were the first to do that,” Florida Gateway freshman rusher Zamaria Granado said. “I’ve never been a first of something and it’s really nice to be a part of something that’s brand new.”

The ladies’ journey to the title game began last August. The season didn’t start until the spring when they practiced six days a week for three hours each day.

There are 12 athletes from all over the state on Florida Gateway’s roster. Some of them had never played flag football before and just decided to join the team. Though the area has seen the sport emerge over the last decade on the high school level (Fleming Island and Mandarin have both played for championships since 2013), the sport has been around for much longer.

Florida has been the epicenter for flag football more than any other state in the country. It was officially recognized by the Florida High School Athletic Association in 2002 and given its first state championship, but some schools fielded programs even before that.

“The girls, their focus on everything, they’re just as competitive as the guys are and it’s such an explosive and fast-paced sport,” Hufty said. “It’s exploding on the national scene and obviously I’m blessed to be part of it.”

Flag football leagues are quickly emerging all over the nation. The NFL is a major contributor in the growth of the sport and many NFL teams like the Jaguars are helping promote the sport on the national stage.

“When you get Nike and the NFL involved and the name behind those two organizations it really brings a lot of attention to the sport and it put it on a national stage very, very quickly, which is all that it took for everybody to get hooked,” Hufty said.

Now there are two collegiate leagues in the NJCAA and NAIA, with major support and initiatives by the NFL to push that sport to even greater heights on the college level.

“I think that it’s going to become a big sport and I honestly think that it’s going to become a sport that’s also in the NCAA,” Florida Gateway sophomore wide receiver and linebacker Kayla Desmartin said. “I think it will be a Division I sport in the next five to 10 years.”

You may be wondering how flag football compares to tackle football.

“It’s all football at its roots, but it’s definitely a different game, different intricacies,” Hufty said. “I just love everything about it.”

There are a few differences like having seven women on the field instead of 11.

“In-game scenarios, the situations that you get yourself into, is way different in men’s compared to women’s,” Florida Gateway sophomore wide receiver and linebacker Kyla Desmartin said.

The Florida Gateway College flag football team is giving high school athletes the chance to continue playing a sport that for years was not available. Now the playing field is equal and the future of the sport is bright.

About the Author:

Alessandra Pontbriand joined WJXT4 as a sports anchor and reporter in May 2023. She is excited to join the extremely talented sports team and have the opportunity to tell stories across Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia from local high schools, universities, and pro teams!