Westfield P.A.L. Flag Football launches girls’ flag football league, unites community with life lessons

By Samuel Teets | Posted 11/28/2023

The Westfield Police Athletic League (P.A.L.) in New Jersey has sponsored a flag football league since 1998. In September 2022, the Westfield P.A.L. expanded its historic league, launching the inaugural season of its girls-only program for athletes in second through seventh grade. The league serves as a community touchstone and model for other programs.  

Last fall, Westfield P.A.L. launched its girls’ flag football league. Roughly 220 girls participated in the inaugural season, and more than 300 took part in 2023. Girls have always been welcome to play flag football in Westfield P.A.L.’s co-ed league, but rising demand led to the creation of the highly successful girls-only program.  

“It was incredible. They were so excited to hear that they were going to have their own league. They just jumped at it,” said Westfield P.A.L. President John Dugan. “We had about 25 girls playing in the co-ed league. Kelly and Dave Hantman, who are on our P.A.L. Executive Board, promoted the girls’ league so well. They did a tremendous job getting it started.” 

The girls’ league’s mission is to empower girls to work together as a team in a fun and safe environment while developing a love of flag football. The girls’ league supports positive values and promotes health, wellness and self-esteem to inspire and motivate girls to succeed both on and off the field.  

“Our P.A.L. flag football program is about more than just football,” said Dugan. “Our motto is, ‘helping today’s youth become adults of tomorrow.’ We want to instill in our kids with valuable life lessons, including fundamental fairness, a sense of community, pride in themselves, self-accomplishment and giving to others. Those are really important aspects of our program.”  

The girls’ youth flag football program inspired Westfield High School to launch its own girls’ flag team. The team recently competed in the inaugural spring season of the Big Central Conference, which is part of a greater push sponsored by Nike and the New York Jets to create girls’ high school flag football teams in New York and New Jersey.  

“Both the Jets and the New York Giants have been outstanding partners to work with as we grow our flag and tackle football programs in Westfield,” said Dugan. 

“I’m very close with our high school athletic director Sandy Mamary and high school football coach Jim DeSarno, and we have good synergy,” Dugan said. “Many of the kids who played P.A.L. flag or tackle football continued playing through high school. The girls’ program was such a great thing last year that the high school decided to offer it as a sport because of what we did at the P.A.L. level.” 

The flag program is a staple of the Westfield community and has helped develop athletes for the local high school tackle team. Now, the program is also serving as a pathway for girls to learn flag football before entering high school.  

“Flag is always a good segue for kids to do one of two things,” Dugan explained. “Either they stay in flag because they don’t want to get involved in contact football, or they get so excited about the sport that they transition over to tackle football after starting in flag We have structured our program so players can simultaneously compete on both the in town flag program and tackle football teams in the Suburban Youth Football League, a premier tackle program in New Jersey.” 

Westfield P.A.L.’s flag program will serve 300 athletes in the girls’ flag league and 775 athletes in the co-ed league this season. The program has come a long way since Dugan and a dedicated team of parents started playing pickup games with a couple dozen kids.  

The program has flourished thanks to its emphasis on instructive coaching, fairness and equal playing time along with community service.  

“We just want the kids to have fun,” Dugan said. “We don’t have referees. At the younger ages, we don’t keep score. If we have a kid who steps out by a few inches while running for a touchdown, we let them keep the touchdown. If someone commits a penalty, we’ll stop play and explain it to everybody. We keep it non-competitive and make it an instructional and fun league for everyone.” 

Dugan added that current Flag Football coordinators John Cronin and Albert Youssef have done an outstanding job of running the program while continuing to make it enjoyable for players and their parents or guardians.   

Dugan also stressed how inclusive the league is. If a family can’t afford to pay registration fees, the league will cover the costs to ensure all athletes have a chance to enjoy football or any other program offered by the P.A.L. 

“If someone can’t afford to pay, that’s not an issue at all,” said Dugan. “We will scholarship anyone who can’t afford to pay. No one will ever be turned away because of a registration fee. We always invite kids in.” 

Westfield P.A.L.’s flag football games serve as a meeting place for members of the community and contribute to several charitable efforts throughout the season.  

“We make it about more than just football. It’s a community event,” Dugan explained. “We have a table set up every Saturday morning with free coffee for parents, grandparents, volunteers and people from the community to gather. Everything is free. It’s all part of a huge Saturday morning in our town. People congregate to watch the kids play. Our residents and business owners are so generous in Westfield and have been very supportive of our program.” 

The coffee table also serves as a donation area toward the end of the season when Westfield P.A.L. holds its annual holiday coat and food drives. Food and clothing donated goes to the St. Joseph Social Service Center in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  

“People in our community come out of the woodwork to donate,” said Dugan. “They’re phenomenal at it. A couple of years ago, I saw a guy drop a huge box by the donations with 20 brand new jackets.” 

Westfield P.A.L. also holds several other community or charity events throughout the season. There’s a women’s football tournament during Breast Cancer Awareness Month where the women in the community play to raise money to fight breast cancer. All money raised is donated to Trinitas Regional Medical Center in Elizabeth, New Jersey to help cover medical costs for screening and treatment of breast cancer for women who may not be able to afford tests.  

beat cancer
Westfield P.A.L. runs a women's flag football tournament during Breast Cancer Awareness Month to raise money for treatment and screening.

Dugan believes it’s important for kids to meet and learn about heroes living in their town. To that end, the league connects its young athletes with the police department to build trust between the community’s future and current leaders. Members of the police and fire departments, including Police Chief Chris Battiloro and Fire Chief Michael Duelks, visit the fields to speak with the kids every year during a September 11 ceremony. There’s also a big veteran’s day celebration to acknowledge members of the community who served.  

“Our community lost 12 residents on September 11, and we want these young players, who were not even born yet, to understand the significance of that day,” said Dugan. “Also, it’s important that they have the opportunity to thank our veterans for their service to our country. The players get very excited when hearing stories from the vets.” 

Westfield P.A.L. relies on volunteers and parents to keep the program running smoothly. Every year, 65 to 70 coaches give their time to teach young athletes the sport. Some coaches are former P.A.L. athletes who have aged out of the league but return to give back to the program.  

“Several Westfield police officers who were P.A.L. players are now back coaching football in the program” said Dugan, who is a former Westfield police officer. “There’s nothing better than the heart of a volunteer.”   

Through the dedicated efforts of Dugan, Kelly and Dave Hantman and other local volunteers and football enthusiasts like Cronin, Youssef, and Dave Wirtshafter and his sons Eli and Joe, the Westfield P.A.L. program continues to grow and teach young athletes valuable lessons.