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Prep Football: 'She shows no fear'

Hancock freshman lineman Kayla Crowell, left, tried to fight off a block while keeping her eyes trained on Owls' quarterback Taylor Holleman during practice this week. Crowell won't start but she could see some playing time tonight when the Hancock varsity opens its season at home against Bertha-Hewitt. Tribune photo by Tom Larson.1 / 2
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HANCOCK -- Hancock football coach Chad Christianson's team was scrimmaging Wheaton last week when the coach turned to his freshman defensive lineman.

"What do you think, you want some of this?" Christianson said, pointing to the varsity teams on the field.

"Yeah, I'll get in there and play," the lineman said.

So in went the freshman, and not long after Wheaton tried to run one up the gut. The lineman grabbed the ball carrier and dropped him.

Coach and player were pleased. It's exactly that kind of feeling that got Kayla Crowell interested in playing football in the first place.

"I play basketball and softball, but I really like football," said the Hancock ninth-grader. "I like the physical aspect of it, the tackling and hitting."

It's not yet clear how much playing time Crowell will get when the Owls' varsity plays its season-opener at home tonight against Bertha-Hewitt. But her spot on the roster isn't a novelty, and she will crack the lineup if she continues to improve, said Owls head coach Chad Christianson.

"In our scrimmage, she showed no fear," Christianson said. "I don't know that they even knew she was a girl until we took off our helmets and were shaking hands after the scrimmage. If she's out there, we're expecting her to perform and she is, too."

Crowell's father, Fred, is from Chicago and is a big Bears and Blackhawks fan. His love of sports rubbed off on his oldest child, she said.

The family -- Fred, mom Sarah, Kayla, Colton and Chloe -- moved to Hancock five years ago, and Fred soon was helping coach the 5th and 6th grade team. Kayla started playing when she reached 6th grade. Mom didn't mind.

"She's definitely supportive," Kayla said. "My mom loves that I play football. I think she loves bragging that her daughter plays football. She gets a little nervous about me being out there with bigger kids but she's OK."

Kayla wasn't sure how long she'd play, and she was ready to give up the sport in 8th grade. But coaches kept encouraging her and at last December's football meeting for this year, she was there ordering her jersey, Christianson said.

"Usually junior high girls are a lot bigger than the boys, so in junior high it was more fun because you could beat up on the guys," Crowell said with a quiet laugh. "Now, it's a little more even so I have to work a little harder."

A player or two confided in Christianson early on that they had qualms about playing with and against Crowell, but the coach gave them no choice in the matter.

"A couple kids would say, 'I don't want to block her,' " Christianson said. "I told them, 'You have to. If that's who they put up there against you, you have to play against her just like any other player. Now, for the most part, she's just one of the guys."

Hancock co-captain and quarterback Taylor Holleman echoed his coach's sentiments.

"She's just another one of us," Holleman said.

Hancock's a small town and program so everyone knew Crowell was moving up and the players were ready.

"Everyone took it well," Holleman said. "Nobody's complained. She's a very hard worker and doesn't say much. She's improving every day."

Christianson has a dilemma on his hands, but not because Crowell is a girl. It's because she's a relatively green freshman who, at 5-foot-8, 235 pounds, is the largest player on a team that lacks size on the offensive and defensive lines.

"She's the biggest kid we have and we can use some size," Christianson said. "She's as strong as anyone out there but we don't want to put her in until she's ready to handle it. We have 19 players so it would be nice if all of (the starters) didn't have to play both ways.

"Do you put her in as a freshman?" he said. "If she's your best player at her position, put her in."

And there's been no questioning her work ethic.

"She doesn't dog it, she doesn't play the, 'I'm a girl' thing," Christianson said. "She goes about it like, 'This is what I've got and you'll get all of it.' "

So when game time approaches, Crowell will take her place on the sidelines and prepare herself for Christianson to call her number.

"I'll be a little nervous but I'll be ready," Crowell said. "I'm not expecting to play too much because I'm a freshman, but I'm hoping to get in there."

Tom Larson

Tom Larson is the sports editor of the West Central Tribune.

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