Kylie VanDong figured she’d have to prove she belonged at some point. She got her opportunity early on in her high school football career.

After flag football originally got her involved in the sport, VanDong stuck with it through the end of middle school and beginning of high school even as she saw her male counterparts get exponentially bigger. Standing at 5-foot-1, she doesn’t exactly have the look of a football player. But she comes from a family passionate about the sport, and she fell in love with it too.

Her freshman year at Fall Creek, VanDong got the chance to line up at safety on the scout team against senior Tegan Yoder. He was the biggest guy on the field, “pure muscle” as she described it.

“He consistently ran me over every play, just to see if I could get back up again,” VanDong said. “I would get back up. Sure, it hurt, but that was how I proved myself my freshman year. After that, Tegan and I became friends.”

Two years later, VanDong considers that moment among her favorite on the gridiron. She was officially a member of the Crickets.

VanDong is one of a handful of girls playing high school football in the Chippewa Valley. While football remains a male-dominated sport, more girls are playing tackle football around the country today than have in the past. That’s even while considering the overall turnout in the sport has dropped in recent years with growing knowledge regarding long-term health concerns.

Fair or not, most face that prove-it moment.

“You want to be just like the boys,” said Emma Novak-Bougie, VanDong’s teammate on Fall Creek. “I want to be a part of that team. I’m your brother as well.”

Participation data from the National Federation of State High School Associations recorded 2,404 girls playing tackle football in 2018. While Wisconsin’s numbers largely remained stagnant, other states saw enormous growth from 2008 to 2018. New Jersey’s 204 girls playing in 2018 was over six times the total from ten years prior. In New Mexico, over 1% of all football players were girls in 2018.

Women have taken on prominent roles in the National Football League. Sarah Thomas became the first female official in NFL history, joining the league full-time in 2015. A year later, Kathryn Smith became the first woman to be named to a full-time coaching position in the NFL when the Buffalo Bills hired her as a quality control special teams coach.

At the college level, Sarah Fuller’s extra point for Vanderbilt last year made her the first woman to score in a Power Five football game.

Representation matters. When Novak-Bougie arrived this fall for her freshman year, she saw a path to follow in VanDong.

And don’t think girls are limited to just kicking. VanDong plays linebacker and slot receiver. Novak-Bougie is on both the offensive and defensive lines.

“I knew we were going to be hitting each other, and I enjoy doing that,” Novak-Bougie said. “I was like, ‘Why not just take that time to not get penalized for beating the crap out of somebody?’”

Regis senior Hannah Reynen also plays on the lines, now in her fifth year playing football. Unlike VanDong and Novak-Bougie, she doesn’t have a family connection to football. But she was drawn to Regis’ strong culture and the physicality of the sport.

“I really like the hitting and the way that we don’t stop training, really,” Reynen said. “It’s a year-round thing.”

Reynen played often while in middle school, but moved into a reserve role as she got older. That brought a mental shift, of course, and at times made her doubt her future in football. But she remains motivated to stick to it whenever she’s reminded of that feeling right before a game, and of all those who doubted she’d be able to get this far.

“There were so many people in the beginning telling me I couldn’t do it,” Reynen said. “Just proving them wrong in a sense really got me. Everybody was telling me no. And I was like, ‘Really? Really?’”

None of VanDong, Novak-Bougie or Reynen say they started playing football to inspire others or to show women belong on the gridiron too. Neither did Taylor Schulz, a senior at Rice Lake who became the first girl to ever suit up for the Warriors’ program. It was simply about doing something they enjoyed.

“I did it because I loved it. I didn’t do it to make a point,” Schulz told Travis Nyhus of the Rice Lake Chronotype last week. “I didn’t do it to show girls can do anything, or anything like that. If I’ve inspired some young girls to go out and do it because they love it, then that’s amazing.”

Novak-Bougie knows she’s inspired when she looks across the field and sees another girl playing. She hopes to have the same impact.

“At first I was out here just to play football,” Novak-Bougie said. “But just looking at all these girls that might think they can’t be a part of this team and they might really love football, I want to be like, ‘Hey, come take my hand and we can go play together,’ welcome them into this amazing sport. As well as play, I want to inspire other young girls and women to play the sport.”