Swarms of kids gathered on Central Kitsap High School's athletic complex Thursday for some evening football, but not exactly the kind played by high school teams on Friday nights in the fall.
Contests featured six players on each side. Instead of jerseys and pants, kids wore shorts and t-shirts. The only required pieces of equipment were hip belts featuring breakaway flags of various colors.
No, there's no need for helmets or shoulder pads when competing in the Peninsula Flag League, the tackle-free brainchild of owner and commissioner Russ Shiplet. The league, which is designed for youth players from kindergarten through eighth grade, kicked off its seven-week summer season Thursday.
"It's teaching them the fundamentals of football in a safe environment," Shiplet said.
Shiplet, a retired Navy trainer and current executive director for the Kitsap Public Facilities District, originally brought youth flag football to Kitsap County in 2018 through Under Armour, which sponsored "Under the Lights" leagues across the country. Shiplet first organized a league in North Kitsap and expanded it to Central Kitsap.
"We had about 475 boys and girls we were serving," Shiplet said.
After the most recent winter season, Shiplet made the call to break away from underneath the Under Armour umbrella and rebrand as the PFL this summer.
"I already had the players, I already had the communities and so forth," Shiplet said. "We just changed it to a locally-owned league with the plan of expanding to South Kitsap (in 2023) and beyond to cover the entire Kitsap Peninsula."
For some football families, the PFL represents a summer and winter supplement for pee-wee/youth players who typically compete in the fall. For other families, the PFL serves as an option for kids who may not quite be ready for the physicality of tackle ball. The cost per season is $150 per player with some discounts for families with multiple players.
"Parents are really liking this alternative for their kids to still be able to learn football, but not have to worry about concussions and other things associated with tackle," Shiplet said.
Shiplet reiterated that he doesn't want his league to be seen as stepping on the toes of pee-wee football organizations in the region. He views the relationship as a tandem operation with the goal of uniting the community and growing the game.
"We purposefully run our flag league in the winter and in the summer so it doesn't compete against tackle," he said. "By doing that, we have a lot of coaches and teams that play youth tackle, and right after the fall season ends, they go into flag."
With Strawberry Field in Poulsbo off-limits due to a turf replacement project, Shiplet said all PFL games this summer will be at Central Kitsap. Following a six-week regular season, playoffs will be held in early August.
With 250 players signed up, teams are broken down by age group (K-2nd grade, 3rd-4th grade, 5th-6th grade, 7th-8th grade). Four games operate simultaneously each hour with two, 20-minute halves featuring a running clock. With mini-fields running 40 yards length-wise and 25 yards wide, teams alternate possessions and have a maximum of seven plays to reach the end zone.
The referee blows a play dead when a defender pulls a flag off the ball-carrier.
"There's a lot of speed and agility to flag," Shiplet said. "There's a lot of finesse."
Younger age-group teams mostly run the ball, while games featuring older age-groups feature almost all passing plays.
Jared Prince, an assistant coach on North Kitsap's high school team, currently coaches his son's 3rd-4th grade PFL team. Prince is a big fan of the league because players learn some of the same skills required in tackle football — route-running, reading offenses and defenses, even proper body positioning and reactions.
There's just no tackling, which reduces the risks of younger players to experienced head-related injuries. Sounds like a winning combination.
"It's a beautiful, beautiful thing," Prince said.
This article originally appeared on Kitsap Sun: Peninsula Flag League gives youth a tackle-free football experience