One of only a few players with previous tackle football experience, Alexis Clark hopes to lead the Lady Patriots to a championship. (Photos by Joey LoMonaco)

Sometimes, they just want to hit something: Fredericksburg women’s football team thriving in inaugural season

by | Apr 26, 2024 | ALLFFP, Fredericksburg, Sports

They are daughters, sisters, mothers and wives. They are students, veterans, nurses, financial and human resource professionals — plus a truck driver, a bartender, a cybersecurity intelligence specialist and a records analyst. They work in schools, military installations, and private businesses. 

And they are all football players.  

They are the Lady Patriots, the Fredericksburg women’s tackle football team, wrapping up their first season under the umbrella of the East Coast Football Association, a minor league founded by Chuck Bennaugh.  

The Lady Patriots face the RVA Lady Tomahawks in the ECFA semifinals on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Highland Springs High School in Henrico County with a trip to the championship game on the line.

It will be the culmination of a breakthrough season for the ECFA. Commissioner Gregory Flippins has organized men’s semi-pro football teams from Baltimore to Lynchburg since 2007, and wanted to wait until after the COVID-19 pandemic to begin a women’s league.

“We are in our infancy and have had our struggles this season, however, the ladies have pushed through,” Flippins said. “We will continue to recruit, expand, and get better year after year.”

While they prepare for a playoff game, the Patriots are also holding tryouts for the upcoming fall season. No experience is necessary, but players must be at least 15 years old.

Women playing football is nothing new. Over the past few decades, there has been a growing professional alliance of women’s teams, mostly playing in larger markets like Washington, D.C., Richmond, and Baltimore.  

Bri Stanard is a mom, a student and a lifelong athlete. (Photo by Joey LoMonaco)

But for women wanting to play locally in the Fredericksburg area, the options were limited. Until now.  

“I just want to show men that females can do it, too, and I want it to spread everywhere,” quarterback Alexis Clark said. “I want it to be big — like the whole community coming to watch our games.”

‘I showed them on the field’

Enter Mark Hutcherson, also known as “Coach Hutch.”

Hutcherson was a football standout at Culpeper High School before stints in the Army and Arizona Christian University. When he returned to the area, his mother expressed interest in owning a sports team.  

“Yeah, it was actually my mom’s idea,” Hutcherson said. “I just brought it to fruition. We weren’t supposed to start until fall this year. But it just came together at the last minute.”  

The women’s league currently consists of four active teams (two more disbanded because of low turnout): the VA Lady Eagles, the DMV Lady Strong, the RVA Lady Tomahawks, and the Patriots.

At the heart of this rookie team is Clark, a sports veteran. If her name seems familiar, it’s thanks to her record-breaking track and field career at James Monroe High School, where she was a standout performer in the shot put and discus. She also played three other sports at JM, including football during her sophomore year.

“A lot of people didn’t think I could play because I was a girl,” said Clark, who graduated from JM in 2018. “So, I showed them on the field I could play and then I stopped playing tackle and went to flag.”  

Not finding the intensity she wanted in flag football, Clark jumped at the opportunity to join the Lady Patriots. Her mother, JM athletic trainer Tammy Clark, shared a social media post about women’s football. Clark debated playing for a team in D.C. or Richmond but was concerned about the travel, so she chose the Patriots.

A family affair

Susan Brooks (center) calls the play at practice. (Photo by Joey LoMonaco)

Unlike Clark, many players are learning the game for the first time. Members of the Patriots’ roster range in age from 25-46. 

“I’ve never played football,” said Jessi Evans, who turns 40 this year. “I’ve been the football mom, and I’ve been the football wife for years and decided it was my turn to pad up and get out there.”  

Evans, a mother of three daughters and a son, wanted to show her children that “girls can do anything.”  

Now, her daughters want to pad up, too. “They want to be cheerleaders and football players at the same time,” Evans said.  

Juggling schedules is part of the challenge for the players. Many are parents of children involved in multiple sports and activities. Carving out time to play football was difficult at first. But all of them knew they wanted to make it a priority.  

Julie Williams-Daves, 46, takes a break during football practice at James Monroe High School. She also plays roller derby and is learning to use her hands more in tackle football. (photo by Joey LoMonaco)

“I’ve got a 3-year old and that’s a lot,” Brianna Stanard said. “But her dad helps out a lot and my uncle will also step in like, ‘Hey, I got her. You go do what you got to do.’”  

Stanard joined the team at the urging of her flag football teammates, many of whom now play tackle for the RVA Lady Tomahawks.  

“I’ve always been an athlete: soccer, softball, volleyball. Always something since I was like 4,” she said. “But lately it’s been like I just needed something else, something new.”  

The women are quick to praise the family-friendly atmosphere they’ve created. Their kids play together, and there is a strong sense of camaraderie among the players, giving them both an outlet and a sense of community. 

Jasmine Christian (center) stretches at practice with the Lady Patriots football team in Fredericksburg. (photo by Joey LoMonaco)

“We try to hang out outside of practices and games and we have a group chat that is very family oriented,” Rachon Harrison said. “Everybody brings their kids and spouses with them when they can.”

Hurts so good

Harrison has been sidelined with a tibia injury for much of the season, and she’s not the only one banged up. Several players on the 23-person roster are injured. Stanard tore both her posterior and superior labrum and her biceps.

“I really want to play, but also I know I need to take a breather,” she said.  

Hutcherson said the number of injuries initially surprised him. But he remembered that his players are learning proper technique for the first time.

“We are teaching the basics here, so you have to teach them how to properly fall so they don’t get injured. It’s full-on contact football,” he said. “The progress has been slow, but we are being patient. We get better each weekend.”  

Despite the injuries, the Lady Patriots agree on one reason they love the sport: the hits.  Clark said tackle football gives her an opportunity to “get a little rage out.”

The Lady Patriots practice at James Monroe High School. They face the rival RVA Lady Tomahawks this weekend. (Photo by Joey LoMonaco)

“I did not realize how much I would love this,” Evans added. “I get to legally assault people… and no one’s going to get in trouble, right? Like it’s a good way to get out that aggression. And that’s what we all signed up for.”  

Julie Williams-Daves was a trainer for her high school football team. No stranger to physical activity (she also plays flag football and roller derby), Daves knew she wanted to play tackle football.

She said the hardest part was switching sports and learning the rules.

“In derby, we don’t use our hands so now that I’m a lineman for football, I’ve got to get the hands up,” she said.  “Watching it on TV and seeing the plays is one thing, but to be out there doing it and learning, the intricacy has been a big challenge.”

For each player, there’s a lot to think about before the playoff game this weekend against their rivals, the Lady Tomahawks.   

Clark said she is confident a win is in sight if the team stays focused and maintains its composure.

“I get frustrated sometimes because I don’t think it’s hard, but I have to remind myself that a lot of the team never played before,” Clark said. “I’ve been playing all my life. But we’re getting better day by day and I think we can actually come out here and win a championship.”   

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