When the Westminster Flag Football League starts its new season in March, old friends and former high school teammates will reunite to play a different form of the game they love.
Some of them have been practicing already, taking to McDaniel College's turf field to scrimmage for a recent tune-up. Sure, the first game is still more than a month away. But that just means there's plenty of time to get ready, said league commissioner Mike Kunkel.
"It usually picks up at the end of NFL season," he said. "Everybody's getting that itch to get back out there and play."
Westminster partners with the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia Flag Football League (DMVFFL) to be involved in a nationally sanctioned organization, Kunkel said. Winners of these leagues can earn bids to play in the United States Flag & Touch Football League national championships, which take place in mid-January in Kissimmee, Fla. Teams can also compete at various regional tournaments to compete for a national tourney spot, Kunkel said.
The Westminster league has been around since the early 2000s, Kunkel said, and started as indoor flag football. Publicity grew, and so did the number of players and teams. Kunkel said the league moved outdoors a few years later, and in 2009 switched from 7-man to 9-man football.
Kunkel, who is in his 11th year as commissioner, said the WFFL usually fields 12 teams during its season that runs through June. He has 10 teams ready to roll, he said, but isn't worried about filling the remaining spots.
"I expect a lot of phone calls here shortly," he said.
Kunkel and his Rills Construction teammates practiced against another local team, the Sharks, on Jan. 18 at McDaniel. Joining him on the Kenneth R. Gill Stadium field were former Carroll County high school football standouts.
Like Jeff Braun, who starred at Winters Mill (Class of 2008) and West Virginia University before making NFL training camp rosters last summer for Baltimore and Miami. And Rashad Blackwell, Braun's high school teammate who also played basketball and helped WM win a state championship in 2008.
Braun is on Kunkel's Rills team; Blackwell plays for the Sharks.
"Now that I'm back in town for now, I kind of figured I'd come back and play," said Braun, who came home a few years ago during his college days and played in a few games. "They look good. A lot of the guys have been playing in tournaments and things like that to stay sharp... they're cohesive."
Blackwell said he was introduced to the league much like Braun was, and he's still coming back to play each winter and spring.
"That's what it was. It was just all fun," Blackwell said. "It's guys still trying to see if we've still got it. Someone asked me to come out and I figured why not ... it's pretty addicting."
There are more familiar names from the county's varsity football past returning home to play flag football.
Brandon Costley (Westminster, Class of 2004) teams with Dan Bridges and Layton Hersh (Francis Scott Key, Class of 2005) on Rills. LaBradford Brown, who played at Century and Winters Mill and graduated in 2010, is also on Rills.
Kunkel said former Manchester Valley quarterback Dom Frank (Class of 2013) is playing in the league this season.
The top eight teams in last year's league were put together for a postseason, while the bottom four had their own mini-playoffs, Kunkel said. Seven of the eight teams were .500 or better, and Kunkel said the top three squads all had three losses or fewer.
The 2014 league champion, the 410 Ravens, hailed from Baltimore City, and Kunkel said they edged the Cobras — a Westminster-based squad that fields former McDaniel College players Brad Baer (Westminster) and Jamie Unger (South Carroll) — in the title game thanks to a last-second blocked field goal attempt. Rills lost to the 410 Ravens in the semifinals by two points, he said.
Hence the quality competition that keeps football junkies coming back for their fix.
"I think it's the love for the game, out there with your buddies still playing," Kunkel said.
The games are played on Sundays at the Carroll County Sports Complex in Westminster, and Kunkel said the games run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and tend to draw decent crowds. He'll try to put together another scrimmage or two once the Super Bowl is over, giving area flag football players a chance to get the NFL out of their system and venture outside.
Then the fun begins again.
"They weed out the teams that just throw things together," Braun said. "I think now the majority of the teams are pretty serious about it. That's just a testament to the guys wanting to play and compete at a high level."
Reach staff writer Pat Stoetzer at 410-857-7894 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
9-man flag football
Westminster Flag Football League plays under the 9-man ineligible lineman rules. Here are a few highlights:
-A minimum of 5 players on the line of scrimmage, with three ineligible interior linemen at all times
-Diving to pull a flag is legal, diving to block is illegal
-If flags fall off inadvertently, revert to 2-hand touch
-No onside kicks allowed
-If the defender contacts the passer's arm, whether or not the player touches the pass, it is roughing the passer and a 10-yard penalty (and automatic first down).
-Taunting an opponent, on or off the field, is a 10-yard penalty