OU flag football culminates 'dream' season with NAIA championship

Greg Mast
The Ottawa Herald

What a year for the Ottawa University women’s flag football team.

The program was unveiled in the spring of 2020 and went about getting set for an inaugural season. A year later, Ottawa was crowned the NAIA champions after defeating Keiser, 7-6, in the title game in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Ottawa University flag football team raises the NAIA championship trophy amidst the confett

Ottawa coach Liz Sowers said it was quite an experience.

“This whole year has been a dream come true,” Sowers said. “I never expected the ending we had. I wished for it and I hoped for it throughout the entire process. It is interesting that everything would go exactly how I had wanted it to go.”

The Lady Braves won the national championship in the sports’ inaugural season. Ottawa compiled a 14-1 mark.

Sowers said the journey was sweet.

The Ottawa University flag football team celebrated after winning the first NAIA championship in the sport.

“It was exhilarating,” she said. “It was a storybook ending.”

Sowers had a feeling before she was hired this could be an experience of a lifetime.

“Ottawa has been absolutely amazing,” Sowers said. “I knew that Ottawa was invested and special. The field was painted to have lines for flag football. It wasn’t a sport they were adding and not care. It was something they were invested in and it showed throughout the entire season. We felt supported. We felt special.”

Ottawa University sophomore Clara Beaudoin attempts to avoid a tackle against Keiser in the championship game.

The players felt the support and wanted to make their mark. Sowers said without any history to rely on, the players could set the bar and play without any pressure.

“We could make it our own,” she said. “We were able to go with the flow. Everyone continued to buy in. We had our ups and downs like teams will do. Everyone stuck together and it felt like we were peaking at the right time. It turned out we were national champs.”

Ottawa University freshman linebacker Abby Brown has a bead on a tackle against Webber in the national semifinal game. Brown was selected the KCAC Defensive Player of the Year.

It appeared to be fate for Ottawa and Keiser to meet in the first championship game. Keiser handed Ottawa its lone loss, 26-25, earlier in season.

The two teams were separated by a point in points against which decided the top seed.

“To win by one point, it was destiny,” Sowers said. “It was like it was fate. We came up just short in Florida. It was the best thing that could have happened to us. We were ready.”

Ottawa was prepared for this moment, Sowers said.

“We have talked from day one expecting a huge tournament at the end,” she said. “We kind of prepared for a big moment. They knew the magnitude of the moment. Our schedule prior to the tournament was set up to have them prepared —whether it be physically or mentally —for that moment. I wanted to make sure we saw teams from Florida prior to the tournament. It could not have worked out any better.”

Championship Blueprint

Sowers set about building the team just a few months ahead of the fall semester. She also dealt with the pandemic and could not have a hands-on recruiting season.

“I had a list of a bunch of names,” Sowers said. “I would look them up on social media. I found out if they were interested. It went from there. It was kind of a snowball effect.”

Sowers wanted a certain type of recruit to fit the big puzzle she was putting together.

“It was important to me that they would fit in and be a team-first player,” she said. “That helped in the process of getting girls that would easily [go from] being strangers to [good friends] in a short matter of time.

“That was a focus in recruiting. It does not matter how talented you are on the field if you don’t get along with people. That is a life lesson.”

It worked out better than Sowers could have envisioned.

“The girls I recruited are some of the best quality humans that I have ever imagined,” she said. “I got lucky enough to recruit amazing humans. Most of them said this was the best team they have ever been on. It makes it all worth it. All the tears, all the arguments, all the laughs, it puts everything in perspective.”

Growing the Sport

These players have a chance to influence younger children to chase their dreams.

“Being from all over the country, now my girls are back home for the summer in Vegas, Maryland and Canada,” Sowers said. “Everyone they are around is going to see it. It will continue to grow. People are going to start seeing they can do the same thing. Young girls are going to start playing earlier and earlier. It will be something really big.”

Several Ottawa players did not have a football background and were looking for an opportunity to play flag football.

“A lot of girls like myself played college basketball and never had the opportunity to play collegiate flag or tackle football,” Sowers said. “I am very aware that this has been an opportunity that has been denied the young girls for a long time. The best thing about football there is a different unique skill set for different positions. You can always find something that translates really well. These girls are here because they truly love the game.”

Sowers wants more colleges and high schools to add flag football.

“I hope other colleges will realize how big it is and jump on board,” Sowers said. “I hope high schools start to realize these are opportunities that are available.”

Brown Thrives

Central Heights grad Abby Brown turned a dream into reality by joining the Ottawa flag program. She attended Bethany on a basketball scholarship during fall semester.

Brown transferred at semester and became a flag football player.

“Abby is a prime example of why we are doing what we are doing,” Sowers said. “She played tackle football with the boys in high school. Basketball seemed to be her only option for her [in college], even though football was her love.”

Sowers felt the same way coming out of high school.

“I understand that because I played college basketball, but I never understood why I didn’t love it like I should,” she said. “It is players like her that never had that option. They wanted to, but did not think they could. Now she has that chance.”

Brown quickly learned the game and became a defensive standout. She was selected the KCAC Defensive Player of the Year.

“She is a natural athlete,” Sowers said. “Her dad was her first football coach. She has a knack for the game. You could tell that from the moment she stepped on the field. She reads the game. She studies the game. She is a student of the game. You could not ask for a better player.”

Sowers said Brown is more than a football player.

“Abby is one of the best humans that I have ever met,” Sowers said. “When she injured her pinky and had to sit out some games, she was helping with film. She is going to be a coach some day. I will probably be coaching against her in a national championship [game] some day.”