Hesston native adds to résumé
Liz Sowers to coach at Ottawa, play for national team
OTTAWA — Hesston native Liz Sowers has been a bit of a pioneer in women’s football.
The Hesston High School, Hesston College and Oakland University (Mich.) basketball standout switched to football after college.
She added to her already extensive gridiron résumé in recent months. She became the first women’s flag football coach at Ottawa University. She also was named to the U.S. National Women’s Flag Football Team, which will play in the 2021 International Federation of American Football Flag Football World Championships from Oct. 6-10 in Palma, Mallorca, Spain.
“This will be my third time with the national flag football team,” Sowers said. “The process of how people are selected has really gotten better throughout the years. Originally, it was kind of word of mouth. I think that’s one of the reasons the U.S. hasn’t brought home the gold. Flag is so international. There are so many countries that are really good and play year-round. We just didn’t have that in the United States, even though football is such an American sport. As the years went on, there are more tryouts and more scouting flag events to find good talent.”
The U.S. will enter the competition as the defending champions, downing Panama 27-12 in 2018 in Panama. The 2020 tournament was rescheduled until this summer because of the COVID-19 outbreak and moved to Spain from Denmark.
She said the U.S. flag team was originally selected from tackle players, but she said that’s changing.
“I was lucky enough to be selected from tackle leagues,” Sowers said. “I played in some Kansas City leagues and some just for fun. There aren’t a lot of leagues in the Midwest. Tackle is what led me to flag. There are only two of us that played tackle. The rest all came from flag.”
International competition will be five-on-five.
“Hopefully it will be in the Olympics some day,” Sowers said. “The recovery time is quick. It’s a really fast-paced, exciting game.”
Sowers also was a member of the U.S. women’s national tackle football team, winning World Championships in 2013 and 2017.
Sowers said some of the top contenders this summer include Panama, which won in 2016, along with Mexico and Canada.
“Just continuing to push the level of excellence on the field, especially being an NAIA coach, I’m getting ready to pass the torch on,” Sowers said of her goals this summer. “I’m getting older and my playing days are coming closer to an end than the beginning. As I’m recruiting these young girls, I’m seeing so much more experience than when I started.”
For those not familiar, flag football has been a mainstay of intramural sports in campuses across the country. Rules vary, but there is limited to no contact allowed. Players wear belts with a ribbon or flag attached. Ball carriers are tackled when the flag is removed by a defender.
“It’s a 50-yard field,” Sowers said. “There’s obviously no tackling. You have a rush, but you start seven yards off the line. The quarterback can’t run. It’s an air raid game, which makes it more exciting. Everyone is (an) eligible (receiver).”
The NAIA’s efforts have been supported by the NFL, which has provided grants to colleges starting programs.
There are currently 15 NAIA programs, five in the KCAC — Ottawa, Kansas Wesleyan, the University of Saint Mary, Cottey College and Midland University. The latter two compete as associate members.
“The NFL is planning on hosting the preseason kickoff for the NAIA around Super Bowl weekend in Tampa — keep your fingers crossed,” Sowers said. “Our postseason celebration will be around the draft in Cleveland. They’ve been super supportive. The Chiefs have even reached out to host one of our games in the KCAC in April.”
The NAIA will be seven-on-seven.
“It was really unique timing,” Sowers said. “I started recruiting in late May, early June.
"My dad (Floyd Sowers) was in hospice. He was a KCAC coach at Bethel (women’s basketball). I think it really came full circle. I saw the impact he had on his players. One of his players was by his side throughout his time in hospice. It shows that coaching goes far beyond the field or the court. My dad died in June. That’s when I needed people. These strangers from all over the country. These young girls with a passion for football kind of gave me purpose again.”
While building a program from scratch is a challenge, that was multiplied by doing it during a pandemic.
“Not only, on campus, trying to make sure everyone is safe and making sure everyone is getting their studies done,” Sowers said. “It’s online or in person, managing that. We went out to a competition in Las Vegas. We had to keep all of our quarterbacks away from each other, or you’d have one test positive and everyone would be wiped out. It’s brought a whole new level of planning.”
The team finished 2-0 in Las Vegas. The regular season will begin in the spring.
Sowers said most of her athletes come from Florida and Nevada, where flag football is played at the high school level. She also said it's played in Georgia. She does have one Kansas player from nearby Tonganoxie and spent three years on the OU soccer team.
“I want to start some competitions,” Sowers said. “The weird thing about women's sports I’ve learned is that things have to be done kind of opposite to get people on board — like my sister (Katie) coaching in the NFL. They have to see it, then they get on board. For high schools to think it’s worth their time, they have to see it at the collegiate level.”
Liz said she got some plays from Katie for her tackle team, the Kansas City Glory.
“Then COVID happened and we weren’t able to have a season,” Liz said. “But when she was home for the summer, we started drawing up plays. Then I got the job, so we were talking a lot about football and she’s supported me 100 percent.”
Liz is looking at a competitive first season. She said all five schools have recruited top talent. She said Cottey has several players who are high school teammates of her players.
Teams will have 10 playing dates, but can play multiple games during that time. The KCAC schedule has not been set.
Mark Schnabel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org