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Female football player hanging tough with Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan boys

Bailee Schultz, left, runs around teammate Michael Kaffar, right, at Seahawks’ practice Wednesday in Emery. (Nick McCutcheon/Republic)

EMERY — Bailee Schultz has earned her place as a part of the Seahawk football family, breaking through to play with the boys at the high school level.

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Schultz, a sophomore tight end and defensive end on the Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan junior varsity football team, had no interest in cheerleading or being a spectator for Seahawk football games. Now in her fifth season on the gridiron, Schultz is blurring lines between a girl playing football and simply being a football player.

“I started playing football with all the boys at a young age and my father being a football fan, kind of got me into it,” Schultz said, adding that she grew up playing football with the boys at recess.

The 5-foot-9 Schultz, a Minnesota Vikings fan, is not shy about her affection for the contact that comes with playing the hard-nosed positions.

“It’s really fun to get out there and show them what I can do,” said Schultz before practice Wednesday as Class 9AA’s No. 2 BEE (2-0) prepared for its showdown tonight at Howard, Class 9A’s No. 2-ranked team. “It’s just exciting to be out there and get to tackle everyone.”

She has recorded a few sacks and recalled the cheers received from the fans and her teammates as some of the highlights of her playing days thus far.

Jeff VanLeur, now in his 34th year as the head coach for BEE, has nothing but pride for the accomplishments Schultz has made as member of his team.

“She comes out here, works hard just like all the boys and has a positive attitude,” VanLeur said. “She is treated just like any of the boys out here and she wouldn’t have it any other way.”

VanLeur admitted some of the boys would hold back at first, but over the last couple of years, she has blended in. This year at the Seahawks’ practice, it is difficult to pick Schultz out of the crowd as she runs through drills with the same toughness as her teammates.

“When she came out for her seventh-grade year, we thought it may be a little bit of a fad, but I give her a lot of credit,” VanLeur said.

The notion of girls playing high school football has been trending upward nationwide over the past several years. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 1,531 girls played football at the high school level during the 2012-13 school year across the country. The participation is up 20 percent from six years ago when 1,225 girls played.

While her dad was instrumental in getting Bailee hooked on football, Schultz’s mother was less enthusiastic about her daughter joining the team.

“My mom wasn’t really into it at first because she didn’t want to me to get hurt, but she knows how much I love it,” Schultz said, adding that her mother is now glad that she stuck with it.

Also a member of the Bridgewater-Emery basketball and track programs, Schultz smiled when asked if she looks forward to teaching her two younger brothers a thing or two about playing football.

The fact that her team, coaches and opponents now think of her simply as a football player and not as a girl that happens to play football, proves that Schultz has done everything right so far to earn that respect.

“She is just one of us and when she puts a helmet on, she is a part of the family,” senior captain running back Wade Miller said.

Girls playing football is a rarity but not an isolated occurrence in South Dakota. Rocky Rank played in seventh and eighth grade at Mitchell Middle School, but decided not to play this season. Burke Middle School also has a fifth-grader, whose name was not released, playing football this season.