2023 wish list: Top women’s sports storylines to follow in the new year

0 Comments

Women’s sports fans have lots to look forward to in 2023: From the return of Brittney Griner to the WNBA court to the start of the FIFA Women’s World Cup to several new GOAT watches (we see you, Mikaela Shiffrin!), the new year is already chock full of storylines we can’t wait to see play out. On Her Turf looks at several stories we’ll be following when the calendar flips into January and beyond.


The return of Brittney Griner

It seemed like the entire sports world at large breathed a collective sigh of relief when WNBA star Brittney Griner was released from a Russian prison on Dec. 8 after nearly 10 months of detention. Just eight days later, the eight-time All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist infused fans with even more glee when she stated her plans to be on court and wearing her familiar No. 42 for the Phoenix Mercury when the league kicks off its 27th season on May 19.

What’s more, we’ll have at least four more opportunities to watch her play in 2023, as the WNBA increased its regular-season schedule to a record-high 40 games per team — up four games from last season. For the Mercury in particular, Griner’s return also means a reunion with teammate and 10-time All-Star Diana Taurasi, who announced in November that she’ll be returning for her 19th season in the league. Taurasi, who’s won three WNBA titles with Phoenix and five Olympic gold medals with Team USA, ended her season early last year after suffering a quadriceps injury in early August. Griner, who’s technically an unrestricted free agent, boasts career averages of 30.9 minutes per game and 17.7 points, and she was particularly dominant in the 2021 postseason where she averaged 21.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and shot 56.2 percent in Phoenix’s run to the WNBA Finals, where they lost to the Chicago Sky.

The Mercury will visit the Los Angeles Sparks for their season opener on May 19 before hosting the Chicago Sky in their home opener on May 21.


USWNT goes for historic three-peat at FIFA Women’s World Cup

The countdown is on to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, July 20-Aug. 20, where the U.S. Women’s National Team will look to defend their 2019 title at the tournament cohosted by Australia and New Zealand. The four-time World Cup champs also have their sights set on a historic three-peat, after taking the title in 2015 and 2019. The U.S. women could become the first team in either the women’s or men’s game to win three successive World Cups.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: 2023 Women’s World Cup storylines to watch as USWNT takes aim at historic three-peat

The current USWNT includes a healthy mix of newcomers and veterans, led by Alex Morgan, Becky Sauerbrunn and Megan Rapinoe, winner of both the Golden Boot and Golden Ball in 2019. But an infusion of new talent is already capturing attention, led by former Stanford teammates Sophia Smith and Naomi Girma, and 20-year-old Trinity Rodman, who was a Ballon d’Or finalist this year. Smith, a member of the 2022 NWSL championship-winning Portland Thorns, earned league MVP honors, while Girma won both Rookie and Defender of the Year awards last season.

We’re looking forward to seeing more of this new-look USWNT in the new year, including next month in New Zealand, where they’ll play a two-game series (Jan. 17 and 20) against the co-host nation. The U.S. women kick off their title defense Friday, July 21, with their first World Cup Group E match vs. tournament newcomer Vietnam.


G.O.A.T watch 2023: Mikaela Shiffrin, Katie Ledecky chase history

To say the last week of the year was a momentum builder is an understatement for alpine racer Mikaela Shiffrin, who swept three straight World Cup races – two giant slalom, one slalom – in Semmering, Austria, to bring her career total to 80 wins. The number puts her two wins away from the women’s record of 82 wins, held by fellow American Lindsey Vonn, and six wins away from the all-time record of 86 held by Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark.

The 27-year-old Shiffrin, who’s won six races this season and is on a four-win streak, could tie Vonn’s record as early as next week in Zagreb, Croatia, which will host slalom races on Jan. 4 and 5. The two-time Olympic gold medalist has four previous slalom victories at Zagreb and finished second there in 2020 and 2022.

RELATED: With career records in view, Mikaela Shiffrin knows nothing is promised

Also chasing an American legend for all-time honors is swimming great Katie Ledecky, who heads into 2023 as the AP Female Athlete of the Year, earning the honor for the second time in her career. Ledecky edged out track star Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone in balloting after winning all four of her races at the FINA World Championships in June, setting two world records in the process and becoming the first swimmer to win five consecutive world titles in one individual event (800m freestyle).

She now owns 22 career world championships medals, including 19 gold, which bests the previous U.S. women’s record of 20, held by Natalie Coughlin (eight gold). Ledecky’s 19th career gold at 2022 worlds broke a tie with Ryan Lochte for the second-most in history and puts her just seven back of Michael Phelps (26). She’ll take aim at another all-time record this July at the 2023 World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, where just one in individual world title would tie her with Phelps’ record of 15.


2023 Solheim Cup: Americans head to Spain as underdogs?

The ultimate women’s team golf event heads to an intriguing new venue, Finca Cortesin Golf Club in Andalucia, Spain. The club played host to the men’s Volvo World Match Play Championship three times from 2009-2012 and will serve as the biennial event’s backdrop for its 18th edition. The European squad, winners of the last two matches at Inverness Club in Ohio (2021) and Gleneagles in Scotland (2019), will be captained by Norway’s two-time major winner Suzann Pettersen, who boasts an 18-12-6 record overall in nine Solheim Cup appearances. The 15-time LPGA winner is known for her mic-drop moment at the 2019 matches, where she holed the winning putt for the Europeans after being away from the game on maternity leave for nearly 20 months prior to the event.

RELATED: The biggest questions in Olympic sports for 2023

For the Americans, who have won the cup 10 times in the matches’ history, they’ll look to win the cup for the first time since 2017 and the first time on foreign soil since 2015 in Germany. Stacy Lewis, a four-time U.S. Solheim Cup team member (5-10-1 overall record), will serve as captain of the American squad, which perhaps for the first time could be considered the underdogs. Currently, there are six Americans in the top 30 of the Rolex Rankings compared to seven European players. The calendar date – set for Sept. 18-24 – should give the matches an added boost, too, as they fall one week before the men’s Ryder Cup in Rome.


Can South Carolina repeat as NCAA women’s basketball champions?

The South Carolina women’s basketball team hasn’t missed a beat since winning the 2022 NCAA national championship last April, blazing through six post-season games including a 64-49 win over UConn in the tournament final. And the Gamecocks have kicked off the 2022-23 season with a 12-game win streak, maintaining their hold of the top spot in The Associated Press Top 25 women’s basketball poll for 27 consecutive weeks.

The Gamecocks reached a milestone in the process, with their 27-week streak marking the fifth-longest run of all time. UConn holds the record for the longest streak at 51 weeks, dating from Feb. 18, 2008, to Dec. 10, 2010. Louisiana Tech has the second longest at 36 weeks, and the Huskies also hold the third and fourth spots on the list, with 34- and 30-week runs at No. 1. South. Carolina started last season at No. 1 and hasn’t relinquished the ranking since. With more than eight weeks left in the regular season, the Gamecocks are on track to keep climbing the all-time list.

Whether or not they’ll repeat as national champions remains to be seen, but it would mark the third national title for head coach Dawn Staley, who also was at the helm for South Carolina’s 2017 championship win over Mississippi State. Staley has four starters back this season, including 2022 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Aliyah Boston, Victaria Saxton, Brea Beal and Zia Cooke (only Destanni Henderson graduated). Boston, who’s averaging 12.4 points and 9.6 rebounds and is expected to be a frontrunner for various player-of-the-year awards again this season.


WTA celebrates its 50th anniversary 

It was June 21, 1973 – the eve of Wimbledon Championships – when the already nine-time Grand Slam champion Billie Jean King called a players’ meeting at London’s Gloucester Hotel that would change the course of women’s professional tennis. Frustrated by the obvious gender inequity and an establishment that split the talent pool among competing circuits, King spearheaded the players’ efforts to formally join forces and pioneer their own destiny. Since then, what began as a players’ union has morphed into member association between athletes and the more than 50 tournaments on six continents, boasting parity in all Grand Slam prize money since 2007. Heading into 2023, the WTA notes that 32 countries are represented in the Top 100 of the WTA rankings, with more than 900 million fans worldwide expected to take in tour action next year.

To celebrate, the organization has unveiled a season-long campaign that will pay tribute to the game’s legends as well as its current stars — but through a lens focused on the future. Called “WTA 50: Just Starting,” the campaign will highlight not only what can be done to improve the sporting landscape for women around the world, but also how the WTA can “effectively champion equality and inclusivity for all.” Cheers to the next 50 years!

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Justine Wong-Orantes, Kelsey Robinson Cook sign on as League One Volleyball moves toward pro league launch

Diana Flores looks to break down gender barriers with turn as AFC offensive coordinator in 2023 Pro Bowl

Courtesy Diana Flores
0 Comments

Diana Flores admits she was surprised when she became a viral sensation last spring, courtesy of a 15-second slow-motion clip showcasing her evasive maneuvers and fancy footwork while leaving at least three defenders in the dirt during Mexico’s 2022 national collegiate flag football championship.

“I never expected someone to record that moment,” said Mexico City native Flores, who led her team – the Monterrey Tech Borregos – to their third consecutive national title as a senior last May. “I was just having fun. I was just playing the game I love and then days later to see that it was viral on the internet — it was crazy. But at the same time, it was exciting because I remember when I was younger, I didn’t have a lot of flag football role models to follow. So now, for me to be a role model for many boys and girls that play my sport is something that really makes me happy and proud and also motivates me to keep getting better.”

Flores, who led the Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team to a gold medal at the 2022 World Games, will have the chance to promote her sport on one of the world’s biggest stages this weekend when she serves as the AFC offensive coordinator for the NFL’s 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday in Las Vegas.

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Flores will be joined by Peyton Manning as the AFC head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator. On the NFC side, U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback Vanita Krouch will serve as offensive coordinator, with Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as defensive coordinator.

“I think that this has been one of the best things in my life,” she recently told On Her Turf about her Pro Bowl appointment. “It is like a dream. I mean, I grew up watching football, watching the NFL, playing flag football. And now to be able to be part of all of this — it is bigger than my biggest dreams.”

Flores’ football dreams began as when she was just 8 years old. Her father — who played quarterback for the perennial football powerhouse Monterrey Tech program — took her to a practice and she fell in love with the sport. But as the time there were no teams for girls her age, so she played with girls twice her age and used it to her advantage, focusing on her own abilities and sharpening her skills. By age 14 she was playing NFL Flag in Mexico, where she was the only girl in the league, and at 15 she started playing NFL Flag in the U.S, where she finally played on an all-girls team.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: U.S. flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator

“I remember when I started playing, I used to receive a lot of like comments, directly and indirectly from other people, like, ‘Why do you play that sport? That’s not a girls’ sport, that sport is for boys, you’re get injured, you’re going to get hurt, don’t play with boys, that’s too rude.’ And the list keeps going. But my mom and dad were so supportive. They always encouraged me not to listen to anybody, to just follow my passion.

“And I think thanks to them, I’ve always had this mentality that gender doesn’t matter. It just matters how passionate you are about your dreams, how hard you work for what you want to achieve. And that you will always demonstrate what you’re made for, depending on the hard work you do. So, I’ve lived through that [negativity], I have experienced that. And I think that it has been one of my biggest blessings to be able to experience — for myself — what sport can do and how gender barriers get broken when you follow your dreams and you connect with other people through your passion.”

At just 16 years old, Flores made Mexico’s national team, playing in the first of four Flag Football World Championships – so far. Last summer at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, the 24-year-old Flores led Mexico to a 6-0 record, which included two wins over the U.S. women, who took silver. In the gold medal game against the United States, she completed 20 of 28 pass attempts for 210 yards and four touchdowns in Mexico’s 39-6 victory. She finished the tournament with 23 touchdown passes, the third-most among women’s teams, and she was the only starting quarterback to beat USA’s star QB, Krouch, who is 19-1 in international tournament play.

All that international experience so early in her career has given Flores a wise-beyond-her-years approach to playing flag football, a sport where she was frequently the only female player on the field and often the only Latin American as well.

“When I first came to the U.S., it was a little shocking to notice that I was probably the only Latin American girl playing,” she recalls. “But I think that it was easy for me because I got all the support from my coaches and my teammates. And since a young age, I think that I started to realize that sometimes what you do is for something bigger than yourself. That’s why you have to always give your best, in any situation. Even at that young age, I understood that I was representing more than myself on the field, I was representing Latin American people, Latin American girls in a sport that [many people thought] was meant to be for boys.”

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

One door Flores hopes to help open is the one leading to the Olympics. Flag football is on the short list being considered for inclusion in Los Angeles in 2028 Los Angeles. As an ambassador for flag football for the NFL and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), she’s participated in talks with the International Olympic Committee, and just last month she was joined by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden in Mexico City where they joined forced to promote women’s empowerment and inclusion.

“I think for me, that experience is one of my top three,” she said of spending time with Biden. “I call them gifts from life, something that you didn’t expect it to happen, and somehow, one day, you’re right there in front of the First Lady. I admire her for what she does for boys and girls, for empowering woman and giving opportunities for everybody to achieve their dreams. So it was truly an honor to meet her, and also to be able to keep impacting my sport, not only on the field, but [off] the field, and have the opportunity keep inspiring others and keep impacting the world.”

As for what she hopes fans at the Pro Bowl and viewers at home take away from Sunday’s flag football showcase, Flores hopes they’ll see the characteristics that made her fall in love with flag in the first place: creativity, speed, agility, teamwork, passion and a lot of heart.

“I hope to show to all little girls and women that dreams come true, that nothing is impossible, to keep inspiring and opening opportunities and doors for women in sports, especially in the world of the NFL and football and flag football,” she says. “We’re going to make history, and I am so proud and happy for that. I’m really hoping that it is just the first step, not only for me, but for all the women that are coming after me.”

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Paula Moltzan talks first World Cup podium, being Mikaela Shiffrin’s teammate and unconventional path to the U.S. Ski Team

Flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator

0 Comments

When Vanita Krouch got the news that she was named NFC offensive coordinator for the 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback admits her jaw nearly hit the ground.

And then she realized something even more profound.

“For the longest time, thinking about the moment, everything, you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a dream come true. Is this really happening?’” said the 42-year-old Krouch, known as the “Tom Brady of flag football” with a 19-1 record as USA’s starting quarterback in international tournaments since 2018.

“But then I started thinking to myself: You know what? None of us grew up thinking of this as a dream to obtain. So really, it’s kind of reversed where I’m living a dream. I get to be a pioneer in this growth of flag football for all and inclusion for all, youth and adults, [women and men]. It’s such an inclusive sport, and I get to be a part of this growth and still actively play. It’s exciting. I’m literally living the dream. I’m very much like, ‘Guys, don’t pinch me. Let me keep sleeping.’”

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Krouch will be joined by Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as NFC defensive coordinator. On the AFC side, Mexico Women’s National Flag Football quarterback Diana Flores will serve as offensive coordinator, with Peyton Manning as head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator.

But Krouch’s journey to the Pro Bowl stage began under the unlikeliest of circumstances and was inspired by her own family odyssey, which began in Cambodia during the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Krouch’s mother, Phonnary Krouch, fled the country with three young sons in tow, running by night and hiding by day to escape, finding safety initially at a refugee camp in the Philippines. That’s where she welcomed Vanita, in September 1980, and two months later the family made its way to the United States. Krouch’s father exited the picture upon their arrival in America, leaving Phonnary to raise four children alone.

“In a nutshell, my mom is an amazing woman,” said Krouch, who first found sports via an elementary school flyer advertising youth soccer in Carrollton, Texas. “On the journey, she had a lot of trials, tribulations, … and after our dad left us, it was just mom and four kids in this little one-bedroom apartment. So, it was a challenge. I’m just so amazed by her strength and will to never give up.”

She also credits her mom for standing up to then-stereotypical notions that Asian girls should not play sports.

“I’m just thankful, honestly, that my mom allowed me to break the Asian culture barriers of a woman playing sports because that’s not easy,” she said. “She faced a lot of backlash from the community. But she said, ‘Hey, my child’s making good grades. She’s healthy, she’s good. She’s staying off the streets. I don’t see a problem.’ And she just let me do it. I was just lucky to have a mom that let me spread my wings.”

Krouch also had a few mentors along the way. Her elementary school PE teacher, Toni Neibes, stepped in to pay for those initial soccer fees and continued her support as Krouch transitioned to basketball in the fourth grade. She fell in love with the sport and excelled at it as well, eventually earning a full scholarship to play college basketball at Southern Methodist University. She wears the No. 4 to this day in honor of Niebes, who wore the same number as a young athlete. She also credits her fourth-grade teacher, Judy Ward, as having a lasting impact after the teacher made a habit out of showing up for her youth basketball games.

She pays tribute to them both through her clothing line, 4Ward Apparel, which features ever-changing collections emblazoned with relevant slogans encouraging female empowerment, inclusion and her personal mantra of “paying it forward” – something she does with the line itself. Each month, Krouch donates a portion of the sales to individuals, families or organizations in need.

After graduating SMU in 2003, Krouch continued to play basketball in semi-pro and adult leagues, but she was still searching for something to satisfy her competitive drive. She and a former college teammate stumbled on flag football during a Google search for local Dallas-area activities, and the rest – as they say – is history.

“It was like I drank the Kool Aid and I never looked back,” she says of her start in flag in 2006. “It’s just like every game, every play is a new challenge, and it’s addictive for a competitor, so I just fell in love with flag. I actually think I’m way better at flag than I was at basketball.”

She moved into the quarterback position through some sly maneuvering by current USA Women’s Flag Football head coach Chris Lankford. They were playing together in a local tournament when he “tricked” her into the QB position, despite Krouch knowing “zero football language.”

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: U.S. freeskier Maggie Voisin gets candid about grief, loss and finding motivation on the mountain

“One day I showed up for a tournament and I asked, ‘All right, guys, who’s our quarterback?’ And he says, ‘We’re looking at her,’” she remembers. They kept the plays simple, and her team made it to the playoffs that season. Krouch has been a QB ever since.

Krouch joined the national team in 2016 and was inducted into the National Flag and Touch Football Hall Fame that same year. Last year at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, a 41-year-old Krouch set a new mark as the oldest Flag football player, man or woman, in the games, and she ranked second among women with 25 touchdown passes at the tournament where USA won silver.

She aims to bring that expertise to the field at the Pro Bowl games, where she’s looking forward to seeing NFL players take on the flag football style type of plays. “Flag is a very finesse, quick game, a lot of footwork, and these guys can’t grab or hold, no downfield contact or downfield block or anything off the line,” she explains. “So it’s going to be exciting just to see skill for skill, footwork for footwork, defense to offense, and to see flag football language with those type of elite athletes.”

As for the biggest challenge, Krouch believes it will be crafting a concise playbook and language that puts everyone on the same page. “A challenge for me is getting a coach’s mindset,” she adds, “I have to actually come up with plays ahead of time and I don’t usually have premeditated plays in my head. I just read it so for me to tell Kirk Cousins or Geno Smith [what to do], it will be different, you know?”

But beyond the Pro Bowl, Krouch is excited that flag is being considered for inclusion as an exhibition sport in the 2028 Summer Olympics. While she’s keeping a hopeful eye on that development, she’s also working to shape the next generation of potential athletes as a physical education teacher at La Villita Elementary in Irving, Texas.

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

“It’s an honor to be a role model – for other youth flag football players, for my students, both boys and girls,” says Krouch. “Then at my campus and in my community, it’s amazing to be able to break the barrier of like, ‘Asian women can’t do this.’ And then to be at my age, still doing this, I feel very lucky and blessed. …I think I still got some years in me.”

As for what she hopes viewers and fans walk away with after watching the Pro Bowl flag games this weekend, Krouch feels confident folks will walk away enlightened by the show.

“I just hope that they have fun with it,” says Krouch. “And for those who don’t know flag to be like, ‘Wow, that’s really amazing. Maybe that’s something I really can get my son or daughter into at a young age.’ So I just hope that they see that the sport is real – it’s not just something we play at recess. It’s a real thing now. I think they’ll see that the world loves it, the world can play it and is playing it.”

Be sure to check back with On Her Turf later this week when we catch up with AFC coordinator and Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team quarterback Diana Flores.  

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Paula Moltzan talks first World Cup podium, being Mikaela Shiffrin’s teammate and unconventional path to the U.S. Ski Team