YOUNGSTOWN During the scholastic sports season, student-athletes from Salem and from all over the area, compete for all kinds of championships. Conference championships, district championships and even state championships. However, one Salem athlete is getting a chance to compete for an even higher honor. Rylee Leider, 13, is a member of the Youngstown Youth Flag Football Association's 12-14 year old girls team that will compete in February in Orlando, Fla, at the NFL?National Championships.
"This is just an amazing experience," Leider said of the opportunity. "I think it will be hard, but I think we can pull together. It would be the best thing in the world to win."
Leider's team has already made history. To qualify for the national finals, her team won a regional flag football tournament in Cincinnati one of eight NFL sanctioned regional tournaments held all over the country. Also in doing so, they became the first ever team from Youngstown to win a regional championship.
"There was a lot of excitement," she said of the mood immediately after winning. "It took about a month to sink in of how big an accomplishment it was, and really it still hasn't totally sunk in that we won."
The team is coached by Elliott Giles President of the YYFFA and former Youngstown State Penguin from 1997-99.
"There was a great sense of accomplishment," Giles said of the team winning the regional championship. "We went out and said, 'Let's make history. Let's be the first team ever from Youngstown to win this.' After we did, it was like, mission accomplished. I'm so happy for those girls."
Giles claims not the be the loud, in-your-face type of coach. Rather he prefers to teach the girls and explain their mistakes instead of raising his voice.
"I think they appreciate the fact I'm not the rah-rah, yelling type of coach," he said. "I'm going to let you know if you did something wrong and then tell you how to avoid making the same mistake. I think I connect more with these kids, that they know, if they did something wrong they're not going to get yelled at."
His style is well received by Leider and the rest of the girls. They also appreciate the finer points of the game that he preaches.
"He's just an amazing coach," Leider claimed. "He's so much fun. He likes to have fun with us. He teaches us that you need good sportsmanship. Things like giving the flag back to the other team, and just playing with sportsmanship."
Giles played at YSU under Jim Tressel and was a member of the school's 1997 national championship team, as well as their 1999 national runners-up team. He still holds several receiving records at the school. He says he likes to take some of the qualities taught to him by Tressel to the girls he now coaches.
"Preparation is the key to success, that's something coach Tressel taught me," he said. "I always talk about Jim Tressel and when I do, I can see the wheels turning and they listen. I'm blessed to be around kids who are willing to listen. When you're a coach and you have that, you like your chances."
Leider began playing flag football a year ago at the Salem Community Center where she developed a love for the game, and where her natural athleticism caught the attention of the coaches.
"Last year I brought a note home from school about it," she explained. "I played last year at the Community Center and (Giles) saw me there. He saw me and wanted me to come tryout for the team last year. I kept begging my mom every day. I really like sports, and football just came naturally. I really like to play. At school last year when we had recess, I played football sometimes and it was fun."
"Rylee, she caught my eye," Giles said. "We tried a Salem league at the Community Center and Rylee caught my eye when I saw her play. She's a competitor, an unbelievable athlete. She loves football and is a great young girl. She's good in school, and very respectful. Giving her this opportunity was almost a dream come true. I just want to do this for her."
Leider is part of a team that includes girls from all different areas and social backgrounds. Yet she says the who team has bonded and became great friends.
She is the only girl on the team from Salem. Also on the seven-girl team, three girls are from Poland, two are from Western Reserve and one is from Youngstown. Giles refers to that as one of the strengths of the league promoting cultural diversity and social interaction. Although the team has many good athletes, Giles lists Leider as one of the best.
"Overall she's probably my best athlete," he stated. "She can throw. She can catch. She can play center when I need her to. She's one of the more vocal ones and that's just her personalty. She's very outgoing and likes to talk and laugh and yet still be very competitive. She's definitely one of my captains and has really taken on a leadership roll."
Leider played on the Youngstown girls team last year that went to regionals in Baltimore. Although they lost that day, it began the process that helped land her team this year in the national championships.
"When she went to the regional tournamnet with me last year in Baltimore, we didn't really have as good of a team," Giles admitted. "We didn't have as much practice time, and may not have been really ready. We used that to feul us this year."
"Last year we didn't have enough experience," Leider added. "This year we started earlier in June and July. We had more practices and we played against boys. That helped make us faster and stronger."
Giles admits he had to do a bit of recruiting to form the 12-14 year old girls team. Since they were the only girls team in that age group, Giles put them in the boys league. The girls did more then hold their own over the course of the season.
"It was fun because people thought because we were all girls we weren't going to win a game, and we proved them all wrong," Leider said. "We proved ourselves to everyone."
Playing in the boys league helped prepare Leider's team for when it was time to go to regionals and finally compete against other girls.
"It gave us a lot of confidence," she said of the success playing in the boys league. "It helped us with speed and pulling flags. It helped us with concentration."
Now she gets the opportunity to go and compete for a chance to win a national championship. The championships will take place beginning on Feb. 26, at the Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando. The NFL is picking up the bill for all the travel costs for the whole team.
According to Leider's mother, the experience has been nothing but great.
"I think it's made her a well-rounded person," Cindy Leider, Rylee's mother said. "This wasn't something she just did because it was a cool thing do. She did this on her own. It's such a great program. She's made a lot of new friends. It's been a wonderful experience."
Rylee summed up the whole experience simply in one word "amazing."
To learn more about the Youngstown Youth Flag Football Association, visit their league website at