June 29, 2005, Updated September 13, 2012

Jessie Kandel is congratulated by Yael Freedman at the Flag Oceane tournament.The Israeli women’s national flag football team shocked the flag football world this week with a first place finish at ‘Flag Oceane,’ the largest and most important open tournament in Europe.

Over 100 teams – including five top French women’s teams along with competitors from The Netherlands and Spain traveled to Le Havre, France at the end of this week for the annual tournament. The victory earns the Israeli women an invitation to take their place as one of the final four teams in the EFAF European Championships, due to take place in Helsinki this September.

This was the first time any Israeli team has won an international Flag Football tournament. The team consists primarily of religiously observant teenagers with American immigrant parents.

In a sign of their commitment to combining their religious beliefs with their desire to compete, the team insured that the Sabbath would be observed by demanding that no games take place on Saturday. In addition, kosher food was brought in from Israel and Paris. Several of the players played in specially designed skirts due to modesty.

In the opening game the Israeli women started slowly being matched up against Pygargues from the city of Trois. Pygargues are the reigning French champions and their powerful attack overwhelmed the Israeli women who suffered a 36 – 13 opening game defeat.

Coach Yonah Mishaan regrouped his team which got over its opening game jitters to notch a string of three shutout victories. In game two the Israelis blew out a weak club from Zazou 40-0. Game three was a big surprise as the Israeli team easily took care of tournament co-favorites Molosse 18-0. With a spot in the final on the line, Israel came into its own with a 24-0 victory over Flag Oceane Le Havre.

Some 1000 fans gathered to see the final at the Le Havre stadium as the Israeli women were heavy underdogs against the unbeaten Pygargues. With most of the fans supporting the home club, the Israeli women had a hard time holding the French but managed to move the ball well.

The French led in the early stages, but by half-time Israel had pulled even. In the second half the game flip-flopped several times with Israel grabbing the lead with less than a minute to play. On the final play of regulation time Pygargues scored to even the game at 31-31 and a missed extra point, sending the contest into overtime.

The tie breaker consists of one chance each from five yards out. Both teams scored on their opening attempts. Israel scored a point on the second try, and when Pygargues failed on their attempt, Israel had won the game 33-32 and took its position on the victory podium.

“There was an eruption,” Mishaan told The Jerusalem Post, describing his team’s reaction after the final play. “The girls were bawling, tearing, jumping. I even got choked up.”

Quarterback Shana Sprung earned accolades from tournament organizers. ‘Flag Oceane’ director Guillaume Marignan called Sprung “an international all-star, who can take the Israeli team a long way towards becoming the top team in Europe.”

Sprung had an array of receivers as Israel notched a tournament high 127 points in five games. The top receivers were mainly youngsters, playing against women with many more years of international experience. Leading the team in touchdowns and receptions was 16 year old sensation Ahuva Odenheimer.

Second in line was 14 year old Esti “Baseball” Bernstein, the youngest women in the tournament and surehanded Jessie Kandel. Yael Freedman made several dazzling runs from the backfield.

The defense notched three straight shutouts while giving up a tournament low 68 points in five games. The efforts were anchored by defensive captain Tommi Geller. The starting five included middle line-backer Michal “Mitch” Berns, rusher and team captain Esti Mandel and cornerbacks Miriam’s “Rapper” Rapaport, and “Hunter” Huntley.

On the victory podium in front of the entire crowd, Captain Esti Mandel dedicated the first place trophy to Mimi Najman, the national team player who has been hospitalized since Yom Ha’atzmaut following a motorcycle accident. The team played with the name “Mimi” inside a heart, printed on their team shirts.

The Women’s national team is part of American Football in Israel, an organization sponsored by Myra Kraft, wife of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

While refereeing a men’s game in October 2003, league president Steve Leibowitz, noticed a group of high school girls watching. He walked over and asked if they wanted to form a women’s team; they jumped at the chance, and two weeks later provided a list of interested players.

“They had never played – most of them had no concept of the game,” coach Mishaan told ISRAEL21c. “I had no idea if this was going to work.”

Less than two years later, it’s clear that the project has worked very well.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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