Deering High senior and co-class President Elizabeth Drelich is playing football this fall for the first time – as a linebacker and a fullback. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The Deering High senior linebacker stepped into the hole in the defensive line, absorbed a blow from a running back and made a solo tackle.

It was one play in a preseason scrimmage. But for the linebacker, it mattered.

It was the first tackle of Elizabeth Drelich’s football career.

Before this year, Drelich had been known in the Deering hallways as the co-class president and a member of the varsity field hockey, girls’ basketball and softball teams. But another sport piqued her interest.

“Since my freshman year I’ve been saying, ‘I want to play football,’ but everyone was saying, ‘Oh, you’ll never do it,'” Drelich said this week after the scrimmage, her auburn hair in twin braids resting atop her shoulder pads. “So part of it was, I wanted to live up to my word and I finally got to this year.”

Girls have been playing high school football in Maine for more than two decades, but their numbers are few. Last fall, six of the 3,213 players in Maine were girls. The year before that, seven girls played.

“I’m definitely not the first girl, but I don’t mind being one of the few,” Drelich said.

Kenny Drelich was an all-conference player at Cheverus High in 2014 and 2015. He said his younger sister has never been afraid of a challenge.

“Her personality is, she’s a tough girl and she likes to let people know that she’s tough,” said Kenny Drelich, 21, now a student at Northeastern University. “She’s not going to back down from a challenge.”

Elizabeth Drelich already has proven she is tough. Her father, Kenneth, died when she was 9. Her mother, Heidi Gage, succumbed to cancer at age 51 in October 2017, when Elizabeth was a sophomore. She now lives with her uncle and aunt, Chris and Melodie Gage, in Scarborough and commutes to Deering.

“It’s still something I deal with every day, but especially my mom because she’s part of who I am. She inspired me,” Drelich said. “She went back to school when she was 48 to get her master’s (degree).

“I just want to make my mom proud, and working hard and competing and all that is something that can make her proud. And I know she would love to come to my football games.”

On the sideline, Drelich blends in with the other players. Standing 5 feet, 9 inches tall and packing a sturdy, athletic 185 pounds, she has a softball catcher’s strength in her lower body and is similarly sized to most of her teammates.

“She’s holding her own,” Deering senior captain Mike Randall said.

At 5-foot-9 and a sturdy, athletic 185 pounds with a softball catcher’s strength in the lower body, Elizabeth Drelich (36) is similarly sized to most of her teammates. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Drelich said her new teammates and coaches have been “super supportive.” To them, Drelich’s biggest disadvantage isn’t her gender. It’s that she’s never played tackle football before.

“She pretty much had it down after the first few days,” said senior Bailey Eide, who lined up beside Drelich at linebacker when Deering’s second-team defense was on the field. “She was climbing the depth chart, making plays on the scout team and stuff. I just have to help her with stuff that people who haven’t played football wouldn’t know, some of the technical stuff.”

Head coach Rob Susi said he watched Drelich closely during the first week of preseason practices, wondering if there would come a time when she would say she’d had enough. Maybe it would be when the helmets went on for the first time, or full pads, or the first full-contact day. Now he’s pretty sure Drelich will stick it out all the way through the annual Thanksgiving Day game against Portland.

So is Drelich. “I put everything into everything I do. I’m not a quitter,” she said.

Susi expects Drelich to get game action at the junior varsity level, with perhaps some opportunities at the varsity level as the season progresses.

“She wants to (play) fullback and linebacker so she’s not trying to avoid anything,” Susi said.

“It felt good to finally be able to hit because it’s something that’s never allowed in girls’ sports,” Drelich said.

This fall, the Deering and Portland field hockey teams have been combined into a co-operative team because Deering did not have enough players for its own team. Drelich said the new field hockey arrangement had little bearing on her decision to play football, but admits to a strong attachment to Deering.

“This is another way I can represent my school and the great community we have at Deering,” she said.

Drelich is not the loud, vocal type, so don’t expect her to be the rah-rah leader on the Rams’ sidelines during the season-opener at South Portland on Sept. 6. Rather, she’ll be watching intently, soaking up coaching, and trying to improve with each practice.

In the scrimmage on Monday, she appeared adept at reading whether the opponent was running or passing the ball. When she stepped into a gap in the defense, with her back straight and her legs bent, she showed she could take a hit. At times, however, her pursuit angles on outside running plays were too deep and belied a hesitancy.

Deering High senior Elizabeth Drelich says of playing football for the first time: “I’m not scared to get hit. I’m not scared to hit someone. It’s just new.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a tentativeness to contact, but in general it’s just a new sport to me. I wouldn’t say I have no idea what I’m doing, but it’s new,” Drelich said. “I’m not scared to get hit. I’m not scared to hit someone. It’s just new.”

In recent days, U.S soccer star Carli Lloyd has made national headlines by being offered a chance to be a kicker in an NFL preseason game. If it happens, Lloyd would be the first woman to play for an NFL team.

It is unclear whether Drelich is the first girl to play for Deering. She doesn’t consider herself a pioneer, but she does think her presence in a male-dominated sport, regardless of how much she plays, can have an impact.

“I hope to hopefully inspire other people the same way I’ve been inspired, not just women or young girls, but anybody who maybe wants to step out of their comfort zone, or society’s comfort zone, and try something new.”


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