It’s a Tuesday afternoon practice for the Five Cities Eagles Youth Football senior team, and that means most of the first hour is spent crowded around a small television screen watching footage from last week’s game.
“You guys played your hearts out,” coach Juan Busby said. “I don’t think any team is going to have an easy game against us.”
Some of the teenage boys, sitting on the grass, whispered to each other as Busby talked. But Alyce Serrato — the team’s only girl — kneeled and focused on her coach.
After about 40 minutes, the players, clad in blue and gold practice jerseys, ran through some warm-up drills. Thirteen-year-old Alyce, wearing No. 71 and bright blue socks, likes to go last.
After her long, dark-brown braid is tucked into her helmet, you’d be hard-pressed to tell her apart from many of the boys on her team.
“They treat me like everyone else,” Alyce said, and quickly added, “I’m glad. I’m one of the guys, but they call me sister.”
While it’s not unheard of to see a girl playing football, it is unusual.
“They’re a pretty rare breed,” Busby said over the phone a few days after practice. “Not only because of the physical requirements that it involves but the mental (toughness) also. We’re at the end of our season, and she’s handled it perfect.”
Alyce, now an eighth-grader at Judkins Middle School, has played basketball, run track, participated in jump rope competitions and played percussion in her school band.
“She’s not a girly-girl,” said her mom, Rita Serrato.
For some time, Alyce’s interest in football was limited to her family’s support for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But then her older brother started coming home from practice and showing her drills.
“It seemed like he kind of convinced me to get into it, in a way,” Alyce said.
She casually mentioned the idea one day to her mom: “What if I played football this year?” Serrato said.
“She’s a straight-A student,” Serrato added. “She doesn’t ask for much.”
The two discussed injuries and how they might deal with it. So far, Alyce hasn’t had any major problems; just some aches and pains that her mom can massage out of her.
She signed up last year and plunged into “heck week” — a week of running, tackling and drills. “I would suck it up during practice, so the guys don’t think I’m weak or anything,” Alyce said.
Alyce came into heck week “with a lot of heart,” recalled her first-year coach, Mike Stephenson. He didn’t know how she would fare but within that first week, “she was outshining 60 percent of the guys,” he said.
“She is a very driven young girl,” Stephenson said. In his 28 years of coaching youth football, he’s had only three other girl players.
“I think the thing she has going for her is the heart,” Stephenson added. “She just has more heart in everything she does.”
During those first few weeks last year, before Alyce was chosen for one of the league’s two intermediate teams, only a few boys “actually acknowledged my existence,” she recalled, laughing. But that changed after the team formed and the guys learned that she could take hits — and hit back.
“She’s tough,” said Steven Vargas, 13. “I’ve never seen her cry.”
“I have,” one of the other teammates interjected.
“You have, too,” cried, Steven retorted.
Last year, she was a starting cornerback, and said she really prefers playing defense. This year, she’s been playing tight end on the offensive line.
“She turned out to be a really good corner, tackling everyone,” said Jacob Greene, 14. “She’d mess up sometimes but pick up on her mistakes.”
This year’s senior team finished its regular season with a 5-3 record and has its first playoff game Saturday against the Lompoc Braves.
Next year, Alyce hopes to play football at Arroyo Grande High. In the future, she wants to work as a veterinarian.
To other girls who might want to play football, Alyce offered this advice: “At first it might be scary, but if you enjoy it or it’s your thing, it will work out in the end.”