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Female football player fits in at South Western

This story originally ran in September 2015.

Nothing about playing football with young men much bigger than her scares Nigea Hardison.

How could it when the version of the game she's currently playing seems so mundane compared to the one she grew up with?

A decade ago, the South Western senior was a young girl living in Baltimore. She would play football with the neighborhood boys, most of them older and bigger than her, on a local blacktop.

This wasn't a few kids playing two hand touch. This was full-fledged tackle football, and the games often included more than 20 players packed onto a long blacktop not more than 20-feet wide.

"People would stroll by and look at us and watch us play," Hardison said. "We would draw a crowd."

Hardison was the only girl playing back then, and she's the only girl playing in the YAIAA now. The Mustangs' wide receiver and cornerback hasn't taken the field in a game yet this year, though coach Damian Poalucci said he'd have no problem playing her if she earns a spot. She also draws a crowd at practice, as parents watching from the parking lot cheer for Hardison when she gets the ball.

"I've been hearing lately, 'you need to get in, they need to pass you the ball,'" Hardison said. "That's all I've been hearing."

This is just Hardison's second year playing high school football, after joining the Wilde Lake High School team in Columbia, Md., last season. She first tried out for the team at Howard High School her freshman year, knowing from years of blacktop football that she wanted to play the sport.

"We're a sports family, so she's been playing basketball and football ever since she was like 2," Shonta Potts, Hardison's mother, said. "We always encouraged everyone to do their best, and whatever you want to accomplish, go accomplish it. The first time she went out, I wasn't even upset. That's what she wanted to do, so I signed the papers for her to do it."

Hardison didn't make the team at Howard, but transferred to Wilde Lake in 2014 and joined the team there. She rarely played in games at Wilde Lake, she said, because she struggled to learn the plays.

Potts said other parents at Wilde Lake would criticize her for letting her daughter play football, though she viewed it the same as participating in any other sport. Potts suggested to Hardison, jokingly at the time, that she move across the Mason-Dixon Line to live with her uncle, Derrick Potts, and attend South Western.

Hardison jumped at the opportunity, however.

"It's awesome because the grades she's getting now are much improved," Shonta Potts, who makes the trip from Howard County to attend every Mustangs game, said of her daughter. "I think she just needed a change. Down here, it's a little sportsy and everyone wants their child to be first. I think being up in Pennsylvania, it's more of a family environment. When she first got up there, nobody judged her. They were excited that a girl's playing football."

With South Western, Hardison is catching on much quicker to the challenge of learning dozens of plays in a week. She keeps a notebook where she used to write down plays over and over again, but now said she understands the system well enough to write down each play once.

"She's just like any of the other teammates, everyone treats her with respect just like everyone else," fellow wide receiver/cornerback Noah Langenfeld said. "She's pretty good at everything she does. She's pretty fast and she can catch the ball really well."

Her toughness, built up from many scraped knees and hard hits on the blacktop, helps her fit right in.

"She's a tough kid. The biggest compliment I can give to her is you don't know she's a girl," Poalucci said. "She goes through all the drills, she hits, she gets hit and she gets back up and that's the way it should be. That's what she wants and I think she probably wouldn't like it if people were taking it easy on her."

Hardison played in both of the Mustangs' scrimmages and now has her PIAA transfer papers completed to be eligible to play in regular season games. Poalucci said he'd have no problem playing Hardison in a game if she earns the spot.

"She's working hard and she's learning; it's the first time in our system, so it's still a learning process," Poalucci said. "But she can handle practice, so she can handle games. There's no qualms about that. If she beats out the guys in front of her, she plays. We don't hold anybody back by grade or anything. If you're better and you show us at practice and on film, the best people go on the field."

The fact that Hardison is a girl only affects the Mustangs in two ways: she wears bigger shoulder pads that come down far enough to protect her upper body, and she changes separately from the rest of her teammates. She changes in the girls locker room for practices and home games, and has changed in bathrooms and the coaches' offices for road games.

But neither Poalucci nor Hardison feel that those accommodations are a headache.

"It's just gonna be like that, I already know I'm gonna have to change in weird places," Hardison said. "I'm used to it."

Hardison plans to play basketball in the winter and is considering going out for track and field in the spring. But first, she hopes to help the Mustangs achieve a YAIAA Division I championship and playoff spot and believes they're capable of both.

"This is a good team," she said. "This is the best team I've seen because they push each other but never bring each other down."

And she's as much a part of it as anyone else.

"Our guys are very accommodating and that's something we can say about our school," Poalucci said. "We deal with a lot of different kids on this team, personality-wise, racially. Football is a true melting pot, any team is, but we have 80 people out here and that's 80 personalities and 80 backgrounds. But it's a family and everybody that's with us is part of the family.

"She's just one of us, another Mustang. It's a pleasure to have her here."