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Flag football family

Niles grad Naples to play in Florida; mom will coach

Submitted photo Niles graduate Dakota Naples, a basketball standout for the Red Dragons, has set her sights on playing collegiate flag football.

Dakota Naples knows the surreal feeling of being at quarterback and controlling a football game quite well. In fact, the 2017 Niles High School graduate revels in it.

She has been playing flag football since the age of 10, and she doesn’t intend on stopping anytime soon.

“Being a quarterback, it’s kind of like you’re on a stage,” said the former Niles High School basketball standout. “You make the plays, and when you make something happen, that feeling is pretty great. It’s like basketball and being a point guard or being the playmaker. The ball is in your hands and you’ve got to make that decision for the team. I always liked that. I always liked being in charge and being the leader. I thought that was one of my strengths, so I just loved that part of it.”

Being under center runs in her family.

Her mom, Denise, played professional women’s football for the Cleveland Fusion in the early 2000s. Dakota used to go watch her mother play as a child, and the game fascinated her. That’s part of what motivated Dakota to start playing flag football, and she recently took her love for the sport a step further.

Submitted photo Dakota Naples, left, with her mother, Denise Naples, after a flag football competition. Denise will coach Dakota in the sport at Warner College in Florida.

Dakota will be part of the inaugural season of women’s flag football at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) level, and mom will be joining her. Denise was named head coach at Warner University in Lake Wales, Fla., on July 9. Dakota transferred from Youngstown State University, where she was a political science major, to Warner.

Dakota was on a visit to Warner earlier this summer, and that’s when things started to unfold for Denise, who was an assistant high school basketball coach at Niles and has been a flag football coach for years.

“I told (Dakota) when she went for (the visit), I said, ‘Well, I’d love to coach that,’ but I did not know this was going to happen,” she said. “I was just going down to visit the school and meet everybody and see what it was all about for her. We were there, and (the athletic director) hadn’t got a coach yet, and my sister was the one who said, ‘Well, my sister has coached,’ and the athletic director said, ‘Oh, really?’ We started talking, and I said I would love to coach.”

Denise went through three interviews and eventually landed the job. She has a pretty good idea who her quarterback will be, too.

Dakota’s team in the Youngstown Flag Football Association won a national championship in 2012. She has played every season since she was 10 before the pandemic put a stop to that this year. She’s excited for the opportunity to get back on the field.

“In the middle of the quarantine, when everything was locked down, everyone was kind of down in the dumps a little bit,” Dakota said. “Well, my grandma, it was in the bottom corner of the newspaper, she saw this little snippet about NAIA colleges adding flag football.

“She cut it out and showed it to me,” she added. “I was like, ‘Wow, that is so cool. I wish I was younger and could go into that.’ I started thinking, and I’m like, ‘Well, I can still do it.’ Some people don’t think you should transfer and all that, but my family has always been really supportive in whatever I choose to do. I felt like if I don’t try this now, I might regret it.”

Dakota didn’t waste time.

She looked up schools that would be participating in the women’s flag football league and started contacting coaches. She said a few coaches in Florida began recruiting her after they viewed some of her flag football videos. She was originally offered a scholarship from St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Fla., and then Warner University made an offer as well.

She enjoyed the visit to Warner and accepted the scholarship even before her mom was hired. She will be a senior this upcoming season, but she said her plan is to finish her undergraduate degree and then pursue a master’s, which would allow her to continue to play out the rest of her college eligibility.

As excited as she is to start this journey, she admits leaving home won’t be easy.

“It’s going to be very challenging,” Dakota said. “My family, we’re super close. I’m really close to my grandma. She’s probably my number-one supporter. She’s always been in the stands at every game, cheering the loudest, and she just wants me to be happy and succeed. It’s going to be really hard, and that’s probably going to be the hardest part.

“I love this area. I grew up here. It’s my home, but being away and experiencing something new will just make it that much sweeter when I come back.”

She’ll have her mom to help with the transition, too.

The 1978 Warren Western Reserve graduate has been a sports fanatic since she was a child. She said she would always be the only girl playing football with the boys at recess, and when she came home from school, she would go play backyard football with the neighborhood kids.

Even though she was a basketball standout at Western Reserve (eventually playing for the Louisiana Blues of the National Women’s Basketball Association in the mid-1980s), her affinity for football never wavered. She played flag football for several years in the 1990s and was eventually recruited by the Fusion. A mother at the time, she didn’t care for the violent nature of the game and having her safety in question, so she began channeling more of her focus to raising and coaching Dakota.

Life will come full circle for the mother and daughter in the fall.

“She’s a better quarterback than me,” Denise said with a laugh. “… Sports have always been my thing. I’ve coached a lot, and I’ve been pretty successful in almost anything I’ve coached. Even when I was a kid, I always wanted to be the quarterback. I wanted to call the plays and run the plays, and I don’t know, sports just always came to me easy. I love it. I love figuring it out and making the strategy.

“I’m so excited about this job,” she added. “It’s going to be really fun, and of course I have a really good quarterback to work with, which makes my job a lot easier.”

Warner and Denise are still in the process of recruiting players and devising a schedule. The league, which is in partnership with the NFL, is tentatively set to begin its inaugural season this fall.

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