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Sports · February 4, 2021

Local woman set to make college football history

Photos/D.C. Divas and family
Clockwise from top left: Haley Van Voorhis at the 2017 U.S. National Team Football Middle School Development Games in Atlanta, practicing with the D.C. Divas and as the 10-to-11-year-old Punt, Pass & Kick sectional winner in 2014.
She’s a badass. She’s not afraid of anything.
— Ed Homer, Christchurch School football coach
By Leonard Shapiro
Contributing Journalist

She began playing flag football as a fifth-grader.

Haley Van Voorhis was the only girl on her team, a trend that continued through youth tackle football, middle school, jayvee football at Kettle Run High School as a ninth-grader and, yes, the varsity football team at Christchurch School in Virginia’s Tidewater region.

No, she has never been a punter or a placekicker on any of those teams.

And next fall, Haley hopes to become the first woman ever to play a non-kicking regular position — either as a receiver or defensive back — on an NCAA Division III college football team.

Anyone who doubts she can play at that level must not have seen her in action in a September 2019 game against Randolph-Macon Academy. Playing safety and wide receiver for Christchurch, she had seven tackles, including a quarterback sack, and caught a pass.

Just after the final gun sounded, the R-MA quarterback made it a point to seek out the defender who had knocked him down and seemed to be all over the field making tackles that day.

“I didn’t even know you were a girl,” he told Haley, who grew up in The Plains, where her parents, Chandler and Heidi (a Redskinette cheerleader in the early 1990s), still live. “Great game.”

And now, two years later, there likely will be many more games to play for the somewhat shy, soft-spoken blonde young woman with a 5-foot-6, 150-pound chiseled frame sculpted in the Christchurch weight room and her workout area at home.

“I’ve been playing football as long as I can remember,” Haley said in a re-cent interview. “There’s just something about it that I really love.”

And that love affair is likely to continue at the next level. She’s being re-cruited to play football by several colleges, including Shenandoah Univer-sity in Winchester. And wherever she lands, the first time she steps on the field, she’ll make history.

In 2018, Haley became the first young woman to play football at Christ-church, a Virginia boarding school about an hour east of Richmond on the shores of the Rappahannock River. She also was the MVP on the school’s women’s basketball team last winter as well as a standout in women’s lacrosse.

On the 2019 Christchurch football team, with a number of senior starters, she was a reserve receiver and safety and saw special team action. Sad-ly, because of the pandemic, she and so many other high school athletes across the country were unable to play their 2020 senior seasons.

Haley still got plenty of playing time her junior season. Her coach, Ed Homer, said that, “without a doubt,” she would have been the starting slot receiver as a senior on his team last fall. And one day after a preseason workout, Homer announced to his players that she was being named a captain, news accompanied by a boisterous cheer from her teammates.

“She’s a badass,” said Homer, entering his 30th season as the school’s head coach. “She’s not afraid of anything.”

So far, she also hasn’t had any sort of serious injury, though her father, Chandler, admitted “it can be nerve-wracking to watch” his daughter in action.

“But, she’s gotten so strong and she’s in such great shape,” he said. “She’s learned how to protect herself, how to take a hit. And she can hit back, too.”

Occasionally she hears a bit of trash talk, and there have been times she’s been blindsided unnecessarily, or hit after the whistle.

“Sometimes they try to blow me up because I’m a girl,” she said. “Some-times they refuse to hit me because I’m a girl. I don’t mind that.”

Coach Homer said he had few qualms about playing Haley. Not long be-fore she arrived on campus as a sophomore, Homer and his son, then a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, were driving along and having a discussion about high school sports in the 21st century. That’s when the subject of girls playing football came up, and the more Homer thought about it, the more he liked the idea.

About the same time, Haley and her parents were starting to shop around for a high school that would meet her academic and athletic needs. It had to be a place that also was open to a girl playing football.

It was a perfect storm, and a perfect fit.

“As a coach, there are certain things you’re always looking for, especially when it comes to practice,” Homer said. “They have to be on time, they have to listen, work hard and check any issues they have at the door. Haley is really good at all of that. She’s always early to practice and usually the last to leave. And she’s working out all the time. She is so strong. If you looked at a picture of her a year ago, you probably wouldn’t recog-nize her. She can squat 240 pounds; that’s almost twice as much as her own body weight.”

Homer also put together a highlight tape of Haley in action during her junior season, including that game against Randolph-Macon, and sending it out to several colleges already showing interest in recruiting her.

The tape went to Shenandoah defensive back coach Byron Mitchell. Then, at a college scouting combine Dec. 6 in Richmond, Mitchell watched Haley go through a variety of speed, strength and agility drills up close and personal. He obviously was duly impressed.

Mitchell and Shenandoah head coach Scott Yoder are prohibited by NCAA rules from talking publicly about recruits until they have actually signed to attend the school. But athletic department spokesman Scott Musa confirmed that Shenandoah has told Haley she will have a roster spot in the fall and be given every opportunity to fulfill her dream of play-ing college football.

“I still haven’t completely decided, but I’m definitely leaning to Shenandoah. It would be a big opportunity,” she said. “The day after (the December combine), Coach Mitchell contacted me and offered me a spot on the team. I was really excited, especially after not having a senior season (at Christchurch). I’m also talking to the basketball coach at Shenandoah. I’d really like to be a two-sport athlete.”

In the meantime, she’ll continue training and, this spring, will play a six-game schedule for the D.C. Divas women’s professional team in the Women's Football Alliance. She’ll remain an amateur, with no salary or paid expenses, in order to retain her college eligibility.

“Right now she is in the best shape, or at least in the top one percent, of anyone on our team,” said Divas founder and team president Rich Daniel. “When she tried out, we didn’t have to look twice. We knew she could play immediately, probably on defense.

“If you’ve been around it long enough, you can always tell when someone really loves the game. Haley has definitely fallen in love with football. It really shows. And when she goes to Shenandoah, she’s going to make history.”

The writer, who lives near Marshall, retired in 2011 after decades as a sports reporter, columnist and editor at The Washington Post, where a version of this story originally appeared. He publishes Country Zest & Style magazine.

> 2014: Haley Van Voorhis heads to FedEx Field for PP&K contest

> 2017: Local girl earns spot at USA Football camp in Atlanta

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