'Sign me up — I’m doing it.’ Girls play kicker, linebacker for high school football team

Kyle Neddenriep
Indianapolis Star
  • Paige Dill, a member of Park Tudor's soccer team, is 21-of-23 on extra points this season.
  • Tanner Berry, a freshman, has four varsity tackles so far this year.

INDIANAPOLIS – It takes Tanner Berry all of about a half-second to respond when asked her favorite thing about playing football.

“Hitting,” she said. “It helps with coping. On hitting days, I can get it all out.”

Berry, who listed at 5-5 and 145 pounds (and that is probably stretching it on both counts), is a freshman linebacker at Park Tudor High School in Indianapolis. She has been playing football since she was 6. Berry might not look like a middle linebacker, but she plays like one. In a recent junior varsity game against Lapel (Indiana) High School, she ripped the ball out of the running back’s grasp and took off the opposite direction.

“I saw the ball out and just started ripping it,” Berry said. “Next thing you know, I’m running down the field. I’m not the fastest so I got caught before I made it to the end zone. But I got a forced fumble. I have a couple of forced fumbles.”

Berry is just one of two girls playing on the Park Tudor football team this season. Paige Dill, a sophomore, is a starting defender on Park Tudor’s 11-0-1 girls soccer team that is ranked No. 1 in Class A.

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Last year, Park Tudor football coach Spencer Summerville mentioned to Dill the football team would need a kicker this season. Dill, at first, was not certain if Summerville was serious. Once she confirmed he was, she mulled it over.

“It wasn’t a dead set ‘yes’,” she said. “I always kind of put it to the side. Then my soccer teammates were coming up saying, ‘Oh that’s so cool you are going to kick.’ So at the end of last year I was like, ‘OK Summerville, sign me up — I’m doing it.’”

Dill’s main sports priority in the fall is soccer. She practices with the soccer team, then joins the football team for special teams work at the end of practice.

But kicking is more than just a hobby for Dill. She got serious about it over the summer — and she is a seriously good kicker. She is 21-for-23 on extra-point attempts on the season and has the leg to make a field goal from 45 yards in practice.

'She's not 'good' for a girl. She's just good.'

“She’s not ‘good for a girl,’” said kicking coach Mark Hagee, who has been working with Dill for several weeks. “She’s just good. She’s very good, very smooth. She doesn’t have to work hard to kick it far. Most kids her age are kicking off the tee. She’s kicking off the ground, which is kind of shocking. Most guys aren’t kicking that distance at her age.”

Berry and Dill play different positions and have dramatically different football-playing backgrounds.  Berry played with boys teams in the Tab youth program growing up, then in middle school for Park Tudor when she attended Paramount. Dill had never played football prior to this season.

Having another girl on the team is comforting for both Berry and Dill.

Paige Dill, a sophomore kicker for the Park Tudor Panthers varsity boys football team and a starting defender for the girls soccer team, practices her kicks with teammates Adam Verma holding the ball and Nolan Whitehead snapping the ball.

“At first it was like, ‘Oh, another girl — that’s cool,’” Dill said. “We’ve talked about a lot of things and it was nice to have someone else in the locker room with me since we’re the only girls. She’s really nice and has way more experience in football than I have. I think it’s cool we’re both out here doing it.”

Summerville, in his fourth year as Park Tudor’s coach, said the two girls are crowd favorites, including in the student population at school. Summerville believes in inclusion on the football team, no matter the gender. In his first year as Park Tudor’s coach, he asked Gracie Krouse, then a teacher at Park Tudor and a former college rugby player at Harvard, to join his coaching staff and help teach the team rugby-style tackling.

Krouse, at first, thought Summerville was joking. “I said, ‘Hey, if you aren’t joking can we talk more seriously?’” Krouse said.

She joined the staff and coached for two years at Park Tudor before taking a job teaching in Indonesia, where she is now.

“It was my first experience coaching,” Krouse said. “I learned so much from Spencer and the other coaches on the staff. They were also very polite and respectful and collaborative. He gave me a chance to teach the players how to rugby tackle and I’d let them know if I saw something during drills. It was such a cool opportunity for me.”

Football has opened doors

Berry, who wants to play football in college and potentially in the Women’s National Football Conference professional league, said football has opened doors. She said the transition to high school football at Park Tudor has been “pretty easy.”

“It helps me make friends,” Berry said. “It helped me get to Park Tudor and one of the reasons I even found out about Park Tudor. The team here has been really welcoming.”

Tanner Berry, (43) a freshman linebacker who was named to WNFC All-Star Showcase and has 4 varsity tackles this year, right, runs drills with teammates on Sept. 14.

She knows what it is like not to feel welcome. She said she played for one coach in a youth league outside of Tab who would purposely match her up in drills against older and stronger players.

“I could tell he didn’t like me as a player or person,” she said. “He would put me in dangerous situations. But I got out of there.”

Berry, who was named to the WNFC all-star showcase last summer, has four tackles on the varsity team this season.

“She has a really high football IQ because she has played so much,” Summerville said of Berry. “She played for the Midwest Colts, who teach fundamentals and emphasize good football from the ground up. If she can get bigger, stronger and faster, she will have the same opportunities as anybody else and find her way into more prominent roles. She has the opportunity.”

Dill does, too. She already came through a big play in Park Tudor’s 47-42 comeback win over Traders Point Christian two weeks ago when the Panthers recovered her onside kick late in the fourth quarter and converted it into a game-winning touchdown.

“I was nervous about it,” Dill said. “I don’t even remember what was going through my mind. But I wasn’t thinking, ‘If I screw this up, we’re going to lose.’ I just kicked it like a soccer ball. But it worked out. And after the game I was like, ‘If we didn’t get that onside kick, we wouldn’t have won.’”

Dill made her first tackle Friday in Park Tudor’s 34-20 loss at Cincinnati Country Day. But the highlight of her season might be something other than a kick or a tackle.

“I was walking out to the field to kick at halftime (of a home game) and I had a person come up to me and say, ‘My daughter loves to watch you kick,’” Dill said. “Not that I need to be a role model, but maybe somebody seeing me or Tanner will make them want to play, too.”

Kyle Neddenriep is a high school sports reporter for the Indianapolis Star. Follow him on Twitter @KyleNeddenriep.