When Olivia Medford’s friend Liam Galvin was preparing to try out for the seventh-grade football team at South Side Middle School, she would tag along and play with him and his dad, Gene, at the Village Green.
Olivia would throw, catch and “run like the dickens,” according to her mother, Ann Travers, and that planted the seed for her to want to play the following season. Three years later, the 5-foot-9 sophomore is the only female on South Side High School’s junior varsity football squad. “And she’s not a kicker,” Thomas Smith, the team’s co-coach, noted with a smile.
“They know that she’s a special athlete,” he said of his team, “and they treat her just like any other teammate.”
Donning No. 34, Olivia took the practice field a day before the team’s final game on Oct. 30. Co-coach Keith Bosch faked a handoff and turned to look downfield, hitting Olivia with a pass. She broke for the sideline, turning the corner past a defender for a large gain before being tackled.
“She came up here and she fit right in,” Bosch said. Last year Olivia was the team’s back-up running back, he noted, and she took over the starting role early this season. Smith added that she has since been sharing snaps with two other backs.
“It’s just cool being part of the team,” Olivia told the Herald. “I like playing the sport and everybody’s so nice … so it’s just been great.”
The position of running back came natural to Olivia, who noted simply, “I like to run.” Her mother added, “She always wanted to chase that touchdown.” Sophomore Michael Gibney, the team’s starting left guard and defensive tackle, said Olivia is also a key part of special teams. Tasked with blocking the outside rusher during the extra point attempt after a touchdown, for example, she often executes her assignment to perfection, he said.
“She actually works harder than some of the guys . . . and she [brings] a good energy,” Gibney said. “I don’t view her differently.”
Though proud of her daughter’s three-year football career, Travers had to get used to the idea of Olivia playing on a field full of boys. For the last three years, Olivia was interviewed and given physical tests before the season to make sure she was able to compete. According to state regulations, “the fitness of a given student to participate in mixed competition shall be determined by a review panel consisting of the school physician, a physical education teacher designated by the principal . . . and if requested by the parents of the pupil, a physician selected by such parents.” The panel, which then votes, cleared Olivia each year.
During her 10 years at the district, Carol Roseto, Rockville Centre’s director of physical education, interscholastic athletics and health, said Olivia is the only girl to cross over onto a predominatly male team.
“I think I had my rosaries in my pocket every single game,” Travers said, noting however that she knew Olivia could handle herself physically. “. . . There was no special treatment and she never asked for any.”
Travers recalled Olivia’s first game in eighth grade, during which she scored two touchdowns that were nullified because of penalties. Her teammates said she was robbed because she was a girl, “And [Olivia] said, ‘No, they took the touchdown back because you guys can’t hold the line,’” Travers recalled laughing.
She added that she thought Olivia would stop playing after eighth grade, but her daughter wished to continue. Her coach, Sal Digiacomo, informed Bosch and Smith about her talent. The junior varsity squad was a welcoming bunch, but some others doubted her abilities.
“There were a couple people that were like, ‘You’re not going to do good,’ or ‘You’re just not built for it,’ Olivia said. “I just tried to work hard so I can prove them wrong.”
Travers added, “. . . We always tried to take her ponytail and kind of stick it up in her helmet so that she’d fit in OK.”
With her sophomore season in the books, Olivia’s football career may be over, as she said she might start to focus on basketball and lacrosse. If she chooses not to return to the gridiron, she said she will most miss getting amped with her teammates before kickoff on game days.
“She went after something that she wanted to do and that she believed in and she had the courage to do that,” Travers said. “I think that kind of transcends the football field.”