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Yardley Natives Lead Israeli Women in Flag-Football Tourney Triumph
As the huddle broke and she walked back toward the line of scrimmage, wide receiver Jessica Sagoskin knew in her head that the quarterback was going to throw the ball to her. All she needed to do was catch it.
The way ahead was clear to her: Make the grab, and the underdog Israeli flag-football team would force overtime against previously unbeaten Austria and still have a shot at winning the Sparkassen Big Bowl. Miss it, and the team full of observant Jews -- who agreed on the importance of winning an international tournament in Waldorf, Germany -- would have to settle for second place.
"For Israel to play in Germany against the Austrians, against the French, against the Germans -- there is no way we were leaving here without the first-place trophy," recalled Sagoskin, 24, who made aliyah after growing up in Yardley. "Every single girl on the team knew that was the situation and wanted to win so badly."
Sagoskin watched as the ball sailed through the air ... she caught it in the end zone, sending the game to overtime.
With the score now tied -- and each team given an offensive series from mid-field during the extra period -- Israel scored first to make it 13-6. During Austria's possession, an Israeli defender made an interception, and in doing so, clinched the victory.
"Everyone just rushed the field, and we were going crazy," said Elissa Sagoskin, Jessica's 27-year-old sister, who serves as captain of the defense and who also lives in Israel.
The odds were against the Israelis from the very start of the 30-team tournament held in late June. Since the team adheres to Shomer Shabbat practices, it could not play preliminary games on Fridays like the rest of the teams in competition; bowl officials allowed them to play all games on Sunday.
"These are our beliefs," said Elissa. "We're not going to compromise on those beliefs, and the teams do respect the fact we are out there [for such a long time]."
The rigorous one-day schedule took its toll on starting quarterback Shana Sprung, a diabetic who suffered from blood-sugar issues and was forced to sit out for most of the semi-final and championship games. With the offense held scoreless against the Austrians, Sprung finally felt good enough to come back, and she threw both the game-tying and game-winning touchdown passes.
Flag football is played with the same basic rules as American football, except a "tackle" is made by pulling a flag from a players waist rather than knocking them to the ground. With five-on-five action, the Sparkassen Big Bowl showcased close to 30 teams from seven countries in both male and female divisions. The Israeli men finished sixth.
While being presented with the first-place trophy, the women's team sang "Hatikvah" -- Israel's national anthem -- and some players couldn't help but cry.
"It was an emotional moment for myself -- after coming to live in Israel -- to be able to contribute in some small way, and to represent Israel on our own terms," said Elissa Sagoskin.
The team is part of an organization called American Football in Israel, and plays and practices at Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem, donated by New England Patriots owner and longtime Jewish activist Robert Kraft.
Just last weekend, the team continued its winning ways by earning a first-place finish in France's Flag Oceane, one of the largest competitions of its kind in Europe. After losing its opening game, the team won three straight without giving up a single point, before going on to win the tournament.
"We are a very strong team," said Jessica Sagoskin, "and now we've made our mark on the flag football map across Europe."