Freshman Karessa Anderson of Eddington is a starting defensive end for the Brewer High School football team.

For 14-year-old Karessa Anderson of Eddington, high school football games played under the lights are not merely a spectator event.

This ninth-grader is fully engaged in the activity each weekend from a hands-on perspective — as a starting defensive end for the Brewer High School football team.

Anderson is a rarity as both a freshman and female starter in a varsity sport where last fall only six girls were among the more than 3,000 high school football players in Maine, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Anderson doesn’t see her participation and starting role as a big deal, but game nights are a different story.

“You really get to understand what Friday night lights are like,” said Anderson, whose team plays Friday night at Brunswick in a Class B North quarterfinal. “Everyone tells you what it’s like to be part of it, but once you get in there you really feel it. It’s fun.”

Anderson wasn’t big into team sports as a youngster but eventually decided to try football at Holbrook School with the support of her parents, Kevin and Lisa Anderson.

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

“I used to play [football] with the boys at recess,” she said. “One day someone told me I was pretty good at it and that I should try out, so I did.”

Anderson didn’t get much playing time as a seventh-grader as she learned the basics, but by eighth grade she was a two-way starter at tight end and defensive end.

That fueled her interest in continuing the sport in high school.

“I did weightlifting all summer and I’d lifted tons before this, and I do Crossfit [a fitness regimen], too, so that really helped,” she said. “I just focused on being the best at what I could do, being the best at my position and hoping I could somehow get a starting position and just do my best for the team.”

Her participation in Brewer’s summer strength-training program introduced her to her high school teammates.

“She came out for preseason lifting so everyone who was lifting knew her,” said Brewer senior Damyan Greenlaw, a fellow player on the defensive line. “She fit right into the team perfectly when the season started.”

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

Next player up

Few freshmen, male or female, start in Maine Class B football. Anderson began the season on the Witches’ junior varsity squad.

But by Week 3 the varsity squad already had suffered several injuries and as Brewer played at Mt. Blue of Farmington, Anderson suddenly got sent into the game.

“If people get hurt it’s usually the next man up, but now it’s the next person up,” Brewer head coach Nick Arthers said. “We wouldn’t put her out there if we didn’t think she was capable of doing some good things, and she’s one of the hardest workers we have on the team.”

Anderson became a starter the next week and has been a fixture in the Brewer lineup ever since at a challenging position.

“In our 4-4 [four linemen and four linebackers] we expect our defensive ends to really control the edge, and she’s not afraid to stick her nose in there and take on trap blocks,” Arthers said. “She takes a lick sometimes but she gets back up every single time.”

At 5-foot-7 and 145 pounds, Anderson cedes considerable size to offensive linemen charged with blocking her.

“The only real struggle is that even though she’s been working out, she’s going to get thrown around a little bit,” Greenlaw said. “But she makes sure she stays on top of everything. She knows she’s smaller, but when she goes after that ball carrier she’s getting that ball carrier.”

Anderson counters her lack of size and varsity experience through technique.

“Most of the time, depending on the play, I just try to beat the tackle outside,” she said. “You take them head-on and do what you can and use what you have — swim moves, rips. You just take them on at 100 percent.”

Arthers has seen steady improvement from Anderson during her first high school football season.

“She’s always asking questions, always wondering what she can do better, always asking for small criticisms,” Arthers said. “The biggest thing I’ve noticed is when she’s getting pushed around or if somebody gets a good block on her, she gets motivated and goes right back at them.

“We just had our all-conference meeting and a lot of the coaches said she was one of the tougher kids they’ve seen,” he added.

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

Making adjustments

Anderson’s rise to varsity starter as a freshman not only required her to learn quickly but prompted some adjustments by those around her.

“We want to treat everybody as a football player out there, we don’t want to play any favorites,” Arthers said. “There was probably one time during double sessions when I might have said something and she said, ‘What do you mean? Why are you treating me differently?’

“I was quick to put that to the side because she just wants to be a football player.”

It’s that sense of equality and support that has bonded Anderson with her team.

“They 100 percent have my back all the time,” she said. “It’s like a family. We fight like brothers and sisters, we get along like brothers and sisters, and the coaches are 100 percent family, too.”

That support extends to how opponents treat Anderson.

“Other teams know almost immediately because of her [long] hair, but I don’t say much and none of the other players say much because they know what she’s capable of doing,” Greenlaw said.

Some opponents, particularly earlier in the season, weren’t as familiar with Anderson’s presence on the field.

“Some games I’d get a weird look and then they’d realize what’s going on after a few plays. And other games I got my name announced and they knew right off the bat,” she said. “Then there’s times when I’m high-fiving through the line after the game and they finally realize what’s going on.

She and her teammates enjoy witnessing the opponents’ eventual realization.

Anderson has been subject to an occasional comment during a game from an opponent trying to get under her skin.

“It’s good and bad because I’ve had some teams be not so great with me being a girl and playing, and I’ve had teams that are great with it and they give me 100 percent as I give it back,” she said. “But they talk to me like they do to the other guys, so it’s nothing new. I just take it as it is.”

As Brewer prepares for its playoff game, Anderson is comfortable holding the rare combined status of being a ninth-grader and a girl starting on a varsity football team.

The rest of the Witches are glad to have Anderson playing alongside them.

“We don’t think of her as a female on the football team,” Greenlaw said. “She’s just part of the team.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...