Back when Ballou girls' basketball star Ayonna Williams was a freshman, Coach Andrew Gaston made a successful pitch for her to join him on the school's flag football team. He reasoned that it would be a good way to improve her conditioning, and those words proved prescient this spring as the Knights won the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association championship on the football field.

Williams said flag football helped with "staying in shape and my footwork" on the hardwood and it aided her cause this spring when she went on an unofficial visit to Howard. She had been in search of an opportunity to play college basketball, and her chance finally arrived when Howard put her through a workout.

Williams ended up impressing Howard's coaches, who have now offered her a partial scholarship to play basketball there next year. Combined with a scholarship offer from Coppin State, and serious interest from several Division II and Division III schools, her long wait is over.

"It was irritating, but I just had to be patient." Williams said.

Williams was the leader for Ballou's championship flag football team this year, starring as a quarterback just like she did on the hardwood as a point guard this past winter. She's one of several Ballou girls' basketball players that Gaston convinced to try out a new sport over the years.

Though many had never played any type of football before, winning allowed the players to appreciate it.

"Watching football on TV wasn't really interesting because I felt I couldn't really follow it because of all the different positions, plays and lines and things," senior Samariah Harris-Feaster said. "But actually playing, it helped me learn more about it and actually learn the game."

DCIAA's decision to add flag football as a sport in order to boost female representation in athletics has irked some critics, who feel the school system should offer sports in which its student-athletes can earn college scholarships. This year, for instance, Prince George's County became the latest local jurisdiction to offer lacrosse as a varsity sport and several players have already earned scholarship opportunities because of that decision.

But Gaston's theory was that it couldn't hurt his basketball players to have to work as a team, be in more competitive environments and play under the whistle. Over the years, the sport has become so popular at Ballou that he doesn't have to really convince his girls to join anymore. This year's title also helped wipe away the sting of a disappointing basketball season in which the Knights endured a mid-year coaching change.  Gaston, who had previously coached the team, took over for the final six games.

"Because we didn't do nothing in basketball, it felt good to win a championship," Williams said.

As for Williams, her top choice is to attend Howard but she must pay an enrollment fee to go there. Gaston said Williams currently has about $20,000 raised through scholarships and is waiting to hear back how much financial aid Howard can offer her.

At this point, though, there's no question about her athleticism, whether it be on a basketball court or a football field.

"She can throw the football, she can obviously run with it and you can tell she's one of those athletes that could probably play any sport," Gaston said. "You just put her out there."

NUMBER CRUNCH: 4

Number of Washington area schools that will play for a Maryland girls' or boys' lacrosse state championship over the next two days at Stevenson University.

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