Nebraska’s female Class A state football champs hope to pave the way for future players

A Westside student is breaking barriers after helping the Warriors to a state championship.
Published: Dec. 20, 2022 at 10:59 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - It’s not often you see women playing tackle football, but a few current and former Nebraska students are paving the way for girls in the future.

“Go for it. Do it.”

That’s Westside High senior Erin Mardi’s message to young girls who dream of playing football, just like she did.

She started playing in third grade. At the time, there were flyers being passed around her school - some for football, and some for dance.

“After school, I just went to the main office and I was like ‘hey, do you have any more football flyers?’ and I took one, and then I took it home and it took me, like, two weeks begging my mom to sign up for it.”

10 years later, Erin’s spark for the sport hasn’t faded. This fall, she found herself at a place where girls aren’t typically at: suited up for the Class A state football championship.

Westside was up against their rival, Gretna, for the second year in a row. But Erin wasn’t thinking about how she was the only girl on the field.

“The biggest feeling was okay, let’s lock in immediately, let’s not have this be like last year.”

Tied up with just four seconds to play, it all came down to Erin’s senior class and teammate Tristan Alvano. Alvano needed to make a 45-yard field goal to pull ahead and win the game.

“He’s made insane kicks in practice so I knew he would make it but there’s just still that ‘what if this doesn’t happen?’” Erin says. “Then it went through, and I was running around screaming, and it was just this perfect ending.”

That’s the moment Erin joined an exclusive group as a female Class A state football champion.

But she wasn’t the first.

“I don’t even remember if I got to play even one snap, but I’ll never forget warming up on that field, it was a dream come true, Memorial Stadium!”

Cortnie Jozsa was the first. She won with Lincoln Southeast in the year 2000.

“Our rings, I still have that ring, I don’t even have my class ring but I have that ring. We were undefeated! Not only were we state champions, we were undefeated. It was a great feeling and it was really awesome to be a part of that team.”

Like Erin, Cortnie began playing football as a young girl. By the time she got to high school, she had already been playing with the boys on the team for several years.

But going into high school, she faced several barriers.

“My dad was nervous, he didn’t want me to play high school ball,” Cortnie says. “Then, the gentleman who was doing my sports physical for school, who had done them in previous years, but when I was getting ready to go to high school, he said he would not sign my sports physical because he didn’t think that a female should be playing high school football.”

“That was an out for my dad, who already didn’t want me to play, but he took me to another doctor because no one was going to tell his daughter what they could do except for him,” Cortnie adds.

Cortnie says she played in nearly every home game her senior year but wasn’t able to suit up for away games because schools couldn’t accommodate her with her own locker room.

It was the support from her coaches and several classmates that make her memories of high school football complete.

“One funny thing that the coach always had us do, at the end of the game when you said good game, out of respect you don’t remove your helmet,” she says. “But he always said I could take mine off to show they got beat by a girl.”

Erin says the support from her classmates, teammates, and coaches has carried her through too.

“It means, like, everything, that’s honestly probably the reason why I kept playing football after my freshman year.”

Though 22 years apart, the two women are forever linked in their exclusive club - a list of female names with state champion medals.

“To be on such a short list is just insane, you don’t really think about it. When you’re little you look and you’re like ‘wow that’s really cool, I want to be one of those people!’ and now I am one of those people, and it’s just insane to think of,” Erin says.

With graduation just months away, Erin hopes to continue her football career after high school at the South Dakota School of Mines as a walk-on.

When Cortnie graduated, she wasn’t ready to leave the sport behind, either.

After graduation, Cortnie moved to Maine, where she joined an all-female football team called the Maine Freeze. At the time, they were part of the National Women’s Football League and although they weren’t paid, they were still professional players.

“We were not great, I think we lost every single game but it was pretty cool,” Cortnie says with a giggle.

Later, Cortnie joined the Marines and joined their football team too. Back then, women weren’t allowed to play in the games, but thanks to her, the rule was eventually changed.

Both Cortnie and Erin say they hope to see girls continue to pursue the sport, no matter what others say.

“I was told point blank that it is never going to happen and, you know, ‘you need to dream realistic,’ but you just never know,” Cortnie says.

“It’s going to get tough at times but you just stick it out, you’ll get there eventually. It’s a whole lot of fun the entire time,” Erin adds.