Toms River East’s April Florie is Believed to Be the First Female Football Coach in Shore Conference History
A ground-breaking moment in Shore Conference football history began quietly in May with a casual conversation and an unusual request.
Toms River East head coach Kyle Sandberg held his annual sign-up meeting for this year’s team when April Florie approached the Raiders’ eighth-year coach with a simple question.
“She comes up to me in the hallway and says, ‘Hey Coach, I love East, and I want to be a part of something,’” Sandberg said. “Is there anything I can do to help the program?”
“He said, ‘I could always use a coach,’” Florie said. “At first, I thought it was in jest. But I always mean what I say with purpose.”
In that moment, Sandberg didn’t see a woman breaking barriers or a person who didn’t have the same football background as the rest of his staff.
“You don’t want to discourage anyone who wants to help,” Sandberg said. “She was really open and wanted to help, and you can’t turn that away. I think great coaches can become great football coaches, and she puts the work in.”
Florie is now an unlikely Shore pioneer: a 57-year-old English and special education teacher and mother of two whose previous football knowledge came from watching it on TV like everyone else.
She is believed to be the first female football coach in Shore Conference history. Florie coaches wide receivers and linebackers and also works with the junior varsity team for the Raiders.
“I don’t know if a lot of women would have asked, and to be honest, that’s the reason I did,” she said. “I don’t look at myself as a ground-breaker. This is 2023. If someone wants to do it and is willing to work, no matter what their gender or age, they can do it.”
“The team could not and would not function as well without her,” said linebacker Andrew Brush, who is a senior captain. “She always brings a positive mindset.”
Hall of Fame Lacey head coach Lou Vircillo, who is the founder trustee of the Shore Football Coaches Foundation, has been coaching in the Shore Conference since 1972. He said he cannot recall any team having a full-time female coach outside of an aide for a special needs player or an academic advisor.
Middletown South head coach Steve Antonucci, who has been coaching in the Shore since the mid-1990s, also said he could not think of any instance of a woman working as an assistant.
There technically was a female coach in the Shore for part of the season in 2005 when then-Holmdel principal Cheryl Swider served as the head coach for the Hornets, but it was only as a figurehead due to a controversial situation. The entire Hornets' coaching staff quit in the middle of the season after administrators reinstated a player who had been dismissed from the team for disciplinary reasons.
“If they can do the job, then who cares (about their gender)?” Vircillo said. “It’s like being in the (military) service. If you can handle the job, it doesn’t matter.”
Florie taught at Barnegat for 10 years before joining the faculty at Toms River East last year. She saw football as a way to become enmeshed in the fabric of her new home.
“I just wanted to be part of that camaraderie,” she said. “That Raider Pride runs deep. I was really humbled and grateful when (Sandberg) added me to be approved (by the Board of Education). Not many people would take that chance.”
Florie has had to absorb a lot in a short amount of time in her first season.
“It was a huge learning curve, but I feel like that at my age you don't get the opportunity to learn much new stuff, so I was very open to it,” she said.
“She’s always trying to learn,” Brush said. “She probably watches more film than I do.”
Florie is a sports mom whose daughter, Camille Florie, is a senior defender on the Raiders’ field hockey team. Her son, Michael, is a former pitcher for Toms River East.
“When I came home and told my kids I was going to be one of the coaches, they thought it was for another sport,” Florie said. “I said, ‘No, football.’ They said, ‘Are you kidding me? You really asked them?’ But they know their mother and that I'm a force to be reckoned with, so it was like, ‘OK then this is what's happening.’”
However, her football knowledge mainly came from being a long-suffering Washington Commanders fan while growing up in a sea of Giants jerseys in Bloomfield.
She did have two things immediately working in her favor. She’s a hard worker, and she knew some of the players already after having them in class.
“One of the players said to me, ‘I'll be honest with you Coach, I'm a little frightened of you when you're angry,’” she said before laughing.
“I just knew her as a teacher,” Brush said. “I’ve been friends with her daughter for 10-plus years, so I've known her forever. She handles situations differently than male coaches sometimes. She’s a mom, and she’s a little bit older, which can be good. For example, when we mess up, she’s always emphasizing a positive mindset and that the next play will be better, whereas at the end of the day coach (Sandberg) will probably scream at you.
“But that’s not all the time. She's tough. If you mess up, she’ll definitely let you know.”
Florie has done her best to soak up the knowledge from the rest of the staff after admittedly being a little intimidated at first. She studied how drills were conducted and how technique was taught.
Sandberg, a former All-Shore safety for the Raiders who played at Southern Connecticut State, has treated her like any other coach.
“There’s no holds barred with Sandberg,” she said. “Once you’re in, you’re in.”
“She’s learning and growing,” Sandberg said. “The kids respect her, and the coaches love her.”
She recalled the butterflies after she first put on the headset on the sidelines when the Raiders faced off against Brick in the season opener.
“It's invigorating,” she said. “It's wonderful to be there with the players to see them finally come together after a hard week of practice. I wish more women could understand the camaraderie and adrenaline of that.”
Growing the Game
Florie’s presence on the Raiders' coaching staff is the latest sign of women getting more involved in football, from the NFL all the way down to the Shore Conference.
Dr. Jen Welter became the NFL’s first female coach back in 2015, and offensive assistant Katie Sowers became the first woman to coach in the Super Bowl as part of the San Francisco 49ers staff in 2020.
Carol White broke the college coaching barrier for women back in 1986 when she worked with Georgia Tech’s kickers. More recently, Callie Brownson served as a coach for Dartmouth in 2018 and is now an assistant with the Cleveland Browns. Mimi Bolden-Morris worked at the highest level of college football when she became a graduate assistant at Michigan last year.
Multiple women have also become high school football head coaches across the country. A game in Chicago last year featured two teams that both had female head coaches.
Girls have also become part of more teams as players. The Shore Conference has a long history of girls playing kicker, dating back to Leanne Bollinger. The former Long Branch kicker became the first girl to score in a varsity game in New Jersey history when she booted three extra points against Monmouth in 1989.
More recently, Colts Neck’s Abby Letson became the rare girl to score points in a state final when she hit an extra point in a loss to Brick in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV championship game in 2013.
The next evolution is girls playing positions other than kicker, which is already underway in the Shore Conference.
Sandberg had a female wide receiver/defensive back, Fabriola Andre, who played in a game for the Raiders in 2018. This year’s Pinelands team includes sophomore Holly Lucas, who plays one of the most physical positions on the field as a two-way lineman.
She made a piece of Shore Conference history this season when she played noseguard in the Wildcats' win over Point Beach in their first game. To her, it was just another day at the office in a sport she has been playing since seventh grade.
“I’ve always been a lineman,” Lucas said on the Varsity Link Coaches Corner show earlier this season. “Honestly, I don’t even think (the Point Beach player across from me) knew that I was a girl. I tuck my hair into my pads, so he probably didn’t even know.”
There also has been the explosion of participation in the Shore Conference’s girls flag football league during the spring, which continues to grow every season. Many of the head football coaches from the fall also coach the girls in the spring. Shore Regional has won the first two Shore Conference flag football titles under Mark Costantino, who has been the head football coach in the fall for 32 seasons.
“That’s what it is – you don’t want it to be strange anymore,” Florie said about girls being involved in football.
As for Florie, she never expected herself to be coaching football at this stage of her life, but she took a chance and spoke up. Once Sandberg took a chance on her, the rest was history.
Now she can’t get enough.
“I had to learn how to navigate Hudl pretty quickly because I had to help mark up the films,” she said. “Who would’ve known that my favorite part of a Sunday morning would be watching film? I love it.”