The Marathon Mermaids squad. Front row, from left: Ashley Strama, Sutton Sayer, Landry Sayer, Nina Svridenko. Back row, from left: Carley Giron, Chloe Rodriguez, Italy Gale, Shaina Robinson, Aryana Fernandez. CONTRIBUTED.

Flag footballers from Marathon are making their presence known on a national scale.

On the weekend of May 21, the “Marathon Mermaids” took their talents to Philadelphia to compete against some of the top-ranked squads in Flag Football Life (FFL)’s Beast of the East national tournament.

Coached by Rudy Fernandez and Sean Sayer, the nine-girl squad composed of first- through fifth-graders came together shortly after the City of Marathon’s rec league season.

“I used to live in Miami, and for 17 years I ran a flag football program. We came down here and I had no intention of coaching … but I saw the potential between the two teams. … Sean and I had lunch one day and said, ‘Why don’t we combine the teams and try to maybe do something special?’”

The Mermaids faced a stiff challenge in their opening contests. Out of 196 teams in the tournament, their first two games were against the first- and second-ranked squads in the nation in the 10-U division. Though they opened with a pair of losses, the unranked team from a tiny island proved they belonged in their first taste of tournament competition, falling to the top-ranked team by only one point.

Once the Mermaids found themselves in the Silver Bracket after a split of their division’s teams, they refused to lose again, making a blazing run through the bracket en route to a championship – and taking down the fourth-ranked Staten Island Giants with a 7-0 shutout win in the process.

“It was their first action and they kind of got thrown into the fire,” said Fernandez. “I called the tournament director and said, ‘Give us the hardest teams possible. I want to see where we’re at, I don’t care if we’re from a small island.’ To be the best you’ve got to beat the best.”

Though any team can sign up to play in Beast of the East, the team’s bracket win earned them an invite to the FFL National Championship in January 2023 in Tampa. According to a text sent from the tournament director to Fernandez, the Mermaids should crack the top 10 when national rankings are published next week.

“The big thing for us was teaching the game the right way,” Fernandez said. “And that’s really what happened. The girls played the right way and they played very hard and focused from beginning to end.”

“We used our friendship and all of our persistent hard work, and put it together into a strong, confident, feisty and determined feeling in our heads that helped us win,” said fourth-grade quarterback Sutton Sayer. “Our team has proved that kids from a small island can achieve big dreams.”

“It was amazing,” said Landry Sayer, the team’s youngest – but undaunted – member. “I can’t wait until next year, and I’m going to miss being with my team.”

Fernandez’s son, Ryan, found similar success at the tournament. Competing with his old team from Miami, the Marathon Middle School student took home a Gold Bracket championship in the boys’ 11-U division.

The Marathon Mermaids extend their thanks to their sponsor, Marathon’s charter business by the same name, as well as Mike Puto, who used funds from the Katharine S. Gradick Girls Athletic Trust to sponsor the team’s transportation in Philadelphia.

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Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.