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Gridiron Girls: Gwinnett residents power Atlanta Ravens team

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Atlanta Ravens players Tammy Nelson, from left, Dana Marsal, Stacey Lewis and Dee Washington are just a handful of Gwinnett residents who play for the girls football team.

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Atlanta Ravens players Tammy Nelson, from left, Dana Marsal, Stacey Lewis and Dee Washington are just a handful of Gwinnett residents who play for the girls football team.

Gwinnett County has been a hotbed for high school football for more than a decade, producing state champion teams and dozens of high-profile players.

Now that success is spreading to women’s professional football.

The Atlanta Ravens, who feature 10 Gwinnett County residents, will play the Carolina Phoenix in the Eastern Conference championship of the Independent Women’s Football League playoffs on Saturday at Tara Stadium in Jonesboro.

“This will be by far the most athletic team we’ve faced all season,” said Ravens quarterback Dana Marsal, a longtime Gwinnett educator.

The franchise formerly known as the Atlanta Xplosion has won three conference championships in the past six years. The team won the world championship in 2006 during its three-year reign as conference champs from 2005-07. The team hit a slump in recent years, missing the playoffs twice and losing in the first round last season.

The Raven are back on top this season with a 9-0 record and a lot of that has to do with its Gwinnett ties. David Irons Sr., whose sons David and Kenny were standout football players at Dacula and later at Auburn, bought the franchise.

“I’m just as passionate about the girls as I am the boys,” Irons said.

Irons immediately put his own touch on the franchise. He changed the team mascot from the Xplosion to Ravens to be synonymous with the other pro sports teams in Atlanta like the Falcons, Hawks and formerly the Thrashers.

He’s had the team training at his Lawrenceville-based Georgia Training Alliance and moved the team’s home games to Tara Stadium in Jonesboro in an effort to build a better fan base.

Irons has even used his ties to pro athletes to participate in game festivities like the coin toss.

“These girls play for real. If you watch them, you’ll be surprised at the level of hitting that goes on,” Irons said. “It’s not just running up and falling. These girls actually run through you. The skill level of these girls, once you see it you’ll appreciate more.”

Nearly a third of the roster has players from Gwinnett County. Tammy Nelson is a 2000 Meadowcreek grad who played basketball and track and field. Stacey Lewis is a fifth-grade teacher at Cedar Hill Elementary and has missed the past two seasons with injuries. This year is about redemption and finally getting the chance to play.

“One thing I’ve always known about this team, is we have a bunch of athletes and the best coaches in the world,” Lewis said.

Mareno Philyaw, who played for the Atlanta Falcons in 2000, is the head coach of the Ravens.

“Any coach that can take a group of women from all walks of life and coach them to a 9-0 season is special,” Lewis said. “It’s nice to be 9-0, but it took a lot of work and it’s not easy.”

The Ravens have been preparing for the postseason since January. They began the year by practicing at Georgia Training Alliance. The eight-game season began in April and the team practices two to three nights a week. A film session is also included during the practice week. That’s on top of working a full-time job and for some raising a family.

For Marsal, an elementary school teacher at McKendree Elementary School, it is her third and likely final season with the Ravens. At 46 years old, she’s the oldest player on the squad.

“I never thought I would play three years. I’ve made a lot of friends,” Marsal said. “It will be bittersweet. That’s why it will mean so much more if we can make it to the championship game and hopefully win that.”