Just like one of the boys

Vanessa Mariani is the only one on the Costa Mesa Pop Warner Junior Mighty Mite team with the double-X chromosome.

Coach Erik Koste, though, just calls Vanessa the "X" player. And it's because of the extra effort she puts in on the field.

"She's our 'X' player and there's very few of them," Koste said. "What it is, it's a player that plays both ways all the time. People in the backfield can't be an 'X' player because if you're an 'X' player, you're not allowed to touch the ball. She's so unselfish that she's not worried about carrying the ball … she could easily be the best running back on the team, too. But I think she just likes to be out there so much."

Vanessa, 8, is in her second year playing football. She plays guard on offense and another very important position — middle linebacker — on defense. She's a team captain and, in Koste's estimation, one of the top players on the team.

League president Steve Mensinger said she's the only female among the 248 players in Costa Mesa Pop Warner. The organization has its opening day ceremonies at noon today at Jim Scott Stadium, and teams will hold scrimmages this afternoon, as well.

If you're there, look for Vanessa. She'll be the one in uniform No. 1 with the long, free-flowing brown hair coming out the back of her helmet. And, to give her a football compliment, she plays like a boy. She talks like one, too. She's just one of the guys.

"I was the youngest guy on the team last year," Vanessa said of her "rookie" year last year, when she also played Junior Mighty Mite. "I was the smallest. I only had two or three friends. They were all bigger than me."

Now she fits in just fine with her male counterparts and her mother, Sonya Mariani, is not surprised. She has two other children in Pop Warner as Zaira, 12, is a cheerleader and Michael, 10, plays for a Junior Pee Wee team. Vanessa's oldest sister, Carly, is going into her sophomore year at Costa Mesa High and plays volleyball there.

The Marianis don't usually watch sports, but Sonya talked about how Vanessa would go to her older cousin's house for family gatherings and be drawn in by the group of men watching football on television. When Vanessa came home from school last year with a Costa Mesa Pop Warner flyer, her football career was officially about to get underway. She pestered her mom until she agreed to let her youngest daughter play, despite any reservations Vanessa's dad, Steve, might have had.

"It wouldn't have been his choice," Sonya Mariani said. "I think he's kind of conservative when it comes to gender roles, but I didn't really ask him. I just signed her up and said, 'Hey, this is what she's doing.' But he can't help but be proud of her. He knows that she's really tough; he's always said she's got that killer instinct."

Both parents are obviously proud of their daughter. Sometimes, it even takes a team effort to get her to the team's early evening practices. Sonya can't make it on Mondays and Tuesdays as she's working at a local restaurant, and Steve works in information technology and typically works graveyard shifts.

But Sonya has become convinced that this is the right place for Vanessa.

"Sometimes I think I just want to have them surf or skate, something where I can have flexibility of time," Sonya Mariani said. "I miss out on some really good shifts at work, where I can make the best money … but what I love about this Pop Warner is that it just gets everyone involved in the community. It's just a nice way to get you connected with your neighbors. We sit out here and we make good friends."

Vanessa, going into the third grade at Calvary Chapel Santa Ana, said her favorite pro team is the Chargers. She doesn't really have a favorite player, but that's OK. Vanessa turns plenty of heads herself.

At middle linebacker, Koste said she counts the gaps and lets her teammates know if they're in the wrong spot. On offense, Koste doesn't really care that it's usually a girl opening up the biggest holes for Costa Mesa's running backs. She has the respect of all her teammates, he said, because of her hard work.

"We run a Wing-T [offense], which is sort of advanced at this age," Koste said. "It has a lot to do with the linemen pulling, and Vanessa is our leading puller. She gets right out there and goes into the defensive backfield, takes the inside linebacker and just lays ferocious blocks."

The team's top running back, Davyon Love, definitely appreciates that. Love, who is also 8, knows that Vanessa hits hard.

"Yes," he said. "Very hard. She's a really good person. She's a really good football player, too. She's really focused."

Vanessa at first shrugged when asked how long she wants to keep playing football. She settled on an answer of, "three or four years," which must seem like a lifetime to her.

Opponents, though, hope that cycle is considerably shorter.

"There's always going to be some kids who will maybe will be like, 'Haha, oh, we're playing a girl,' " Koste said. "But they'll be sorry for doing that as soon as she comes up against them. She takes it to them, and then they get a little dose of reality, but there's never any of that maliciousness.

"She's more likely to help them up. If they're decent kids, they're bound to respect her most of the time."

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