As first female football player at HHS, Pace making history while enjoying game


Chris Jones

Harlan junior Hanna Pace worked through a tackling drill at a recent practice session.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

Hanna Pace, believed to be the first female football player in Harlan High School history, went through practice last month. (Chris Jones)

Leaning on the fence outside the Harlan football dressing room, Hanna Pace watched as teammates and coaches walked past during the excitement that usually comes with media day and the first day in uniform just before a new season officially begins.

Hanna Pace

A reserve guard and outside linebacker as a junior, Pace would not qualify as a big story on most high school football teams, except for the fact that she’s truly a pioneer as the first girl to play varsity football in Harlan’s 102-year football history, at least as far back as anyone can remember.
Former Harlan coach J.B. Donahue, whose connection with the program goes back to his playing days in the 1970s and 1980s, says he can’t remember a girl playing football at Harlan beyond middle school. Pace said she’s also been told by several that she’s the first female player in Harlan’s long history.
And while Pace may very well be making history, she isn’t causing any distractions or upheaval for a Harlan football program determined to take the next step in its rebuild after improving from 1-10 in 2019 to 3-3 last season. A separate dressing area was set up for the team’s first female player, the only modification needed in preseason workouts.
“I’ve not heard one negative thing about it, which was a little surprising to me,” Harlan coach Eric Perry said. “I thought some of the kids might try to be comical, but I haven’t heard the first thing. I think a couple have tested her, but outside of that there has been nothing. I don’t know how others will perceive it.”
Pace says she’s finally following through on a goal of playing football, something she’s been thinking about since she was in middle school at Black Mountain.
“I always wanted to play in middle school and things would always happen when it would be my chance to play,” Pace said. “When I moved here, I talked to my buddy, Eli Sizemore, about it and he pushed me to do it. I talked to the coaches and they let me.”
Pace took the first step toward playing last winter when she joined the team’s off-season conditioning program and made several friends on the team, including Sizemore, Malachi Rodriguez, Chris Taylor and Trenton Childers, who she said helped her make the transition to a new sport.
“She started lifting with us in January and lifted all winter,” Perry said. “She’s gotten a lot stronger. She kept saying she was going to play, but I didn’t know if she really would to be honest. But sure enough, she did. Her mom said she tried to talk her out of it, but Hanna was dead set on trying.”
Perry has been impressed by Pace’s consistency in practice while learning a new game.
“She’s a hard-working kid and has already taken a few lumps, and it doesn’t seem to bother her,” Perry said. “She got hit pretty good and hurt her back and missed a day and I thought ‘this might do it,’ but she was back the next day.”
While she understands that being the first girl to play football at Harlan High School, and maybe the first to ever play for any Harlan County team, is historical, it isn’t something that caused a problem for her among friends or classmates.
“There were a couple of them that doubted me, but now I think they believe it’s pretty cool because I’m doing something no one else does do. They have positive comments about it,” Pace said, adding her teammates also made the adjustment. “At first, I think it was unusual for them for a girl to be on the team, but they are slowly getting used to it now and all treat me like a little sister. I thought it might be a little harder on me, being a girl, but once I got into the drills and exercises I learned I could do it just as good as them.”
Now comfortable her teammates have accepted her, Pace realizes another test awaits when the Dragons start playing games.
“I’m kind of ready for the negativity from the other teams, but when we went to Bell County for the seven-on-seven, they seemed to find It pretty cool for a girl to be playing,” Pace said.
“How much she’ll play, I don’t know at this point, but I can tell already that she’s not afraid of contact,” said Perry. “She’s handled it all very well.”