VENICE HIGH SENIOR ERICA CISNEROS got a chance to play for the league championship team, making a tackle against Palisades High. (Argonaut photo by Vince Echavaria)

Anyone who questions if Venice High School student Erica Cisneros should be on the football field instead of on the cheerleading squad should listen to her reasons for why she loves to play football.

“It’s something I love. I love the contact and the sound of hitting,” said Cisneros, 17, the only girl on the Gondoliers varsity football team.

The Venice High senior did not put on a helmet simply to watch the game and be closer with the high school boys. She knows the consequences of entering this sport and she welcomes it.

Listening to her describe the time that she got knocked down to the ground during practice, one might find it hard to believe that she has to use a different locker room than all the other players.

“It felt good,” she recalled of the hit.

While girls have been known to join high school and college football teams, typically as a kicker, Cisneros likely turned some heads when she decided to go out for the more physical position of defensive tackle.

For those thinking that she only got a chance on a struggling team that needed more players, think again. The Gondoliers are eight-time Western League champions with a 9-1 record and are ranked in the top 25 teams in the Southland by the Los Angeles Times.

Cisneros, who attended Mark Twain Middle School in Mar Vista, first developed her love of football as a six-year-old watching Dallas Cowboys games with her father. She grew up playing basketball but used to throw the football around with her father.

It wasn’t until she stood out amongst the girls playing flag football against the boys that she realized she had some skills. Among her other interests are playing the piano, guitar and video games.

When Cisneros decided to sign up for the football team this season, she wasn’t given a free pass to make the roster and followed through on her commitment, Venice Coach Angelo Gasca noted. Some students have expressed interest in playing in the past and never returned, but Cisneros came back for practice, the coach said.

“Erica, to her credit, was persistent and she did come every day after that,” Gasca said. “When she got out on the field she never asked for any preferential treatment, and she never got any. She was tough and she stayed with it.”

When Cisneros learned that she had made the squad she said she was very proud and “couldn’t stop smiling,” a similar reaction she got from her father.

“He was very excited. I came home with my helmet and you could see the smile on his face,” she recalled.

Asked if she felt that it was unusual for a girl to be playing her position, Cisneros replied, “It’s a rough sport. You have to be tough to take a hit from guys and not a lot of girls can do that.

“Many people don’t think you can make it and they doubt you.”

But Cisneros notes that she is not out to make a statement by being on the team, she just wants to play.

“It’s something for me to have fun with. I’m not really trying to prove anything,” she said.

It’s that type of attitude and her dedication to the generally all-male sport that has earned her the respect of her teammates. She explained that players, particularly senior linemen Octavio Orozco and Michael Tessier have made sure to show her the correct defensive movements.

“We don’t think of her as an outcast or as a female, and we don’t give her any special privileges,” Orozco said. “She’s one of us. Whatever we do, she does it too.”

Venice special teams coach Richard Steinmetz commended Cisneros’ work ethic and said he has enjoyed having her on the team.

“She never gives up and she’s extremely persistent,” Steinmetz said. “She’s been extremely helpful to me.”

Gasca said he told Cisneros that she would get a chance to play when he felt that it was safe for her to be on the field, and that time came when the Gondos were leading 35-0 against host Palisades High School October 23rd. The school newspaper had just printed an article about her that day, and although her parents weren’t initially at the game, she called them from the sideline to tell them to be there.

“I asked him, ‘coach, are you serious,’” she remembers. “I was really nervous.”

Not only did Cisneros take part in two plays, she made a tackle in the game. Gasca said her teammates carried her off the field after the game, but the performance wasn’t enough for Cisneros, who “wanted a sack.”

The Gondoliers have since captured the outright league title and are in strong position to challenge for their ultimate goal, the Los Angeles City Section Championship.

Led by such players as wide receiver Jonathan McNeal and quarterback Alfonso Medina, the Gondoliers expect to be either the second or third seed in the playoffs and they are confident in their chances.

“It’s been a very good season but we still haven’t played our best,” Cisneros said. “I think we feel pretty good.”