By Sean Trembath, The StarPhoenix
The Saskatoon Valkyries are going back to the Western Women’s Canadian Football League (WWCFL) Championship after defeating the visiting Regina Riot 35-21 in the WWCFL Prairie Conference Final at Griffiths Stadium on Sunday.
It was the hardest fight the undefeated Valkyries have had to face this year, with a back-and-forth first quarter and a late surge by the Riot.
“It’s neat for the girls to be able to experience that. Every game is not going to be easy, and you need to be able to react to that and figure out a way to win,” said Jeff Yausie, head coach of the Valkyries.
In the first quarter, Regina’s defence looked to have found a solution to a Valkyries offence that had outscored opponents 212-34 coming into Sunday’s game. Two of the first three Valkyries drives ended with turnovers on downs after Regina read the home team’s running plays perfectly and stuffed them.
On the other side of the ball, Regina had some good opportunities, but their receivers missed a few easy catches that would have been first downs, forcing them to kick the ball back to Saskatoon.
“Our receivers just weren’t catching the balls. I don’t know. They just didn’t play like they played in previous games and in practice,” said Jon Baxter, head coach of the Riot. Although they weren’t able to get out to their usual great start, the Valkyries didn’t get frustrated.
“I think that collectively we have enough sports experience behind us not to panic. If we would have panicked it would have been a completely different game. We didn’t come out firing like we have in the past, but you just kind of have to wait that lull out and get after it as soon as you can,” said Valkyries receiver Marci Kiselyk.
The lull ended on the very last play of the first quarter. Julie David, who has been a huge part of the Valkyries offence all season, caught a short pass from quarterback Candice Bloomquist and ran 51 yards for the touchdown.
The Riot fumbled the ensuing kickoff, giving the Valkyries the ball on the Regina 44-yard-line. After gambling on third down for a third time, and finally making it, Bloomquist capped the drive a few plays later with a 12-yard pass to Kiselyk.
“We got on a roll and started making some good calls and executing on offence, so we got rolling pretty good,” said Yausie.
At that point it looked like the Valkyries were set to dominate, as they have all year. The first half ended 21-0 thanks to a Julie Paetsch 15-yard touchdown run. Paetsch scored again in the third quarter, making a great catch and running for a 19-yarder to make it 28-0.
On defence, Katie Miyazaki had a brilliant game. The former Canada West defensive basketball player of the year had three interceptions, dropped a potential fourth, and had another called back on a pass interference call.
“Our coach prepared us really well for what they were going to do. I just have to believe in what they want me to do, and I was not biting on (Regina’s) fakes as much, getting deep and doing my job, because I believed the other 11 girls on the team were going to do theirs,” said Miyazaki.
Regina finally broke through early in the fourth quarter when quarterback Aimee Kowalski rolled to the right and ran 20 yards into the end zone. The Valkyries responded minutes later with a 13-yard touchdown run by David on an option play executed perfectly by Bloomquist.
The Riot started to gain some momentum late in the fourth, blocking two Valkyries punts and scoring twice on passes to Courtney Tafelmeyer and Erin Banbury, but it was too late to hope for a comeback, and 35-21 was as close as they could get it.
“We didn’t lose the game. We ran out of time,” said Baxter.
It was a disappointing end to the season for Regina, but the coach was impressed with how much improvement they showed this season over last year’s squad.
“(They were) much better, absolutely. Even with the loss of this game, there’s still a lot of good things we were able to let them know, and we were able to take away,” he said.
With the win, the Valkyries fulfilled the goal of reaching the championship game in Saskatoon. Having the game scheduled for Saskatoon acted as motivation all year for the team.
“It’s definitely very exciting. We have a great crowd here, they show their enthusiasm, and we can feed off them a little bit,” said Miyazaki.
The team has just six days to prepare for the Lethbridge Steel, who the Valkyries know very little about. The Steel went 4-0 during the regular season, outscoring opponents 95-40. They defeated the Edmonton Storm 20-0 on Saturday in Lethbridge to earn the spot in the championship.
According to Yausie, they will contact the Steel and offer to trade game tapes, but in the absence of any additional information, the Valkyries will just keep practicing the same way they have all year. After dominating all comers this year, the team is excited for a new challenge.
“I’m really looking forward to getting a kick at Lethbridge, because they’ve been running teams over in their conference, so I’d like to match up with them and show them what we can do,” said Kiselyk.
The WWCFL Championship will take place next Saturday at Griffiths Field, with kickoff at 7 p.m.
Statistics from Sunday’s game are available on page C6.