Laying the groundwork for future female football players in St. Albert is the game plan for the Valkyries.
It’s a daunting yet inspiring task for the team of 12 trailblazers in the inaugural season of the midget female spring league’s full contact six-on-six format in the Capital District Minor Football Association.
“It’s really cool. It’s kind of like being a pioneer for other girls in future generations,” said 15-year-old Lily Smith at Wednesday’s practice at Oakmont park. “We definitely want to do as well as we can and set a really good example for next year and the next people on the team and just kind of bridge the gap between boys and girls and show that we can do it as well as they can.”
The historic debut for the Valkyries was Friday’s exhibition against the West Edmonton Raiders at Clarke Stadium and the score was unavailable at press time.
“Everyone is really nervous, but once we touch the football we're not going to notice how nervous we are,” said Julia Baniak, 16. “Once we hit the field we're not going to know what hit us. We’re going to be so overwhelmed and we’re also going to feel the adrenalin hit us.”
Head coach Rob Patrick agreed.
“I keep telling them, ‘You’ve never done this before. You wait for that adrenalin rush, it’s something like you’ve never seen,’” said the St. Albert Minor Football Association president.
The four-team league is designed for females in Grade 9, 10 and 11.
“We’ve got a good group of girls who are excited to play football who also have different levels of exposure to football. Some of them didn’t really know anything about it but they’re here to try it. Some girls play all sorts of sports and girls that have never played sports so it’s a good mix,” Patrick said. “It’s interesting. It’s fun.”
Smith was pumped to huddle up on the gridiron with other females.
“I was told that I can’t play football because I’m not a boy and now we have a league of our own, which is really nice,” said the Grade 10 Bellerose Composite High School student. “I’ve always been into contact sports (wrestling and kick boxing) and I’ve always wanted to join football but I never did and then when I found out there was an all-girls team, I was like, oh yeah, I’m definitely joining.
“It’s really cool to have a team of girls like this. We can all connect with each other and become really good friends. It’s a really fun time.”
Baniak believes the Valkyries are trendsetters for the next wave of females in the sport.
“You don’t see a lot of female athletes anywhere so seeing the first female football six-on-six team in St. Albert is actually exciting. I’ve only ever seen one or two on a male team and that pressure you feel with the guys is ridiculous, but we can meet their standards especially if we push ourselves,” said Baniak, a Grade 10 St. Albert Catholic High School student who hails from a family passionate about football.
“My brothers (Justin and Kristoff) have been playing since they were little and my dad (Jonathon) is a huge football fanatic. I actually hated football for years because I felt like the pressure but then I was like I want to try it. I play rugby so I’m like it’s just pads, it’s not much different, and then I realized it really is kind of different.
“But it’s actually a lot of fun and the girls are meshing together really nicely,” Baniak added. “I’ve been on many sports teams and this one I actually feel the girls connecting and talking. We’re so easygoing and we like to help each other out. We’re easy to coach, too. You can ask a question and you get an answer.”
As for the team’s goals, “It’s to learn how to play football and learn the basics because not a lot of us know how to play. It’s about learning how to tackle, learning how to actually run with the ball properly and learning the plays and just everything in general,” said Baniak, noting “Everyone is playing defence and offence. Everyone is everywhere.”
Practices are “really hard core,” according to Smith.
“We do a lot of stuff at once and it’s really cool finding out what our strengths are and what our weaknesses are, and how we can help each other and how to become a better team and what positions work better for each person.”
The five-game schedule for the Valkyries, Raiders, Wetaskiwin Warriors and Leduc Wildcats ends May 11.
“There is only four teams in the league right now but if we have a great year and word gets around and girls tell other girls that hopefully it will expand and we can get bigger and bigger,” said Patrick, a big backer of the female midget league concept. “It’s something that’s long overdue. It’s been a long time coming.”
The number of players on the Valkyries doubled prior to the league opener.
“We were around six, seven for a little while and we were getting a little worried, but we went to the high schools and the junior high schools and we told them and we slowly recruited a few and one friend told another friend and word continues to travel,” said Patrick, who hopes to bring more females on board through the SAMFA information booth at the St. Albert Lifestyle Expo and Sale this weekend at Servus Credit Union Place.
In league play, the field is divided for two games with 30 minutes of running time per half.
“It will run very similar to how the CFL overtime runs. We start at the 45 (yard line) and then it’s a football game all the way down the field. If you score, you score and if you don’t, you turn the ball over and they start on the 45. There are no kickoffs, no punts and no extra points,” Patrick said. “It’s pretty close to a condensed rule book but it’s six-on-six so there is a lot of field and defensively it’s going to be really fast. There is going to be a lot of scoring.
“It’s a really interesting brand of football. It’s also a good introductory style of football. We play it for our young kids, our atom level kids which we also have a lot of girls playing, and it’s a good style to be able to expose every player to multiple positions so when you get into 12-on-12 traditional football here is your quarterback, here is your running back and so with these girls with six-on-six you can just say OK, today you’re going to try and play quarterback. With a smaller group you get more focused kind of training and attention and development so they all get to learn a little bit of everything and find their niche as they move forward.”
Ultimately, the wins or losses are secondary to exposing the sport to more females.
“Our goals are twofold. Our goal is to learn and develop and have fun and the other goal that all minor sports should be about, and minor football is no exception, is to make sure they come back the next year. You want to provide such a great environment and have such fun that they tell a friend and come back,” Patrick said.
The next game for the Valkyries is 9:15 p.m. Friday against Leduc at Clarke Stadium.
The first home game is April 26 at 8:15 p.m. against Wetaskiwin at Larry Olexiuk Field.