Rookie sensation Julianna Keys jubilant in championship season for Regina Riot

Originally published on Canada Football Chat:

Part of a superlative rookie class for the Regina Riot, Julianna Keys was hardly a novice player when she donned the club’s iconic colors. Akin to many young players eager to make their mark in the Western Women’s Canadian Football League (WWCFL), Keys brought a competitive background to her gridiron endeavors.

At the high school level, Keys competed in flag football throughout all four of her years. Displaying a tremendous proficiency at the sport, she was encouraged to attempt the tackle version of the game at the suggstion of her high school coach; Payton Kuster, one of the Riot’s luminaries.

“I have played flag all four years of high school and loved it; with my coach being a player on the Riot that was how I got introduced to women’s tackle football.”

Gaining a spot on the Riot’s roster as a running back, the number 27 adorned on the back of her jersey, Keys was part of a highly talented backfield that included Carmen Agar, Carly Kentz and Mallory Starkey. As a side note, Agar and Starkey have also appeared for Team Canada at the IFAF Women’s Worlds.

Appearing in her first game for the Riot, Keys reflected on the fact that she had mixed emotions upon gracing the gridiron of the WWCFL. While there were the obligatory elements of nervousness, there was also a sense of adventure, thrilled at the prospect of graduating to a much more competitive version of the game.

Abandoning the flags from her high school years for the shoulder pads of a much more intense game, Keys was eager to run for daylight each time that she was given the ball. Enjoying the fact that she was able to transfer the preparations from training camp into actual game day action, she also balanced her duties on offense with playing time on special teams, returning kickoffs.

“Honestly it was both nerve wracking and really fun. Going into our first game I still did not fully know all of the rules and I basically just learned them as they came up during each play, so my coaches were very understanding with all my rookie questions.

Yet, every series I got on for running back was awesome and it was nice running our plays we practiced for months against a new defence. The nerve wracking part for me was returning (on special teams), because there was so much pressure, but once I caught the ball, I just ran and all the nerves were gone.”

As the season progressed, Keys not only acquired confidence, but a group of role models, inspiring her to push herself to be the best player possible. In addition to finding a group of mentors in her fellow running backs, Kuster remained an invaluable influence for Keys.

Calling her high school coach a teammate, Keys enjoyed the fact that Kuster was also a participant on special teams. Undoubtedly, that influence was also integral towards Keys absorbing the Riot’s commendable team culture, one that has transformed players into champions.

“I definitely look up to Payton Kuster because she has been my flag coach for the past four years at LeBoldus and the person who said I should try out the Riot. I also played returner with her, so she helped me so much on and off the field and taught me a lot about football.

I also look up to my fellow running backs Carmen Agar, Mallory Starkey, and Carly Kentz; they taught me so much about the position so I really looked to them for pointers and feedback. Honestly, the whole team and coaching staff is so welcoming and helpful.”

By season’s end, Keys enjoyed a unique milestone that very few rookies ever experience. In addition to capturing the WWCFL championship in her inaugural season, such status was enhanced by the fact that the Riot went undefeated.

Having enjoyed such a sterling mark, it truly embodied the meaning of a “dream season” for the jubilant Keys. Certainly, the proud presence of Kuster served to extend an enjoyable time that has seen Keys grow in her gridiron odyssey alongside her.
Benefiting from the opportunity to win a title alongside her former high school coach only enhanced an already memorable season, which Keys hopes to build upon with greater glories ahead.

“It was incredible to win a championship my first year with such an amazing team and be able to contribute what I could on the field! Also to be a rookie and get playing time was awesome and I just had a blast every play. Overall, I could not have asked for a better first season with the Riot.”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”