Canada prevails in semis of IFAF Worlds versus strong Finnish opponent

A very tough and improved Finnish opponent was on the gridiron for its semi-final against Canada. With a surprising 12-6 advantage at halftime, Canada was not going to overwhelm them as they did in their shutout win over Spain. Facing the opportunity to challenge the United States in the gold medal game of the 2013 IFAF Women’s World Championships, the stakes were high for both Canada and Finland.

Finland would score on their first drive of the game as Canada faced a 6-0 deficit early in the game. Quarterback Tiina Salo would have an impact throughout the game as national pride was on the line. Her 25-yard pass to Kirsti Nirhamo put the Finns in the red zone. Running back Elina Seppala would bang it in from three yards out for the score.

Montreal Blitz quarterback Saadia Ashraf earned the start for Canada. Having struggled with some incomplete passes in the win against Spain, she would complete three passes in Canada’s first scoring drive of the game. On the strength of three completed passes, she found Saskatoon Valkyries receiver Marci Kiselyk for the touchdown.

With a 6-6 tie after one quarter of play, the second quarter saw the defenses of both countries try to make things happen. Finland’s Laura Tennberg would sack Ashraf, the first sack allowed by Canada at the 2013 Women’s Worlds.

Running back Jenni Linden would find some strong opposition from the Canadian defense. Linebacker Emilie P. Belanger (also of the Montreal Blitz) forced a fumble on Linden, giving Canada possession of the ball.

As Canada’s offense could not capitalize on the turnover, the Finnish team gained more confidence. As time faded from the clock, Salo would organize a strong drive that helped the host country regain the lead.

Her 33-yard run was the key play in the drive as Canada’s defense struggled to contain her. Pauline Olynik eventually pushed her out of bounds. Employing a strong running attack, Finland continued to consume time on the clock, while Canada’s defense was struggling. Three consecutive first downs (including a 16-yard pass to Sari Kuosmanen) helped bring Finland back into Canada’s red zone. With 63 seconds left in the half, Kirsti Nirhamo scampered into the end zone for the lead.

The third quarter resulted in a change at the quarterback position for Canada. Aimee Kowalski, an elite field general in the Western Women’s Canadian Football League would assume the role of signal caller on Canada’s offense. Having also contributed to the Canadian team as a punter, she would help bolster the Canadian offense.

Ironically, Kowalski got Canada on the scoreboard with running and not passing. Employing the quarterback sneak, Kowalski cruised into the end zone for six points. Lara Guscott (the only Canadian competing in the Women’s Football Alliance) would earn the one-point conversion as Canada had its first lead of the game.

Once Finland gained back possession, Salo would also employ the running game. She tested Canada’s defense with a 23 yard rush. An 11-yard run by Linden would follow for another first down. Afterwards, Belanger would spoil Finland’s efforts.

Tackling Salo for a seven-yard loss, the Finns were on fourth down. Emma Hicks (the only woman to have played in both the MWFL and the WWCFL) would stop Seppala on a fourth down rush as Canada felt the momentum change.

Riding Kowalski’s rifle arm (she would connect with Alia Palmer on a 55-yard pass which not only gave Canada the first down); the Canadians were back in the red zone. On a five-yard run, Lya Jolicoeur earned her first touchdown. Canada’s drive consisted of seven plays, lasting three minutes and 20 seconds.

With the 20-12 lead, Canada did not look back. A pair of runs by Jolicoeur contributed to her second score of the game for another six points. As the minutes on the fourth quarter were fading, there was a sense of panic for Finland.

Gaining the ball back, Finland’s morale sunk as a turnover occurred on the first play. Salo was intercepted by WWCFL veteran Amy Mohr. Having competed as a quarterback in the WWCFL, Mohr returned the pick 13 yards.

With 4:34 remaining on the clock, David had a one-yard run for the touchdown for a 34-12 lead. Despite the setback, Salo was determined to bring Finland back. She had the offense running efficiently as she made a 15-yard run. She would follow with a 19-yard completion to Linden. Her efforts would be nullified on the next play as Julie Paetsch picked off the pass and returned it 31 yards.

Although Canada gained the advantage in first downs by a 19 to 15 margin, Finland managed to win some other statistical battles. Finland would gain 240 rushing yards on the ground, compared to only 117 on the ground. This was compounded by Finland’s 336 total yards, while Canada only logged 315.

The keys to victory were evident in Canada’s ability to excel in other statistical areas. On the powerful arm of Aimee Kowalski, the Canadian contingent had 198 passing yards, while special teams contributed with a sparkling 268 return yards on kickoffs, respectively.

In terms of individual stats,  Canada’s Alia Palmer led all players with 68 receiving yards. Julie David (Canada’s MVP in the victory over Spain) contributed again with an astounding 108 all-purpose yards performance.

Defensively, Canada’s leading tacklers were Elizabeth Thomson and Julie Paetsch (both teammates with the Saskatchewan Valkyries) as both logged 4.5 stops. Tea Tormanen was the leading tackler in the game for Finland.

Canada’s recipient for the Most Valuable Player Award of the game went to Lya Jolicoeur, whose touchdowns changed the momentum of the game for Canada. Quarterback Tiina Salo’s strong rushing performance earned the award for her team. Establishing herself as an elite competitor, Salo will look to helping the Finns defeat Germany in the bronze medal game.

A rematch three years in the making, Canada looks for golden redemption in the final match at the 2013 women’s worlds. As the United States pummeled Germany with a 107-7 score in the semis, Canada will need to play the game of their lives. Error-free football and strong special teams shall emerge as key factors for an ambitious Canadian team looking to stake their claim as the world’s finest.