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”

Delayne Aiken part of Saskatoon Valkyries bright rookie class

Originally published on:

With an influence that grows with each successive season, another aspect that has experienced growth in the lore of the Saskatoon Valkyries has involved the number of millennials gracing the gridiron. The 2018 Valkyries season brought with it a number of highly enthusiastic young women eager to build on the green and white’s proud gridiron legacy.

Among such a group included Delayne Aiken, experiencing the gridiron game for the first time in her athletic endeavors. Donning the number 20 during her inaugural campaign with the Valkyries, the apt Aiken amassed playing time, her confidence growing with every subsequent contest.

Of all the contests that saw Aiken grace the gridiron, the playoffs presented her with a series of new challenges, featuring an entire new concept in the league’s postseason structure. For the first time in league history, the playoffs consisted of conference cross-overs, with the first place team in each conference (Prairie and Western) facing the second place team from the opposing conference.

Such a setting provided Aiken with a unique milestone. In addition to competing in her first-ever playoff game, she would also experience the challenge of opposing a team in the Western Conference for the first time in her promising career.

Providing the opposition was the defending Western Conference champion Calgary Rage. While the ambitious Rage has aspirations of returning to the WWCFL finals for the second consecutive year, Aiken and her Valks teammates denied them such goals. Despite a Valks roster struggling with injuries, the collective effort against a highly competitive Rage squad provided Aiken with tremendous inspiration, definitely the finest hour this season for the proud club.

“This was my first season with the Valkyries, and I had the privilege to play as much as I was able to during the season. Playing against the Calgary Rage was definitely a different experience compared to our regular season games.

There was a different element of knowing it was our time to play our hearts out or to be done for our 2018 season, the weather at times was not the most ideal at times of the game but I believed we put our best foot forward and played with our highest ambitions. I believed we played one of our best games against Calgary, despite the injuries and hardships that we faced.”

Reaching the WWCFL Finals for the unprecedented sixth time in franchise history, it provided Aiken with a celebrated milestone. Gaining the opportunity to play for a league championship represents a rare pinnacle for any first-year player. Understandably, there was the obligatory feeling of nervousness.

Intensifying the sense of competition on this day was the fact that it marked the first-ever All-Saskatchewan meeting in WWCFL Finals history. Also marking the eighth consecutive postseason meeting between the Valks and their eternal rivals, the Regina Riot, the first seven took place in the Prairie Conference championship game.

“The championship game was one of the most nerve racking experiences that I have ever had. This was the do or die of the season, but we played definitely the best games of football I believe in the entire season against the Riot.

There were a lot of mixed emotions of pride and fear going into the championship. Proud of my team, proud of myself, proud of our coaching staff and our fans who supported all of us the entire season. The fear was of making mistakes, doing the wrong thing and losing the game.

Although we did not win the championship this year, I am ready to take on next year with full intentions of bringing the trophy to Saskatoon.”

Becoming part of the premier rivalry in Canadian female football, the chance to play against the Riot represented a “Welcome to the WWCFL” moment for Aiken. The realization of this rivalry, and its meaning in Canadian sporting lore, is one that served as one of the defining elements of what it meant to suit up for the Valks.

Although the Riot captured their third championship in franchise history, part of a shared dynasty between both clubs, each having won every title in WWCFL history, the opportunity has only furthered Aiken’s dreams of gridiron glory. Taking into account that the match was a highly tense defensive struggle, the Valks certainly played with determination and heart. In spite of the final score, Aiken was proud of the effort, subsequently gaining the invaluable experience of what it meant to compete in the league’s biggest match.

“The Regina Riot are a strong team, they have been working hard in the season, just like any other team in this league. Playing against Regina, I never knew that there was a rivalry, but when I found out, it just made that experience a heightened suspense.

There was a lot more expectation I think of myself. To make sure that I made my best efforts and did what I was supposed to, because the plays you made, ultimately were shown through in the final scores. Playing them just shows how competitive you have to be and how much passion you have for your team and this sport to be able to put up a good fight.”

During such a sensational season, one filled with many “firsts” in Aiken’s career, perhaps the most treasured moment involved the obligatory sense of camaraderie that encompasses the football experience. As the women of the WWCFL also engage in commendable volunteer work, participating in fund raising while looking to make their community a better place, the social aspect was just as crucial towards allowing for an enjoyable transition on the gridiron for Aiken.

Looking back on such a formative time, Aiken also discusses how the quick bonding on the field added to the sensation of competing in such an adrenaline-filled sport. Time spent in the huddles and in the trenches enriched the experience, truly gaining the satisfying feeling of being a gridiron goddess. As the Valkyries continue to build for the future, they have the potential for a true mainstay in Aiken,

“My favourite moment of the season, gee, that’s a hard one. I think my biggest thing was getting to know my team, and getting to feel that love and support from so many empowering women.

I would have never thought that I would play football, let alone enjoy it. I absolutely fell in love with the game, and the emotions and thrills you get from having the privilege to play this sport is phenomenal. I think the best moments were in the huddles, being together with your team, getting amped up for the next play and just focusing on what your job is on the field.

The best moments are the ones you get to share with your team, whether it is at practice, doing volunteer work, getting ice cream together or just spending time visiting with each other. It is an amazing sport, with so many empowering women, and it is a great way to stay in shape.”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”