Sarah Wright soars towards bigger role in Saskatoon Valkyries backfield

Originally published on Canada Football Chat:

Returning for a second season of Saskatoon Valkyries football, Sarah Wright took on a greater sense of confidence. With a breadth of experience that included both flag and touch versions of the game, the chance for the native of Saskatoon to graduate to tackle football, brought with it a very positive learning experience.

Playing in the hub of elite Canadian football, as the province of Saskatchewan has led the way in developing elite talent, enriching Wright’s experience with the Valks. Compared to her first season with the club, a significant aspect in Wright’s gridiron evolution involved taking on a bigger role, simultaneously emerging as a local hero.

Making the transition from fullback to running back, Wright displayed tremendous proficiency, adapting to her new role with a combination of alacrity and eagerness. Complementing such a willingness to learn and grow was the fact that the Valks tweaked their offensive attack. Changing from a formation that involved a pair of running backs, the club opted for a one runner in the backfield, establishing a featured back, it proved to be a role that suited Wright ideally,

“Going into last season with the Valkyries, though I have played many forms of football (i.e. flag and touch), I was not too certain about where I would specifically fit in on the team.

I started out practices as a receiver because that is was I was more used to but as time progressed some of the girls on the team suggested I try running back. I absolutely fell in love with that position and felt as I was helping my team more.

In my first year, I played fullback which was more blocking and power runs out of a two-back system. This year, we changed our offense formation to only have one running back and I think with that it motivated me to push harder at every practice to earn my playing time on the field.

By changing this formation, I believe that we had more options for run plays out of the backfield. In comparison to my first year I believe I came into the season more prepared as well as excited to try and win.”

Considering that the Valks welcomed many new faces to the season, Wright’s presence as a second year player also involved taking on a more mature role, evolving into a leader. Setting a positive example through work ethic, Wright’s assiduousness at the running back position also helped establish a crucial tone.

Reflecting on the fact that the running back position did involve several other players lining up in the backfield, mirroring an approach that saw players attempt numerous new positions this season, Wright’s presence provided consistency.

“There were a lot of changes throughout the season when it came to running back, we had lots of people moving in and out of positions right at the beginning and throughout the season as well, but mostly we had girls who were playing this position for the first time.

Being the only returning running back from the year before I felt like I somewhat put on a leadership role in ways of getting everyone excited to play this position and trying to prepare for the games.”

Taking into account that growth and evolution emerged as key themes in Wright’s second season of Valks football, such themes took on bigger meaning for the team in general. With the WWCFL adopting a new playoff format, as the top seed in each conference took on the second seeded team in the opposing conference, the Valks were lined up against the Western Conference’s Calgary Rage.

Leading up to the postseason, Wright would play a key factor. Amassing a brilliant performance against the Manitoba Fearless, highlighted by a 29-yard touchdown run, the regular season victory helped the Valks punch their ticket to an eighth straight playoff appearance, while avoiding its first-ever losing season.

The sense of achievement was one that encompassed Wright’s journey in 2018, progressively becoming an impact player and a key cog in the Valks’ offensive machine,

“Going into the game against the Fearless I knew that it would be a good, hard fought out game. Their football team has many strong and talented football players and I knew that this game was going to be challenging.

Throughout the season my goals included getting better each game and earning my touches so when this came around I knew that I had to be on top of my game and to put our team in good positions when I could. when the game finished it was an awesome feeling knowing that we got to go on to the next round of playoffs because we knew we were not finished yet. It was an awesome feeling.”

Disposing of the Rage in the semis, the Finals founds the Valks facing a highly familiar opponent. Renewing rivalries with the Regina Riot, whom they have opposed in the postseason during every year of WWCFL football, the first-ever All-Saskatchewan Final brought with it a heightened importance to the expanding presence of the WWCFL final in sporting Canadiana.
Worth noting, Wright would make her presence felt in the opening half, score the first touchdown in this highly historic championship game. Along with a 29-yard field goal by Carly Dyck, a member of Canada’s national women’s football team in 2017, the Valks boasted a 10-0 advantage. Although the Riot bounced back after halftime, claiming a 14-10 victory, the Valks assembled a valiant effort during an intense contest where both teams were evenly matched.

Reflecting on the championship game, Wright refuses to wallow in self-pity. Acknowledging that the team has been one in transition over the last few seasons, she is also quick to point out that the amount of new faces eager to build on the foundation established by many franchise luminaries has added a feeling of both pride and rejuvenation.

Praising the efforts of her teammates, refusing to quit in a game that demonstrated the high quality of play from both teams, it has only fueled Wright’s drive to return to the WWCFL’s biggest game in 2019. Geared towards attaining a sixth championship for the club, Wright’s determination is one that may fulfill the hopes and dreams of an entire fan base and organization. For opposing teams, the site of number 88 in the backfield next season may be poised to instill dread, ready to grow into the role of game changer.

“Being able to reach the final was a great feeling. I know our team lost some key players over the last couple of years but that only opened doors for others to shine. I could tell that our whole team was in it to win it and though the outcome of the game did not go as planned, every girl and coach put their heart and soul into that last game and that is all anyone could ever ask for. Playing in the final against our rivals was an awesome experience and I definitely think we can make it there again next season.”

“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”

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.