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The Powderpuff Girls The story of women's football at Western

WATERLOO — Western University was one game away from winning another football championship in February 2017. All eyes were on the London, Ont. team as they took on rivals McMaster University.

Western boasts a strong athletic program, regularly fielding a top-five men's football team in the country. They've won seven Vanier Cups since 1971, the second-most in the country behind Laval.

But this team wasn't the same Mustangs whose season ended earlier in November. This wasn't just another Canadian championship on the line.

A team of 40 women from Western earned their way to play in the Laurier Lettermen Powderpuff Tournament, held at Wilfrid Laurier University. Some called it their provincials. Others called it their Super Bowl.

The women's team was founded six years ago, creating space for women to play the male-dominated sport competitively at Western. This was their first appearance in the championship game. The players were high strung before the final, just like any of the Vanier Cups the men have played in.

"I think the atmosphere of that game is why you play football," second-year teachers' college student and wide receiver Rachel Woolley said. "Everybody is so excited to be there as a team, and you're going to support your team no matter what the outcome of the game is."

Haley Turner, Andrea Lee, and Jamie Quinn line up against McMaster's offensive line in the final.

They don't play the typical style of gridiron football popular in North America. A lack of funding for the student-volunteer team without varsity status prevents the use of expensive equipment like helmets and pads, a common occurrence in the few schools with women's football teams.

Instead, they play a version of flag football that includes contact, colloquially known as powderpuff. "It's semi-contact," Woolley said. "We're not tackling each other but there is contact at the line." The name originates from the pad used to apply cosmetic face powder, but the players reclaim the term to describe the heavy snow and frigid temperatures during most of their winter season.

Western had already won two games in the playoffs that day. With only one more to go, defensive coordinator Tom Liu displayed a combination of confidence and caution.

"We knew that McMaster was a very good team," Liu said. "We were also on a hot streak. We played two games against two solid teams. It's not like we were lacking in confidence…but we also understood the giant task that still laid ahead."

Fatigue from the grueling weekend was evident, but it wasn't going to stop them from the one game separating them from glory as the sun started to set.

"It's the last game of the day. You're tired. You're cold. You kind of leave it all out on the field," Woolley said. "That's why I play football. That's why a lot of the girls play football—for moments like that."

Clockwise from top left: Tabitha McGuire makes a jumping catch from a deep pass; Caitlin Caradonna runs with the football after receiving a handoff; Tom Liu leads Western in a huddle before their first playoff game; Niki Gleason (left) stares down her opponents before a play.

The journey to Laurier wasn't smooth sailing for Western. 7 a.m. practices were the norm, but some lived an hour away by bus and had classes as early as 8:30 a.m. Players had to prioritize their academics over football; some also had to juggle a job on the side. All the stressors involved in post-secondary education are exacerbated by the fact that the sport remains unrecognized by Canada's Best Student Experience.

For these reasons, some newcomers to the team saw the sport as recreational rather than competitive. They prioritized the social aspects of being on the team over playing the sport itself. The laid-back attitude didn't sit well with some of the long-time players.

"Powderpuff always meant so much to the veterans, and it was hard to get the same mentality among the rookies," kinesiology graduate and former defensive back Kelsey Shaw said. "It isn't a varsity sport, but at the same time a lot of the vets treat it as so."

Joining an established team with set values can be difficult for new players who want to fit in. Growing pains are always expected in a sport that's new to many. Blocking is expected and encouraged in powderpuff, but recreational and intramural flag football at Western doesn't have any contact.

Graduates leaving the team had left Western fielding an offensive line made up entirely of rookies who had never played powderpuff. Some played contact sports during high school, but skills didn't translate seamlessly to football. Head coach Morgan Burkett took extra care in getting the team ready for the battle in the trenches.

Head coach Morgan Burkett fires up his team in the huddle before the final game against McMaster.

Players started to appreciate the spirit of the team once they grasped the fundamentals of the game. Claire Linner trained with her father during the summer to prepare as a running back, but she was terrified of blocking. The third-year media theory and productions student eventually found her footing on the field.

"The first time I did a successful block was such a thrilling moment for me because I felt I was finally on the right track to getting better," Linner said. "I didn't think I'd enjoy it, but as soon as I started to do it correctly and I could hold my own, it was really cool."

The level of commitment increased as Western inched closer to tournament season. Teammates that were once hitting each other in scrimmages now had their chance to get in the faces of other schools, as explained by fourth-year business major and running back Jessie Io.

"You don't usually hit as hard when you're playing against your own," Io said. "Once you get rocked, they see that they really have to try to not get pancaked…I felt like once they saw that, they kind of got addicted to it."

Hard work and patience eventually paid off. While the road to the finals was bumpy, Western eventually became a cohesive unit that made their first ever appearance in the championship game.

Stories don't always have a fairy-tale ending. Western fell just short of lifting the trophy, losing by two touchdowns to McMaster.

It was a heartbreaking loss for Western, particularly for the players graduating from university. Reality started to hit as some began to realize they've just played their final snap of football with the team they dearly loved, even if they only joined in their last year of school.

"It makes me kind of sad. I wish I started earlier," criminology graduate and former defensive end Peggy Chan said. "At the end of the day, I'm happy to have done it at least than not done it at all."

After spending five seasons with the team as a coach, Liu was leaving Canada for veterinary school in New Zealand. For years, he watched players try to hold onto their memories for dear life before their present became their past.

"Afterwards they were taking pictures and trying to capture the moment," Liu said. "Once all the photo taking was dying and we started going back to the locker room, they started crying."

Western Powderpuff's graduating class of 2017. From left to right starting from top row: Madi Barsky, Adrienne Burwell, Katie Lonsdale, Maddie Bath, Haley Turner, Peggy Chan, Caitlin Caradonna, Kelsey Shaw, Alina Na, Jae Goor, Jordana Moss, and Alicia Baertsoen.

Players spent little time in beating themselves up over the loss. While a championship to close everything would have been much sweeter, they were proud of their accomplishments throughout the season, especially Woolley who was an undergrad at Laurier for four years.

"It was kind of amazing to come back to Laurier and to come second place," Woolley said. "It was pride that you could make it that far in a tournament against all these other girls."

The final meeting in the locker room was a chance to reflect on the season. Football had helped Linner manage her depression and anxiety. She took the time to appreciate her team with an emotional speech.

"I didn't want to say too much because it was my first year, and I didn't want to overstep the girls who were leaving," Linner said. "I just thanked them for how supportive they were, and just told them they really meant a lot to me this year especially."

Linner had moved to three different houses during the short season to get away from verbally-abusive roommates. Football at Western had served as an escape from troubled times in school, creating a lifelong sisterhood along the way.

"I thought it was going to be an extra-curricular because I like the sport, but [the team] actually became who I go out with, who I study with," Shaw said as she lamented over the fact that she was leaving the team after three seasons. "They're very much my inner circle at Western, and they're all from the team, which I'm really thankful for."

Some careers were over as the season ended, but the future was bright for the team. With an appearance in the finals, the bar had been raised for future teams at Western.

"I'm hoping this is only the beginning, and in the future, they will be able to go win it all and do more," Liu said as he closed the final chapter of his football career in Canada.

The players wear their team jackets proudly wherever they go. It proudly displays Western Women's Football over the heart to let everyone know who they play for.

When offensive guard Rhea Skowronski-Mattson was visiting a store while wearing her jacket, she experienced a touching moment with an employee who was excited to hear about the team.

The third-year kinesiology major excitedly repeated the stranger's words: "I'm going to have to tell my granddaughter that because her brother is telling her that he plays football, but she can't because she's a girl." Like a lot of clothes nowadays, the jacket is a strong statement, telling others that they play for their football-crazed school.

However, these jackets are different from the ones varsity athletes wear at Western. Rather than the official Western purple, the jackets for the women's football team are grey.

Because the school doesn't recognize women's football as a varsity sport, the team is unable to use official colours, and they cannot call themselves the Mustangs. Tournament fees and transportation are left up to the students, a lot of whom are in debt from tuition to attend Western.

Using Western's TD Stadium would be too costly to rent, so they practice in city parks that are more mud and ice than grass. They are also held at 7 a.m. since public spaces don't have lights for practices after sunset. They have to find ways to be self-sustaining to budget for their own equipment.

"It's not athletics or recreation equipment. You have to buy your own," Woolley said. "If the universities worked more closely with the teams, you would create a stronger bond."

Financial aid would really go a long way to help the team, but the players and coaches are simply looking for some respect. Their storied season was left uncelebrated at Western's year-end athletic banquet, leaving the team to host their own party for their achievements.

The powderpuff name also leaves the sport as the butt of jokes to those unfamiliar with the team. Hashtags in the players' social media posts sometimes leave viewers with more questions than answers, like for third-year criminology major and offensive tackle Tala Muktar.

"My aunt commented [on a Facebook photo] saying, 'Good for you, but I have to admit I laughed when I read powderpuff!'" Muktar said. "People ask, 'What the heck is powderpuff? It's so girly and flowery.'"

Very few spectators travel to other universities to watch the Western women compete. Hosting their own tournament in London could help in building awareness of the sport played in snow rather than makeup powder. "I think that would've been awesome for their friends and family to witness all their hard work," Liu said.

Clockwise from top left: Olivia Chevrette and Andrea Lee attempt to pull the flags of a Queen's University running back; a players' father is decked out in Western purple at the tournament; Western's offensive line pushes their opponents back in the semifinals; Jae Goor receives the snapped ball in the semifinals.

The second-place finish leaves the team hungry to avenge their loss, but upbeat about next season and life beyond football.

"A teacher once told me, 'If there was one thing you need to do, you need to play powderpuff,'" Woolley said. "I took that advice from her, and it was one of the greatest decisions I made in my university career." She plans to share the same advice with her future students while coaching both boys' and girls' football.

Although tryout notices are hard to find, the team hopes to recruit more players for future seasons to add to their family.

"When you have a group of 40 girls who are all feeling the same way, they're unstoppable," third-year environmental science major and centre Uma Dhir said. "Ever since I joined the team this year, I felt so strong. I feel like I can do anything because it's such a physical sport."

Football has been a male-dominated sport for a long time. The women at Western aim to change that mindset by continuing the tradition of winning football at the university, despite opposition from school officials.

"I think this is a great way to break the stigma around women in sports. We're here. We're tough. We're ready to play," Dhir said. "This is a thing. It's happening. Women play football. It's the 21st century."

It wasn't long until Western won their most coveted title. They were crowned champions in 2018, only one season after their first finals appearance at Laurier.

Tala, Peggy, Uma, Rhea, Jessie, Kelsey, Claire, Rachel, and Tom: thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about your team and the sport. Without you and the team's hard work, there wouldn't be a story to share.

Created by Jonathan Cheng, a sports writer and photographer based in Toronto. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Created By
Jonathan Cheng
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Words and photos by Jonathan Cheng

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