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."
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."
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.
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.
Words and photos by Jonathan Cheng