‘It’s very empowering’

Saskatoon Valkyries defensive lineman Nichole LaVallee (87) pushes through the Regina Riot’s offensive line during a WWCFL game in Saskatoon. -- Louis Christ/Saskatoon Valkyries

Women grind out leadership roles on the gridiron in women’s football league

Her day job is teaching students at St. Mary high school.

When she’s not in front of a class of students in Prince Albert, Nichole LaVallee is on the d-line with the Saskatoon Valkyries, usually smacking opponents in the mouth.

The third-year defensive tackle is a member of the Western Women’s Canadian Football League, an eight-team women’s tackle football league that started eight years ago.

Over the past seven seasons, Saskatoon has won the most league titles (five), the most recent one being in 2016.

And though LaVallee is a bit newer to the league, she’s says she’s seen a lot of growth in the league – and women’s interest levels in playing tackle football – over that time period.

“During my second year, we had a huge amount of rookies, which was awesome. Last year our roster was at 64 girls. And seeing that, seeing 64 girls that actually wanted to come play, was awesome,” she said.

A player can only join a WWCFL team when she turns 18 years old.

LaVallee described how this season, too, girls from several of Saskatoon’s high schools are eager to join the Valkyries, but have to wait until they reach an eligible age.

To get around that for the time being, the girls practice with the team to get as much exposure as possible to the game.

“We get new people now. We get girls involved who come up from the flag program. Having that program in Saskatoon and having girls start so young, it’s really made a big difference,” in terms of the team’s growth.

Thinking about what it means to have a women’s tackle football league and be a part of women’s tackle football team, she said, “It’s very empowering, because you surprise a lot of people. People don’t think, especially with the way I dress everyday and the way I look, that I would be a person who could play football.

“It’s a great feeling when people come, they become more open to it, and they see how great we are and how great Saskatchewan female football players are … once they see that and they open their minds up, we have tremendous support.”

She said it means a lot to her and her fellow teammates to be making headway for athletic women in sport.

The goal now for the team and the league is to increase fan support and awareness, hopefully to where it’s at the same level as the Canadian Junior Football League and the well-known Saskatoon Hilltops, she said.

The Hilltops have won 20 national titles going back to 1953, including the last four consecutive ones from 2014 to 2017.

But LaVallee also emphasized she doesn’t want her contributions to sport to hinder or oppose male athletes succeeding, whether in football or otherwise.

She coaches the St. Mary Marauders senior boys football team.

By her estimation, it’s important for players, coaches and aspiring football players – whether boys or girls – to see her and other women in coaching positions, what she calls leadership roles.

For young female athletes aspiring to play football, that means letting them “know that that door is open for them, it helps them more … the more females you see in those positions of power, the more you’re getting females coming out.

“They’re more comfortable, because they don’t get singled out as much. If they have a female coach with them, it just seems like normal.”

For male athletes, and specifically football players, she said female coaches may know when “they need someone softer on them, or they’re having an emotional day.

“It’s not that we don’t want them to show emotion … just sometimes I think they need a different coach that day, they need a different perspective.”

A variety of coaches is good thing, she added.

Looking ahead for the league and her team, LaVallee said she wants to see the league keep growing with more female coaches and new players, and she wants the Valkyries to win another championship.

Right now, the team is 1-1. They next play the Manitoba Fearless on Sunday at 1 p.m. at Saskatoon’s Griffiths Stadium.

After their four-game regular season wraps up in early June, they’ll have a better idea of their playoff position for the postseaon.