“This game is so much fun”: high school girls wrap their arms around a new tackle football program

Nora Rittinger of Vortex is brought down by the Archers defence during a football game at SMF Field Tuesday. PHOTO BY MATT SMITH /Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Kevin Mitchell, Saskatoon StarPhoenix

On a beautiful fall night at SMF Field, Casey Lundquist tucked a football under her arm and found open space.

Lundquist, 15, played her first game of tackle football Tuesday, against other high school-aged girls — most of them also playing the pad-popping, full-contact version of the sport for the first time.

“It’s still unbelievable that I’m able to play here, and I wouldn’t have been, so many years ago,” Lundquist, a Grade 11 student at Clavet, said during a break in the action. “This game is so much fun. I don’t understand why they wouldn’t allow women to play.”

Tackle football was once an all-male preserve — the very notion of women blocking and tackling was seen as absurd — but on Tuesday, around 35 teenaged girls split into three teams. They played a series of full-contact six-aside controlled scrimmages, part of a new program operated by Saskatoon Minor Football.

They’d practised for a couple of weeks before that, learning the basics, and staged the coming-out party at SMF Field.

Lundquist, whose sister Drew plays for the Saskatoon Valkyries of the Western Women’s Canadian Football League, scored a couple of 70-yard touchdowns Tuesday in her two scrimmage games.

She’s spent parts of the last two weeks learning to both give and receive tackles, and she remembers her first contact vividly.

“It kind of rattled my brain,” she said with a grin. “But after a while you kind of get used to it. It’s still surprising every now and then, though.”

She’s asked if it felt a little intimidating at first, the idea of playing full-contact football — tackles and dodges happening in real time on the turf at SMF.

“Yeah, I would say so,” she said after wrapping up that first game. “But as soon as you get down in your ready position, you get that mentality — I’m going to get hit; I’m going to hit. That gets you through it.”

She smiled again.

“But it’s still something I’ve got to work on.”

Lundquist, whose favourite position is receiver, played for the Vortex. The other teams were the Archers and the Rogues. They’ve practised together the last couple of weeks, learning the basics of safe tackling and all the other things that go into playing the game the right way.

They’re part of a broader team called the Saskatoon Fate, a name that stems from a new program called Female Athletes Tackling Excellence. The FATE program is geared for high-school females.

Many of the players on that field Tuesday have played flag football. The tackle side is new for the vast majority.

“I did not have this opportunity, and it’s something I would have taken the bait on, for sure,” says Emmarae Dale, who is the first female to suit up for the Saskatoon Hilltops, a current member of the Valkyries, and a coach with the FATE program.

“I’ve loved football my whole life. There wasn’t even many flag opportunities for girls when I was a kid. It just … really wasn’t out there. But I would have been all over it.”

Lundquist’s embrace of the sport happened in part because of her sister’s experience with the Valkyries. She’s a bleacher regular at games both home and away. Several members of that team were at SMF Tuesday. The coaching staffs on the three squads were all-female; the announcer was female; the officiating crew was a mix of male and female.

And the players, of course, found their own place to play and tackle, with other high-school girls — a new thing for Saskatoon.

“Football can be an intimidating game. Anybody who’s played knows it can be a little scary at first,” Dale says. “It’s important to have female representation, people like them who have gone through it before. It’s really important for them to see they can coach too; that they can keep playing after they’re done high-school.

“We’ve come a long way,” she added. “There’s some amazing, strong girl athletes out there who are just looking for that sport to play. The perfect thing with football is it’s a sport for every type of body. It really is the ultimate team sport — a family, sisterhood type of sport. It’s no longer a sport where girls should just be sitting in the stands and watching.”

The program started this past spring, with a try-football day that drew 70 players from Saskatoon and area. They’ve staged regular workouts the last few weeks. At the end of October, the Fate will head south for a game with the Regina Victorias, who have played since 2018. In the meantime, class is in session. Coaches hope to play full games next week, instead of the controlled-scrimmage format they used Tuesday.

Players embraced the game, playing with a liberal dash of spark. Coaches stood nearby, helping with positioning and advice on the fly.

“It can be a little bit of a shell-shock going in, but it’s something we prioritize and emphasize — safe contact and safe tackling,” Dale says when asked about introducing players to the physical side of the sport. “The game of football has evolved so much, even from the time I started playing, in terms of proper technique in tackling. These girls are all super-quick learners. They’re all enthusiastic and smart, and they got the hang of it really, really quick.”

Which brings us back to Lundquist, who notes: “My sister keeps telling me that I’m going to be on this field one day, playing for (the Valkyries).”

If that happens, Tuesday was an awfully good start.

“Just to feel that energy with my teammates …,” Lundquist said. “I scored a touchdown, and everybody helped me get to that point. It’s something that’s just really great to feel.

“It was quite fun — all the skills we’ve been practising the last two weeks, and then putting them to work. It was quite something to witness.”