It’s a busy schedule in the next few days: six games Thursday night followed by a crucial Sunday afternoon meeting between two rivals.
Just 10 years ago, all of this – seven different tackle football games in both the Manitoba Girls Football Association and the Western Women’s Canadian Football League – would have seemed like a far-fetched fantasy.
Well, there are days when even MGFA Commissioner Tannis Wilson can’t wrap her head around the rapid growth of women’s football in this province.
“And yet as much as we’re growing,” began Wilson in an interview with bluebombers.com, “our biggest issue right now is just getting people to know that we exist.”
Here’s a start:
- The MGFA, founded six years ago, was the first program in the world to offer girls aged nine to 16 the chance to play against girls. It is a spring league that allows girls to compete against each other and not conflict from playing against boys in the Manitoba Minor Football Association in the fall.
The MGFA began play in 2011 with three teams – the East Side Eagles, St. Vital Mustangs and Charleswood Broncos – and now has eight teams at the Senior level (aged 13-16), including the Eagles, Mustangs Red and Mustangs Black, Broncos and also the North Winnipeg Nomads, St, James Rods, Interlake Thunder and Sunrise Coyotes. The Nomads, Eagles, Thunder and Mustangs also run teams at the Junior level (9-12). All games feature six women on the field per team and as registration grows, the plan is convert to games with nine players per side.
- The WWCFL, meanwhile, is the largest full-tackle women’s football league in Canada with seven teams in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba: the Calgary Rage, Edmonton Storm and Lethbridge Steel comprise the Western Conference while the Saskatoon Valkyries, Regina Riot, Manitoba Fearless and Winnipeg Wolfpack make up the Prairie Conference.
This Sunday, the Wolfpack play host to the Fearless at Nomads Field, one week after the two met at Investors Group Field.
Here’s a look at three different perspectives on the state of the women’s game in this province…
Tannis Wilson – Player-To-Coach-To-Executive
Tannis Wilson isn’t only the commissioner of the MGFA, her fingerprints are also all over the WWCFL. And if you know any of her family, that’s hardly a surprise.
Her father, George, a former President of Football Manitoba and a VP of Football Canada, was also the president of the Mustangs and is the Football Manitoba Hall of Famer. Brother, Geordie, is currently the head coach of the Winnipeg Rifles and a long-time fixture on sidelines in this town. Her nephew, Troy, is also a member of the Rifles.
Just FYI, Wilson started playing flag football when she was 16 and played for 25 years. Upon learning a tackle team was being started in Calgary, she headed west on a fact-finding mission.
And the Manitoba Fearless were born from that visit.
The Fearless didn’t have a league to play in at first – the two teams were based in Calgary and Edmonton – and so they headed to Alberta for a tournament. They beat Edmonton, crushed Calgary and then lost in the last minute against a combined Alberta squad.
In their second year, the Fearless played against the Minnesota Vixens of the Independent Women’s Football League in the United States and the third season saw Edmonton and Sioux City, also of the IWFL, come north to Winnipeg.
Wilson & Co. then pushed to have an inter-provincial league and, after teams were formed in Saskatoon and Regina, the idea took root.
But it wasn’t without some arm-twisting.
“We’re kind of tenacious bitches around here,” said Wilson, who was the WWCFL’s first commissioner, with a chuckle. “I’ve been involved in football my entire life. It’s one of those things… if you’re not tenacious and you don’t have the title of ‘bitch’ you’re probably not working hard enough.
“It’s an old-boys club out there. You can’t let those guys push you around, but there is a lot of support for the women’s programs once people find out about us. They want their daughters to follow in dad’s footsteps.”
The women in the WWCFL range in age from 16 to 50 and pay $500 a year to play. And Wilson’s goal – not only with the Fearless and the WWCFL, but with the MGFA as well – is spelled out clearly in the tag line she uses on her e-mail signature:
‘Breaking Stereotypes, one yard, one tackle, one touchdown at a time.’
“The girls come from everywhere,” Wilson explained. “There’s lots of women out there that were in the same boat and thought they wanted to play football.
“When people come out and watch the girls play they recognize how good they are at the game. It’s a different game, it’s a finesse game. But women are great at the strategic parts of it. I’ve coached boys in various sports, but girls, they’ll ask a million questions because they want to do it right.
“We tell our coaches to teach them, but teach them right because they want to do it properly.”
It’s working. Winnipeg is the only city in Canada with two teams – the Fearless and Wolfpack – and the Manitoba Women’s Foundation all-women’s officials clinic has also doubled the number of female referees in the country, with a third of them based here in the Keystone province.
Breanne Ward: From The Dance Floor to the Gridiron
It’s funny what a chance meet at a Blue Bombers game can do to change a person’s life.
Breanne Ward was attending a game with her dad six years ago when a player from the WWCFL’s Fearless who was volunteering at the game asked if she would be interested in playing football. The following spring she was on the field at training camp.
And she was hooked.
“I was taking dance classes at the time,” Ward recalled in a chat with bluebombers.com. “I had played every sport in high school (in Lundar) other than hockey and ringette.”
Ward’s first season with the Fearless was in 2012 and she made her first attempt to make the Canadian national team that competes for the International Federation of American Football’s World Championship.
But she was one of the final cuts. And, it turns out, that fuelled her to chase this even further. Ward began training harder, adding Olympic lifting to her routine while working out at the University of Manitoba’s Bison Athletic Development Program.
She also made the decision to try out for the St. Vital Mustangs Majors – men aged 18-22 – and that experience hardened her physically and emotionally.
“I knew I probably wouldn’t see the field, but I was at every single practice,” said Ward, who has a full-time job as an X-ray technician at Health Sciences Centre. “I wanted to toughen up and not be so soft on the field.
“It was scary at first. At my first practice they had us tackling in an open-field drill and I remember one of my friends had to tackle me and he didn’t really want to hurt me. My coach chewed him a new one and when he hit me after that I remember flying through the air and then just lying there thinking ‘This is what every practice is going to be like.’ They were nice guys, but they didn’t go easy on me.
“I can remember after practices crying on the way home because I hurt so much and I sucked compared to them. It got a little bit easier by the end of the season, but they definitely toughened me up.
“There was no way I was going to quit. I didn’t want to be known as a quitter. And I’m really, really stubborn. Plus, the guys on the team were so supportive. They really pushed me and helped me get stronger and build my mental resilience.”
Ward also fast-tracked her learning by studying formations whole playing EA Sports Madden NFL Football.
“When I first started playing I was an offensive lineman,” said Ward, who spent two years with Fearless but is now a defensive lineman with the Winnipeg Wolfpack. “I knew how to down block, search block and all that stuff. But I couldn’t tell you what a slant was, I couldn’t tell you what a hooks-curl was.
I had no idea what Cover 3, what Cover zero was. So, I went on Madden and would pick the plays to see I would be in for certain defensive coverages and where the routes were being run. It helped give me a basis for the game.”
Ward is one of the many examples of the booming tackle game here in Manitoba. This past winter she tried out for Team Canada again, and made it. Next month she’ll join the rest of the girls in Langley, B.C. for a training camp and the IFAF World Championship tournament, which runs June 24th-30th.
Canada’s roster also includes defensive end Mubo Ilelaboye, defensive tackle Christine O’Donnell, linebackers Allysa Buckland and Jill Fast – all of the Wolfpack – while defensive tackle Alexa Matwyczuk and defensive back Amanda Myall of the Fearless are on the reserve roster.
“It’s going to be so exciting to pull on that jersey,” said Ward. “This is my passion now. It’s a priority for me. I honestly don’t know what I would be doing without football. I’d be very bored because it is such a huge part of life.”
Craig Bachynski: A Coach Never Stops Learning
It’s been 31 years of coaching for Craig Bachynski and so it stands to reason that in over three decades of roaming sidelines all over this province and country he would have seen and heard just about everything.
And yet this Certified Level 4 coach – who is the Winnipeg Rifles defensive coordinator and linebackers coach and has worked with the national women’s team at two world championships – insists he continues to learn while working with the women of the Manitoba Fearless as their head coach.
“It’s a totally different environment when you go from one to the other,” said Bachynski who, when he isn’t on the football field, is a Project Manager with the Number Ten Architectural Group. “Women are very detail oriented. With the guys I coach they don’t question you, but they trust you know what you’re doing and that you’ve done your research.
“Girls are more intuitive. They ask a lot more questions. I spent a lot more time answering questions about strategy and the whole idea of the game.
“It’s made me pretty humble. It’s made me review and re-examine the things we’ve done. I’ve been at this for 30 years now and you just follow along sometimes with a process you started a long time ago, especially if it’s been successful.
“This makes you re-evaluate. It’s ‘Am I doing the right things for the right reasons?’ It’s excellent for a coach to go through that process.”
Wilson, Ward and Bachynski will all be involved in Sunday’s Fearless-Wolfpack showdown. And all have seen the tremendous growth of the women’s game in this province.
There’s only more to come, too.
“It’s amazing how much it’s grown,” said Bachynski. “I was part of the Team Canada coaching staff in 2010 and 2013 and every year you see these incremental steps… this has offered women the chance to participate at the world level.
“There’s been a drastic improvement in the skill level. The interest has grown and with that so has the level of the coaching. There are far more women coaches involved now and more high-level coaches.
“But the biggest thing is what Tannis said: we still need to get the word out. We’ll bump into somebody or be socializing or be at a practice and we get ‘I never even knew there was women’s tackle football?’
“Well, there is. And it’s getting bigger and better every day.”
For more info on the MGFA: http://www.manitobagirlsfootball.com/
For more info on the WWCFL: http://www.wwcfl.ca/