First Western Conference title captivating achievement for Calgary Rage

Players and coaches of the Rage sharing in the joy of a postgame celebration (Photo credit: Candice Ward)

As 2017 signified the seventh sensational sensation for the Western Women’s Canadian Football League (WWCFL), it was a lucky number in terms of unfolding history. Fielding the most successful team in franchise history, the Calgary Rage captured its first-ever Western Conference championship, resulting in a watershed moment.

While the first six seasons saw the Edmonton Storm and Lethbridge Steel maintain a stranglehold on conference supremacy, the rising Rage fulfilled its promise. After appearing in the 2016 Western Conference championship game, it was a springboard towards greatness for a determined group of women wearing the Rage colors.

This riveting “Red and Black Attack” made its mark in multiple ways in 2017. Such a colorful yet admirable cast of characters became the city’s darlings, capturing the imagination of its fans. While the sense of belonging and family on the team allowed for a happy go lucky image, this assembly of gridiron gladiators remained dedicated towards the values of hard work and cooperation, ever inching towards greatness.

As the fifth charter team in league history to win a conference title, the Manitoba Fearless and Winnipeg Wolf Pack remain in the hunt for a title, the Rage now look to build on this historic achievement. Challenging the Regina Riot in the WWCFL championship game, the Rage hope to become the first team from the Western Conference to win it all.

The chance to make history is one that exemplifies the thrill that comes with gracing the gridiron for Courtney Dawson. Euphoric over such a meaningful victory, her emotions reflect a sincere love of the game, complemented by a mutual respect for those who don the Rage colors,

“I feel like every time we step onto the field we make history for women’s tackle football. To be part of something so big is very humbling. I am very excited to see the competition, and to make another stamp in history for the Calgary Rage.”

The road to the Western Conference championship began on April 29, as the Rage graced the gridiron for the first game of the 2017 WWCFL season. Emerging victorious in a hotly contested 25-21 home final against their southern Alberta rivals, the Lethbridge Steel, it helped to start the season on a very strong note.

Considering that the team which finished in first place in the Western Conference would gain a berth in the WWCFL title game, each game brought with it high stakes. The following week, the Rage would encounter an even bigger test, taking on the defending conference champion Edmonton Storm.

Having played the Storm in the 2016 Western Conference championship game, the result would be a strong indicator of how the remainder of the season would likely progress. Defeating their biggest rival by a 33-21 tally, home field advantage benefitted the squad once again.

A rematch with the Steel on May 13 was not unlucky for the Rage. Decimating their opponents by a 42-2 score on the road, it was evident that the Rage were riding an amazing wave of momentum, enjoying one of the greatest starts in franchise history. Unfortunately, such a start came at a high price, as Tamara Delong, one of the team captains was shelved for the remainder of the season,

“I suffered a Tibia Plateau Fracture in our Game to Lethbridge on May 13. Yet, despite the new plate and screws in my leg, I was able (with help from Alicia, graciously driving me to the final game) to be a part of the team with the girls on the sidelines, when we took the title.

Any hopes of punching a ticket to the WWCFL final had to take place against Edmonton on May 27. Although the Storm had a 1-1 mark entering the game, it had one game in hand, hosting the last game of the season against Lethbridge on June 3. With the Rage on the road, a loss could potentially jeopardize their hopes of finishing in first place.

Needing a win to assure their place in the finals, it was one achieved through an amazing team effort which saw everyone contribute in a dramatic, yet heroic finish. With a halftime score of 14-all, the Rage would draw first blood in the second half, scoring the third quarter’s only touchdown. While a stringent Storm roster managed to tie the score early in the fourth quarter, there were plenty of more fireworks to come.

As neither team managed a lead of more than one touchdown, it was indicative of the kind of intense rivalry between these two, one of the finest in league annals. As the clock ticked down, the Rage would reclaim the lead with seven minutes remaining. Showing bravura by attempting a two-point conversion, such ambitions were refuted.

Facing a six point deficit, the persistent Storm managed to tie the score at 27-apiece, while running down the clock. Successfully making the two-point conversation, it was not only a direct rebuttal at the Rage’s prior effort, it also signified the two-minute warning.

With quarterback Becky Heminger showing great poise, the Rage refused to panic. Successfully navigating through the hostile defense of the Storm, it would prove to be Heminger’s finest hour as she led the Rage into red zone territory, successfully placing six points on the scoreboard with their fifth touchdown of the game.

Making the extra point with 35.2 seconds left, the Rage defense ensured that it would not be enough time for the Storm to mount a comeback, as the final score reflected a 34-29 final that also secured the Rage’s place as the feel-good story of the 2017 WWCFL season.

The emotion of such an exciting outcome in the Western Conference championship game may be best exemplified by Tamara Delong. Her approach to the game mirrors those of her teammates; not only does she crave it, but she consumes it and works tirelessly to improve at it. Despite being sidelined with an injury that shelved her for the remainder of the season, her constant tenacity, perseverance and resiliency embodies her status as one of the team captains, remaining faithful to the cause even through injury.

Players like Delong put into perspective why women are making significant inroads in the gridiron game. In the post-game celebration, adorned in her number 27 jersey, Delong’s presence was heartwarming. With the team engaged in a celebratory photograph, she is in the middle of this circle of admiration, jubilantly holding the trophy. Reflecting on this career highlight, she is quick to praise her gracious teammates,

“I am so proud of this team. What a year. From a record high roster, to a full new Coaching staff, it has been monumental to see our team sore to become Western Conference Champions.
Melissa said that I was still the loudest defense player even from the sidelines. That did my heart good. I am so proud to be part of this team. I am so proud of these girls. The team has come so far. It is absolutely amazing.

I was lucky to be there and be part of the on-field celebration. We might have had the most beaten up group of Captains, but the four of us were there to receive the trophy and hand it over to the team! What a feeling. What joy and happiness! That saying about ‘leaving it all on the field’, that is exactly what RAGE did in that final game against Edmonton.

Pulling off the win in the last 2 minutes…no one quit and everyone gave it every ounce of willpower they had. I have never seen that much dedication. Rage meant it! We were going to pull out everything to win. And we did. It was a nail-biter…whoa…I could hardly stay in my wheelchair!”

In looking at the Rage’s gradual rise towards this unprecedented pinnacle, such a progression runs parallel to the fascinating career of Alyssa Quinney. A novice to the game five years ago, she now stands shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the game’s luminaries. For such a competitor, the struggle endured to reach this plateau only makes the feeling of achievement and fulfillment that much sweeter. Quinney’s status as one of the game’s stars is truly a great tale of perseverance, poised to grow in legend.

“We pulled together and worked our asses off for something bigger than our individual selves. I still cannot really put into words how that moment felt. When we walked off the field after our last defensive series, knowing we won. All I could do at that moment was ugly cry, really. I will never forget it.”

2017 WWCFL championship game ad (Image obtained from Facebook)

Photographing all the action on this memorable day was the incomparable Candice Ward. Having served as the official team photographer for five seasons, Ward is an essential part of this organization. Undoubtedly, her annual collection of player portraits became more than just a remarkable amalgam of sport and art, it became an impromptu marketing tool, raising awareness that women play the game, while adding a human element that only endeared such players to the novices of female football.

With an amazing body of work that reflects both consistency and a commitment to quality, Ward’s brilliance makes her an honorary “12th person”. Literally holding the best view at the games, Ward’s vision has produced an amazing visual chronicle of the game’s growth, while composing a portfolio that reveals a rich narrative which is the team’s backbone.

Considering that Ward’s career as one of the finest photographers in Western Canada has run parallel to the evolution of the Rage as an elite club in the WWCFL, there is definitely a sense of a shared victory. Although Ward maintained her amazing professionalism, the fact that she made the pledge to attend the road game displayed an admirable dedication to the team,

“As a photographer, you are not supposed to cheer on the sideline, but as a team photographer, I feel you can bend those rules a little bit. I was extremely proud of these women for achieving this goal. I have only been with the team for five seasons, but this is the best that I have seen them play since I have started with the team.

When the win happened though, I focused on getting the best, storytelling images I could in the moment, versus getting excited. For me, that is not the time to celebrate; that is their time. Also, I knew they could do it and that is why I requested to join them on the road for that game. Glad I did!”
One day, this breakthrough shall be looked upon as part of the city’s sporting nostalgia, held in the same revered esteem as the Calgary Inferno’s Clarkson Cup championship, or the dominance of the Calgary Dinos university women’s ice hockey team.

With a growing element of well-deserved local media coverage, the unfolding narrative of the Rage has not only tapped into the pounding pulse of a devoted sports city. Destined to see a growing fan base, their profound impact paints a vivid portrait, becoming part of both Calgary and Alberta’s sporting tapestry.

Proud to have been part of such a historic season, Michelle Baird is among the many women in the WWCFL that also balances the responsibilities of both football and being a mom. Possessing a competitive background in other sports, her competitive fire burned brightly. Bringing an amazing set of instincts and a desire to win, Baird’s high energy complemented the sense of confidence that was evident in the clubhouse.

Baird reflects on how the focus at opening kickoff was not on the scoreboard. The philosophy on this day was to execute all plays properly and refuse to be complacent. It was a strategy that saw everything come into place as the final score read victory for the radiant Rage. With the adrenaline rush of an undefeated regular season, and the victory over archrivals, the Edmonton Storm, it brought with it an amazing sense of attainment.

“Having gone in with a 3-0 record, we knew that we could beat them, but also that they would be gunning for us hard. We really just needed to play our game and that’s what the captains spoke about in the locker room just before stepping out onto the field.

Every one of us, coaches especially, did everything in our power to make sure that we were as prepared as possible before we left Calgary. You could tell at the end of the game that there was absolutely zero left in the tank and our team heart bled rage. I’ve honestly never been a part of something so special in my 20 years of competitive sports. It did not even hit me until everyone ran out onto the field after the final whistle that we had just won the conference championship.

Our team was so focused on just winning each play, each quarter. It was such a close game the whole time that I did not even know what the score was for most of it and I did not see anyone else looking back at the scoreboard either. From the very first play, our defense was playing lights out, as we knew we had to shut them down early and often, and our offence just would not quit and showed what we were made of until the dying seconds.

I cannot say enough about our QB. When I think about watching her play that night from the sidelines, it is the perfect representation of what we’ve all been working for. We’ve been preparing for not only this, but June 10th, since our very first camp in January. So when Coach Carlo came to talk to us after the game, the emotions just took over everyone. We were confident that we could win the title because we kept our eyes north all season, and lived our motto: One team. One beat. One mission.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

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