O’Leary: Red River Cup shows growth in women’s football
History was made this week at IG Field in Winnipeg.
It wasn’t the Blue Bombers putting a new chapter in the history books. It came through upwards of 100 players and coaches, taking part in Canada’s first inter-provincial girls tackle football tournament.
The Red River Cup wrapped up on Wednesday night, with Manitoba’s Team Black winning the Under-18 six-aside tournament, beating Manitoba’s Team Gold 68-62. Ava Rattana was the game’s defensive MVP, while Aashanti Tshiovo took the offensive MVP award.
Manitoba’s two teams played against a pair of teams from Saskatchewan — one team Green, the other White — to get what tournament organizers are hoping is the first of many summer meetings to come.
“Alberta held their first-ever girls tackle program this year,” said Maggie Yestrau, the commissioner of the Manitoba Girls Football Association (MGFA). Settling into that role after assuming duties in March of this year, Yestrau said that next year’s Red River cup will be held in Saskatchewan and that the hope is to bring more of the country’s female football players together.
“The intention is to hopefully have (Alberta) come to the Red River Cup next year,” she said.
“With Saskatchewan in the middle it’d be ideal…and hopefully we can get a couple more teams.”
Yestrau heaped praise on Eric Vincent, the director of teacher and coach development at Manitoba Rising Stars, along with MGFA treasurer Lisa Cummings, for spearheading the tournament. She called this week’s tournament “their baby” and said it took months of groundwork to get the event together.
“I thought it went really well. For the amount of activity that went on in the short amount of time, the people that were involved did a lot of work,” she said.
“Rising Stars Foundation provided a lot of manpower as well as (the adult women’s tackle team) the Manitoba Fearless.”
The players got some of the perks of being close to the Bombers. Winnipeg long snapper Mike Benson spoke with players during the week about strength and conditioning and the tournament provided the players from Manitoba and Saskatchewan with some new competition.
More important, it showed them that they have a football community around them. There were a number of female coaches and the adult women’s tackle league — the Western Women’s Canadian Football League — had players around as well. Yestrau is one of them. She just finished her second season with the Fearless, having tried tackle football for the first time last year at the age of 44. She plays D-line.
“I’ve tried to go to all of our games and I would wear my Fearless gear and then stick around and talk to some of the girls,” Yestrau said. “They like to talk about football and the friendship (that comes from it), things like that. I think it’s important these girls see that there’s women out there doing this.”
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It feels like in Manitoba, young female football players don’t have to look very far to find that support. Reina Iizuka is heading back to the Manitoba Bisons’ football team this fall, determined to get onto the active roster. Belle Jonasson is the first female linebacker on the provincial boys’ under-16 team. The WWCFL has two teams in Winnipeg, with the Manitoba Fearless and the Winnipeg Wolfpack.
“I think there’s some real growth in female football across the country,” Yestrau said.
“I can speak personally for my team. I know there’s a core group of us that really stepped up in the off-season last year and we’re continuing this year with off-season training. We’re organizing events to continue to do stuff together.
“I really think it’s growing. I think people are really starting to see it as a real thing. Personally, when I told people I was playing football they were like, ‘Oh, girls football.’ Then they came and watched and said, ‘Wow, that’s an intense game.’”
Yestrau hopes that the game can reach the girls in the MGFA the same way it’s reached her. She hopes that a year from now and beyond that, the number of participants continues to grow.
“It’s been awesome. It’s given me a lot of self-confidence. I’m a lot stronger physically and I think stronger emotionally as well,” she said.
“Getting to be around strong women that are community-minded and supportive is probably one of the best things that ever happened to me.”