(BELLEVILLE, IL) If one turns back the hands of time and examines the checklist listed by the St. Louis SLAM women’s professional tackle football franchise prior to its 2016 campaign in the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA), it contained some pretty humble entries.
“Dominate with intensity as a unit, take one game at a time and maybe walk away with wins,” said SLAM running back Taylor Hay to Arch City Sports back in late-March prior to the squad’s season opener.
Fast-forward to the SLAM’s 44-6 victory over Sin City at the WFA Tier II American Conference championship held at Lindenwood University Saturday night, it can now write an additional future goal.
Win a national title.
With the weekend’s 38-point duke, St. Louis (6-2) meets Tampa Bay Inferno at the WFA’s Tier II trophy tilt in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on July 22. Their Floridian opponent (10-0) topped Philadelphia, 38-28, in Saturday’s National Conference finale.
The SLAM, winners of five straight after Saturday night, eagerly awaits the opportunity to pick up its first WFA national championship since 2009.
“I’ve never been to Pittsburgh before,” said the SLAM’s Kaylee Kneutzling afterwards of the ensuing Steel City journey. “I love my team and it’s going to be great.”
“We’re going to have a long ride to get there,” added St. Louis quarterback Jaime Gaal of the forthcoming nine-hour trek to the WFA Tier II title tilt. “It will be a chance for us to get some quality time together, so it will be great.”
The SLAM’s Saturday battle against Sin City (5-5) was anything but easy in the first half. Although the Trojans only dressed 18 players, they stubbornly kept the score tight early.
St. Louis notched the first points of the contest via a 13-play, 68-yard drive late in the first quarter. With Knuetzling’s 14-yard field goal made with 1:21 left in the frame, the SLAM grabbed a 3-0 lead.
In the second quarter, after a quick defensive stop, the SLAM collected its first touchdown thirty seconds deep as Gaal hit Keyonna Smith with a 16-yard touchdown pass. Hay added a successful PAT kick that pushed the score to 10-0.
Thanks to both team’s highly-charged defenses, combined with offensive penalties that halted drives, both squads failed to score for the remainder of the half and the SLAM maintained the ten-point edge at intermission.
“We knew that we could play better,” assessed Gaal of the team’s narrow 10-0 lead. “There were some things that were our fault and some things that just didn’t fall the way that we wanted them to. We just wanted to make sure that we didn’t fall down and play to the best of our abilities.”
Converting to a ground attack that launched the second half, the SLAM churned a seven-play, 53-yard scoring drive capped by Hay’s 12-yard scamper with 12:19 left in the third quarter. She added the successful kick afterwards that pushed St. Louis’ lead to 17-0.
On the Trojans’ next possession, SLAM defensive specialists Jelani Kelly and Alana Fields each netted a pair of sacks that forced Sin City to punt with 8:50 left in the third.
Starting midfield on its next possession, the SLAM quickly hit the pay window as Gaal connected with Smith again, this time for 44 yards, for the duo’s second end zone strike at the 7:29 mark. Hay’s kick followed and St. Louis sported a 24-0 lead.
The SLAM’s defensive unit, paced by Kelly, Fields, Knuetzling, Raven Williams, Robyn Morrow, Pamela Green, Brooklyn Bastain and a host of others, silenced Sin City on the next rotation and the Trojans surrendered possession with six minutes left in the third quarter.
St. Louis’ offensive line, who collectively helped the squad net close to 500 all-purpose yards on the evening, continued its high-impact play by setting up the foundation for a five-play, 46-yard scoring drive in the latter stretches of the third. Running back Candice Watkins plunged from one yard out with 3:30 left in the frame and the SLAM possessed a 31-0 lead following Hay’s successful PAT kick.
“I love the O-line,” said Gaal of her sistren. “They’ve been playing really well and they make me feel comfortable. They provide the holes to make the running backs get through and I really appreciate them.”
In the final quarter, the SLAM recorded a pair of touchdowns that secured WFA Tier II national championship placement.
Gaal’s third touchdown pass of the night, a seven-yard slinger to Knuetzling with 7:35 left, extended the SLAM’s lead to 37-0. Watkins later barreled a five-yard end zone run for her second score of the evening.
In summation, the SLAM’s 34-6 second-half dominance resulted in the 44-6 WFA American Conference win that punched the team’s Pittsburgh ticket.
“On offense and on defense, we have dogs both ways,” assessed Knuetzling of the evening’s output. “It makes football a lot easier and fun. We have awesome athletes, both on and off the field.”
Gaal finished the night 11-of-23 for 183 yards and three touchdowns. Both Hay and Watkins finished with triple-digit outputs for rushing, while on the receiving end, Kim Kinsella snagged five passes for a team-high 87 yards and Smith collected 83 off of three catches.
With its first national title in seven years well within its sights, Knuetzling feels that the SLAM will be firing on all cylinders with its upcoming July 22 Tier II showdown with undefeated Tampa Bay.
“We have a great foundation and great coaches and I think we’re going to take the whole thing,” she said.
For more information on SLAM football, go to stlslam.com.