Rewind to August 15, 2009 and the inaugural national championship game for the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA).
In the governing body’s finale held at New Orleans, Louisiana’s Pan American Field, the St. Louis SLAM women’s tackle football franchise, then six seasons old, topped West Michigan 21-14 to claim its first-ever trophy.
A lot of highs and lows for the squad have occurred since that historical benchmark. In two of the next ensuing four WFA campaigns, the squad had reached national post-season play. Unfortunately in 2014 due to financial instability, the SLAM was inactive, never snapped a ball and potentially faced extinction.
Rebuilt and reloaded in 2015, the SLAM returned to the gridiron, with both tenured veterans and newfound rookies in tow, and reached the WFA national playoffs. Consider the season as a phoenix rising from the ashes and completing “unfinished business.”
This Friday, the SLAM (6-2) has the opportunity to become a two-time “queen pin” as they battle the Tampa Bay Inferno (10-0) for the WFA Tier II Championship at Joe P. DeMichela Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. Eastern.
St. Louis advanced to Friday’s ensuing donnybrook following its 44-6 victory over the Sin City Trojans in the tier’s American Conference championship held at Lindenwood University’s Belleville campus two Saturdays ago.
In the contest, the SLAM possessed a 10-0 halftime lead but then exploded for three touchdowns in the third quarter en route to the dominant victory.
“We’ve really put things together on both sides of the ball the second half of the season and I think this was evident during the Sin City Game,” said SLAM defensive specialist Tiffany Pugh of the 38-point duke. “We got off to kind of a slow start offensively, but the defense was able to hold things down. This gave our offense time to figure to not panic and get in the zone. Offense turned it up in the second half and never looked back.”
All things are performing at high levels for the SLAM in the WFA Tier II playoffs as the squad has collectively outscored its opponents 97-6 in its pair of post-season games. In the process, seven different players have collected touchdowns. On the rushing side, running back Candice Watkins has posted five end zone romps while veteran Taylor Hay has a pair and Chelsea Clay has contributed one.
For receiving, Keyonna Smith has three touchdown snares while Kaylee Kneutzling, Kim Kinsella and Heather Rhodes have each recorded a solo scoring catch. Rookie SLAM quarterback Jaime Gaal has six post-season touchdown strikes that has pushed her overall 2016 total to 17.
The impressive scoring output has been propelled by the solid work of the offensive line, paced by the precision play of Juan Snow, Caitlin Erickson, Marion Ball, Antonnia Washington, Myrt Davis and a host of others.
Crucial in Friday’s trophy meeting with Tampa Bay will be a SLAM defense that has only surrendered a pair of touchdowns in its last four games played. Alongside the aforementioned Pugh and Kneutzling, Jelani Kelly, Raven Williams, Robyn Morrow, Pamela Green, Brooklyn Bastain and additional staff looks to help St. Louis claim the WFA Tier II trophy.
According to Pugh, strength in numbers and overall consistency has defined the SLAM in its current five-game winning streak.
“Depth at all positions is very important as we head into the championship,” she said. “We have many players that play both sides of the ball as well as special teams. Having players that are able to step up when someone gets injured, or when someone needs a break, is crucial. A deep bench allows us to maintain the same level of play and intensity, regardless of who is on the field.”
This is going to be crucial as the SLAM faces a top-notch opponent Friday that seeks its first-ever national championship.
Tampa Bay punched its WFA Tier II title ticket with a 38-28 road victory over Philadelphia in the National Conference championship held two weekends ago. In the contest, the Inferno posted a 24-14 halftime lead and secured victory by widening the score to 38-20 with ten minutes left.
“The win over Philadelphia was a defining moment for us and we are nothing short of blessed to call ourselves National Conference Champions,” said Tampa Bay co-captain Candi Thompson. “However, we win, we celebrate and it’s back to business. We are proud of ourselves, but the momentum doesn’t change. We still have work to do. For each game, we play ‘Inferno Ball’ and that’s the focus.”
Offensively for Tampa Bay, rushing is paced by veteran Marcelina Chavez, who has 15 end zone romps heading into Friday’s finale, as well as a dual threat at quarterback with the tandem of gunslingers Kim Yvette Shaw and Ashlee Parker. Common targets for catches are receivers Domnique Daniels-Tobler, Candace Brady and Amanda Bolognino.
Comparable to St. Louis, Tampa Bay has been solid on both sides of the ball in 2016, collectively outscoring its opponents 296-76 in its ten games competed. When evaluating the Inferno’s success this season, Thompson narrows it down to three attributes.
“Discipline, selflessness and hunger,” she said. “We’re not just a team, but a family. Every time we hit that field, we understand that we can’t have victory without unity. We play together and leave everything we have on the field. We’ve been blessed to have amazing leadership who push us day-in and day-out to our fullest potential.”
Defense has also been instrumental to the Inferno’s re-appearance in the WFA post-season after a one-year absence. Paced by starters Rosalee Hammonds, Denasha Mondy, Jennifer Teeters, Shantivia Conley and a host of others, the Floridians enter the title game with a unit that has collectively kept its opponents to a 9.5 point average per game.
Predicting via paper, this might give the Inferno a slight edge over the SLAM, but Thompson is quick to erase any assumptions given that this is the first turf tussle between the pair.
“I haven’t put thought into the scoreboard,” she said. “We plan on putting up points and stopping as many as we can. We’ll just have to see what happens.”
St. Louis knows that the Inferno will be primed for battle Friday.
“Tampa Bay will be one of the toughest opponents that we’ve faced this season,” said the SLAM’s Pugh. “They’re fast, they have playmakers and they are also riding the momentum of an undefeated season. We’ll have to remain focused and limit our mistakes.”
Friday’s game writes a new entry in the WFA ledger. As this is the first post-season that the governing body has implemented a three-tiered playoff system, the winner will be historically designated as the inaugural WFA Tier II national champion.
For the SLAM’s Pugh, who joined the team following its 2009 WFA championship win, a second national title is craved by the franchise.
“It’s taken seven years for all of the pieces to come together,” she said. “For veterans and coaches that were a part of championship team of 2009, they have another opportunity to relive that feeling. For the veterans that were not a part (of that) team, we finally get to experience the joy and excitement that, up until now, we’ve only had the opportunity to hear about.”
Pugh feels that all the sweat equity that has been invested by the team will reap huge rewards via a successful outcome.
“Although we play because we love the sport, we also play to win,” Pugh said. “Winning would mean that all the hard work and dedication that we’ve put in, not only for this season, but in seasons’ past, has finally come full-circle.”
Likewise for Tampa Bay, founded in 2010, a triumph puts the exclamation point on an undefeated campaign that has been propelled by a similar blazing work ethic.
“To be able to hold that trophy up would be a dream come true for me,” said the Inferno’s Thompson. “It’s still so surreal knowing that we’re one win away from being champions. We have worked so hard for this moment and to be victorious in this game will be an uncontrollable sense of joy and accomplishment for all of us.”
Friday’s WFA Tier II National Championship game between St. Louis and Tampa Bay can be seen live online by heading over to THIS LINK. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. Central.
Arch City Sports will have a recap of the game posted on Saturday.