Since first donning shoulder pads in 2003, the St. Louis SLAM has experienced their fair share of peaks and valleys.
On the plus-side, the women’s tackle football franchise firmly planted their “orange flag” during their inaugural season within the local sports complexion and over the next two decades claimed four national titles, the last being the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA) Division 2 crown in 2019.
Conversely, the campaigns that followed that last championship run contained plenty of sour belches.
The pandemic canceled the entire 2020 WFA season, the SLAM did not field a team on turf in 2021, and in 2022 – despite a 4-2 regular season record – the collective failed to qualify for playoffs due to calculated rankings, which marked the first time in a long time that the squad was absent in the post-season mix.
Propelled by past trophy success, and shaking off the recent setbacks, the SLAM has persevered and blossomed this season – which includes their current 8-0 record – thanks to the personal hours of time, money and sweat-equity invested by the team’s players, coaches, and support staff.
Regardless of position, skill set, or tenure, “for the love of the SLAMily” perfectly describes why each member participates and proudly wears the team’s emblem on their clothing, whether game-day grinding or off-day casual.
This Saturday afternoon, the football faction can put the finishing touches on a benchmark chapter in a chronicle that continues to be perpetually penned.
The SLAM faces the four-time defending champion Boston Renegades (8-0) at noon Central in the WFA Pro national finale held in Canton, Ohio.
“In my fourteen years, this will be one of my favorite games and historic at that,” projected St. Louis co-captain Taylor Hay.
The running back’s claim is undisputed for numerous reasons. For starters, Canton is home to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium has hosted the past two WFA championship weekends. This certainly supersedes the high school, junior college, and multi-sport grass lands the Gateway City’s gridiron gang have competed at traditionally.
“For me and other football nerds, it will be pretty cool to say that we get to play in this stadium,” said co-captain Jaime Gaal, who has helmed the team’s quarterback role since 2016.
Next, the show down of the unbeatens will be broadcasted live on ESPN2, easily marking the SLAM’s most-prolific appearance seen by audiences, whether on cable, satellite or streaming services.
According to the WFA, last year’s National championship contest was seen by over 146,000 households and reached an audience 25% higher than what was normally seen during that same time slot during the month of July 2022. A similar, if not higher, result is expected this go-around.
“Obviously, any type of exposure to women’s sports is great,” assessed Hay of the coverage. “Being able to bring that exposure to St. Louis is far overdue. We are looking forward to it.”
Finally, the test presents the opportunity for the SLAM to reach a coveted goal desired since 2019, a fifth national championship.
In a sport where athletes “pay to play,” the SLAM’s complexion consists of a wide diversification of backgrounds. For all those that snap the chin strap, the missive is to make that non-stop commitment pay off and ultimately extend the franchise’s saga.
”As do all the other teams, we have moms, students, 40 to 50-hour-week workers, overnight workers, and more (that are) putting in hours upon hours into this team, this league, this sport,” said SLAM co-captain Ariana Smith. “Not only for themselves but for the future of women’s football.
“Having that tangible realization of all your effort, energy, blood, a hell of a lot of sweat, bruises, and more in your hand with both the trophy and the ring, it makes building the legacy that much sweeter.”
The SLAM’s stakes are high against the Renegades – a jaw-dropping juggernaut that currently boasts a 39-game winning streak – that has annually claimed the WFA’s top trophy since 2018.
They, like St. Louis, also desires a fifth national title Saturday.
“There are, for sure, some extra nerves and excitement,” said SLAM co-captain Jamie Skinner. “We’ve never been given the opportunity to perform on a national stage like this before. But at the end of the day, we’re treating it just like every other business trip we’ve taken this year.
“We are hyper-focused on the task at hand and don’t plan on letting all the hype distract us from completing our mission.”
Under watchful eyes, the SLAM is more than ready to tackle the challenge and dethrone the defending titleholders and inevitably reap the rewards of success.
“As much as I love and enjoy the grind throughout the season, the goal is always to win the championship,” said Gaal. “At this level, against this opponent, I think it would give us some of the respect that we feel we deserve. We know how good we are and how good we can be. Winning this ring on ESPN2 would just help everyone else who sees it.”
In preparation, the team has been practicing amid the blazing temperatures as well as coping with the ongoing, competitive grind of a fast-tracked WFA docket that spanned the last ten weeks.
“The heat and humidity were not ideal,” said Smith, a member of the SLAM’s offensive line. “We are also dealing with some bumps and bruises everyone has had to play around and through. With that being said, we did not wait until the last two weeks to prepare for the championship game. We have truly been preparing all season for this moment.”
The SLAM reached the WFA title game by defeating the Minnesota Vixen, 44-27, at St. Mary’s High School two Saturdays ago at the Pro American Conference finals. St. Louis fell behind early in the game but rolled out 27 unanswered points en route to victory.
“We admittedly had a slow start that we were not happy with,” assessed Skinner, who plays within the defensive secondary. “We recognized our mistakes, stayed positive, talked as a unit at half time and knew we would course correct and shut them down for the rest of the game. A ton of credit to our offense for picking us up and taking some of the pressure off. It helped significantly.”
“While I understand that the score showed us trailing, that was never how we saw it or felt about it,” added Smith. “We leaned into our coaching staff and on each other as a team. We dialed in and came through loud and clear.”
In the win against the Vixen, SLAM newcomer Jada Humphrey scored three touchdown runs while SLAM rookie Kerri McMahan snared a pair of six-point catches. Heading into Saturday’s contest, Humphrey has scored 17 touchdowns on the season while McMahan has collected ten and both will be focal points of an offense that ranks fifth in the WFA with an average of close to 40 points.
“It’s been great having Jada and Kerri this year,” said Gaal. “They’re amazing athletes and teammates.”
Pushing and anchoring the SLAM narrative are the aforementioned offensive line consisting of Smith, Marion Ball, Tamikka Brents, Pamela Green and Caitlin Erickson.
“Our coaches always stress to us that games are won and lost in the trenches,” said Hay. “We are nothing without them and are grateful for them. They are our royalty.”
Hay’s accolades also extend to the other side of the ball. The SLAM’s defensive unit is currently the top-ranked faction in WFA Pro, never surrendering a point from scrimmage during their six-game regular season tilt. Collectively through eight overall games, St. Louis has outscored the opposition, 312-47.
“People have really worked their asses off and have stepped up when we needed them to,” assessed Skinner. “We have a ton of athletes on both sides of the ball. As a team, we operate under the “next man up” mentality and stay ready, so we don’t have to get ready when our name is called.”
Alongside Skinner, Saturday’s defensive unit is helmed by Jasmine Yandell, Brooklyn Devitt, Tay Johnson, Mary Altepeter, Kaylee Neutzling, Kelsie Nesbit, Keyonna Smith, Mariah West, Alisha Straws, Annamarie Magnani, Katelynn Hartman-Geier, Jennifer Perkins and others that are inserted when needed on short notice.
As impressive as those SLAM statistics are, their opponents at the Canton clash are arguably more intimidating and the squad contains comparable depth.
The four-time WFA Pro defending champion Renegades reached the championship game by thumping the Alabama Fire, 58-6, to snare the WFA Pro National Conference prize.
Within their eight games this season, Boston has collectively outscored their foes, 493-63, which includes their 128-20 output during their two-game post-season. Yikes!
“Boston is a strong team and has had a great season,” assessed Smith of the opponents. “They have a long roster of athletes on both sides of the ball and will probably have the best offensive and defensive lines we have seen all season.”
Quarterback Allison Cahill has been competing in professional football for two decades and is considered the focal point of the offense, who are ranked first in WFA Pro with a points-per-game average that’s close to a mind-numbing 60 points.
In the Alabama victory two weekends ago, the veteran threw four touchdowns passes, a pair each to primary receivers Chante Bonds and Stephanie Pascual. Running back Tytti Kuusinen had two touchdown scampers in the contest while teammate Ruth Matta added an end zone romp.
The two squads in Saturday’s WFA Pro finale last met each other last season at St. Mary’s in St. Louis. In an eye-opening moment, the SLAM possessed the lead at intermission, but the Renegades rebounded in the second half and inevitably churned out a 49-21 victory that maintained their undefeated streak.
At the time, that result might have been a bit of a letdown for the SLAM, but they hope to use that 2022 outcome as a propeller for revenge at Saturday’s marquee match-up.
“To me, even though we lost, our game against Boston last year should give everyone who played in that game a little extra confidence,” reflected Gaal of last year’s setback. “It’s not brand new territory. We were winning at halftime. We just have to learn from our mistakes and stay focused on playing our game.
“We can’t get caught up in the score as far as numbers, we just have to score more points than they do. Hold them to less points than they hold us.”
“We made more mistakes than Boston did in 2022,” added Hay. “We know what we are going up against now, give and take a few pieces, and we are preparing for a battle. Preparing to leave it all on the field.”
And in the ensuing championship tussle that features the Renegades’ top-ranked offense against the SLAM’s top-ranked defense, early possessions may dictate the game’s overall tone.
“We respect their offense and know they have weapons,” said the SLAM’s Skinner. “Our coaches have come up with an exceptional game plan for our defense. It’s not overly complicated, and it allows us to ensure we get lined up quickly and correctly. We have all the tools needed in order to contain their offense.
“All we have to do is execute.”
The SLAM’s execution has been near-perfect all season long. Without a doubt, they must collectively perform at optimum levels Saturday to slay the proverbial WFA dragon.
“Our coach tells us all the time that only one team’s season ends the way they want it to,” said Smith. “So that natty title does mean a lot. It will be the fifth championship in twenty years. The SLAM is a legacy and to be part of that legacy is where the real pride resides.”
And through all the obstacles thrown against them – both historically as a fledgling franchise and recently as a fixture of the WFA elite – a “fifth ‘ship” is the SLAM’s intent in their Buckeye State trip.
“We want this one badly,” said Skinner. “We’ve worked so damn hard and have overcome so much and we will not waste the opportunity (that) we have before us. We didn’t come this far just to come this far.”
For more information on the SLAM, go to their official website.
Arch City Media will have a full game recap posted Saturday night.
By trade, he is a six-time, regional Emmy Award-winning news videographer/editor for KTVI/KPLR-TV. By hobby, he is a writer for Arch City Media, dating back to February 2014. Emphasis is on featuring and promoting local women's sports, but will cover anything that is not reported by traditional media outlets. Also a contributor to local concert reviews.