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Inside the huddle with University of Toronto’s women’s flag football team

U of T hosts Flag Football Tournament at Back Campus fields from March 2–3
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It’s 23 degrees below zero with windchill. A steady breeze runs across the field and a layer of snow covers the U of T Back Campus.

“Pick the daisies,” yells Ajla Bilajbegovic as she leads our team through warmups on Sunday morning. All 40 of us stretch our hamstrings slowly, jog halfway across the field and back, then sprint the same distance before heading to our individual coaches. The rule of no walking on the field, enforced by head coach and former Varsity Blues football player Michael Leslie, keeps us on our toes despite the chill. The weather may not be the best, but the University of Toronto Women’s Flag Football team (UTWFF) is.

Over the March 2 weekend, UTWFF participated in its third tourney of the year, with 14 teams from across Ontario competing at U of T’s Back Campus Fields. Starting strong on day one with a 10–0 win against Humber College’s Cleats n’ Cleavage in the group stages and ending with their biggest 31–18 win against Endzones Over Friendzones from Queen’s University on day two in the finals, UTWFF worked their way undefeated to the top of their pool. Combining the results of the three tournaments that UTWFF has played in this year, the team tied for first with McMaster University’s Pool B team among the 18 contenders.

Despite limited numbers over the weekend, the team was able to stay on top of their game thanks to a stout defense and an outstanding offensive line that provided ample time for young quarterback Chantelle Cheung to create wide holes for running back Gisselle Villagracia’s vital touchdown. Perhaps the most exciting play of the tournament was a pick six in the finals by Jasmine Romero, which became the game’s winning touchdown.

The tournament also saw the return of alumni Julie Clores and Debbie Lee as referees, as well as Tiffany Russell, who presented the Alumni Cup to the winning team with Lee, an honour that the team has won for the fifth time in the eight years since the tournament was founded.

Origin story

UTWFF was founded and developed in 2011 by Patrick Yan, Jakub Huskia, and later Corey Hafezi, who were all players on the Varsity Blues football team at the time. Huskia introduced Yan to the St. Mike’s College Girls Football team, which served as the foundation for UTWFF, while Hafezi helped the team register as an accredited club. Rolli Ademosun, another Varsity Blues football player, soon became Yan’s right-hand man and got the team rolling. The club gained momentum when Yan reached out to Wilfrid Laurier University’s team to participate in their PowderPuff tournament. Yan’s roommate, Eddie Kagemena, stepped in to train the team.

Most of the players were recruited from U of T’s intramural teams, although Yan admitted that he and Ademosun would also recruit from the Brunny, a student bar where Yan worked. He also explored other recruitment methods too — they would be “walking down the street and see someone who looked like a football player and invite them out.” In the end, word-of-mouth promotion would bring the team together.

While coaches were originally trusted friends of Yan, as the club attracted more interest, the coaching staff grew. Once invitations to away tournaments started coming in, the team was properly established.

Joe Cappiello is the current recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach for the Varsity Blues football team, as well as the former UTWFF coach between 2014 and 2016. He said, “The heart that the players I coached displayed over these seasons were what coaching is all about. Seeing a player play to their top potential and giving everything they have just to come out on top is something I can never repay to the players I coached on those teams. All I can say is thank you for the opportunity to coach such a special group.”

With over eight years of hard work and dedication, the team reached a spot at the top of leaderboards, earning the title of triple crown champion after winning U of T’s annual tournament, the McMaster Invitational, and the Laurier Invitational in 2016.

Former quarterback Julie Van under centre during a practice session in 2018. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE U OF T WOMEN’S FLAG FOOTBALL TEAM)

Our foundation

The UTWFF relies on dedicated players who give their all. While team commitments include Sunday practices and fundraising for competitions, the players also devote incredible amounts of time and effort to both academic and professional pursuits — players come from all academic and sporting backgrounds, from other varsity sports to grad and undergrad programs.

Stephanie Hovdestad, a Varsity Blues rugby player and previous member of the U20 Rugby Team Ontario, noted that she had some obstacles in her way to becoming a running back because she had never played football before.

Although she had to unlearn some of the rules of rugby to excel at flag football, and despite being one of the youngest players on the team, Hovdestad has adopted a leadership role. She hypes up the team, manages social media and outreach as an executive, and won second place on the second season of Dancing with the Varsity Blues.

As for the positional coaches, current and former Varsity Blues football players volunteer their time to coach the players. Over the years, the team has seen players who have never played organized sports before as well as experienced players who have been playing with teams for a long time. The excellent coaches have levelled the playing field by focusing on the individual strengths of each, regardless of their past experience.

Julie Van: the GOAT

Julie Van, a fifth-year PhD candidate at the Institute of Medical Science, began her flag football journey in 2010 with the original St Mike’s intramural team, and carried on when it transformed into the UTWFF. Frequently referred to as the Tom Brady of our little flag football family, her quarterback skills are the stuff of legend; players from other schools know her by reputation alone.

Although she is known for her great abilities, Van had no football experience when she first joined and started out as a safety player. Her first chance to play as the quarterback came in 2013, and she never looked back. She largely credits Chris Li, offensive coordinator; Jermaine Felix, summer coach for the U of T-based summer team Toronto Wildcats; and offensive linewomen Maria Asimakis and Tiffany Russell for her successful journey.

Van noted that despite having a fairly inexperienced offense, UTWFF is still a hard team to beat. The turning point, she said, came in 2016, when the team had a “shift in culture” and learned to play to their best potential.

As of the 2018–2019 season, Van contributes in a coaching capacity.

The 2018–2019 University of Toronto Women’s Flag Football Roster. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE U OF T WOMEN’S FLAG FOOTBALL TEAM)

Supporting the team

The team relies on player fees and annual bake sales at Tequila Jack’s for funding. Due to the coming Ontario Student Assistance Program changes, some players may not be able to pay the player fees, which contribute to away tournament funding, field bookings, and equipment.

If you’re interested in donating to support the team, we’ve created a GoFundMe page to fund a scholarship.