In becoming the first team to capture five Western Women’s Canadian Football League (WWCFL) titles, the ascent of the Saskatoon Valkyries to the top in this instance may have proven to be its most inspiring. A collaborative effort by the league’s signature team resulted in a pinnacle was reached via an unlikely scenario.
Coming off a heartbreaking 2015 season that saw the archrival Regina Riot capture its first-ever league title, it would have been easy to assume that a change in the league’s balance of power was occurring. Of note, the 2016 campaign also resulted in a third consecutive season with a change at quarterback at the helm.
After Stacey Boldt inherited the starter’s position in 2015, it was a tremendous surprise to see that she returned in 2016 at the wide receiver position. Enter second year player Reed Thorstad and rookie Alex Eyolfson, a pair of young yet remarkable competitors with an accomplished athletic background, which includes gracing the gridiron together in flag football. The two were competitors at the high school level in basketball and volleyball.
As a side note, Boldt would actually return for one game as the Valkyries field general. With Thorstad and Eyolfson competing in the Canadian national flag football championships event at the end of May 2016 (where they would emerge with silver as members of Team Saskatchewan) she would lead the club in their regular season finale against the Regina Riot. Despite the Riot emerging victorious in a 27-26 outcome, Boldt threw for 150 yards, including a touchdown pass to Carly Dyck.
Both bringing a respect for the game, and a respect for the Valkyries legacy, both took a shared responsibility at the quarterback position. Understanding the importance of helping set the competitive tone, there was also an opportunity to cultivate their love of athletics and the rewards of winning. In discussing the element of enjoyment that involved calling Eyolfson a teammate, Thorstad convincingly replied,
“Yes, it was so much fun! I was so excited when I found out that Alex was planning on playing. We have played flag football together for a long time so it is super cool to be continuing to learn a new sport alongside her. We get to have fun together and also challenge each other to improve,” remarked Thorstad.
Both sharing the starters duties, their mutual respect and collective sense of teamwork avoided a quarterback controversy, while helping inject new blood into a gridiron dynasty, ensuring that the future remains just as prosperous. With Eyolfson having played for the provincial team at the flag football level, including Offensive MVP honors at the 2014 Canadian U18 nationals, she did not lack gridiron credentials. As Eylofson reflects, the chance to call Thorstad not just a fellow quarterback, but a mentor added to a memorable inaugural campaign,
“Reed was so supportive and always ready to help me out and answer my questions, and I ask a lot of questions (laughs). It was fun and helpful to have each other to talk to when we needed to talk about football. She encouraged me to get better because we both pushed each other in practice and it I think it helped us grow and become better.”
With Thorstad, wearing number 12, while the number 15 adorned Eylofson’s jersey, it was a season that saw the Valkyries fortunes riding on quarterbacks both playing at the position in WWCFL play for the first time in their careers. Taking into account that the Regina Riot featured Canadian national team member Aimee Kowalski as their field general, the ability of Thorstad and Eyolfson to work together was symbolic of the feeling of unity on a Valkyries team that defied the skeptics and regained its place as champions,
“After last year’s loss to Regina in the conference final, I think all the returning players were extremely motivated to reclaim the championship. There were definitely different feelings after this year’s final game compared to last year’s final game. It was really exciting to see all our hard work pay off with such a big win to finish off the season.
Over half the team had not experienced winning a WWCFL championship game before, myself included, and I feel so lucky to be a part of this championship team! The excitement of winning that game is something we want to experience again, so I can’t wait to start working hard for next year’s season,” remarked Thorstad.
In reflecting on the 2016 campaign, it was a season that was highlighted by a remarkable youth movement for the Valkyries. Even the most hardcore Valks fans could be forgiven if they could not keep up with all the exciting new faces on the roster.
Of note, there were a total of 23 rookies on the roster, with 10 competing on defense. In addition to Eyolfson, she was part of a new look offense that featured the likes of Natasha Kurz, Kendal Matheson, Ricki Obed and Tyra Tkachuk at the running back position.
Among the new members of the receiving corps were Lakyn Biberdorf, Chantelle DeLong, Nichole Lavallee, Hailee Williams and Alyssa Wiebe, who played ice hockey at the University of North Dakota. Among the women on the offensive line protecting them were the likes of fresh faces Taryn Anderson, Amy Loeffelholz and Becky Zimmer
Although this large collection of new talent was undergoing the transition to a much more competitive level of football together, there were still the obligatory jitters. Eyolfson would debut in the preseason, going 7-for-9 with 111 passing yards and a touchdown pass against the Edmonton Storm in an April 30 exhibition. Bringing both eagerness and nervous energy to her first game, Eyolfson mentions the ease and subsequent confidence that emanated with each successive attempt,
“I was so nervous for my first tackle football game but excited. I did not know what to expect of the game. I think I was more nervous to get hit for the first time, but after I threw a couple passes and got hit for the first time it got a little easier and less nerve racking. I still get really nervous for every game though.
After the first game it got me really excited for the rest of the season to come and it was really fun to play in and get out the first game jitters.”
While Thorstad took on the role of mentor to Eyolfson with great maturity, showing great signs of leadership for a second year player, she also acknowledges finding inspiration in others on the team. Undoubtedly, such reciprocation was essential to Thorstad, as the strong team culture and feelings of encouragement harnessed her own confidence, subsequently shaping her growing impact with the club.
“I think that the key to building confidence this year was the support that I felt from my teammates. The Valkyries embody such a positive team environment; everyone is intent on building their teammates up and focusing on their successes. There was not a single time when I was ridiculed by a teammate for a mistake; instead, I only received positive words. I feel lucky to be a part of a team where that is the norm.”
As the 2017 offers the opportunity for both Thorstad and Eyolfson to build on their momentum, working towards a sixth sensational title, there is no question that the 2016 campaign was more than just a springboard in their promising gridiron careers.
The opportunity to reach the summit championship shall intertwine them in Valkyries lore, while seeing both compose an exciting new chapter in their athletics endeavors. With head coach and team president Jeff Yausie having stepped down in the aftermath of the 2016 season, the opportunity to provide him with a championship in his final game brought great reward.
Jubilantly describing the euphoria of such status, after absorbing its reality, it is one where Eyolfson graciously acknowledges the potential to achieve when desire and determination collide,
“It was amazing; I could not have asked for a better season with better teammates. It didn’t really hit me that we won until a couple days later when I forgot we didn’t have practice anymore. It was incredible to be a part of the win after the team lost last year because everyone on the team was so excited and had such a drive to win this year.
I am so happy I had the opportunity to play with such great girls and so lucky to have the coaches we have. To win a championship with this amazing team was a memory I will never forget.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Image obtained from: http://www.saskatoonvalkyries.com/