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Starring Saskatchewan: Province’s best football talent set to play big roles at Worlds

Saskatchewan’s presence on the international women’s football stage started with three. Now, 12 years later 18 of the 45 players on Team Canada for the 2022 IFAF Women’s World Championship are from the province. 

Emmarae Dale, Lauren Ferguson, Alyssa Funk, Haley Girolami, Danaye Holynski, Arden Kliewer, Betsy Mawdsley, Ricki Obed, Reed Thorstad, Ashley Viklund and Sarah Wright will represent the defending Western Women’s Canadian Football League (WWCFL) champion Saskatoon Valkyries on Team Canada, while Rebeka Koutsogiannopolous, Alex Kowalski, Kasey McCombs, Quinn Petrinchuk, Hailee Raffey, Shannell Rioux and Rae-Lynn Schaffer represent the Regina Riot.

This generation of Saskatchewan players can credit trailblazers Julie Paetsch, Jessie Buydens and Megan Buydens who cracked the initial Team Canada 2010 roster after lobbying by Football Saskatchewan Executive Director Jeff Yausie for the women to try out for the national team. 

Saskatchewan will also be represented by seven coaches from the province will occupy the sidelines. Marci Halseth and Cody Halseth are the team’s offensive and defensive coordinators, while Brenden Bennett (offensive linemen), Claire Dore (receivers), Pat Berry (linebackers), Olivier Eddie (defensive backs) and Beth Thompson (defensive linemen) will all serve as positional coaches. 

“I think it’s brought a lot of Saskatchewan pride,” said Viklund, who has suited up for both the Riot and Valkyries. “It’s not a surprise that there’s such a strong Saskatchewan contingent but it makes it no less special. I’m just so proud of Saskatchewan and my fellow female players.” 

“It’s really cool to see such a small province be such a big part of a national program,” said Marci Halseth. “I think that Saskatchewan continues to kind of set the tone for women’s football in the West and I’m very proud of that.” 

Team Canada huddling following the completion of their Red & White Game at May’s selection camp. Photo by: Cintia Freitas/Football Canada

Funding from Sask Lotteries through Football Saskatchewan allowed for elite women’s tackle football to develop, thrive and recruit the best athletes in the province.  Football Saskatchewan provides females funding for athlete assistance and professional development opportunities just like they would for the Saskatchewan Huskies, Saskatoon Hilltops or the Regina Rams and Thunder.  

“I just want to provide the same opportunities that we do for boys and men and let’s see where it takes us,” said Yausie. 

The Sask Lotteries funding helped lead to the inaugural season of the WWCFL in 2011. Marci Halseth was a member of the championship winning Valkyries team that season, which ultimately led to her being selected for Team Canada 2013 and 2017. Now as a coach, her transition to the sidelines has given her a front row seat to the growth of female football in the province.

“I think the biggest difference is that the game itself has grown. The quality of the football that is played is so far beyond what it was in 2011 and what it was in 2011 — that shows on the field,” said Marci Halseth. “We now have athletes that come in and have played 4-10 years of flag football and they grew up wanting to be Valkyries.”

“It’s come so far with the quality of coaching and with Football Saskatchewan investing in our programs and partnerships with the other elite teams in the province. I’m really grateful to have been a part of all of it and to have witnessed it first-hand as an athlete and as a coach, and as a fan.”

Saskatoon’s Reed Thorstad airing it out in Team Canada’s Red & White Game. Photo by: Scott Grant/Football Canada

The large number of players and coaches representing the province on the world stage is a perfect example that the continued investment is paying dividends. 

“Football Sask has always been a huge supporter of women’s football and has done a lot to get our teams going,” said Viklund. 

If the opportunity to coach Team Canada wasn’t already special enough, Marci Halseth will have the opportunity to experience it with her husband Cody by her side, as the husband and wife each serve the role as coordinators.  

“To be a female coaching football at a high level is pretty much a feat within itself. To be coaching with my husband — I think it’s just such an exciting opportunity,” said Marci Halseth.  

“We have three kids and that keeps us very busy. One of the things that really will continue to connect us is we’re both very passionate about this work and we love to talk about it. It’s a really unique opportunity and I’m so grateful that we get to do it together.” 

Marci Halseth is set to make her first appearance as a Team Canada coach. Photo by: Scott Grant/Football Canada

The mission for the Canadians is to dethrone the Americans. The United States enters the tournament looking to claim their fourth World Championship, having defeated Canada in the last three gold medal games, including in 2017 on home soil in Ottawa. 

“I think we had a really great team in 2017. We spent a lot of time preparing and getting ready for each team as they came. I feel like this year we are better prepared for the pressure that’s going to come with being on a world stage and all the people watching you — it’s tough. You have to be there before you know how to prepare for it,” said Viklund. 

“I’m super excited to go meet up with the rest of the team and start playing some hard-nosed Canadian football.” 

After the tournament was pushed back from 2021, Canada is one of eight countries participating in the World Championship, joining Finland, United States, Mexico, Sweden, Great Britain, Germany and Australia. 

The return of worlds symbolizes another step forward in female football. Within Saskatchewan, the game only continues to grow. Numbers are up within Saskatoon and Regina’s high school flag football leagues. The Prairie Girls Football League — a U18 female tackle football league — was born, consisting of teams in Moosomin, Yorkton, Regina, Melville and Estevan. Earlier this summer, Regina played host to the first-ever U18 women’s national championship at Mosaic Stadium, where Saskatchewan won silver.  

Team Canada’s pursuit of a World Championship begins on Saturday morning. Kick off against Australia is scheduled for 4:00 a.m. CST. Games can be streamed at Olympic.com.