Powderpuff football is no picnic

Women in rapidly expanding sport fight for respect on the field and off

The Queen’s women’s football team plays Western at the annual Powderpuff Football Tournament last Saturday at Laurier.
The Queen’s women’s football team plays Western at the annual Powderpuff Football Tournament last Saturday at Laurier.

When she finished high school, quarterback Gina Di Rienzo assumed it was the end of her football career. Since then, she has played six years of Queen’s powderpuff football and competed at the Ontario provincial championships and the Canadian national championships with the Ottawa Nepean Touch Football League in Ottawa. “I didn’t actually know a league existed until [a friend] told me
about it,” said Di Rienzo, who’s in her second year of a master’s in physiotherapy, adding that it’s common for girls to come out of high school assuming they’ll no longer be able to play.

Every winter for the last nine years, about 40 women from all years and faculties spend two months practicing in the snow to represent Queen’s at Wilfred Laurier University’s annual Powderpuff Football Tournament. This year’s tournament was played last weekend, and the Gaels lost in the quarterfinals
to the eventual champions from McMaster.

According to university rules, the women play 11-on-11 semi-contact football, which is a combination between full-contact and flag football. The defensive line is allowed to block, but receivers cannot be tackled. An increasing number of Canadian universities are fielding women’s semi-contact football teams, and the sport outside universities is steadily growing.

“It’s just about people finding out about the calibre of it and not thinking that it’s a guy’s sport.” In addition to city and provincial leagues, there’s a national women’s football team that competes in
three to four tournaments per year, traveling across North and Central America. In April, the team will
compete in Mexico City. Di Rienzo said women’s football often isn’t seen as a legitimate program.
“I don’t think people take it seriously until they see it played,” she said. “A lot of girls just pour their hearts into it they want it so much.” She said calling it powderpuff football doesn’t help the sport gain
any respect either. “I wish it was something different,” she said. “I hate the name.”

Teammate Christina Guzzo said the team challenges the typical concept of women in sports.
“It lights a little fire in you when people double-take you because you’re breaking those barriers.”
Mike Patone, one of the team’s four student-coaches, agreed the stereotypes surrounding powderpuff football are completely inaccurate. “I think the girls will tell you, and from what I’ve seen, the passion is still there, the aggression and the athletic ability are still there.” Adam Ross, Ian Hazlett and Dave Brown round out the coaching staff. As the number and calibre of the players increases, the game
becomes more sophisticated, Di Rienzo said. “We run the same plays as the men’s football [team].”

Patone said the women are just as competitive, if not more competitive than the men he has coached.
“I think three girls lost teeth, one pretty much broke her nose,” he said of the weekend’s games.

“There were black eyes and bloody lips.” In the provincial leagues, teams play seven-on-seven touch football.

The teams are divided by skill level, not age, so the players on one team can range in age from 16 to
40. Di Rienzo said it’s not unusual to have mothers and daughters playing together. “It’s a really wicked dynamic.” Teams play from May until October and must compete in at least three of the five tournaments to qualify for the provincial championships in August. The national championships in
October are an open tournament, attracting teams from all over the country. Di Rienzo said the program gets stronger every year as the pool of players increases.

“As it gets more popular, people start scouting high school teams and you get a lot more younger athletes.” Di Rienzo said she could see women’s football becoming a competitive club at Queen’s
sometime in the near future but she doubts it can go much further.

“I don’t know if it would become varsity because there aren’t enough universities who send teams,”
she said. While Queen’s has just one team, Laurier has a women’s football league that competes at
the end of their season to see who will represent the school in the interuniversity tournament. Di Rienzo said there currently aren’t enough players at Queen’s to field more than one team, but she said she hopes to see it happen eventually. “I think it will be awhile down the road when we get enough
interest.” But until then, Di Rienzo said she plans to keep playing no matter what.

“I’ll play my whole life. I guarantee it. Until I can’t walk anymore.”

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