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Mile High Blaze Just One Victory Away From a National Championship Brings Credibility to Women’s Tackle Football – Greeley Tribune

As a young girl, Leilani Caamal longed to swap her pompoms for a helmet, shoulder pads and a soccer ball.

She got this chance at the age of 9 and has not looked back. For the past two seasons, she has made her name as the All-American linebacker for Mile High Blaze, a local semi-professional women’s tackle team that plays in the Woman’s Football Alliance.

Caamal, 17, represents the future of women’s tackle football, which has grown steadily over the past decade. The Blaze has been a local catalyst for this growth. In its 10th season, the Blaze transformed from a recreational team into a true contender, with Caamal and Mile High set to compete in the WFA Division II National Championship on July 9 in Canton, Ohio.

“I hated cheerleading,” Caamal recalls with a laugh. “I ran away from my cheer practice and watched my younger brother’s flag football practice. I started learning by watching him practice, then started designing some basic pieces myself.

“In the beginning I was pushed into cheerleading by my family and everyone else. Everyone kept telling me that girls can’t play soccer and neither can they, but I always knew I wanted to play. I was determined.”

Caamal, The Blaze and the WFA are trying to defy this stereotype and take women’s tackle football to the national level. And in Caamal — which already has its own line of Fatheads — the Blaze owns the city’s most promising young tackle football player.

The Blaze features players ranging in age from Caamal to mid-50s. Each player pays $400 in annual fees to be on the team. Additionally, players must pay for their own gear and travel expenses, which can add up to thousands of dollars. But for the Blaze players, the financial cost and high likelihood of injury make the opportunity that the WFA offers worth it.

Mile High’s players come from an eclectic mix of professions and backgrounds. The Blaze features nurses, bankers, teachers, workers, active military personnel, first responders and stay-at-home moms. The one thing they all have in common is that they’re “real beast football players,” explained Blaze owner/WFA operations manager Wyn Flato-Dominy.

“We’re not flag football or lingerie football or any other kind of (football adaptation) like powder puff,” Flato-Dominy said. “It’s the same physicality as the men, and we play college rules with college umpires. We have some players who have come from terrible backgrounds who have come out of gang life and this team is their savior. We have all walks of life on this team, which is really cool.”

The Blaze play home games at Aurora Public Schools Stadium, where they defeated the Houston Energy 12-6 on June 25 to advance to the title game. It was Mile High’s fourth consecutive appearance in the conference title game. A win over the Derby City Dynamite on July 9 at the Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium would promote the Blaze to the WFA’s Pro division for 2023.

This year’s appearance in the title game underscores the rapid rise of the Blaze, who began as the Mile High Cowgirls in 2013. When Flato-Dominy took over ownership, she renamed the team, changed the colors to orange and blue to match the Broncos, and made it her goal to “make the blaze from a no-man’s team to the #1 ranked team.” bring nation (in Division II).”

Grows every year

DENVER, COLORADO - JUNE 30: Mile High Blaze Kimberly Santistevan (27) tightens her shoulder pads during a workout Thursday June 30, 2022 at Parkfield Lake Park near the Montbello Recreation Center. The Blaze plays the WFA National Championship Game on July 9th. (Photo by Daniel Brenner/Special to The Denver Post)
DENVER, COLORADO – JUNE 30: Mile High Blaze Kimberly Santistevan (27) tightens her shoulder pads during a workout Thursday June 30, 2022 at Parkfield Lake Park near the Montbello Recreation Center. The Blaze plays the WFA National Championship Game on July 9th. (Photo by Daniel Brenner/Special to The Denver Post)

The Blaze had 17 players on their roster in their first year. It’s about 55 this year, and the team’s tryout numbers have been growing every year.

“Just because girls in elementary, middle and high school are told they can’t play football because they’re a girl, you know what? You really can, and you can be great at it,” Flato-Dominy said. “That’s the message we’ve been putting out through current players and former players because we have some women on our team and in our league that would blow your mind.”

Alongside Caamal (who also plays varsity football and wrestles for Vista Peak), the Blaze are highlighted by 38-year-old quarterback/safety Kimberly Santistevan, 39-year-old wideout/quarterback/defensive back Smooth Lowery-Jones, 40-year-old Linebacker/fullback Yolanda Searcy and 32-year-old linebacker/wideout Stephanie Skinner.

Santistevan is a Pre-K teacher who coaches freshman football in Douglas County. Lowery-Jones was a star basketball player at DU and now works as a safety analyst. Searcy, nicknamed “Yo-Yo,” is a 15-year tackle football veteran who played her first eight years in Minnesota. The Comcast employee runs the Blaze defense. And Skinner, a Starbucks barista by day, is a professional MMA fighter.

Skinner sees parallels between the rise of women’s MMA and women’s soccer, even as the latter lags more than a decade behind the curve established by the former.

“I was very young in the MMA game when women weren’t doing it and it wasn’t a cool thing, and I grew up around (professional women’s MMA),” Skinner said. “Seeing more people coming to the Blaze every year, younger women on the field, more people learning about us – that’s the most rewarding part. All it takes is a few influencers to get into the right people’s ears and you see a situation like Ronda Rousey and how it changed the game in MMA… For the WFA, the Boston Renegades will help build that stepping stone to be to get it everyone else noticed.”

The Renegades are the WFA’s top team and play for their fourth title in the Pro Championship game on July 9th. They have support from the Patriots since New England owner Robert Kraft loaned them his jet for the championship game last year and head coach Bill Belichick recently gave the team a $10,000 stipend.

Boston will feature quarterback Allison Cahill, the MVP of last year’s championship game and by far the most successful player in the WFA. She is the Tom Brady of women’s tackle football.

“[Cahill is]a woman who, if you watch her play, you can tell someone’s been tossing a soccer ball with her for many years,” Skinner said. “She’s smart, intelligent, athletic, and if people think women can’t play football, she epitomizes why they can. And we are the epitome of this in this team as well.”

find player

DENVER, COLORADO - JUNE 30: Mile High Blaze Stephanie Skinner (26) during practice Thursday June 30, 2022 at Parkfield Lake Park near the Montbello Recreation Center. The Blaze plays the WFA National Championship Game on July 9th. (Photo by Daniel Brenner/Special to The Denver Post)
DENVER, COLORADO – JUNE 30: Mile High Blaze Stephanie Skinner (26) during practice on Thursday June 30, 2022 at Parkfield Lake Park near the Montbello Recreation Center. The Blaze plays the WFA National Championship Game on July 9th. (Photo by Daniel Brenner/Special to The Denver Post)

Part of Blaze’s improvement in WFA has been her evolution in recruitment.

Though Flato-Dominy still doesn’t go beyond targeting a potential grocery store recruit, the team has devised a more efficient way to grow their player pool. In recent years, Flato-Dominy and head coach Rob Sandlin have recruited from local flag football leagues, recruited ex-rugby players, called powerlifters, and added ex-basketball or soccer players to the roster.

“When we got here, we put ads on CraigsList, we went to Pride parades, and nightclubs were also a big recruiting factor,” Sandlin recalls, laughing. “As we’ve evolved on that, we’re looking for serious ex-athletes. Because when we play against (bona fide teams), like we did in St. Louis at the conference championship a few years back, they have former LSU track stars on their team and about 12 (former) Division I athletes. We’re going out there, we can’t have a bunch of soccer moms.

While The Blaze found its rhythm, the WFA was busy building an identity.

The league signed a five-year deal to stage its championship games in Canton through 2025, and growing sponsorship money helped offset costs and grow the number of teams with more than 3,000 players across three divisions. Additionally, the WFA has developed a relationship with the NFL Alumni Academy and a handful of its players and coaches have advanced to the NFL coaching ranks.

Still, Flato-Dominy, who is set to take on a bigger role at the WFA next year, failed to realize one of her key goals here in Denver.

“The original goal was to model the Blaze after the Broncos and be a sister team to the Broncos,” Flato-Dominy said. “The ultimate goal is still to get their support. We tried to get their attention but couldn’t. I’d love to be able to play a halftime game (at Empower Field) like a short little exhibition so people can see what we’re about and that we’re legitimate tackle football.

As the Blaze seek their first championship and more local recognition as the franchise grows, Lowery-Jones hopes the future of women’s tackle football brings a more clearly defined landscape.

Currently, the WFA competes for players and markets with the Women’s National Football Conference (WNFC) and the X League (formerly known as the Lingerie Football League and Legends Football League), although the WFA dwarfs the other two in overall size. Colorado has a WNFC team, the Denver Bandits, and an X League team, the Denver Rush.

“Teams and leagues have to come together at some point, and there has to be some collaboration across the board because we can’t have more than a hundred teams across the country if we’re going to actually get players paid,” Lowery-Jones said. “And that’s the end goal – to make it a legitimate professional sport.”

DENVER, COLORADO - JUNE 30: Mile High Blaze Kimberly Santistevan (27) hikes the ball during practice Thursday June 30, 2022 at Parkfield Lake Park near the Montbello Recreation Center. The Blaze plays the WFA National Championship Game on July 9th. (Photo by Daniel Brenner/Special to The Denver Post)
DENVER, COLORADO – JUNE 30: Mile High Blaze Kimberly Santistevan (27) hikes the ball during practice Thursday June 30, 2022 at Parkfield Lake Park near the Montbello Recreation Center. The Blaze plays the WFA National Championship Game on July 9th. (Photo by Daniel Brenner/Special to The Denver Post)

https://www.greeleytribune.com/2022/07/03/mile-high-blaze-womens-tackle-football-wfa/ Mile High Blaze Just One Victory Away From a National Championship Brings Credibility to Women’s Tackle Football – Greeley Tribune

James Brien

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