Minnesota Vixen look for a title and hope to change football

·5 min read

Even when you're pulsating with the excitement of playing on a boundary-pushing football team preparing for a championship game at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it can be hard to know exactly where you are on the plodding course of cultural evolution.

But for many of the Minnesota Vixen, the course this week put them somewhere on the wide-open stretches of interstate between Minnesota and Canton, Ohio — where they will play the Boston Renegades at 5 p.m. Saturday for the Women's Football Alliance Division I national championship at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.

Quarterback Errin McIsaac was just crossing into Wisconsin on the drive to the game with her mom, Biddi, and her girlfriend Sam Barber, one of the top receivers on the Vixen, when she said there are two kinds of emotions that come with playing for a team that wants to change the concept of what sports can be in America.

"It's hard to fathom that the work we are doing is actually going to help move this sport forward, so that girls can play," McIsaac said. "I wanted to play when I was 8 and it just wasn't a thing. It's hard to really picture how big it is, our role, and sometimes when you think about the responsibility it can do both things: It can inspire you to work hard, and then at times it can really be kind of overwhelming."

The Vixen franchise was formed in 1999 and is thought to be the longest continual operating women's football team in the country. The Vixen joined the WFA in 2017 after playing in several other leagues.

Owner Laura Brown went from being a rookie on the team in 2012 to running the team in 2013. She also filled in as coach in 2018.

Everyone involved with the Vixen — who play their home games at Sea Foam Stadium at Concordia University in St. Paul — has to juggle work and personal responsibilities on top of seven months of practices and games. Brown is a pharmacist who works at M Health Fairview Ridges in the emergency room.

"It's actually really kind of a privilege [to run the team], and I say that because it is so much fun to be able to see these people who are maybe a little hesitant — they're nervous, they're shy, they may be unsure of themself — come into this organization because there is something driving them there that they want to be a part of and kind of finding home," Brown said.

Running back Grace Cooper, who was named American Conference Player of the Year after she rushed for a WFA-best 904 yards and 13 touchdowns this season, spoke of the nerves when she tried out for the team in 2016 after reading about the team in her school newspaper at Bethel.

"I went to the tryout and I was so nervous that I sat in my car, shaking pretty badly, for a solid 10 minutes before I got out and actually started doing anything," she recalled.

Head coach Ryan McCauley said his ideas about coaching transformed since he took the job in late 2018 after coaching freshman football at Stillwater High and then overseas in Poland.

"Just having all of these players come from all these different backgrounds where some were familiar with football or maybe played some high school football, others are coming in from other sports, it has helped me become a much better coach," McCauley said. "Because I'm able to now take things from the sports, the things that they're familiar with, and relate it to football, so that I can teach the game of football and teach those high level skills to them at the same time. Obviously that helps me in my day job as a teacher, as well."

That diversity of backgrounds is part of the ethos of the franchise.

"I mean we say sometimes if you want to pick a diversity box, we probably check almost all of them," Brown said. "It is amazing, whether you're talking social, economic, education level, background on race or sexuality or even gender identity, there is a lot of variations on the team."

And it's a dominant team.

The Vixen (8-0) have outscored opponents 341-62 on the season. McIsaac has 15 touchdowns and only two interceptions. Receiver Kaiya Sygulla was second in the WFA with 319 receiving yards and seven scores; Barber added 260 yards and six TDs.

On the defensive side of the ball, Amy Mugaas led the WFA with three interceptions, including one touchdown return. And Crystal Ninas was tied for second in the nine-team Division I with five sacks while Molly Blesi was fourth with 4.5.

But the club is the underdog to Boston, which has won the last two WFA national championships.

"I'm very confident we have all the talent and all the pieces to beat Boston. I don't think they're ready for it," McIsaac said. "I think they're sleeping on us."

Whatever happens on Saturday, Brown said, the franchise is already looking toward the future.

"We're not done growing. This is just another step for us," she said.

For McIsaac, that hope and excitement comes with some pause.

"I think football is one of those sports that is hanging on so tightly to being a men's only sport, I think it really is," she said.

"But," she added, "girls and women are going to continue to love and want to play football. It's a great sport. It is the greatest, my personal opinion, it is my favorite sport, ever."

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