The Saskatoon Hilltops aren’t breaking down any film these days, but they are certainly breaking down barriers.
There’s a new addition — and a new gender — on the Hilltops’ gridiron.
Emmarae Dale (BSKI'20), a linebacker who helped the Saskatoon Valkyries win a pair of Western Women’s Canadian Football League (WWCFL) titles in 2016 and 2019, is the first female football player to join the Hilltops roster.
She is also believed to be the first female player in the Canadian Junior Football League’s storied history.
“It’s definitely pretty surreal,” Dale said before the Toppers’ practice on Tuesday night. “Yeah, it’s still hitting me, I guess. I’ve known about it for a while and it’s been in motion for a few months now, but I guess now that it’s brought to light, it’s definitely hitting me all over again that this is happening.
“It still just kind of feels like it’s a dream.”
Hilltops defensive coordinator Jeff Yausie, as a former Valkyries head coach, got to see Dale first-hand in the WWCFL.
“Nothing’s token about this,” Yausie stressed. “We’re not doing this for any (publicity). She’s very talented.
“Last week was sort of the first time we saw her on the field with our guys and, to me, she fits right in and does not look out of place at all.”
When Yausie coached the Valkyries, Dale was still young and raw.
“But to see her grow up and dominate at that level, we kind of had this idea, Tom (Sargeant) and I, in the winter,” added Yausie, noting that Dale was invited to their winter workouts before the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to everything.
When the Hilltops returned to the field last week after a pandemic pause, Dale was among those to show up.
“She’s unique,” said Yausie, a former CFL player. “What sets her apart is she’s very strong and she’s a great athlete. I was able to watch her with the bag drill with our linebackers. She is at the same level or perhaps a little bit quicker than some of the players. I’m excited to see her have a chance to compete. I think she’ll contribute on special teams, to start, and then we’ll hopefully have a chance to see her at a linebacker spot.
“She has a great attitude.”
Sargeant said he had a chance to watch Dale play for the Valkyries and she came highly recommended.
“I talked to coach Yausie and (current Valkyries coach) Pat (Barry) and all that crew,” Sargeant said. “We just feel that this totally makes sense. We knew what she was like. She’s got a great athletic burst and a good nose for the ball. That’s linebacker football and, ultimately, right now, the skills and drills we’ve been doing, she’s done exactly what we expect and she’s got a great attitude too. It’s been a lot of fun to be around her.”
Dale is being thrust into a position that is known for its physical contact. It’s not like she’s playing wide receiver or defensive corner back, where contact may be more limited.
While there hasn’t been many full-contact or tackling drills yet, she’s ready to meet the challenge head on, she said.
“It’s definitely a little different from women’s football but, so far, it’s been good. It hasn’t been too, too bad.”
Coming from the Valkyries, things haven’t been all that different other than the “obvious fact” that she’s playing against men now.
“The pace is definitely quicker,” offered Dale, “but I’m excited to keep learning and growing as a football player.”
FOOTBALL A FAMILY AFFAIR
Dale comes from a true football family of six siblings.
Two brothers, Anthony and Donovan (MSc'19), both played for the Hilltops. Donovan also played U Sports football for the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds and University of Saskatchewan Huskies, while Anthony went on to play one season for the University of Regina Rams.
Two other brothers played high school football.
So maybe this isn’t the first time Emmarae is tackling some male football players?
“I guess we had scrums growing up,” she said with a laugh. “We were just around football a lot. We’d do schoolyard stuff or little family games, but usually touch. We weren’t getting too competitive.
“That’s where I got my competitiveness, just from playing little games like that all the time.”
Dale, a College of Kinesiology graduate, is now working at the Ignite Athletics training facility.
She’s set to become the third Dale sibling to suit up for the Hilltops.
“She’s got such a great passion and comes from a football family,’ noted Sargeant. “That’s Hilltops football. It’s just great to continue that family tradition. We feel she’s going to be a great acquisition and we look forward to working with her and developing her, see where it takes her on the football field.”
Sargeant couldn’t recall if there has been any female football players in the CJFL in the past, but CJFL media coordinator Ryan Watters confirmed on Tuesday that Dale is indeed the first female player in the league.
With the 2020 CJFL season cancelled and no games scheduled, Dale has joined the Hilltops for their 2020 practice schedule as they practice three times a week over a six-week span.
“I know this is exciting and an opportunity for us,” said Sargeant. “We’re just excited to have Emmarae. We’re just looking forward to developing her and getting ready for the 2021 football season.”
At age 22, Dale has one year of CJFL eligibility that will be extended to 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s nice to know that I pretty much have the full year to just get bigger, faster, stronger, and I look forward to keep on getting better and I keep setting up my game,” she said.
Article originally published by https://thestarphoenix.com.