The Minnesota Vixen women’s professional football team is now one win away from claiming its first Division I national championship in the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA). But it won’t be easy.
The Vixen defeated Cali War from Los Angeles 33-22 on July 10 to claim the American Conference title. They will now face the two-time defending national champion Boston Renegades on July 24 in Canton, Ohio.
While the Renegades are considered the favorite in this battle of unbeatens—they haven’t lost a game since 2018, though there was no 2020 season because of COVID-19—the Vixen are solid, too. Just ask Minnesota coach Ryan McCauley, who saw his team trailing briefly in the second quarter of the conference title game.
“That was a wakeup call for us,” said McCauley, a local teacher who lives in Merriam Park. “But we were able to stick with our stuff and come back.”
The Vixen play their home games at Sea Foam Stadium at Concordia University, but they were at Edina High School for the conference title clash. An estimated 700 fans turned out for that contest. Minnesota gymnast Grace McCallum, who will represent the U.S. in the Olympic games in Tokyo later this month, was the honorary Vixen captain and took part in the opening coin toss.
The Vixen (8-0) have put together quite a season, though coach McCauley knows what a tall order it will be to put away the Renegades. However, he said his players definitely plan to show up in Canton, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “We’re going to put everything we’ve got into it,” he said.
The Vixen have some serious weapons of their own on both sides of the ball, including 10 all-Americans. They come from a wide variety of athletic backgrounds. As one might guess, many grew up playing something other than tackle football.
Running back Grace Cooper, a Twin Cities school teacher, is perhaps the best running back in the league. Cooper will enter the national championship game only 4 yards shy of 1,400 for the season. She is a dual threat who can run between the tackles and also break outside for a big gainer. She graduated from Bethel University, where she also ran track.
Wide receiver Sam Barber, who can go up high for catches, played basketball at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. She followed that up with a stint playing semipro hoops for the Saint Louis Surge before moving to the Twin Cities.
Fellow wideout Kaiya Sygulla, who played basketball at UM-Duluth, also can tack on acreage after she makes the catch.
“This 2021 team is probably the most talented one I’ve seen in my tenure here,” said co-owner Laura Brown.
Quarterback Errin McIsaac is a threat with her arm and her feet. She had just under 300 yards rushing and 800 yards passing for the season, while completing 72 percent of her pass attempts.
There are also plenty of other talented Vixen on defense. McCauley, who serves as his own defensive coordinator, gets especially upbeat when talking about that side of the ball.
Linebacker Crystal Ninas leads the team in sacks, hits for loss and tackles. Middle linebacker Cil Winton’s athleticism makes her an effective blitzer who clogs up offenses.
Cornerback Amy Mugaas, who ran track in high school, leads the team in interceptions. Defensive end Molly Blesi is just a rookie, but she’s second on the team in sacks. She is a former soccer player.
Perhaps the most amazing player of all is nose tackle Cynthia “Red” Bryant, who has achieved all-American status. The 49-year-old Bryant is a grandmother, but a majority of offensive linemen can’t block her. “She takes immaculate care of herself,” McCauley said.
Bryant has been a Vixen since the team’s founding in 1999. Only linebacker Jodi “Moose” Rehlander can make that same claim, though Rehlander’s tenure has not been continuous.
The Vixen are the longest continuously operating women’s tackle football team in the nation. They started as part of a cross-country barnstorming tour with the Lake Michigan Minx that led to the formation of the Women’s Professional Football League in 2000.
The team had several ownership changes over the next few seasons. It joined the Independent Women’s Football League in 2013 and was purchased by Laura Brown and her husband in 2014. The team left that league to join the WFA in 2017. They won the Division II American Conference title the next year, but lost the national title game by six points.
The Vixen now have around 60 athletes on their roster and compete in Division I of the WFA, which claims to be the largest and longest running women’s tackle football league in the world.
Brown is optimistic heading into this week’s title game. “This 2021 team is probably the most talented one I’ve seen in my tenure here,” she said.
While the women’s league’s caliber of play is solid, once in a while there are reminders that the circuit is not quite the NFL. McCauley said that he’d be making the long trip to Canton by car with a staff member.
— Bill Wagner
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