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Amy Donaldson: Utah Falconz lose for the first time since 2015, but title game is a win for women&#8

SALT LAKE CITY — It was everything they worked for, everything they yearned for and everything they believe necessary to sustain the evolution of the game they love — except the ending.

“This is the caliber of football we’ve been wanting to play,” said Utah Falconz quarterback Elizabeth Lane, after the Texas Elite Spartans gave the two-time Independent Women’s Football League champions their first loss (22-15) since the title game of 2015. “We played a great team. We played a hard-fought game. … We have nothing to hang our heads about.”

Playing a team that hadn’t been scored on all season, the Falconz knew there was more at stake in Saturday’s championship game at Sunrise Mountain High School in Las Vegas than win streaks and championship rings.

“This has to happen more if we’re going to progress as a women’s league,” said linebacker Jordan Willis, tears glistening in her eyes. “This needs to happen more. …Or we’re going to fall and fail as a women’s league.”

The Falconz — and Texas Elite — rolled over most opponents this season. That’s what made this showdown so alluring.

This matchup was the first time most players felt real risk attached to their effort this season. It made for a dramatic showdown that culminated a weekend dubbed “Best of the West Women’s Football Championship” featuring Texas Elite, Utah Falconz, San Diego Surge and Seattle Majestics.

The chance to play a team that not only could beat them, but that almost everybody expected to beat them, was so enticing, players set aside anything and everything, including painful injuries, for a shot at helping the Falconz earn one more title.

“The fear of not trying at all is greater than the fear of losing,” said Veronica Siqueiros, who dealt with injuries and logistical challenges to block for her sisters in Saturday’s game.

Siqueiros not only played with a sore knee (sprained LCL), but she flew in at 1 a.m. Saturday because she’s currently stationed in Virginia with the U.S. Army.

“You never know if you don’t try,” she said with a shrug. “Nothing really stops you but yourself. And there is always the outcome that you can win.”

The women lined up with Lane and Siqueiros against a big, physical Texas team, led by a tremendously talented running back, Odessa Jenkins, who is also the head coach and co-owner of Texas Elite.

It was Jenkins’ 29-yard rushing touchdown in the final four minutes of the game that gave the Spartans the 22-15 win over Utah. But even with just 3:08 to play, Utah continued to compete.

After a four-and-out, they forced a four-and-out for Texas — with both teams attempting and failing to convert on fourth downs. With two minutes to play, Utah tried but could not cover the 70 yards necessary to even the score.

Head coach Rick Rasmussen, a former Air Force pilot, FBI agent and longtime high school coach, shrugged at what his players fought through to be on that field in Las Vegas Saturday night.

“It’s tough to lose any game, in any sport, at any level,” said a teary Rasmussen, who invited his son — a veteran who served in Afghanistan — to speak to the women before the championship game. “I just was so proud of our girls. This team hadn’t been scored on all season. I thought our girls played their hearts out. They played great, and the ball bounced their way, and that’s the way it goes in sports.” The coach wasn’t willing to rationalize or make excuses for why his team may have lost, but he acknowledged the willingness of individuals to make sacrifices, physical, financial or emotional, is what makes any team special.

It illustrated their commitment

“It was as fun a game to coach, and I’m as proud to coach this game as any game I’ve ever coached at any level,” he said. “I thought our players played great, played with heart, played with class, didn’t back down. We didn’t have enough in the tank, and that’s the way it goes.”

The final score may indicate who gets to take a title trophy home, but it doesn’t reveal the most important rewards most of the women earned for the sacrifices they made this season.

For some, strapping on a helmet alongside these women is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream they were denied because of their gender. For others, it was a gift they didn’t know they’d receive, from a sport they never considered their own.

Running back Keeshya Cox was one of those who yearned to play from a young age. She approached the football coach at her high school and was turned away.

“He told me the pads couldn’t fit a woman, so I couldn’t play,” said Cox, who announced her retirement after five years and a likely Semi-pro Hall of Fame career that included earning the Offensive Player of the Game for Utah. “I couldn’t ask for a better group of people, for a better experience.”

Like Cox, Lane was told she couldn’t play by a high school coach because she was female.

“I’ve always wanted to play,” she said. “I played recess football, flag football in college and grad school. I played whatever they would let me play until they wouldn’t let me play anymore.”

She played Saturday’s game after dislocating two ribs in their victory over Seattle on Thursday. She dislocated a finger on the third play of Saturday’s game.

“I was frustrated with that,” she said. “But our team has always been next person up. If it’s me or somebody else. It’s about what the team needs, not me.”

Tasha Aiono, who had an interception in earning Defensive Player of the Game for Utah, was a standout high school and college soccer player who never considered football an option.

“When I came out, I didn’t even know how many points a touchdown was,” she said smiling. “I ended up loving it. It’s been awesome, and I’ve learned so much about, obviously football, but also about life. The unity and the dedication is unmatched.”

The 29-year-old Bingham High alum said she’s learned more as a person than as an athlete from competing with the Falconz the past two years.

“Our coaching staff teaches about loyalty and a courageous mindset,” she said. “Everything our team is built upon is about fighting for each other, and about competing in life in general.”

Willis let the tears fall as she acknowledges those teammates who played hurt or made other sacrifices to stand beside her on that field overlooking the Las Vegas Strip.

“That was 100 percent heart,” she said. “They did what they needed to do because we depended on them. I have 50 sisters, and I will always have 50 sisters — for life. If I ever need anything, it’s here.” She waved her hand at her teammates who hugged family members and congratulated opposing players.

The most impressive aspects of what the Utah Falconz have built isn’t captured in stats or the scores. It doesn’t shine in the championship rings that relatives of some players or coaches wore for luck Saturday night.

It is in the way they show themselves, aspiring players and the rest of us what’s possible with a lot of hard work, a lot of trust and the ability to see past the barriers that seem to regularly discourage us from accomplishing something special.

If these women saw the potential gifts football offers those who commit to its brutal demands, they were told it wasn’t available to them. They created their own opportunities, and then, when someone opened the door, they were ready — mentally and physically — for what the game required.

Siqueiros, who caught a touchdown pass from backup quarterback Louise Bean for Utah’s first score, said much of what she’s learned on the field is applicable in her life personally and in her military duties.

“It’s everything,” she said of what it means to her to be able to compete in this sport at this level. “You can apply it to everything, the military. If one little thing goes wrong, it can affect so many things. Miss a block, it will cost you the game. In the military, a mistake can cost you someone’s life. You learn from other people, and you learn from your mistakes.” And as Lane adds, give your best to the collective effort without fretting about what’s in it for you.

“I don’t really fear,” she said of facing what seems like insurmountable odds. “I can rely on my teammates to do their jobs, and all I needed to do was my job.”

And that’s all four of the best teams in women’s football needed to do this weekend to erase any doubt about whether or not women could, should or deserve to enjoy the unique challenges of the gridiron. Which is why, while Saturday’s 22-15 loss felt like a personal heartbreak, it also felt like a collective win.

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