SRU graduates lead Pittsburgh Passion to championship game
Pittsburgh Passion all-star wide receiver Angela Baker is one of six Passion players with ties to Slippery Rock University. Baker is on pace to earn her bachelor’s degree in health and physical education from SRU in May.
July 23, 2015
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Spurred on by a contingent of players from Slippery Rock University, the Pittsburgh Passion will have the chance to repeat as champions of the Independent Women's Football League (IWFL) 7 p.m. Saturday when it plays the Utah Falconz in the league's championship game in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
The IWFL opened in 2001 and is one of three 11-on-11 women's football leagues in the U.S. IWFL rules of play are very similar to that of men's NCAA football with the main difference being the size of the ball.
Pittsburgh cruised through the season and enters the title game at 10-0 on the year. The Passion, which has not lost since the end of the 2013 season, has an average margin of victory of 34.3 points in 2015. Pittsburgh earned the right to play for the championship by defeating the New York Sharks (35-28) and Carolina Phoenix (41-12) in the playoffs.
"Any time one wins a championship it's special," Passion co-owner/head coach Teresa Conn said. "It's never about the trophy or ring, it's always about what that represents. It represents an incredible journey of sticking together and being solution people. That lesson alone will bless the rest of our lives."
Leading the way has been the Slippery Rock quartet of Conn, wide receiver Angel Baker, running back Tara Catone and quarterback Lisa Horton. Catone, Baker, and Horton were all recently named IWFL All-Stars. Rock alumni cornerback Kim Martin and tight end/linebacker Deanna New also saw time on the roster throughout the season.
The current crop of Slippery Rock products guiding the Passion to victories is just the latest in the long line of former SRU students that have played for the franchise over the last 12 seasons.
"Slippery Rock has always attracted the kind of people we are looking for on the Passion," Conn said. They are not just great athletes, but incredible people of character as well. That's the combination that we're looking for."
Conn, a 1986 Slippery Rock graduate and one of four members of the Passion organization to have been with the team since its inception in 2002, is 94-27 (.777) as Pittsburgh's head coach. Conn has helped take the Passion from a team that went 2-6 in its inaugural season to a defending champion that has won 21 consecutive games. Along the way she has helped the franchise be featured in Sports Illustrated, on ESPN's SportsCenter and have selected games aired on RootSports.
"I love what I do," said Conn. "I get to be both a teacher and coach and create the environment in which we all can grow physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally. Every job has its challenges, but every athlete loves challenges so I just look at it as a game."
Horton, who earned her master's degree in sport management at SRU and was a graduate assistant coach for The Rock's softball team from 2001-03, is arguably the greatest quarterback in the history of women's football. Throughout her 13-year career she has thrown for more than 11,000 yards and 150 touchdowns. The 2014 IWFL championship game MVP enters this year's title game having completed 64 percent of her passes for 1,476 yards and 29 touchdowns on the season.
"I like to compare Lisa to Peyton Manning," said Catone. "She's a natural leader and strives for perfection and execution in everything. The way she plays, competes and performs makes our team better. We strive to play our very best with her leadership. As a rookie I have learned a tremendous amount about the game from Lisa and continue to look up to her on and off the field."
Baker, a fourth year pro who is expected to earn her bachelor's degree in health and physical education from SRU in May, has been Horton's primary target this season with 27 receptions, 323 yards and six touchdowns. A three-time all-star who has already totaled 82 receptions, 1,125 yards and 20 touchdowns in her young career, Baker has quickly established herself as one of the top receivers to have ever put on a Passion uniform.
"I am the type of receiver that will make every extra effort to get to the ball," Baker said. "I am a quicker receiver that is also pretty shifty so my coaches like to get me the ball in open space. They consider me a catch and run type receiver. It's common for me to make the initial catch and add another five or 10 yards to the play by running my way through the defense."
Following a four-year career on Slippery Rock's track and field team, Catone wasted little time making her name known in the IWFL. As a rookie this season, she ran for 1,365 yards and 15 touchdowns. Catone, who has a health and physical education degree from SRU, needed just seven games to eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau. She ran for 173 yards and three touchdowns against Carolina in the semifinals to help Pittsburgh advance to Saturday's championship.
Horton said Catone is an amazing athlete who has put in a lot of extra work since joining the Passion this winter. Her dedication has resulted in one of the top rookie seasons of any IWFL player. Catone credited her background in track for giving her the right mindset to excel on the gridiron.
"As a runner you learn to physically and mentally push yourself to your limits every event and it carried over into football," Catone said. "In football it's amplified because you are protecting yourself and can't let up. Every play is for your team and for your sister playing next to you."
As for Saturday's game, Pittsburgh's high-powered offense will be tested against a Utah team that has allowed 28 points the entire season. Sticking to the core principles that have been reinforced over the last year is a must according to Catone.
"Execution and intensity are the keys," Catone said. "Just like previous games this season, it's about being prepared, having all 11 women on the same page and carrying out the game plan to excellence with a ton of heart and intensity."
Horton predicts a physical game that will be one of Pittsburgh's toughest tests this season and that Pittsburgh's ability to win with either the running or passing games will enable the Passion to take what the stingy Utah defense gives them without missing a step.
For young players like Baker and Catone football is now in their blood. The duo said that they plan to play football for the foreseeable future and that one of their primary goals outside of continued success on the field is to help grow the game.
"I have absolutely fallen in love with the sport and I don't see myself parting from it anytime soon," said Baker. "There may be minor setbacks because unfortunately this can't be a career yet, but I know I will find myself in the game as long as my body allows."
"Playing football has been everything I could have imagined and more," Catone said. "It was quite the eye-opening experience and I am incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to play with this unbelievable group of women and coaching staff. I can't see it ending anytime soon. I'm absolutely hooked."
Behind the recent success of the U.S. women's national soccer team winning the World Cup and capturing the attention of an entire country in the process, as well as mixed martial arts fighter Ronda Rousey's mega celebrity status, female sports in the U.S. have become one of the fastest growing trends in athletics. With already more than 100 leagues nation-wide, Passion players think women's football has the chance to be the next big thing to grab the spotlight.
"Now more than ever women are getting involved in contact sports and breaking stereotypes," Catone said. "It's awesome to see youth girls full contact football leagues sprouting up in the west and even flag football continuing to gain popularity among teens and college intramural leagues. My only hope is that the Passion and I continue to motivate young girls and women to pursue the opportunity to play this amazing game."
Saturday's championship game will be streamed on YouTube at youtube.com/user/IWFL. The Passion will also provide live updates on Twitter (@pghpassion).
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