Fighting Shockwave: new season, big plans
Winners of 15 of 16 league games over the past two seasons, the Portland Fighting Shockwave kick off their 2018 women's football schedule on Saturday with big aspirations.
But there are challenges.
The 24 players on the active roster are a mix of veterans and newcomers. And with fewer players than in recent years, coach Tim Price describes his 2018 team as a work in progress.
"This is a new team, this is an inexperienced team. But they've been working pretty hard since January," says Price, starting his third season with the squad. "They understand what we're doing. Now it's about going out there in a real game and executing everything."
The Tacoma Trauma will provide the first challenge, with kickoff at 6 p.m. Saturday at Roosevelt High.
Rebecca Brisson, co-owner of the Fighting Shockwave, says the team is always looking for new players and that this season's smaller roster reflects a cycle that most women's football teams experience.
"Every six or seven years we have a down year and then we bounce back up," Brisson says. "The 25 or so we have on the roster are pretty strong. We might not have depth, but the players we have are definitely strong."
Brisson played 13 seasons before stepping away three years ago. Her co-owner, Rebecca Dawson, is entering her 16th season of tackle football.
Despite having six rookies and three players in only their second season, the Fighting Shockwave have their eyes on Atlanta, where the Women's Football Alliance championship game will be played on July 28.
"I expect us to go undefeated and to make playoffs. Even though we have low numbers, we have a solid team," says Dani Riggleman, a running back and linebacker in her second season.
Riggleman was a WFA All-American first-team selection at running back last season, her first full year of tackle football.
A rugby player, Riggleman took to the running back position quickly.
"I had to adjust because rugby is a game of possession where football is a game of inches," she says. "That was a huge one for me, knowing which holes to take. With rugby, I'm always looking for support so I'll slow up whereas with football I need to speed up because I'm not going to pass the ball off."
Riggleman also plays linebacker.
"I like it," she says. "It's all the fun things — I get to sack the quarterback and I get to run with the ball."
The Fighting Shockwave have had success with a veer offense coordinated by Anthony Stoudamire, former coach at Jefferson and Benson high schools, and that is unique in the women's league.
"It's hard to defend. Everybody has to have a responsibility, and if you make a mistake there will be a big play," Price says.
Last season, Price and his staff were selected to coach the offense for the West team in the WFA's All-American game. That game and the championship last season were staged in Pittsburgh, where former Steelers running back Franco Harris is a co-owner of the WFA's Pittsburgh Passion.
Price says the West team was in the game until the end, the first time in memory the East did not dominate the all-star event.
"I don't know of any other team in the nation that runs the veer because it's a really complex offense," Portland fullback Jessica Gerdes says.
Entering her 16th season, Gerdes has played football since her junior high days growing up in Independence. She says the veer is an example of how women's football has evolved into a more sophisticated game.
Gerdes, Dawson (17th season), quarterback Veronica Ferguson (15th season), safety Megan Vanden Berg (18th season) and lineman Coco Rallings are the old guard for a team that saw several longtime players retire after the 2017 season.
Those veteran returnees are in their late 30s and early 40s now, so the age range on the roster spans two decades. Still, Price says this team has developed a closeness since practices started in early January.
He hopes the players also have developed the stamina they will need to play four quarters. Most of the players are on the field for offense, defense and special teams.
"Now we're really going to see where their stamina is. Are they really in good shape? A full game now is going to be a test," Price says. "Come the fourth quarter, are we tired? Or are we fresh?
"There will be some girls who don't ever come off the field. It's going to be a struggle all year, but I think we'll get it done."
Portland has two experienced quarterbacks in Ferguson (5-5, 125 pounds) and fourth-year player Hollie Petrie (5-7, 175). Riggelman (5-5, 130) and Dawson (5-6, 155) are the primary running backs. Three offensive lineman return: Jenna Castro (5-3, 230), Kelsey Skrudland (5-6, 200) and Stephanie Aliimatafitafi (5-10, 395). Gerdes (5-6, 180) is an experienced fullback.
On defense, one of the veterans is Vanden Berg (5-8, 130) at safety. Tess Bair (5-8, 215) will play multiple positions as needed in her eighth season.
Practices began on Jan. 3 at Delta Park. Price says the focus throughout has been on fundamentals and the proper techniques for blocking and tackling. One month, the focus was entirely on offense. The next month, it was on defense, and most of March has been about fine-tuning and special teams.
The Fighting Shockwave had more than 40 players two seasons ago — the first year after the merging of two Portland-area women's football teams. That team went 8-0 in the regular season and lost a close playoff game. Last season, with about 35 fulltime players, the record was 7-1 and the Fighting Shockwave narrowly missed a playoff berth — which is determined by a points system.
Brisson, the co-owner, says it costs about $35,000 per season to run the operation. Expenses include field leases, game officials and equipment, including annual helmet reconditioning.
Each player pays $400 to participate, which Brisson says is lower than many teams' fees, and each player must have her own insurance.
"We never want money to be an issue for someone who wants to play so we've got plenty of options and payment plans and things they can do to raise money," Brisson says.
Fundraising events and a Go Fund Me account help cover costs. Social media and word of mouth are the main tools for recruiting players.
Home games usually attract 100 to 200 fans. Brisson says spreading the word and getting new fans to give the game a try is a constant effort.
"Probably our biggest struggle is getting the word out that we exist, so come watch us play, and that we are accepting players all the time," Brisson says.
This season might include an opportunity to reach a new audience. The Fighting Shockwave, which practices three evenings a week at Delta Park, will play home games at Roosevelt.
Construction work at Milwaukie High, where the team played in 2017, forced the Fighting Shockwave to seek a new home. Price, who previously coached high school football at Jefferson and Parkrose, is the Roosevelt coach, a connection that made the Roughriders' field a good option for the Fighting Shockwave.
In another change, the rival Seattle Majestics have switched to the Independent Women's Football League, leaving teams in Tacoma and Everett as the only other Pacific Northwest teams in the Women's Football Alliance. Portland has had teams in both the WFA and the IWFL, and the Fighting Shockwave are entering their fifth season in the WFA. The WFA has more than 60 teams in two divisions (the Fighting Shockwave are in the top division). The IWFA has 22 teams, most in the Western United States.
Portland will play Tacoma and Everett three times each, make a trip next week to Sacramento for a game and play host to a team from Los Angeles.
The 16-team playoff begins June 16, with teams qualifying based on their national WFA ranking.
At the very least, Riggleman and several of her teammates hope to be there for another All-American game. But as the season begins, the dream is to be playing for a national title.
"I feel you've got to set your goals high," Brisson says. "Without it, you're not going to have that commitment."
Portland Fighting Shockwave
Home games start at 6 p.m. at Roosevelt High, 6941 N. Central St.
Tickets — $10, $5 for seniors and members of the military (season tickets $35 apiece). Children younger than 13 are free.
April 7 — Tacoma Trauma at Portland
April 14 — Portland at Capitol City (Sacramento, California)
April 21 — Tacoma Trauma at Portland
April 28 — Portland at Everett Reign
May 5 — Los Angeles Warriors at Portland
May 19 — Portland at Everett Reign
June 2 — Everett at Portland
June 9 — Portland at Tacoma Trauma
Playoff dates — June 16, June 30, July 14. National championship game is July 28 at Atlanta.
The Portland Fighting Shockwave welcomes new players. To learn more, visit www.portlandfightingshockwave.com