It wasn’t easy at the start, but the Boston Renegades, the best second-half team in the Women’s Football Alliance, came through at the end.
The Renegades rallied from an early 7-0 deficit to score 35 unanswered points and win their fifth-straight league title — and eighth overall in franchise history — in a 35-7 victory over the St. Louis Slam on Saturday at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio.
The Renegades (9-0) achieved the victory despite a first quarter that was a complete opposite of how they had played offensively all season.
The Slam (8-1) found a way to stymie the usual dynamic play of Renegades veteran quarterback Allison Cahill for most of the first half with Boston coming up empty on its first four possessions.
While they may have been frustrated, the Renegades did not panic, especially after St. Louis running back Jada Humphries, who spearheaded the Slam’s 130-yard rushing effort in the first half, scored on a 50-yard scamper around the left side of the Renegades’ defense for a 7-0 lead just seven minutes into the second quarter.
“We never get nervous,” said linebacker Darcy Leslie. “We bend but do not break. We could have imploded. That speaks to the mental grind we have.”
When Humphries engaged in an animated end zone celebration, it seemed to fire up the Renegades and their offensive juggernaut.
It wasn’t until Cahill completed a 25-yard pass to Stephanie Pascual, who bulldozed her way through several would-be tacklers before being dragged down in the end zone with 3:41 left in the second quarter, that the Renegades got on the board to tie the game, 7-7.
After Leslie intercepted St. Louis quarterback Jaime Gaal, Cahill found Chanté Bonds alone in the end zone with two minutes left in the half to put the Renegades up for good, 14-7.
The Renegades wore down the Slam’s vaunted league-leading defense in the second half thanks to a strong performance by defensive end Whitney Zelee.
“Honestly, we practice against the best offense in the game at every practice,” Zelee said in her ESPN2 postgame interview. “We were prepared. We just kept battling.”
A promising running back, Zelee, who ended up leaving the sport for a time due to injuries, returned to the Renegades last season as a defensive player in an attempt to stay healthy.
On Saturday, Zelee’s position switch proved to be pivotal for the Renegades. She earned most valuable player honors after she finished with six tackles and three pass deflections, most of which came in the second half.
“She put in an incredible amount of hard work physically and mentally to get back here,” said Cahill, who is also Zelee’s partner. “I’m back to being the second-best football player in our house.”
The Renegades relied upon their offensive depth to make dynamic plays. Ten minutes into the third quarter, Tytti Kuusinen, the team’s leading rusher on the day, scored on 4-yard burst to expand the Renegades lead to 14 points.
After Boston converted a third-and-24 attempt to keep a scoring drive alive, Ruth Matta scored on a 10-yard scoring jaunt for a 28-7 lead with seconds left in the third.
The Renegades put the defensive clamps on the Slam in the fourth quarter, twice forcing the ball to be turned over on downs, which minimized any chance St. Louis had for a comeback.
With 1:50 left in the game, Latoya Saulters took a handoff and sliced her way into the end zone on a 9-yard TD run to to put an exclamation point on the the Renegades’ fifth consecutive championship.
It was also the eighth overall for Cahill, 42, a veteran of two decades of professional women’s football.
“I’m feeling proud and grateful,” she said.