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Football for her

Rogue Valley women like Elysa Prince have always had a passion for football.

They just needed a chance to play.

Their chance has arrived.

The valley has seen the introduction of several semiprofessional football teams: the Southern Oregon Blaze, the Southern Oregon Heat, the Rogue Warriors and the Southern Oregon Renegades. Now it is time to add one more to the list: the Southern Oregon Renegades women’s club.

Becoming a member of a football league takes plenty of work and patience, but the reward is seeing fans of the game get the chance to participate, says Rockne DeMello, who is owner of both the men’s and women’s franchises along with his wife, Leona Westdahl.

Prince, who will serve as the general manager of the newly formed women’s team, helped plant the seeds for the creation of a women’s franchise for similar reasons. She also wants women to be empowered by playing football and create a forum to give back to the community. The vehicle driving the opportunity is the Women’s Football Alliance, which has seen recent growth.

With tryouts just a few days away, both DeMello and Prince agree that women’s semipro tackle football could take off, both as a participation and spectator sport.

“We have a lot of great athletes,” says DeMello, who will serve as a coach and consultant for the women’s club. “Southern Oregon is a great sports hub and I think it’s going to be a hit.”

Prince has been a fan of football since she can remember. She’s watched the professionals on television for years and participated in the powder puff and flag variety growing up in Auburn, Calif., before moving here.

Prince recently came up with the idea to start a women’s team, she says. She met with DeMello and filed the proper paperwork with the WFA to get the ball rolling.

“It’s always something that I’ve wanted to do,” says Prince, who is a consultant for children’s mental health. “I’ve wanted to do something with more contact, and you look at the men like, ‘Why can’t we have something like that?’”

Now her dream is about to become a reality.

Tryouts are set for Saturday and Sunday at U.S. Cellular Community Park. Sessions begin at 2 p.m. each day. Prince says that experience or skill level doesn’t matter, but participants must be at least 18 years old. Passion and commitment, she says, count equally as she tries to grow the green program.

Prince says that about 70 women have expressed at least some interest in trying out out on the team’s Facebook page.

The WFA requires 20 players to suit up each game and rosters of at least 30 are required by April 20.

“If 100 women show up and they want to play, we’ll do our best to foster that,” Prince says. “But we’re definitely going to be looking at people, looking at who is showing up and who is making improvements.”

Like DeMello, Prince believes there is strong talent in Southern Oregon.

“We have a lot of amazingly talented athletes,” she says. “I’ve played with softball and soccer players and we have some good ones. There is a lot of untapped potential here.”

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the number of females participating in high school tackle football saw about a 17 percent increase from 2007 to 2011, with 1,561 girls participating.

"We'd like to bring awareness to women's sports and eventually form a program for younger girls," Prince says. "It could have a huge community impact. We'd like to give back to the community with things like food drives, too, because we love our community."

DeMello helped create the Renegade men’s club in 2008. He says “building bridges and being the new one” can be overwhelming, but that the effort is worth it while entering a league.

The men play in the Pacific Football League and their season begins in May.

The WFA was designed to create the largest and most competitive women's tackle league in the world, its website says. Similar teams have existed for over four decades, according to the WFA, and the sport has seen its most promising growth the last five years. The rules of the game are the same as the men’s tackle game, Westdahl says, with NCAA rules applied.

The WFA is made up of 50 teams, including 14 new additions for the 2016 season. League incentives include All-American jerseys, playoff travel money, championship rings and uniforms and the chance to be seen on television or the Internet.

DeMello sensed a demand for a team in Medford.

“All the years I’ve been involved, I’ve heard football wives and girlfriends say, ‘There should be a women’s team.’”

The Renegade women are set to compete in the Northwest Division, which includes squads from Portland, Seattle, Everett and Tacoma.

Southern Oregon’s head coach has yet to be named, but a handful of volunteers have offered to help, Prince says.

Prince says it's likely the team will have four home games and four away games when the schedule is released in a few weeks. The team may use the field at Eagle Point High and may also rent out others in the Rogue Valley.

The season begins in April.

“We’ll go where we can, where there are openings,” Westdahl says.

Former Crater soccer player Sierra Bitterling grew up with football in the household as her father and brothers played, and she’s participated on city flag football teams the last two seasons.

The 21-year-old Southern Oregon University student plans to try out and says she is thrilled to get the chance to compete in tackle football.

“I would love to play wide receiver and safety in tackle,” says Bitterling. “Those are the positions I know best.”

Those interested in trying out should wear cleats but can just use athletic shoes, Prince says.

For more information, email sowomenrenegades@gmail.com or search for the Southern Oregon Women Renegades on Facebook.

Prince says the team is in need of sponsors and any assistance. Player fees will go toward the league fee and overhead costs and will depend on ticket sales, fundraisers and sponsors, Prince says.

Bitterling, a Central Point resident, says she will take off work on the weekends the team travels. The SOU senior doesn’t expect to miss any practices or games because of her school or work schedules.

DeMello says the dedication required is worth it from his experience with the men.

“It takes a lot of time to juggle life with football, work, school and family,” the Medford resident says. “If you can squeeze in the time and organize and get yourself out there, it’s exercise and you can enjoy the sport.”

Westdahl says their background with the Renegade men should make the process of running the club easier.

“We have the template already from running the men's team,” she says. “We know where to get the uniforms and we can point players in the right direction for equipment, helmets and shoes.”

Lisa King, the director of operations of the WFA, says January 15 is the usual cut-off date for new teams to enter, but the league is giving Southern Oregon extra time.

The WFA has created three new divisions for this season, King says, with 1 being the top tier and 2 and 3 being lower tiers. Southern Oregon, like other expansion teams, will likely begin in the third tier, King says.

Expansion will create more parity, King says.

“One of our issues is we have the best teams in the country,” King says. “It is hard to develop brand-new teams when the best teams pound them every year. It’s like a collegiate team playing an eighth-grade team. The disparity makes it difficult. We couldn’t do three divisions in the past. This year, with 50 teams, three divisions worked.”

Three champions will be crowned, King says.

The D.C. Divas of Washington, D.C. defeated the Dallas Elite, 30-26, in last year’s WFA championship on Aug. 8 in Los Angeles, capping an undefeated season.

The risks involved in playing are understood, Bitterling says.

“It’s something you have to factor in but I trust the coaching staff to properly teach tackling,” she says. “Playing soccer at the collegiate level, I’ve been kicked in the face, kicked in the head but I’ve never had any major injuries.”

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email djones@mailtribune.com. Find him online at twitter.com/danjonesmt