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Bisons Kicker Turner Hopes to Break Down Barriers for Women in Sport

September 25, 2023 7:21 AM | The Canadian Press

By Judy Owen, The Canadian Press

Maya Turner - University of Manitoba Bisons

University of Manitoba Bisons kicker Maya Turner kicks the game-winning field goal during a USports football game against the University of Regina Rams in Winnipeg in a Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023 handout photo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, University of Manitoba, Zach Peters)

WINNIPEG — Maya Turner hopes her historic accomplishment will inspire other women who dream of kicking down barriers to play men’s football at a high level.

Turner became the first woman to play and score in a regular-season U Sports football game on Saturday.

The University of Manitoba kicker made two field goals, including the game-winner in overtime, in the Bisons’ 27-24 victory over the University of Regina Rams at IG Field.

“It shows that if you want to play football on any team it can be done,” Turner said in a phone call Sunday after team meetings.

“If you’re good enough to compete at that level and you find a team that appreciates you for the athlete and the player that you are, you can achieve that.

“I think it helps seeing other women do it, just to see that it is possible.”

Turner, from Maple Grove, Minn., made history with a 21-yard field goal at 5:18 of the second quarter to record her first points and give Manitoba a 3-2 lead.

Her excited teammates tapped her helmet and slapped her on the back as she went back to the sideline.

Bisons head coach Brian Dobie also called her over and had a special congratulations for an achievement he’ll never forget.

“It was one of those moments in time, it really was,” said Dobie, who’s been the school’s head coach since 1996.

“I went over to her and I put my hands on her shoulders and we were inches apart and I’m looking at her and I just went, ‘Maya, I’m so happy for you. I’m so proud of you and I want you to know I’m saying that as the head coach of the university football team and I’m saying that as a father of a daughter. Good for you.’”

Then, with the homecoming game tied 24-24 in overtime, Turner booted another 21-yard field goal to give Manitoba the lead. The Bisons defence held tough and Rams kicker Andrew Sweeney missed a 45-yard field-goal attempt that sealed the win for Manitoba.

Turner was also good on all three converts for a total of nine points in the game that gave Manitoba its first win of the season (1-3) and dropped the Rams to 1-3.

“All of those were definitely must-make so there was, obviously, a bit of pressure,” she said. “It was just such a rush after (the second field goal) went in.

“The team and the coaches and everyone was celebrating. It was just such a great feeling that was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.”

Turner had previously become the first woman to score points in a U Sports game when she kicked a 25-yard field goal in a Bisons pre-season game last year against the University of Saskatchewan.

Before joining the Bisons, she played NCAA Division I soccer for Loyola University in Chicago. She left the team in her second season in August 2021 to try something different. The school didn’t have a football team, but she decided to try out for a club football squad.

She enjoyed the new sport and went to kicking camps. One coach helped her put together video and she sent film to dozens of schools in the United States and some in Canada early last year, including to Dobie’s desk.

“We were very cautious because we weren’t getting game film,” Dobie said. “Her film looked really good, it really did – the sound of the ball coming off her foot, the flight of the ball. She’s a very true kicker. She kicks a straight ball.”

He brought her in for a tryout in April 2022. About a dozen curious players watched her kick against the team’s soon-to-be-graduating kicker, Cole Sabourin. She impressed on the cold, breezy day.

“She was flatout more accurate than he was,” Dobie recalled. “Once it got to kicks in the 44-, 45-yard range, now he started to win the battles.”

He signed her that day with her parents by her side. She red-shirted during the 2022 season and improved this season, thanks in part to Winnipeg Blue Bombers placekicker Sergio Castillo helping the Bisons kickers once or twice a week.

The plan this season was to have Bisons kicker/punter Vinny De Rosa attempt field goals over 40 yards and Turner would go for the shorter kicks, Dobie said.

Game planning related to special teams didn’t allow Turner to play in Manitoba’s first game of the season at home. She was also left off the roster for the team’s following two road games because road rosters have five less players and De Rosa also punted, Dobie said.

Turner got the news last week she and De Rosa would play in Saturday’s game, which was extra exciting because her parents, grandparents and older sister already planned to drive from Minnesota for the game.

After the victory, Dobie addressed the team in the locker room and gave Turner a game ball. The balls from her historic first kick and the winning field goal are being kept by the school in case they go into a hall of fame one day, Dobie said.

Turner said her ball is inside her locker at the university, which is a converted large washroom with her name plate on the door across from the team meeting room. It was a setup the team arranged for the five-foot-nine, 150-pound kicker, who is the second female to make the Bisons football roster.

Defensive back Reina Iizuka became the first female U Sports football player when she was on Manitoba’s roster from 2018-20, but she never dressed in a regular-season game.

Turner said her teammates have welcomed her from the beginning.

“I definitely feel respected by them as just another teammate,” she said. “They’re really supportive of me. I couldn’t ask for a better team environment.”

And that’s what Dobie is hoping for in his program.

“As a coach, we’re supposed to teach Xs and Os and techniques and all of that, of course,” he said. “But I think at the university level we’re also responsible for teaching life. I feel strongly about that.

“I think it’s been a really great process for the young men in this program. I’m really proud of them.”

CP - The Canadian Press