Lilly Watkinson’s dream growing up didn’t follow in the direction of most young girls.
From the time she was in Grade 2, the Innisfail native wanted to play football.
In fact, the 15-year-old Grade 11 student has fulfilled her dream at both the girls and boys levels. She was a key member of Team Alberta’s run to the gold at the inaugural Canadian U18 women’s championship in Regina in July, and this fall has earned a starting spot on the Notre Dame Cougars senior high school squad.
Although she’s listed at five-foot, 100-pounds she plays on the defensive side of the ball and plays far above her size.
“I don’t have the size of a lot of the guys but I’m confident in my tackling, it’s something that’s come natural to me … I just work to perfect my technique.
“Speed is where I don’t excel. It’s the most difficult side when facing a fast guy.”
Still, she has impressed Cougars head coach Ian Rattan.
“She was on the team in Grade 10 and had a great season. She had a great opportunity with Team Alberta where she played linebacker and she learned a lot.
“She does everything right and has a commanding voice on our defence.
“You hear her in practice calling out the plays and that’s definitely a strength. She’s a smart football player and although she doesn’t look like much as she’s not the biggest body out there she’s tenacious, comes at you hard and is eager to learn. She’s a thrill to coach.
“She’s simply a football player.”
Rattan has a daughter who would like to follow in Lilly’s footsteps.
“It’s awesome to see girls like Lilly playing the game at a high level and to see where the women’s game is going and there will be a spot for girls like my daughter.”
Lilly played linebacker with Team Alberta, who defeated host Saskatchewan 36-12 in the Canadian final, and plays both safety and halfback with the Cougars as well as working on special teams.
“I enjoy Safety the most as you get more freedom and there are fewer jobs to worry about,” she said. “I always was able to read the play well and at Safety you have to pay attention and be reactive to what you see and I feel I do that well.”
Lilly hasn’t had an opportunity to get an interception yet.
“Just tackles, nothing crazy,” she said.
Lilly became interested in football in Grade 2 while watching her brother Caleb play with the high school Innisfail Cyclones.
“He played and I wanted to follow him and found I liked the sport and just continued on.”
Without any girls’ programs, Lilly played with the boys at the atom, peewee and bantam levels.
She played two years of atom in Innisfail and one year of peewee before playing a year with the Olds Bulldogs. She then moved to Red Deer joining the Cougars bantam program before moving up to the senior squad.
She didn’t play much in Grade 10, but didn’t expect to.
“Not many Grade 10s play a lot, but it was good I used the year as a learning experience,” she said.
Despite her size, Lilly has been injury free.
“My worst injury came last year while snowboarding in the off-season. I broke my ankle which prevented me from competing in our spring camp, but I was able to be back for the season.”
Lilly is one of three girls on the Cougars with Payton Wiggins red-shirting and Sara Cossins on the offensive and defensive lines.
“Sara saw some action (against Lindsay Thurber) on the defensive line,” said Rattan. “She hasn’t played for a while but was great on the rugby team.”
“Having a couple other girls on the team is great and it’s really exciting to see more girls playing in the league,” said Watkinson.
Being female in a predominantly men’s sport hasn’t affected Lilly.
“I have a lot of friends on the team and surprisingly not a lot of sexism, as you know how boys are,” she said with a laugh.
Lilly has two more years of eligibility with Team Alberta’s U18 program and hopes to continue on with the program. She’s also an honour roll student at Notre Dame and once finished school hopes to attend a post-secondary institution in either Edmonton or Calgary, play senior women’s football, and get a degree in child care.
“I want to stay involved in football for sure and play for either the Edmonton Storm or Calgary Rage,” she said. “After I want to stay involved possibly as a coach.”
Danny Rode is a former Red Deer Advocate reporter and member of the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame who can be reached at email@example.com