Saskatoon Valkyries overcome odds and tragic death of coach to win championship title

Despite losing defensive line coach Justin Filteau in a tragic plane crash earlier this year, the Western Women's Canadian Football League's Saskatoon Valkyries celebrated a championship season this year.

Defensive line coach Justin Filteau died in Alberta plane crash in early June

Justin Filteau, 26, was one of three people who died after their small plane crashed near Medicine Hat, Alta., in June. (Justin Filteau/Facebook)

It has been a strong season for the Saskatoon Valkyries football team, recently crowned the champion of the Western Women's Canadian Football League. 

But the season was marred by tragedy when the club's defensive line coach Justin Filteau was killed in a plane crash in Alberta near the start of June. 

Saskatoon Valkyries linebacker Emmarae Dale said winning the championship was a fulfilling feeling, especially given the loss of Filteau during the team's season. 

"It just means that much more to us, especially because we can offer that for him," Dale told CBC Radio's Saskatchewan Weekend

"It has a lot more weight to it than just a regular championship." 

Head coach Pat Barry said the championship run started back in January when the team held its kickoff meeting.

From that point forward, he said the team has gone through some really big highs and terrible lows. 

"For the first time ever, we organized to play a preseason game in Las Vegas," Barry said. "It was something we were talking about for years and we were quite pleased we were able to pull it off." 

Barry said the team dedicated the rest of their season to Filteau after his death. On June 2, the team signed a game ball and gave it to Filteau's parents.

"I can't imagine how difficult these last few weeks have been for them," he said. "It's something that I'll never forget. I really admire [Filteau's parents]."

For Dale, a highlight of the season was beating the Regina Riot, a victory she said gave the team a lot of momentum for the season and gave the veterans and rookies alike a lot of confidence in themselves. 

"There's always support, just flowing out from everybody. It doesn't matter who you are, where you come from, what your background is. Everyone is always going to support you, no matter what," Dale said. 

Playing through tragedy

Barry said the team was on a bus, pulling up to Mosaic Stadium in Regina for a game when news began to spread that Filteau had died. 

"There's no question, it was a difficult moment," he said. 

He said for the first half hour after he learned of Filteau's death, he wasn't certain if the game against the Regina Riot was going to happen. He said he gathered everyone in the dressing room and told them all what he had learned. 

He said the team was able to pull themselves together and play against the club from Regina — thanks to some words of encouragement from Filteau's mother.

"We had been messaging back and forth with a few people and finally, I got to talk to her about 45 minutes to an hour before kickoff," he said. "She shared some words and said Justin would have wanted us to play."

Dale wasn't on the bus when the news about Filteau broke. She was called by a teammate just as she pulled up to the stadium. 

"It really was shocking. I was pretty much completely numb," Dale said. "I dropped the smoothie I was holding onto and it was a complete shock, complete disbelief, total heartbreak."

Dale said after Barry addressed the players and told them that Filteau's mother wanted them to play, they took a deep breath and rallied behind that thought. 

"Once we realized Justin would have wanted us to play this game and we're going to do this for him, that definitely just in one way lit a fire in our hearts," Dale said.

With files from Saskatchewan Weekend