WILDCATS' WINNING WOMEN
Photographs and text by Neville Newman
Neville Newman is the official photographer of the Hamilton Wildcats Australian Rules Football club in Ontario. While he spends a considerable amount of time shooting and developing black and white film in winter, he concentrates during the warmer months on shooting 'footy' in Ontario. He shared with us his story about the female football team Wildcats, which he has now been documenting as club photographer for several years.
While Canada and ice hockey are synonymous, thanks to the efforts of Australian expats and their Canadian converts, ‘Footy’ (Australian Rules Football) has established an enthusiastic following with a thriving league in Ontario, teams all across the country and internationally represented from both men and women. I began shooting the Hamilton Wildcats as the club’s official photographer in 2016. Whilst the men’s team has been in existence for thirty years, the ladies only formed a team for the first time in 2012. For that and the following four years they would win a Grand Final berth, but be denied the flag.
In 2017, things altered dramatically. With two influential players overseas in Australia and other team changes, the ladies were the recipients of the wooden spoon (an award that is given to an individual or team that has come last in a competition). The ignominy was short-lived, however, and the Wildcats came back strong the following season, laying a foundation that would propel them to team history in 2019 when they took home the flag.
In 2016, as I began photographing the team, there was no way of knowing that the following year would be a washout, a year that in retrospect only served to instill new determination in the team that would pay off with the 2019 flag. But all that was in the future. The team would make the Grand Final in 2016, but would not take the ultimate prize. Lia Vansevenant demonstrates typical Catters’ determination as, unfazed by this looming attack from Etobicoke Lady ‘Roos Victoria Baran, she successfully disposes of the footy. After spending the following year in Australia, she came back to be part of the club’s new era where she is the team’s coach.
2018 just felt different. The ladies put the disappointment of the previous year firmly in the rubbish, and the team oozed confidence. There was a sense that they were in a rebuilding mode at so many levels. Every win is a celebration, but the renewed energy was shining through as the victories started to follow each other.
Determination was the watchword throughout the buildup that began in 2018. It was a matter of contesting, no matter the odds. It was a psychological battle too. Every game was a reminder of defeats they had suffered the previous year. The Cats’ Kelli Gruhl exemplifies the spirit in this shot as she charges forward to claim possession of the footy from Central Blues’ Hailey Jones.
She’s small but she’s mighty. Michelle Grynberg shows the emotion that infused the team in 2018 as she challenges Selina Amaral of Etobicoke’s Lady Roos for the footy. Nothing was going to stop her getting her hands on it even though she was outnumbered. Although the ladies’ season ended with a semi-final loss that year, the disappointment would act as a spur in 2019 when they took home the first flag in the club’s history.
Teamwork, having your mate’s back, is what successful footy is all about. It is also about taking advantage of the slenderest opportunities when they become available and making space where none previously existed. Lise Kiefer, with the footy, driving through a gap while Gabriela Arias shepherds away a threat from the opposition exemplifies the way in which the ladies’ team created the conditions in 2019 that resulted in them taking the premiership.
Along with the ecstasy must go the agony. Like any other club, the players have their share of injuries. No one could know at the time though, that this 2018 injury would signal the eventual end of Emily Spicer’s playing career. She came back from this one, but the damage was done. In early 2019 a torn ACL put her on the sidelines again and ruined her chances of being in the winning side. She has decided that her playing days are over, but once a Catter, always a Catter and the club will see lots more of her in different roles.
2018 saw Lia Vansevenant back in the side after a year in Australia where, among other achievements, she represented The Northern Lights, Canadian women’s team, in the 2017 International cup.
Always a fierce competitor, she is an integral part of the team and its leadership.
Don’t argue. Aware of an impending tackle attempt, Wildcats’ Kelli Gruhl performs her own brand of Richmond AFC’s Dustin Martin’s fend off on Etobicoke Lady ‘Roos’ Jenn Minchin. The move attitude symbolises the club’s attitude as they worked their way through 2018 and then stormed up to the 2019 Grand Final.
The club is a welcoming mob for new players. In 2018, Kendal Wales joined the crew having become smitten with footy when she left Canada to attend university in Australia. She brought her enthusiasm and effervescence to the side as it rebuilt and quickly became a stalwart. In 2019, her perseverance paid off as she was one of the team that lifted the flag.
The social side of the club is as much fun as the footy. Awards nights, jumper presentations and alumni evenings are always a bunch of laughs. I like to catch some candid moments and the combination of good spirits and good tucker gives me some excellent opportunities. Jacqueline Josephine, who spent a year in Australia with Lia Vansevenant, is the subject here, hamming it up a little as she sees me focusing on her.
The Wildcats' ladies team might only have a nine year history, but the club has made its influence felt in Australia too. Kendra Heil on the left, one of our former players now living down under, plays for Essendon in the VFLW women’s league and is part of their leadership team. Drafted by Collingwood originally, she suffered two torn ACL’s but her determination is beyond dispute, and her quite frequent return visits to awards' ceremonies here are a continuing source of inspiration to the club. Lia Vansevenant is drinking for both of them here.
Ainslie Pope’s story is now a club legend. She came to Hamilton from Australia in 2019 as a participant in a teacher exchange having never played footy in her life. She was introduced to the team and decided to give it a go where she played as if she had been born on the oval. From starting from nothing and eventually playing in a Grand Final winning team. How good can that be? Here, Ainslie lays a textbook tackle on Ottawa Swans’ Andrea James.
The Wildcats and Ottawa Swans have a long and strong rivalry. As the Cats moved closer to securing a place in the 2019 Grand Final, their old enemy was a potential obstacle. Not surprisingly, emotions ran high. After playing against each other hard all afternoon in the semi-final, Wildcats’ Lia Vansevenant and Swans’ Kylie Marie advanced on each other for a little extra-curricular activity. Another Swans player acted as peacemaker to keep them apart.
This is what it’s all about. The culmination of two years’ hard work. A beautiful September afternoon and the absolute joy of sharing in the fruits of getting the job done. Their faces say it all. Only two Aussies are in the side, demonstrating the strength of the Wildcats’ homegrown expertise and the growth of footy in Ontario.
Weeks after the 2019 Grand Final win and the team still displays its joy at lifting the flag. Awards nights are always special occasions, but this one was a first for the ladies.
It really was a night to remember for them.