“It’s very very fast, it’s hard-hitting, and we got strong women,” Stephanie Raymond-Young said. The X League, which is an eight-team women’s arena football league, will be making its debut at the BMO Harris Bank Center Saturday. The Chicago Blitz will host the Seattle Thunder in the Blitz’s only home game in the regular season.
Quarterback Stephanie Raymond-Young, a Lutheran alum, and safety Emma Vanderheyden, a Guilford graduate, are excited for the team’s opener in their hometown.
“My family saw it before I did, I think the league made an announcement on the Facebook page and my aunt called me and she’s like, ‘You’re playing in Rockford!’ and I was like, ‘wait, what, when did they decide that,’” Vanderheyden said, so all of my family was super excited to see that we’re right here where they watched me my whole life playing.”
“Just to be in my hometown and obviously I have a lot of ties to Rockford but I really do hope that Rockford and the BMO (Harris Bank) Center is our home arena for years to come,” Raymond-Young said.
Both athletes are looking forward to inspiring future players in women’s football.
“It’s a long time coming, I mean just in general anywhere, honestly we’ve been playing this sport for decades but we’re finally starting to get the recognition as athletes,” Vanderheyden said, ”So it’s really special to see and connect with the younger generation so I’ve been playing some form of football for over 10 years and we’re finally in the spotlight, like, 10 years and there were women that played for 10 years before me and who I used to play with.”
“We haven’t seen football played at the BMO Harris Bank Center in Rockford since the Rock River Raptors went dormant after their 2009 season. Saturday night football returns to the BMO like never before.
The women’s 7-on-7 Extreme League or X-League will make its debut in Rockford with the Chicago Blitz taking on the Seattle Thunder. The league’s owner and chairman is ‘Da Coach’ Mike Ditka.
The Blitz has two local players on the roster. The quarterback is former Rockford Lutheran and NIU point guard standout Stephanie Raymond-Young. Guilford graduate Emma Vanderheyden plays safety.
“These women are all athletes,” said Vanderheyden. “We’ve got Olympic track qualifying runners, professional basketball players. These women are no joke.
Raymond-Young described the action as, “Very up-tempo, power hitting, just dominant women.
We come to the field, and we have one agenda, and that’s to lay out the person in front of you.”
At Guilford, Vanderheyden competed in soccer, volleyball and cross country. She then competed in soccer in college at Upper Iowa University. When that ended, she needed something to continue to feed her competitive drive.
“After college I kind of had like, that athlete depression. You go from being a full-time student-athlete and then to nothing instantly when you leave.”
Raymond was a big-time scorer and playmaker at Lutheran and NIU. She also had a stint in the WNBA with the Chicago Sky.
She threw two touchdown passes and ran for a third touchdown in the Blitz’ opening win this season against Kansas City. Her athleticism translates to any sport, but she says football and being the focal point as a quarterback is far different than it was playing point guard.
“It’s a whole new ballgame. I stepped into this position knowing the risk that I’m taking. The last game I proved a lot of people wrong, and that I could actually play this position and play this new sport.”
The X-League was supposed to get rolling in 2020, but COVID forced the league to hold off until this year with a limited schedule. Teams are only playing two regular season games and then the playoffs. The goal is to continue to expand the schedule and expand the number of teams in the future. Currently there are eight teams located around the country. There are lots of women who want to play tackle football.
“Right now we have eight franchises,” said Vanderheyden. “We have plans to grow it to 32 franchises that we currently see in the NFL. With Mike Ditka on board, we hope this will grow pretty rapidly.”
This game between the Blitz and the Seattle Thunder Saturday night is huge. Both teams won their opening games. The winner of this game is guaranteed a spot in the playoffs.
“It’s going to be the best game of the season. Very, very competitive,” said Raymond-Young. “Seattle has a lot of threats on their team.”
Vanderheyden agrees. “This is probably going to be the game of the season especially going into the playoffs. It’s the game of the undefeated.”
To have this game being played in their hometown makes it even more special for Raymond-Young and Vanderheyden.
“When they announced that our home game was in Rockford this year it was kind of like an endorphin rush,” said Vanderheyden. “Like, wow, all my family and friends can come.”
“Obviously I have a lot of ties to Rockford with my family being here, with me growing up here,” said Raymond-Young. “I do look forward to keeping Rockford as our hometown.
There is a possibility the Blitz will play more games in Rockford next year. Arena availability is a big key in the X League. Saturday’s game will start at 7 p.m. Tickets are available through the BMO Harris Bank Center or through the Chicago Blitz by clicking on the following link.