Local team with dual identities to play for IWFL title

The first team to play on Tara Stadium's new artificial turf is made up of doctors, accountants and schoolteachers who become running backs, linebackers and safeties — and more — once they hit the ladies' locker room.

It's altogether fitting that Atlanta's International Women's Football League team is a roster full of dual identities, split between vocations and avocations. Even the team itself is known two nicknames this season as they make the transition from Xplosion to Ravens.

But any other name these gridiron roses in fisted gloves are called — be it Charmaine, Mickieon, Sheila or Chiquita — one thing is unmistakable: They are championship-caliber football players, and deadly serious about bringing home the big prize. Their urgency is heightened because this might be the last rodeo for a good chunk of the team.

"A lot of the veterans of this team are going to retire," said Mashonda Gilmore, the Ravens' general manager, who is bracing herself for the rebuilding season certain to follow. "We're already holding tryouts."

Retirement in women's semipro football seems to be a lot like hanging up the gloves in boxing. It seldom sticks the first time. Charmaine Chin, who started with the team at its inception in 2002, is about to try retirement again because she couldn't resist coming back for another piece of the crown.

In coming out of retirement, Chin has been anything but some aging quarterback/running back hanging on for one last ride. With the help of a veteran offensive line, most of whom likewise look to hang it up, Chin has been a major force for the Ravens, gaining over 1,000 yards in 10 games.

Which has brought them to this point, the days counting down until the Ravens meet the California Quake in the IWFL Championship on July 30 in Austin, Texas, where the league is headquartered.

Chin has led a roster that boasts a smattering of Southern Crescent talent — defensive back Mickieon Dozier from Ellenwood, offensive lineman Sheila Braxton from McDonough and defensive tackle Chiquita Thomas from Riverdale — to a 10-0 record.

"It's been quite a journey since we were 25 and fresh out of school to being thirty-somethings now," Chin said. "And there are some ladies who are still playing into their 40s."

Chin had 221 yards and three touchdowns in a 24-6 victory over the Carolina Phoenix in the Eastern Conference championship game. Even though she has an engaging full-time job – an engineer who works on the landing gear for Delta jets – it's hard to hang up the cleats. Retire, shmetire.

"There's a void there when you've done something for a long time and you still have the skill set to do it," said Chin, an athlete all her life and a former track star at Georgia Tech. "We have the opportunity to do something great and it's remarkable."

Chin chose football back when she and her twin sister, Charlene, were "little tomboys, playing with our brother on the block from 8 years old on up," she said. "My mom was a single parent bringing up three young kids and she was a very ambitious pediatrician. She taught us that we had to work hard for what we want and she never let us sell ourselves short. She was like, ‘If you want to play football, go do it. If you want to be an engineer, go do it.' "

Within the IWFL, there are two levels of play. and the Ravens are trying to go do it on its top level — Tier 1, for the advanced teams. Tier 2 is for those who are still developing. While the Ravens take on the Quake, a 10-0 team based in Long Beach, Calif., for the Tier 1 title, the Seattle Majestics will be taking on the New England Intensity for the Tier 2 crown.

The Ravens have won the title once before, in 2006, when they were known solely as the Xplosion and played their home games at Roswell High School. When David Irons took ownership, he kicked off the name-changing process.

"Since the transition, a lot of people know us as the Xplosion," Gilmore said. "We want them to tie into us as Ravens. tying those two together all season, fans recognize who we are. (Irons) wanted us to be more in line with the rest of the teams in the city. Most of them are birds."

One of the birds flew the coop, the Thrashers hockey team relocating to Winnipeg. But like the Hawks and Falcons, the Ravens have a following. More than 3,000 fans like their page on Facebook. They have hundreds of followers on Twitter. And they drew four-digit crowds — a season-high 2,000 for one game — to Tara Stadium to see them beat whoever showed up.

Fans showed up because the Ravens won, and the Ravens won, Chin said, because they're taught better than other teams in the league. Since many women players don't have access to the kind of feeder system that male counterparts get in youth football, middle school and high school football, the teaching aspect is more important in the women's game. Chin says it makes the women's game more cerebral than the men's game.

"Women want to know why," Chin said. "A coach can tell a man, ‘OK, you need to block here,' but if you tell a woman to run into the 2 hole, she's going to ask, ‘Why am I running to the 2 hole?' "

Chin said the women's game is less pass-oriented than the NFL, for example, but that the better teams – of which she unabashedly claims the Ravens are one – can mix and match.

"We like to mix it up," Chin said. "We can ground and pound but we've also got great receivers, great quarterbacks and great schemes. We can unlock the toolbox depending on who we're playing."

Chin and the Ravens have a ton of confidence that they can get the job done against the Quake. The game will be broadcast online at foxsports.com.

"This is our proverbial Super Bowl, although because of rights and lawyers we can't call it that. But it's our championship. … We're definitely working hard and our goal is to bring it back in 2011. We're not overconfident, but we don't want to miss our opportunity. It doesn't mean anything if you fall short."