Undefeated Passion back for one more shot at women's football title

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At the end of last season, Passion middle linebacker Beth Amato retired. She was 49 with three daughters. It was time to hang up the cleats.

But her teammates wouldn’t let her go. They pleaded with her to return for one more year — one more chance to get a championship ring. Amato obliged, and now the Passion, undefeated, will be playing in the Independent Women’s Football League championship game tonight in Rock Hill, S.C., against the Houston Energy.

Last season, the Passion finished 9-2, ending the season with a second-round playoff loss.

“Any time you finish a season less than where you want to be, you come back with a stronger determination to reach your ultimate goal,” coach and owner Teresa Conn said.

The team took out its disappointment on opponents this year. In eight regular-season games, the Passion outscored opponents, 278-24, and easily won two playoff games to reach the final.

“We have a lot of high achievers that feed off each other. It’s a contagious energy,” Conn said.

The Passion has scored no fewer than 21 points in a game this season and allowed no more than 12..

“The one thing that we have going is a lot of teams lean on their offense or their defense. Our team is so well-balanced,” she said.

Several of the Passion’s contributors are some of the same players who led the it to the 2007 National Women’s Football Association championship with an undefeated record. This team is one win away from matching that team’s feat.

This game, however, might prove to be the toughest. The Passion defense, which allowed an average of three points per game in the regular season, will face a Houston team that scored 90 and 53 points in its first two playoff wins.

Defensive end and general manager Kim Zubovic isn’t too concerned with Houston’s offense. After all, the Passion defense practices against the best offense in the IWFL.

“[Houston has] the ability to run a lot of misdirection as a defense. We have to stay committed to our responsibilities and play as a unit,” she said.

“We have film on them, and they’re a super-strong Texas team. It’s Texas football, and they’ve got players that played in a championship game last year,” Conn said.

Last year, the Energy reached the IWFL championship, losing, 14-0, to the Carolina Phoenix, and Conn noted that they’ll be hungry to finish the job they began last year.

Not only is Houston hungry, but it also has reloaded. The 2013 Women’s Football Alliance runners-up, the Dallas Diamonds, merged with the Energy to form a team comprised of players who nearly won two championships.

“If you can imagine the Houston Texans combining with the Dallas Cowboys, that’s what they did,” Passion quarterback Lisa Horton said.

Horton has watched films of five or six Energy games, noting that Houston uses a 4-4 and 4-3 defense, both of which attack with frequent blitzes. Horton doesn’t mind those blitzes, thanks to her team’s balanced attack.

The past couple of weeks have been hectic as the Passion players, who have full-time jobs and responsibilities, prepared for the championship. But the team isn’t getting too worked up. They’re maintaining a “calm focus,” according to Horton.

Most of the Passion players arrived Wednesday in South Carolina, but it was tough for the team to travel together because of so many different work and family schedules. They will, however, take the field as one unit today.

“Both sides just totally believe in each other. Our offense and defense have really become one,” Conn said.

“We prefer to call ourselves a family instead of a team,” Zubovic said.

That would make sense, as Amato is known as “G-Ma” to her teammates. Maybe if they win it all, the family will let “G-Ma” retire.

Hayes Gardner: hgardner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @HayesGardner.

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