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Dancer trades tutus for tackles

October 12, 2016

mikayla-baigent.jpg

Mikayla Baigent of the Argyle Pipers senior football team surveys the scene during a recent game. The former ballerina is in her second season with the squad. Photo by Paul McGrath, North Shore News

By ANDY PREST / NORTH SHORE NEWS

For Mikayla Baigent, the scariest part about switching from ballet to tackle football wasn’t the thought of getting hurt, it was the idea of putting herself out there with a large group of classmates she didn’t know.

Her first introduction to the Argyle Pipers senior football team was at an open information session held in the school’s theatre room. Tired of the rigours of dance – ballet, modern dance and several other styles had been her life from age four to 14 – Baigent slipped into the meeting last year when she was in Grade 11 to see what the football program was all about.  

“I didn’t really know any of the guys,” she says. “That was actually more the scary thing for me, actually putting myself out there.”

She sat by herself and kept quiet. Head coach Wayne Theobald registered her presence but it didn’t occur to him that she was there to potentially join the team.

“She was there hanging out, but she was just sitting by herself so I thought she was part of the theatre group,” says Theobald. “And then later she grabbed a pamphlet.”

She was there to play. Getting her on the team was actually no big deal – Theobald told her what the practice times were and how she could get her equipment, and that was it. Well, almost it. At a parent information session before the start of the season there was another quick meeting.

“Her dad, who is a South African rugby player, big guy, he came up to me and said I’m really happy that my daughter is playing, can you just make sure that we keep her safe,” recalls Theobald. “I said no problem at all.”

There were, of course, safety concerns to take into consideration. Not only was Baigent brand new to the collision sport, but she was also the shortest and lightest player on the roster, listed at five-foot-five and 120 pounds. Baigent, however, figured she’d had a lifetime of preparation for football.

“I have four little brothers, so I’ve always liked the physical sports,” she says with a laugh. When she got onto the practice field for the first time, however, there was some trepidation.

“It was scary,” she says. “I was also learning everything from scratch, so it was kind of confusing at first. The guys were great. They were really supportive, and they’d always tell me what I was doing.”

Theobald, meanwhile, was impressed with what he saw.

“She’s fast and she’s really athletic,” he says, adding that he noticed her skills during spring flag football season. Baigent played in both the boys and girls divisions.

“In the boys division she’s good. In the girls division she dominates.”

Soon it was time for a real game. Baigent made her debut as a Grade 11 player and Theobald eased her into action. He can still recall the first moment Baigent put herself in the line of fire on a kickoff coverage team.

“We kicked to the opposite side but the kick returner started returning it and he started coming towards her side,” he says. “She was like the last person left and she was fearless – she went to hit the guy and take him out and she was all ready to hit him and at the last second he slipped, wiped out and fell on the ground.”

Theobald says her courage was evident on the play. “She’s not afraid of contact.”

This season, her Grade 12 year, she’s seen more action as a receiver/cornerback, and Theobald says he has stopped worrying about her.

“This year we’ve practiced tackling over and over all the time, so I don’t really have tons of concerns with her,” he says. “It’s not really a safety issue with us anymore. She’s a football player.”

Baigent beams as she describes her first big hit, which came in the team’s homecoming game against Frank Hurt secondary.

“I made a tackle!” she says, recalling the play in which the opposing running back broke through the front line and raced towards her and another defensive back. “Me and Caleb Rogers, we kind of gang-tackled him. It felt great – it was so exciting.”

Baigent is not the only girl to take up football in the British Columbia high school league, but it is rare. She’s never seen another girl on the field, and, judging by the reaction she gets at the end of games, most of her opponents have never seen one either.

“After the game when you shake hands they’re like, ‘Whoa! It’s a girl!’ which is fun,” she says with a laugh, adding that she’s having a blast playing the game. “It’s exciting. It’s a lot of fun. I don’t get the ball that much, but just being out there is a lot of fun.”

According to Baigent and her coach, her Argyle teammates think it’s a lot of fun too.

“They’re fantastic with her,” says Theobald. “They just treat her like a teammate, they’re really positive with her. It’s a really good environment for her. … They really like her being part of the team.”

Baigent also gets extra support from her brother Jared, a Grade 11 player on the team. They can’t, however, hide their sibling rivalry, says Theobald.

“When they do drills against each other they really don’t want to lose to each other,” he says with a laugh. “The sister doesn’t want to lose to the younger brother, and the younger brother doesn’t want to lose to the sister. They battle each other pretty hard.”

The North Shore News caught up with Baigent and Theobald following Argyle’s 30-14 win over Langley Friday at William Griffin field, the team’s first regular season game of the year. The Pipers are now 3-1 overall and are hoping to make a run at the provincial AA title this season.

Whatever happens, Theobald says he’s happy to have Baigent along for the ride – having a girl on a senior varsity football team is something he never encountered during his playing days.

“I’m an old-timer,” he says. “Women’s sports has changed so much. Back in those days there were pretty limited sports that women could play. Definitely no one would even think of a woman playing football. Not a chance. It’s good to see things change. … I think it’s fantastic. I’ve even asked some other girls in the school to come try out and play some football too, but I get a lot of kind of interesting looks and then usually I get a ‘no.’”

Baigent, however, is happy she said ‘yes.’

“I miss dance sometimes, but football is so much fun – I wish I’d gotten into it sooner,” she says, adding that the experience has added a lot to her school life as she gets set to tackle graduation at the end of the year. “It’s been a really big growing experience for me. I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone a whole lot, gotten a bit more confident as well. It made school a lot more fun as well. I never had any school spirit or anything like that before – now I have a reason.”

© 2016 North Shore News

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