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Thursday, January 31, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Warbirds

Warbirds' success starts with defense

Special to The Seattle Times

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It didn't look promising.

The Seattle Warbirds hadn't played their first Women's American Football League game, and already they were worried. Their offense was scrimmaging against the defense, and center Mo Fugate remembered, "We couldn't move the ball. We thought, 'We'll never be able to score. Something's not going right.' "

What they didn't understand at that point was they had assembled the toughest defense in the nation. It still is.

It's the pride of the Warbirds (9-0-1), who will play the Arizona Caliente (7-3) at 7:05 Saturday night at Juanita High School in the first round of the Pacific Conference playoffs.

"We have by far the hardest-hitting defense in the league," said kick returner Tamara Kittelson, 29.

Most jarring — and stingiest. It allowed just eight points in the first eight games, while the Warbirds' offense scored 195 on the way to becoming the only undefeated team in the league.

The defense limited each of its first nine opponents to fewer than 100 yards total offense, while Seattle twice won 41-0 shutouts. That defense includes linebacker Shannon Fitch, 30, a 13-year rugby veteran who suffered a crushed knee and severed patella tendon in June 2000 but returned from two surgeries to play for the Warbirds. It includes 23-year-old defensive end Katie Cox, a nanny to three children by day and proud, mud-splattered survivor of Coach Michael Stuart's "G.I. Jane" fitness drills and freezing-rain contact practices by night.

In the defensive backfield are FBI agent Cheryl Bishop, 5-foot-tall Carrie Wigton and Jamie Taylor, whom Stuart, who also coaches men's semipro football, called "about the best open-field tackler I've had on any football team."

Joining Fitch in the linebacking corps are Heidi Ellis, Callie Cavalli, Gail Pittman and Kasey Rivas. Up front are Crystal White, Richele Gorman, Kimberly Hauser, Rozalyn Boehm, Toya Slack, Dale Ivey and Jessika Orange.

"This has nothing to do with being women," said Kittelson, an accountant by day. "This has everything to do with living up to our athletic potential. I would have never guessed I could play football. It was a challenge, and I'm very, very competitive.

"We're all strong-willed women, and we're much more disciplined than other teams."

That should serve them well against Arizona, the No. 4 (wild-card) seed that ended the season with a six-game winning streak.

Should the Warbirds win, they would have home-field advantage in the Feb. 10 conference championship game against the California Quake. California, the No. 2 seed, beat the No. 3 Sacramento Sirens 40-13 last Saturday.

Quarterback Kim Walden, 34, is a mother of two, longtime rugby player and a criminal defense attorney — endeavors not for the faint of heart. But even she said she's getting a bit sentimental about all the Warbirds have accomplished.

Stuart, tough and demanding, told the team at the end of the regular season, "You're going to remember all the running ... " They groaned.

"The fun, the trips ... " They smiled.

"Coach Stuart's fine disposition." They laughed.

They had survived. And they were proud, this collection of 19- to 43-year-olds, the firefighter, the forklift driver, the school principal, the science teacher, the students, all of them.

Stuart knew they would: "They're going to say, 'For once in my life, I was part of something that was really special.' "

And it's not over yet.

Notes

• Tickets to the game are $18 for adults, $9 for seniors, $6 for students. Children under 10 are admitted free. Tickets can be purchased at the gate, or through www.seattlewarbirds.com. Stuart said they had sold more than 3,000 tickets for the 4,500-seat stadium at 10601 N.E. 132nd St. in Kirkland.

• The Warbirds will sign autographs and meet fans from 7-9 p.m. tomorrow at Hooters of Lake Union and Hooters of Lynnwood.

• Defensive standout Mugs Loudon, who made five interceptions in the last three games, will not play in Saturday's game. She had surgery to relieve swelling caused by a blood clot in her leg. Stuart said he expects her to be ready if the team progresses to the next round.

• The women's version of the Super Bowl is Feb. 24 in San Diego.

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