The Saint John’s football team won’t start their season for more than a month.
But a member of the CSB / SJU community will play for a national title on the grill this coming weekend.
The Vixens are 8-0 this season (counting the playoffs) and will face the Boston Renegades in the Women’s Football Alliance Division I National Championship game at 5 p.m. CDT on Saturday, July 24 at the Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton Ohio (the site of the annual NFL Hall of Fame preseason game).
The game will air on Direct TV 623 Next Level Sports or website / Roku and streaming devices via their For the Fans brand (FTF).
It’s a big moment for the franchise, which dates back to 1999, making them the longest-running women’s football team in the country. But the Vixens are still relatively new at the Division I level – the highest classification in women’s football.
The team actually upgraded to Division I in 2017, but then returned to Division II in 2018 and ’19 (the 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19) before returning to Division I this year.
“It’s super exciting to be a part of that,” said Klenke, a high school graduate from Paynesville, Minnesota who was a member of the track team while at CBS. “We have worked so hard this summer and everyone is really excited to have the opportunity to play in the national championship game.
“We just moved to Division I, so it’s good to have the validation that it was the right decision and that we belong at this level.”
The team is a mix of players from different backgrounds. The ages range from 18 to 48, including some players who are mothers and even grandmothers. They all balance the demands of a competitive professional football program with those of their day-to-day job.
“We’re all one big family,” said Klenke, customer service representative at Allianz. “At the end of each practice we have a big group and we all put our hands in it and say ‘1-2-3 Vixen. 4-5-6 Family.
Klenke graduated from CSB with a double specialization in art and communication. She said she had always loved sports, including the football that she played and watched growing up.
“We had a group of kids in our neighborhood who always got together and played all kinds of different sports depending on the season,” she recalls. “We played football a lot in the fall and I loved it. Even when I was little, I remember begging my parents to let me stay up and watch Monday Night Football.
“I’ve always loved (former Rams and Steelers running back) Jerome Bettis. He was my favorite player because he had just crushed people.
Klenke played basketball and softball in high school, but went to track and field at CSB after finding out she had an aptitude for the hammer throw. She was also a team leader and DJ for the CSB softball team during her four years on campus.
“I took tickets for the volleyball games,” she said. “I helped in football games. I attended all of the Saint Ben’s basketball games and all of the Johnnie football games on fall weekends. I just loved being around sports.
She continued to seek athletic opportunities after graduation, playing for a time with the Saint Cloud Area Roller Dolls, a local roller derby team in central Minnesota. But after moving to the Twin Cities, she found it more difficult to return to St. Cloud for practice.
It was her boss at the time who told her about the Vixen and encouraged her to give it a try.
“She said she had a friend who played on the team and she thought I would be good at it,” Klenke said. “So I looked and they happened to be about to set up trials. She told me that she would sponsor me if I was on the team, which gave me a little more motivation.
“Everything seemed to line up.
Klenke has been with the team ever since. She was named the Vixens’ Most Improved Player of the 2019 season.
“Allyson is someone you can always count on to show up, do their job and understand very well what we’re trying to do as a defense,” said Vixen head coach Ryan McCauley. “So (she is) able to help our young players to understand their missions and responsibilities as well as to manage hers.”
But Klenke isn’t the only member of the team with ties to the CSB / SJU.
Jesse haas graduated from Creighton University where she played soccer. But his father Mike Doran ’71 and brother Ben Doran ’00 both competed in sports at SJU. His uncle Dan Ceynowa ’71, meanwhile, played football for former Johnnies head coach John Gagliardi.
His seven interceptions in 1969 still equaled him the eighth-best total in a single season in the program’s history.
“I’ve been to Saint John’s several times over the years,” Haas said. “My father and uncle run the St. Patrick’s Guild (a store of church supplies and religious gifts) in St. Paul. So we did business trips there all the time when I was young. I remember Johnnie bread and going to the (dining hall) to eat soft ice cream.
“My dad is still involved up there. He took my sons to soccer games and things like that.
Haas, 40, is only in his second season with the Vixens.
“I was at a local festival and the Vixen had a booth there,” said Haas, who is the national director of the therapy animal program for the nonprofit Pet Partners.
“I was with my husband and my two sons. I had to show my sons that girls can do anything boys can do. So I signed up. I went to practice and was part of the team, and it was a really amazing experience.
Especially this season where the Vixens are averaging 48.7 points per game while allowing their opponents an average of just 8.9. The team beat the Cali War 33-22 in the Conference Championship game on July 10 at Edina High School (the team’s regular ground is at Concordia-St. Paul).
But the Vixens face a tall order among the Renegades, the two-time defending national champions (in 2018 and ’19, there was no season in 2020 due to COVID-19). Boston beat the Tampa Bay Inferno 55-3 in the other Conference Championship game and is averaging 59 points per game while allowing an average of just 2 points per game (dropping a total of 12 points in six matches this summer).
Not only that, but the team has the backing of New England Patriots team owner Robert Kraft, which provides the use of the Patriots team aircraft to fly the Renegades to and from Canton for the national championship game.
“We definitely have this outsider mentality,” Klenke said. “We know how good a Boston team is and what they’ve accomplished. But we are entering this game well prepared. We feel like we can play with any team. So we’ll be ready to go.