Chicago has only won the championship in annual Gay Bowl one time, in 2005, but when the top-tiered Chicago Freeze takes the field in Denver for the 12th annual flag football championship tournament of the National Gay Flag Football League (NGFFL), the goal is clear:
It's the championship game or bust.
"Everything is falling into place," said the Freeze co-captain Tyler Foerster. "The team looks really good, really strong. I believe we have a fighting chance to compete against the top four teams: the two San Diego teams, Los Angeles and Phoenix. New York also is a top contender."
Chicago lost in the quarterfinals to San Diego last year, and the 2012 Freeze is seeded sixth.
"We have two solid quarterbacks. We have four tall receivers," Foerster said. "Our goal is to get into the championship game, especially since over the past few years, getting past the quarterfinals has been an issue. None of us will be happy if we don't get to the championship game."
The Freeze is one of four Chicago teams venturing west. The Chicago Blaze will compete in the B-Division, while the Chicago BruiseHers Black and the Chicago BruiseHers Blue will compete in the Gay Bowls' inaugural women's division.
The Gay Bowl will be held Sept. 21-23 at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, which also serves as the home field for the Colorado Rapids, a Major League Soccer (MLS) team.
"It's getting harder and harder to compete in the Gay Bowl because teams are getting stronger and stronger. Athletes in the [NGFFL] are getting better, improving regularly with experience," Foerster said. "This probably will be the most challenging Gay Bowl due to the altitude in Denver. That could impact Chicago and other teams that aren't accustomed to [Denver's altitude.]"
The Chicago teams have been practicing since June.
"We think we picked the strongest team that we've had," in years, Foerster said.
The 15-member Freeze features quarterback Izza Rizkallah, and standout receivers Steven Brehm and Jason Burch. Two of the team's top defensive starts are Ty Law and Stephen Osada.
Foerster, 26, lives in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood. Brehm is the Freeze's other captain.
The Blaze is led by quarterback Brian Kupersmit, who will be playing in his third Gay Bowl.
"I'm very excited about the introduction of the B-Division. It gives additional opportunities for teams from all over the country to participate in this amazing event in a fun and new way," Kupersmit said. "Given their incredible Chicago Pride Bowl victory and their incredible enthusiasm for gay flag football, I can't wait to see what the Denver leadership team has in store for this event."
Foerster said the Blaze "definitely has a chance to bring home the title in that division."
The 14-member Blaze also includes receivers Steve Whitley and Trevor Craig. The team's top defensive standouts are Rod Nealon (safety), Derek Smith (rusher/middle linebacker), and Edd Taylor (cornerback).
"I'm excited to play in a national tournament," said Blaze captain Matt Simpson. "For several of us, this is our first chance to participate in the Gay Bowl. With the addition of a B-Division, we're excited about competing with teams of similar talent and experience. I think we have an excellent chance to finish very high in our division. The Denver organizers have been excellent to work with and helpful throughout. We're expecting a fun, exciting tournament."
The Chicago BruiseHers Black team features 13 players, including quarterbacks Betsy Hart and Angelique Santoro. The team's top receivers are Rania Jarta, Kristy Roherty, Carrie Henry, Nicole Jara and Jes Ferraro. The top defensive players are Jessie Gorogianis, Pat Pierce, Nicki Tomko, Auna Foote, Courtney Geers, and Denine Moscato.
"I believe my team's strengths not only comes from our athletic ability, but more importantly, our teamwork and the love we have for the game," Santoro said. "I believe my team will definitely make a name for themselves that weekend, and definitely make Chicago proud.
"We are extremely excited and honored to be involved in the first woman's division in the Gay Bowl."
Santoro, 42, who lives in suburban Yorkville, has been playing flag football for more than 15 years.
The Chicago BruiseHers Blue team features 11 players, including quarterback Sandy Urquiaga. Her top receivers are Dee Allen, Alicia Brennon, Shari Hayden, Heather McClintock, and Missy Webber. The Blue team's defensive is anchored by Kristy Oliva (linebacker) and Jen Villalpando (rusher).
"Most of the people on our team are friends off the field and that helps us gel together while playing," said Kelly McMahon, coach of the Blue team. "I think team chemistry is keynobody complains about playing time nor who's getting the ball. Everyone wants to have a good time and win."
McMahon, 35, who lives in Chicago's Jefferson Park neighborhood, has been playing and coaching flag football for 18 years.
"I think we can win it all," McMahon said. "We've got a lot of talent and have been practicing every week in preparation for the tournament. We wouldn't be going if we didn't think we had a shot at being Gay Bowl champions.
"It's an honor to be part of this inaugural [women's Gay Bowl] event, and we're proud to represent all of the women who play flag football in our home city of Chicago. It's great that they've finally added a women's division in this tournament. It's a testament to the growing popularity of women's sports, [particularly] women's football nationwide. We can't wait to get to Denver and start playing."