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Gridiron gals prepare to go for another title 

Fingernail polish and football helmets have been a winning combination for the Central Coast Heat--San Luis Obispo County's women's tackle football team and reigning two-time national champions.

Practice has just begun, and the season's kickoff in the Independent Women's Football League Sixxes is only weeks away.

click to enlarge STRENGTH IN NUMBERS :  The Heat defense gang tackled a Boise player during the 2007 championship game in Atlanta. - PHOTO BY FBIRDIMAGES
  • PHOTO BY FBIRDIMAGES
  • STRENGTH IN NUMBERS : The Heat defense gang tackled a Boise player during the 2007 championship game in Atlanta.

# While preparing to defend their title, the team--which consists of players ranging in age and responsibilities from 18-year-old college students to mothers in their mid- 30s--has been going through meat grinder workouts four times a week at various playing fields throughout the county.

Pushing trucks in the parking lot, plyometric drills on the grass, pulling a sled of weights and uphill sprints--hey, nobody said being a champion was easy.

Leading the team on the field is No. 99, Ninji Martin: a 5-foot-10-inch, 185-pound tight end/defensive end. Known for her hard hits and flamboyant style, Martin has been with the team for six years and has wrapped up numerous individual awards and a pair of national championship titles in the process.

"Football is my passion," said Martin, who played the sport in her high school days at Palo Alto. "It's always been a dream of mine to play at a high level, and with the Heat, I can do that."

Leading the team from the sideline is former Cal Poly running back Ed Dyer, who graduated from Cal Poly in 2002 with a kinesiology degree and a minor in coaching and training.

When his playing days were over, his love for the game never died. Six years ago, his passion for the sport brought him to the Heat as an assistant coach. Now, in his third year calling the shots, Dyer is confident in the team's ability to capture the national championship for an unprecedented third consecutive year.

"We have a nucleus of six to seven girls that has played five years together," Dyer said, explaining the Heat's success. "But I think a lot of it has to do with our drive to win."

That core group of experienced players has paid dividends for the team. Dyer said coaching women in a contact sport, such as football, differs a lot from coaching their male counterparts.

"Most men have played some sort of football since they were 5 to 6 years old," he said. "We get some women that have never blocked, never caught a ball, and never encountered football moves."

In an effort to get new players up to speed, Dyer said he focuses attention on the game's fundamentals.

And the IWFL Sixxes has a different set of rules and fundamentals than traditional football.

The most noticeable difference is that each team fields six players at a time. In addition to the limited amount of players, quarterbacks can't run the ball, and all linemen are eligible for reception. There's no kicking, and at 30 feet wide and 60 feet long, the playing field is about half the size of a conventional one.

"It makes it a lot faster-paced game," Dyer said.

In addition to the intense workout regimen and focus on detail, Dyer believes the team's success comes down to the trust factor.

"The fact we consider each other sisters and brothers out there sets us apart," he said. "We promote family."

While Band of Brothers this is not, a Squad of Sisters it is.

In competing against teams from Oakland to Idaho, the biggest challenge for the Heat so far appears to be travel expenses.

"The hardest thing is the financial stress," Martin said. "It's a 14-hour drive to Boise, so we have to get hotel rooms, and it takes a lot of gas."

While operating costs might put the team in a temporary bind, championships are forever.

"Yeah, it can cost a lot of money to travel," Martin said, "but it's worth it when I get the chance to chase down a quarterback with my girls."

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