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One More With Feeling 

Is this the year the Passion establishes women's football in Pittsburgh?

Being a devotee of alternative music requires a certain mindset. There is pride in swimming upstream, in discovering a band or appreciating sounds that haven't yet reached the great unwashed masses. There's a perverse sense of superiority: If you're in the know, you later get to lord it over your friends that you saw The White Stripes at the 31st Street Pub, before they entered the national consciousness.

I feel the same way about the Pittsburgh Passion, the city's women's football team.

The market for women's sports hasn't come anywhere near reaching its full potential. (Of course, judging by the Stanley Cup ratings, the same could be said of the National Hockey League.) I've been following the Passion for three seasons, and I've always thought that Pittsburgh, for obvious reasons, is the perfect city to become the bedrock of the women's football league. But the sport has yet to hit its apex.

Probably that's because nothing draws fans like winning, and while the team has shown promise, it has yet to reach the playoffs. This year, though, the Passion is undefeated and a playoff contender in the 37-team National Women's Football Association. On both sides of the ball the Passion is crisper, tighter, and more aggressive than before.

Chalk it up to team chemistry -- the perfect blend of vets and young bloods -- and a new attitude on the field. The entire team would probably play even without the 2,500 in the stands at Cupples Stadium in the South Side, or the new radio and television feeds.

You can sense the enthusiasm by talking to a grinning Torina Henley, the Passion's standout running back. "Once I get in there, it's hard to come out," she says. "I just get going and I don't want to stop."

The team's zeal was equally clear as it manhandled the Cincinnati Sizzle on June 2.

The Passion's main offensive threats are quarterback Lisa Horton and its running backs, Henley and Lyndsi Hughes. (Yeah, it's the Triple-H offense, and other teams cannot prepare for it.)

Against Cincinnati, Henley broke off a 17-yard touchdown run, with the key block coming on the corner from backfield-mate Hughes. "I just feel like Lyndsi is so good and she never gets enough credit. She blocks, she catches, she runs. She can do everything," said Henley after the game.

The team's success all starts up front with the offensive line -- and all the players know it. "The O-Line has been great," says Henley, happy to be back after knee injuries. Confirms defensive back and team owner Teresa Conn, "[That unit] takes a lot of pride in what they do."

With all that protection and time in the pocket, five-year vet Horton has had plenty of opportunity to improve on her amazing natural gifts. Her reads are better, her progressions cleaner, and it shows in her quarterback rating, which is a gluttonous 131.5.

The Passion has been just as impressive on the other side of the ball. Returning veteran JoJo Warner anchors it all at the center of the line. Against Cincinnati, the defensive front seven was so aggressive that it must have seemed like déjà vu; outside linebacker Ava Nickens was in Cincinnati's backfield on nearly every snap in the first half.

On the rare occasion that the opposition's blocking holds up against the front seven, rival offenses still have to contend with defensive backs Sharon Vasquez and Olivia Griswold. Griswold has been named defensive MVP in three games and leads the team with 70 solo tackles.

Through six regular-season games, the Passion has rolled up 95 first downs, while holding its opponents to 60. It's converted third downs 51 percent of the time, while opponents are managing a rate of only 23.8 percent. The Passion's offense averages more than 400 yards per game, while its defense allows less than 150 yards per game.

When I took piano lessons, it was a chore more onerous than trash duty, made worse by my mother giving me that mom face and saying, "Practice makes perfect." Turns out, she was right. Funny thing about bands and sports teams: Years of practice do pay off. You've just got to trust that the fans will come.

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