2014 USAFL Nationals Preview - Part I

“Hello, old friend, welcome me home again.  I’ve been away but that’s all over now.  Say I can stay for October now, stay a while and play.” – James Taylor

It seems like no matter how far and away this great game roams from us, the autumnal winds always seem to blow us back to Ohio in the second week of October.  The 2014 USAFL National Championships will mark the fourth time in six years that the tournament will be held in the Buckeye State, and the sixth time overall.

Those previous times were in Cincinnati, the spiritual birthplace of modern American footy and host to the first three carnivals, and Mason, a bastion of heartland pride in the southern part of the state that played a fantastic host to two Nationals in 2009 and 2012.

This time, the scene shifts north, and a thin slice of emerald-hued heaven on the banks of the Scioto River on the outskirts of the capital.  Dublin, population 41,000 and change, was founded in the early 19th century by three brothers and named by their business partner, who was born in the Irish city of the same name.  Today, it is home to the largest festival honoring the heritage of that country, and a certain large hamburger chain whose mascot has red hair.  No, the other one.

And it is for two days in yet another October that thirty clubs from the US and a couple more from our friends to the north will gather to make it the home of Aussie Rules footy.  As the teams make their final preparations for this 17th renewal, many questions remain:

Can Austin repeat as Division 1 champs?
Will Calgary bring the Harrell Cup back to Canada with them? 
Will the Jackaroos do the Divvy 2 double on their home turf? 
Can anyone beat the Denver Lady Bulldogs? 
And will our buddy “Grilla” break the record for most AC/DC references in one commentary?

Whether you’ll be making the trip to Dublin or following the updates online, we have you covered.  Over the next few days, we’ll be previewing the teams that will take part in the largest footy party in the world. We begin with…


DIVISION ONE

Pool A: Austin Crows, Denver Bulldogs, Orange County Bombers, Minnesota Freeze

When Austin Crows’ president Mat King and the rest of his teammates lifted the Harrell Cup at their home ground at last year’s Nationals, it marked the culmination of an ascension that took half a decade to complete.  The thrilling, 26-25 victory over Calgary in the Division I Grand Final was vindication for a club who had just one win in four different final matches in Divisions II and III.

The Crows will arrive in Dublin winners of their last twelve matches, all against teams in Division I (Dallas, Denver, New York) and Division II (Houston, Columbus), and an odds-on favorite to repeat.  They are led by current Revos Ben Carpenter-Nwanyanwu, Christian Merritt, and Jeffery Talmadge, and speedy midfielder Noor Jenghir.

But it’s certainly not going to be an easy road to Sunday afternoon glory.  One of the teams in Austin’s way are the eight-time national champions from the Centennial State.  The Denver Bulldogs, helmed by veteran and incumbent Revo Andy Vanica, have drank from the Divvy I cup before, and are a young side that are just as capable as any other from providing the upset.

Denver lost just two games all season, and coincidentally enough, those two teams round out Pool A.  Orange County battled their way to the Western regional crown last month, and had to wade through a couple of tough sides in order to do it.  This is also a team full of vets; led by Italian-born defender Seb Aguiari, the Bombers are still looking for their first appearance in a Division I final match.

Finally, the Minnesota Freeze finish up the group, moving up to Division I after staying down in D2 following their 2012 Division Premiership.  Andrew Werner captained the Revos to a solid performance at IC14, and now returns home to try and pull a bit of an upset.  The Freeze also made it through their regular season unscathed, and though their strength of schedule isn’t a great as the others in D1, they have the talent to rattle some cages.

POOL B: Calgary Kangaroos, New York Magpies, Dallas Magpies, Golden Gate Roos

The side of the draw is US Footy’s version of Redemption Island.  It begins at the top with the Calgary Kangaroos, winners of the Divvy 2 Grand Final in 2009 and 2010, and DI finalists in 2011 and 2013.  The Kangas are still stinging from a narrow defeat in Austin last year, but they are a talented team of Aussie vets and Canadian up-and-comers.  They feature five members of the Northwind IC14 team: Andy Yardy, Matt Ryan, and Nathan, Matthia, and Josh Singh.

Challenging the northern invaders will be the Magpies of New York, who are coming off their sixth straight EAFL crown and their seventh overall.  Led by player-coach Glenn Ormsby, the Pies play a style of footy that is as close to anything you’ll see in Australia.  They climbed the mountain once, in 2010, knocking off the mighty Bulldogs, and vets such as Jordan McIntyre, Ojais Desai and young gun Dan Lehane are among the many weapons that can knock off the other teams.

Perennial D1 bridesmaids, the Golden Gate Roos come to Dublin still looking for their first Division I Grand Final appearance since they were the Santa Cruz Roos in the late 90’s.  The benefit of their widespread metro league was reaped earlier this year, when they saw no less than four players wear the red, white, and blue in Melbourne.  Dan Dahlquist, Robert Sears, Kyle Johnson, and veteran stalwart Bryan Dragus lead Golden Gate into what hope to be a renewal of past glory.

But all three of these teams have one thing in common.  Two years ago, they all fell victim to the Dallas Magpies en route to that team’s victory in the Division I Grand Final; a victory that was later to be vacated due to the use of an illegible player at the tournament.  Whether or not that will weigh on the minds of their poolmates, New York in particular, is one thing.  It is highly likely, however, that Dallas’s exclusion from the 2013 Nationals is very much in the foreground.

Whether or not Dallas can return to their former glory is anyone’s guess; they come to Dublin losers of their last five matches, including four against D1 competition.  Still, they are a strong side, worthy of a bid at the top level.  Brenn Miller, Craig Storer and the rest of the Lone Star’s black-and-whites will look to erase some bad memories and become kings again.


WOMEN’S DIVISION

Pool A: Denver Lady Bulldogs, Calgary Kookaburras, Montreal/Baltimore-Washington, Minnesota/Columbus/Boston

The only Aussie Rules club in the US that can possibly boast a better run than the Denver Lady Bulldogs may be their male counterparts.  The Lady ‘Dogs have won 17 straight games at Nationals en route to four flags, and a chance to make history in Dublin by doing it for a fifth time.  Their success is spearheaded by six representatives on both the Freedom and Liberty teams this summer: Hallie Lee, Jessica Gray, Sara Edwards-Rohner, Lindsey Kastanek, Coleen Macnab, and Kaitlyn Mascher-Mace.  They also boast one of the fastest players in the country in Twannia Clark.

But if one team knows how to kill a dynasty, it’s the Calgary Kookaburras.  Six years ago, the Kookas stopped Atlanta’s bid to win their fourth straight title.  Built on a combination of Aussie experience and Canadian rugby excellence, Calgary will look to duplicate the recent success of their male counterparts by possibly upsetting Denver.  No less than twelve players represented Canada at IC14, including seven on the Northern Lights team that won the women’s grand final over Ireland.

Teaming up to also try and get through the Pool A gauntlet are the Montreal Angels and Baltimore-Washington Lady Eagles, a combination that also features international experience great skills.  This “winged” combo will have the two Legault sisters, the first family of Canadian footy, and former USA Freedom captain Judith Stein at their disposal.  Baltimore’s Karen Stablein was Stein’s teammate in Melbourne, and caps another group of talented footballers looking to bring it all home.

Defense wins championships, or so the old adage reminds us constantly, and the combination of the Columbus Jillaroos, Boston Lady Demons, and one part of Minnesota Lady Freeze will have two of the better defenders in the league on the same side.  Boston’s Andi Williams, and Columbus’s Stephanie McKitrick anchor a team that is very skilled, and will be led in the middle by former best-and-fairest winner Emily Riehl.  Boston’s other IC14 representatives, Lisa Arredondo also looks to control the middle, and should have a battle on their hands out of the ruck in group play.

Pool B: San Francisco/Portland/Arizona, Sacramento Lady Suns, Minnesota Blue, New York/Toronto

Starting off the other side of the draw is the combination of the San Francisco Iron Maidens, Portland’s Bridgetown Branshees, and the Arizona Lady Hawks.  It brings together, in order, the defending Women’s runners up, the newest women’s footy team, and a club with a proud history trying to kickstart their resurgence.  The contingent of Maidens knows how badly last year stung, and Jessica Estrada and company will head into battle with that in the back of their minds.  They’ll be augmented by Arizona’s Nicole Fasula and Courtney Church, also fresh off of IC14 appearances, and a hungry group from PDX looking to gain their first Nationals experience.

Amy and Matt Bishop have been around US Footy a long, long time, and they know how to build a solid foundation.  What they’ve done in Sacramento has been fantastic, and the Suns (nee Screamers) have come a long way since their first appearance in 2009.  They sent five members to Melbourne, including Helen Mondia, Tiffany Chen, Victoria Schoennagel, and Alexa Blatnick.  The Suns have built steadily over the last couple of seasons, and a strong showing in Dublin will do wonders for the future.

Gaining prominence as one of the strongest clubs in terms of numbers, the Minnesota Freeze will have enough players to field a full team and have enough to support another.  The Freeze fell to Denver each of the last three years in the semi-finals, but have put up a strong season and sent ten players to Melbourne in August.  Marie LaVictoire, Catha Hoha, Rebecca Kraft, Lauren Shelton and the rest are still hungry for their first grand final appearance, and in a wide open group, should be considered as possible challengers on Sunday afternoon.

Rounding out the field, but certainly not least of all, the New York Magpies and the Centrals Blues out of Toronto.  We’ve used the term “veteran” a lot, but there is a great deal of that and leadership from New York’s Drea Casillas, Cristina Licata, and Kim Hemenway.  Heather Serpico, playing her second full year with the 'Pies also provides speed on the flanks, something that they’ll need to return to the Grand Final for the first time since 2011.  For their part, Toronto sent four players to Melbourne, and want to become the third Canadian team, behind Calgary and Montreal, to be represented in the final.

UP Next… Divisions II, III, and IV.

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