2015 USAFL Nationals Preview - Men's Division 1

In the summer of 1835, the legendary frontiersman Davy Crockett was defeated in his bid for reelection to congress.  When he left his native state of Tennessee, he told a group of his former constituents, “you may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.”

2015’s footy season has been yet another arduous journey, formed and fashioned on grounds big and small across America.  Through the cold and thaw of spring, into the broiling summer sun, and now into the rustic scent of fall, teams toiled through trainings, local competitions, and battles against opponents near and far.

All of the hours and miles spent by the men and women who love this game have led to the dead center of a place where things are bigger than life.  Where dreams and possibilities are as wide as the sky hovering over the prairie.

And so, for the third time in a half-decade, the USAFL season will come to a climax in Austin, the capital of the Lone Star State, where music is king and footy has a home.  As always, there will be questions abound:

Can Austin win yet again on home ground?
Will New York overcome a shaky season and repeat as premiers?
Is 2015 the year of the California club?
Can the Denver Lady Bulldogs possibly be stopped?
And is this the year that “Grilla” finally works a Beatles lyric into his commentary?

Fittingly enough, this will be the largest field in Nationals history.  45 teams representing 33 USAFL and AFL Canada clubs.  And, for the first time ever, there will be two women’s divisions with a record 170 players and 15 clubs taking part.

The answers to all the questions will come by the end of Sunday’s play.  But there is a long way to go between now and then.  For now, we have pools, we have matchups, and we have a lot to look at.  This is the first of three articles previewing the competition at the Onion Creek Soccer Complex.

MEN’S DIVISION ONE:

The eight teams selected by the USAFL seeding committee to be the tops among those entered are quite possibly the strongest slate of clubs in the competition’s history.  That’s not hyperbolic, nor is it a blatant attempt at objectivity.  This may very well be the year that the two finalists battling for the John Harrell Cup do so after going 2-1 in pool play.  Whoever makes it through to Sunday afternoon will have truly earned the right to do so.

Pool A: Austin Crows, Los Angeles Dragons, Calgary Kangaroos, Golden Gate Roos.

After a dominating performance on home soil to win the 2013 D1 Grand Final, many folks installed Austin as the team to beat last season.  That didn’t happen, and the lackluster result in Dublin didn’t sit well with Grant Campbell’s charges.  This year, they bust right out of the gate and mowed down everyone in their way.  Led by former OC Bomber Kenrick Tyrell, and Americans Nolan Cox, Jesse Leos and Christian Merritt, the Crows won the Central regionals handily, and seemed just about unbeatable.  That is until September, when the Dallas Magpies took them out twice in a row.

Austin has won hardware each of the previous two times they’ve hosted Nationals.  Playing on their home ground once again, and with an offence capable of driving up the scores quickly, one would have to install the Crows as favorites in win their second Cup in three years.

But the other teams will have quite a few things to say about that.  The loudest objections may come from the Los Angeles Dragons, a team that knows they are good, and plays like it.  John Fraggomeni’s team throttled Columbus in the Divvy Two Grand Final last year, and went on to handle perennial division one sides Golden Gate and Orange County with impressive performances. 

With big ruckman Donald Lee dominating the ruck, the key will be for his rovers, Matthew Hitch and David Dollar, to convert center clearances into points.  Quick forward Paul Loakim and former Manly Giant player Justin Hall are just two more pieces of weaponry that make the Dragons so dangerous.   They are full of confidence, and will try to use it as an impetus to a historic double.

One team that knows what it’s like to try – and fail – in that back-to-back attempt are the Calgary Kangaroos.  The Kangas won the 2010 D2 Granny, but fell to Denver the following year in Austin.  They are usually a mystery to the American sides, seeing as though they don’t play any during the course of the year.  But the Canadian teams are just as difficult, and pose an important challenge in preparations for Nationals.

Matthia Singh, who took part in the 49th Parallel Cup, will be difficult to contain for Calgary’s opponents.  And Stephen Beal, who tied with Tyrell as Best and Fairest last season, leads the Kangas into the fray again, with the Northern invaders hoping to take the field by surprise and become the second Canadian club to win the Harrell Cup.

With Orange County making it to their first ever Grand Final last year, the mantle of Division 1 underachievers was passed to the Golden Gate Roos.  Since moving up to D1 back in 2006, the Roos have gone nine years in a row without making it to the big one.  They’ve had a big second half of the year, taking home the Stumptown Throwdown tourney, which including a win over Orange County, as well as a win over LA on the road last month.

Golden Gate boasts some of good American talent, led by Revo captain Bryan Dragus, arguably the best American full forward in the country.  Dragus can get to any ball, and with fellow Revos Bobby Sears and Kyle “Manly” Johnson doing the hard work to get it to him, teams may have to scramble to keep up. 

Pool B: New York Magpies, Orange County Bombers, Denver Bulldogs, Dallas Magpies.

New York’s Magpies began their title defense not with a spring, but with a wobble.  Facing a transition year following the departure of coach Glenn Ormsby as well as a couple of key Australians, the ‘Pies lost to Fort Lauderdale and Austin in regional tournament contests, and managed to only hold off Dallas at home by just four points.  There could be asterisks next to the regional games considering that they were undermanned in both contests, but that usually hasn’t mattered in previous years.

But Nationals is a completely different beast altogether.  Aussie veterans such as Andy Brennan, Marcus Jankie, and Jordan McIntyre are adept at spreading their opponents thin and getting free.  Their captain, Mike Murphy, is coming off most consistent in last year’s tournament and had a solid debut for the Revos this year.  The defending champions are always going to be highly regarded, but they face three teams ready to pick them off.

And the Orange County Bombers came quite close to doing that last season.  OC took their three point loss last season set it out to motivate them towards not letting it happen again this year.  They started out strong, sweeping the Western regionals and beating back LA twice to start the year.  But losses to Portland, Golden Gate, and twice to the Dragons in the final two months of the season have proven that they, like Austin, are quite human. 

Balanced between Aussie and Americans, however, coach Chris McNeil’s club will enter thinking that this will finally be their year.  Lachie Agars has switched from full back to full forward and will be the go to man, with veterans Scott Leal and Jake Snow working the ball up.  The emergence of young Yanks such as Scott Phillips and David Lasezkay augment their strengths.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been four years since Denver was in a Divvy 1 Grand Final.  That happened during the tournament’s first year in Austin.  Outside of a couple of losses to the Crows, they haven’t been troubled much when at full strength this year.  The ‘Doggies are always full of talent, from high flyers Casey Robertson and Phillip Camping, to ruckman Adam Wufsus, to defenders Peter Taylor and Andy Vanica, this is a good team from top to bottom.

Coach Tom Ellis has been around the game since its infancy in the US.  He has been a part of each of the eight titles that Denver has captured, both as a player and coach.  He know what it will take to win, and his charges have that winning culture down pat.  That should give them some umph in what will be a challenging weekend of games.

While many eyes have been on one Texas club, another one has made a good deal of noise, and has garnered some attention as a final favorite.  The Dallas Magpies have had to claw and fight in their recovery following the sanctions in the wake of their suspension in 2013, but they have done it well, and their hard work as paid off with handsome victories over Austin down the stretch.

Dallas’s style of play is to beat you off the ball and then work it down the field.  They have a number of psychically strong players; Brenn Miller and Jack O’Dell play high pressure coverage to force their foes into mistakes.  Big ruck Jason Sutherland and midfielder Craig Storer will be key to keeping possession and chances flowing forward.  There is growing confidence in big D, and there should be no reason to count them out despite their low seed in this pool.

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