Crows, Lady Bulldogs Rule Again in Austin

To win a Division 1 championship at the USAFL Nationals, it takes a combination of skill, perseverance, and, dare it is said, a bit of luck,

The two teams that climbed to the top of Mount Football in the plains of Austin, Texas this past weekend needed all of it.  They had been there before, after all.  Austin had been used to success on home ground.  The Denver Lady Bulldogs, well... they were just used to success.  

Both would find themselves on the back heels during the course of Nationals weekend in the intense heat.  But both the Austin Crows and Denver Lady Bulldogs would overcome the toughest fields in their respective competitions to hoist high the trophies as the best men's and women's Australian Rules football teams in the land, at least for 2015.

We begin our two part look at Nationals Sunday with the Division 1 Men's and Women's Finals:


MEN'S DIVISION 1: CROWS OUTSOAR BOMBERS FOR SECOND TITLE

Having lifted the trophy twice before on this very hallowed soil, the Austin Crows saw no reason why they couldn’t do it again.  After recovering from a slow start to overtake Golden Gate in their opener, the murder breezed through their final two games over Calgary and Los Angeles to make it onto the final.  Led by powerful full forward Kenrick Tyrell, and buoyed by Revo players Ben Carpenter and Christian Merritt, it looked like the Crows would fly off with another crown at home.

But the Orange County Bombers would hear none of it.  They were a team with a plan from the opening get-go, and they had a big strong forward of their own in Lachie Agars.  After taking their first two matches against Denver and Dallas, they would face New York in a rematch against the team that ended their dream in last season’s final.  With a big Sunday morning win, Chris McNeil’s side got revenge on the defending champions, setting up a second chance at destiny.

In a rarity at the USAFL level, this game would see Kenrick Tyrell square up against his old team; a year ago he was best and fairest in a losing effort for OC.  In 2015, he would hope to break their hearts again.

The opening five minutes of play were open but tight.  Austin controlled possession and territory in the early stages, with Tyrell, Merritt, and Stefan Barr linking up constantly.  Orange County’s hairy talisman, Jake Snow, was muffled early on and though he got a few clearances, would be neutralized by Ben Carpenter. 

The teams would trade behinds to start, but after the Bombers got a rare trip into the Crows’ 50, they would get burned.  Carpenter would find his coach, Grant Campbell, then get the ball back on a nice contested mark in the pocket, which he later slotted home to give his team a 7-1 lead.  Three minutes later Agars would equalize the scores after kicking a nice goal across the body.

Austin’s offense still moved with machine like precision, and Tyrell was finding open spaces to make leads and his teammates were finding him.  The big man would convert on an open mark, then Hunter Lentz would do the same to extend the Crows’ lead.  Orange County could get very little space or time beyond their midfield, and the pressure was clearly getting to them.  At the break, it was 20-8 to the home team, and though only two goals separated the sides, Uncle Momentum was wearing hoops.

2nd verse was same as the first, and the Crows continued to parry away the occasional Bomber thrust and go forward, with Jesse Leos and full back Sean Connell standing up.  The Bombers were bending and on the point of breaking, and after staving off several more attacks, Ben May would find Barr who took a pack mark in the goal square, then covert to push the west coasters back even more.   Snow, Agars, and Adrian Heffernan would desperately push at time ebbed away.  Two relatively easy chances in front would go wide before Agars kicked a difficult goal to draw his team within 11. 

That would be as close as they would get.  The siren would come afterwards, and the Crows’ would hold court again at home, this time by a 28-16 margin.  Carpenter, who was already a fantastic player before spending this season in Montrose of the EFL in Melbourne, came back an even better player, and took home the Geoff Cann Medal as the game’s MVP.

Falling short for the second year in a row, the Bombers clearly outplayed on the day, despite a fantastic effort.  Their big men, who had things their way for most of the weekend, were rendered impotent by the swarming Crows defense.

But for co-coach Simon Boyce, the win was just as sweet as the others, they too having fallen last year.  “Very proud of the effort of all the boys at the club not only all weekend, but all year long,” he said. “We ended 2014 with a bitter taste in our mouths and since March of this year, it has been the players leading the push to get better in every aspect”

“The 4 games required to win this tournament are always a battle. We probably played our best and cleanest footy against Calgary and LA and then we knew the final against a very good OC team would just be a huge battle across the ground, but the toughness of the group and improved footy smarts got us across the line.”

Austin Crows 4.4.28 def Orange County Bombers 2.4.16


WOMEN'S DIVISION 1: LADY BULLDOGS OVERCOME STUMBLE TO LIFT SIXTH CUP IN A ROW

Hollywood couldn’t write too many better scripts than the one that played out in the Women’s Division 1 pool on Sunday.  After winning barely escaping Sacramento the day before, the Denver Lady Bulldogs came into their morning matchup at 2-0, against the 1-1 Minnesota Freeze, with 23 consecutive wins at Nationals and more than a few punters looking ahead to their late game against San Francisco to determine the title.

Except no one told Minnesota.  From the beginning of their match, the Freeze forced the ‘Doggies into many uncharacteristic mistakes, and took a quick lead through a Jessi Partridge Goal.  The Freeze allowed very few chances forward in reply.  At halftime, the ladies from the North were up 8-1.  Denver pulled themselves into the game, tying it midway through the 2nd half, only to see a Brianne Thiessen goal give the Freeze back the lead, 14-8.

What followed in the final part of the second half will go down in USAFL women’s football lore as some of the best played in eleven years at Nationals.  Pushing for the equalizer, Jesse Hazen tied the match for Denver after a smothered ball bounced to her and she scissor kicked it home with three minutes to play.  The streak looked intact until the final minute, when last year’s best-and-fairest Twannia Clark was called for high contact on Freeze forward Paige Kiecker inside her defensive 50.  Clark didn’t give the ball back straight away, moving the kick dead in front.  Then the siren sounded.

From ten meters out, all Kiecker had to do was kick it over the pack on the goal line.  She did.  The Denver Nationals winning streak was halted at 23 games, and as the Freeze celebrated, they were joined by the New York Lady Magpies and the San Francisco Iron Maidens.  Not just because they had done what they couldn’t do – beat Denver – but because they were now still very much alive to be top of the ladder at day’s end.

With San Fran squeaking by winless Sacramento 10-8 in the noon match, four of the five D1 teams at 2-1 with two matches remaining in the competition.  What made the scenario more exciting was the fact that head-to-head record would be the first tie-breaker, then percentage.  Heading into the final round, Minnesota would play New York, followed by San Francisco and Denver in the last game of the weekend.  A Freeze win would eliminate the Lady Bulldogs, while a Lady Magpie win would eliminate the Iron Maidens.

Minnesota came out extremely confident; beating Denver was the hard part, how difficult could a win over the 4th seeded Magpies be?  Well, this was not any ordinary football club from the Big Apple.  Led by Lissa Regets, who would receive the Cooper’s medal for Most Consistent, and the masterful Kim Hemenway, the ‘Pies tussled with the Freeze for most of the game before pulling away in the highest scoring game of the weekend.  Despite another resounding effort from the Freeze, the Magpies played arguably their best game of the season in a 42-28 decision.

And so, for the third year in a row, it would come down to Denver and San Francisco to decide the premiership.  But this time, an Iron Maidens win would, ironically, only be good for second place.  A victory by them would give New York the title.   That didn’t matter; they saw Denver go down earlier in the day, and they knew they could do it too.  For Denver, it was academic – shake off the loss, and win, and premiership #6 would be theirs.

With New York’s women cheering them on – not only with their own benefit in the balance but in the spirit of the camaraderie that permeates the sport – the Iron Maidens’ defense battened down the hatches and withstood the ferocious Denver attack.  With Freedom national teamers Carly Smolak, Julie Marks and Kari Johnson in toe, the Maidens stayed in the game for most it.

But the Bulldogs have won all of these games for a reason, and with co-captain Hallie Lee, who would captain best-and-fairest, tall forward Kaitlyn Mascher-Mace, and the rest of the veteran squad continued to pepper away on the San Francisco goals.  Though they would only convert two of their eight scoring shots for majors, they were too much.  18-2 Denver in the final game, and a sixth cup into the hands Bruce Dorrell’s charges.

“I feel an overwhelming sense of pride,” said co-captain Anna Thexton, “Not only for my teammates and the incredible work they've put into this season, but for the progress we've seen in women's footy. Each time a women's club is created in the US or a new player is recruited, we have the opportunity to grow the game here and continue to build a legacy. Every hour of extra training we put in, every additional effort during a skills training session is effectively a promise to improve our play on the women's side and raise the bar for future players.”

Thexton and Lee waxed lyrical on the progress the other teams in the field made last year, and they were ready for it.  Still, they were graciously omnipresent of how much better the league has gotten.  “The competition we faced this weekend was phenomenal,” Thexton continued.  “We saw some incredible movement on the field from our opposition, and that has encouraged me to up the ante while continuing the hard work into next season. I believe we have set the competitive tone for the Women's Division and we take that position very seriously.

“As our humble coach Bruce Durrell would say, ‘We create our own destiny.’”

Final Standings: Denver (3-1), New York (3-1), San Francisco (2-2), Minnesota (2-2), Sacramento (0-4).

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