Magpies Women Crowned Queens of East

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For weeks, this was circled as an important weekend on the women’s football calendar.

In all, there were two separate competitions: an 18-a-side match and a 12-a-side round robin on Saturday, followed by the USA Freedom Training Camp on Sunday morning.  Not only were 50 or so women assembled at Tibbetts Brook Park competing for club pride, but many were playing for a chance at the national team ahead of next year’s International Cup in Melbourne.  

All of this was under the watchful eye of development coach Judith Stein, Freedom scout John Ironmonger, and a number of other selectors for the National team.  What they saw on the day wasn’t just an evenly matched set of games, but also a wealth of talent that could finally help the US win a world title next August.

18-a-side game:

Entering the 2016 season, Christina Licata’s Magpies team was coming off their best campaign ever, after finishing second at Nationals.  The loss of a number of key players due to injury and turnover had left some holes on the field, particularly in the midfield.  But in New York, where people are always looking for a new challenge, Licata and the team cast their nets over region and brought back about a dozen new players, mostly Americans with a few Aussies in there too.  They have fit snuggly like jigsaw pieces into the team, and despite a 2-2 record heading into game day, were playing like a Nationals title contender.

In the 18-a-side game, they would face an East Coast conglomerate of players from Boston, Baltimore-Washington, Columbus, and Montreal.  This was a huge question mark coming in, as the lack of familiarity could’ve been seen as a weakness.  But as the game played out, it was apparent that this wasn’t simply a number of freelancers plying their own trade, but rather a collection of cogs in a well-oiled, efficient machine programmed with a victory code.

Both teams battled for control in the early going, and though the Magpies got good runs through the middle, the combined side had answers for and asked questions of their own.  Montreal’s Valerie Moreau was the sparkplug for the whole East Coast operation, and she amassed a high number of touches in the early going.  Boston’s Alyssa Green and Columbus’s Amy Bryniarski were causing problems around the flanks.

But the Magpies stood tall and converted retreat into advance.  And what was thought to be a weakness in the middle with so many first year players turned out to be a textbook example of efficiency.  Rookie Natalie Wolff gave her rovers a chance on just about every tap, and fellow first year player Emily Eastlake combined with Brisbane native K.J. Russell to make sure that the ball was in the hands of black-and-white jumpers.

In the second half, the game tightened and things began to shift.   Amanda King, the Lady Dees ruck, began to take control of the contests and the shift was on.  It was here that Katrina Scherer began to shine, and for sure the national team selectors in the crowd took notice.  Scherer’s speed and height won her a number of possessions, and she kicked one of the goals of the day (she would have another in the 12-a-side round-robin) which brought her team close.

But the second half was Hemenway time, and with the game in doubt down the stretch, unleashed a highlight reel goal of her own, one of two in the game, and the Magpies would get up at the final siren, 5.3.33 to East Coast 3.3.21.  The game was entertaining from beginning to end, but more importantly it was one of the best quality women’s matches played in recent memory.

12-a-side round-robin:

The teams then broke down into three entities: New York-A, Boston/Montreal/New York-B, and Columbus/Baltimore-Washington.  The games were played as 12-a-side on a 100-yard long field, with 2x15 minute halves.

The opening game was the best of the bunch, with the DemonAngelPies (BOS/MTL/NY) facing the EagleJills (BWE/CLB).  The DemonAngelPies ran up a 19 point lead early in the first half before goals by Columbus’s Ariel Balske and a brilliant solo effort from Scherer brought them even.  In the second half, the EagleJills surged into the lead, but that too was erased on a classic acute angle goal from Heather Serpico.

With the game tied at 27-27, the EagleJills pushed for two more behinds, then put the game away with two heads-up plays that led to goals.  First, Scherer kept picked off an attempted clear by the Demons defender, took three steps and slotted home another centimeter perfect kick.  Several minutes later, the opportunistic Emily Riehl tackled a Demon player who caught the throw in, then played on to kick the sealer.  41-27 to the BWE/Columbus combo was the full time score, but both teams could be pleased with how they did for those 30 minutes. Scherer was named best rookie for the weekend, and her future for club and country is quite bright.

New York’s A team took the field for the final two matches, and though they faced stout competition in both, the Magpies would put up seventy points in sixty minutes of footy to sweep the competition.  Though Hemenway would kick four of her team’s ten goals and win the Best and Fairest Medal for the weekend, her Magpie teammates played good team footy around her, with vets and newcomers alike rising to the occasion.

Against Boston/Montreal, the ‘Pies pounced on their opposition early, and hemmed in the DemonAngels to their own side of the field.  New York could only amass 15 points in as many minutes, and led 15-1 at the break.  After a couple of singles to open the second half, a Hemenway goal followed by an Eastlake goal on a goal square scramble secured the victory, 30-7 for the ‘Pies.

Licata’s team picked up right where they left off in the second game against Columbus/Baltimore-Washington/New York-B meld.  Two quick goals by Russell and then Hemenway set the tone in the first half, and New York were up 20-0 at half time.  In the second half, Hemenway opened the scoring with her second of the contest, before normally defensive players found themselves on the score sheet.  Drea Casillas, playing in her 12th season of USAFL footy, was on the end of a handball chain to extend the lead more, and Koplow converted on a nice mark to cap off the goal scoring.  Final Score: New York 41, EagleJills 7.

The four teams that participated as the foil in the Magpies story all competed as combined entities within Division II at Nationals last season, and all are still building their programs from sturdy foundations.  Every single one had bright spots to build their teams for the rest of the season and beyond, and they should all have at least one representative on the National team (or should I say teams including our friends from Montreal).

For New York, however, it was a crowning moment to have gone 3-0 on the day, and an assertion of where the team is as they take their very important steps towards a national championship.  Licata, who has been around the game in the US more than a decade, has with her a battle tested team that is gaining more and more confidence.

“With an even mix of first year players and veterans, we knew that the wins wouldn't come easily,” said Licata.  “Especially against a side teaming up with heaps of experience from players across the East Coast.   Our effort and hunger for the footy was undeniable. Some good connections down the field put us in a position to pull ahead and ultimately clinch the win in the 18 a side match. A sweep was an unexpected bonus!

“We saw our first year players cohere with the team and come into their own on the field. There's certainly some exciting potential as we look toward the rest of the season. And that's just what we're doing. We'll enjoy the victory, but it's back to work next week.”

Photo Credit: Ciara Lehane/New York Magpies

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