Maidens Look to Defend East-West Showdown Crown

It began simply as friendly banter on the other side of the world.

Two sets of teammates, having a discussion as to who was the better side.  Surely in sporting history this is not an anomaly, as thousands of rivals have chirped and guffawed their superiority.

But this was different.  This was a group of women representing the USA Freedom national team at the 2014 International Cup in Melbourne.  Moreso, they represented two long established footy clubs separated by 3,000 miles of real estate.

The banter was playful.  It became clear, however, that the challenge was serious.

And so it came to pass that the San Francisco Iron Maidens and New York Lady Magpies would play each other in a home-and-away series for the pride and honor of coast and region beginning the following season.

And when the sun rose and set on Labor Day weekend 2015, the West Coasters had laid claim to the first ever East-West Showdown, defeating the Magpies and a combined side from Boston and Baltimore-Washington.

This Saturday, the second renewal of the Showdown takes place, this time shifting to the west coast and the Iron Maidens look to defend their crown at home in Concord, California, not only from invading New York, but also from a Sacramento-Portland conglomeration.

Admittedly, this Maidens side is different than the one that travelled eastward and won the day in Yonkers.  Injuries and turnover have hobbled the team somewhat.  They enter Saturday’s festivities at 2-3 on the year which included a disappointing 1-2 showing at the Western Regionals.  The team will be without key forwards Courtney Sherman-Johnson and Meg Leone, among others.   

Despite all of that, and her own bumps and bruises, Maidens captain Jessica Estrada is still quite high on her team’s chances of defending the cup.   She talked up rookie Jacque de Leuw who has stepped into the ruck position and has performed strongly in the ruck, creating havoc up front and helping to spring the ever present Carly Smolak, and Regionals best and fairest Nikki Makenzie.  De Leuw’s emergence has allowed Brette Brower to platoon both defensively and up in the forward line.

“It’s going to be a great tournament,” Estrada said. “We have a lot of really great new players in addition to our veterans coming together to hopefully win this Showdown.  We have a lot of speed, a lot of height, and I’m really excited for what the end of this season brings.”

The end of the season brings the National Championships, which still loom six weeks or so away in Florida, and even though the Maidens are defending this Showdown trophy, they are also seeking revenge against the Magpies for a 14-10 loss at Nationals, one that ultimately took them out of the running for that elusive women’s title.

Much like the Maidens, this will be a slightly different New York Lady Magpies squad that will take to the ground in the Showdown.  Hit too with injury and player turnover, the Magpies managed to recruit a dozen new players in the offseason, many of whom had not played the game before.

The new players however have fit in with players such as Drea Casillas, Taylor Davidson, and Kim Hemenway.  Much like jigsaw puzzle pieces on a dining room table, together they create a picture of a team on a mission not just for the weekend, but for that golden weekend in October.  Nat Wolff, K.J. Russell, and second-year player Grace Koplow have been instrumental in the team’s successes so far in season 2016.

The Lady ‘Pies possess not just the hardware to make their championship program run, but the software and engineering as well.  Taking a cerebral approach to their game plans, they use game footage of AFL matches – men’s and women’s – as well as their metro competition, to draft their strategy while at the same time integrating new players into the fold.

“In the metro league, we focus on the skills,” explained Davidson, who is in her second season with New York after beginning her footy career with the Iron Maidens.  “Then when you go to 16-a-side, what we’ve transitioned to is having our newer players know what the positions are from the start of the game, to know where they are [on the field] and just become familiar with how the game is actually meant to be played.”

Davidson, who played three seasons with San Francisco before moving to New York, sees the game not only as a warm up for Nationals, but as a barometer of where both clubs are in their development.

“This is always such a huge test because we consider ourselves like sister teams.  We have a lot of the same challenges, based in big cities with people moving in and out, but we both always seem to recruit great talent, and it’s a really good test for us leading up to Nationals.”

The weekend should also be a test for the third side in the Showdown, a team made up the Sacramento Lady Suns, augmented with players from the Portland Sockeyes.  The Suns have developed a reputation as one of the best defensive units in the country.  Even without their co-captain Katie Klatt keystoning the middle, players such as Makenzie Carr, Lauré Kwoka, and Liz Danielson have stepped up to form a formidable barrier.  Sacramento’s midfield will undergo a bit of a test against Wolff and de Leuw, but the on-ball combo of Rosemary Kloh and Carly Hartman performed well at Nationals to help control the ball. 

But winning requires scoring, something they have struggled with in the last two major tournaments.  That should be alleviated with the reinforcements from Portland, including speedy former Magpie Heather Serpico and rising forward presence Jessica Blecher.  The Sockeyes will bring a half-dozen strong contingent to compete in Division 2 at Nationals, and this valuable game experience will help them succeed alongside whoever they are paired with in Sarasota.

Peter Holden from GirlsPlayFooty.com contributed to this preview.
For more information on women’s footy in the USA, contact Drea Casillas at andrea.casillas@usafl.com.

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