Maidens, West Coast Combo Take Nationals Honors
For the second straight season, the USAFL Nationals had two women’s divisions contested. Nearly 200 women again took to the ground, and put on another memorable carnival.
Most people will look at the records of the women’s division and note its posterity for the fact that the longest title streak of any division in the two-decade history of the tournament came to an end in heart stopping fashion.
Others will see the combination of three new clubs and a USAFL original with familiar names at the top of Division 2, marking a resurgence of women’s footy on the west coast.
But the underlying through is that the brilliance of this year’s tournament is that, as a whole, the quality of all eight sides across the competition was the best it has been in its history. Not all of the games were close, to be sure, but there was no shortage of good play from top to bottom, which verifies the continued growth of the women’s game here in the USA.
WOMEN’S DIVISION 1 – MAIDENS TAKE MAIDEN TITLE, END DENVER’S REIGN
George Harrison wrote a very, very eloquent song titled “All Things Must Pass,” with the message being that nothing lasts forever. Even that packet of ramen you bought your junior year of college and forgot about in a drawer somewhere has an expiration date.
There had to be a point during the six years that the Denver Lady Bulldogs run as USAFL Women’s D1 champions that they thought that this would not apply to them, especially when they were shutting down all comers on away to yet another crown. But in barely picking up championship number six after falling famously to Minnesota last year, the other four clubs had to be licking their chops at the chance to finally end the longest premiership run in USAFL National Championships history.
If any club was hungrier than the rest to do it, it was the San Francisco Iron Maidens. Having lost two Grand Finals to Denver in 2013 and 2014, and having failed to prevent them from extending the streak last year in Austin, Jess Estrada and Milli Bruce’s side came to Florida with the mission to end their disappointment.
The story of Day 1 was the weather and the wind, and in all five games on Saturday, the team that kicked with the wind in the first half was able to outlast their opponents in the end. Minnesota started out strongly over last year’s runner up, New York, before San Francisco shoved local rival Sacramento out of the way by forty points. The Maidens would finish the day with an emphatic rout over friendly rival New York, rollicking over the Magpies 64-7.
As for Denver, well, it was business as usual. An opening victory over Minnesota by 23 points erased any lingering cobwebs from the loss a season ago, and a 47-0 shut out over Sacramento completed an efficient opening day for the Lady Bulldogs. It set up a huge matchup with the Iron Maidens on Saturday morning that would most likely determine the winner of the whole shebang.
Sunday morning dawned with the Freeze facing the Lady Suns in the unofficial USAFL Meteorology Cup. Needing a win to keep their faint championship hopes alive, the Freeze ladies outlasted an improving Sacramento side 16-6 on the efforts of Jackie Thelen, Cathy Georgiadis, and Cathy Hoha.
Minnesota now became fans of San Francisco; A Denver victory in the 11am match over the Iron Maidens would’ve made it impossible for any other team to catch the Lady Bulldogs on head-to-head tie breaker even if they lost their final match of the day to New York, and given Denver their seventh title. A Maidens win would keep the Freeze ladies in the picture.
The numbers coming into the game favored the champs. San Francisco had never defeated Denver, and were 0-4 against the Bulldogs in Nationals play, being outscored 101-7 in those games.
But the tropical winds that blew across the Premier Sports Campus weren’t just those coming in to seek shelter on land from the Gulf of Mexico. They were there to influence the flow of play. The Iron Maidens, who kicked with the aid of the early autumn breeze, poked holes in the venerable Denver defense but only managed to register two behinds.
Then, just as it seemed the Bulldogs would see out the half unscathed, Iron Maiden forward Milli Bruce picked up the crumbs left over from a Sara Magallón free kick, wheeled around onto her right foot, and delivered her team’s first ever goal against Denver. It was fitting that Bruce be the one to break the duck; she was one of the founders of the team in 2012, and had only recently returned to playing after suffering a knee injury late last season.
Down 9-0 at the break, Denver coach Bruce Durrell changed around his formation to take advantage of the wind in the second half. His counterparts, Michael Jobling and Tara Salmon, put their more athletic players in the defensive half in an attempt to try and stop the high powered Bulldogs offense. For 18 or so minutes, it worked.
Whenever midfielders Twania Clark, Monique Fair or Hallie Adrian tried to find a target inside offensive 50, they were repeatedly turned away by Magallón, Brette Brower, Carly Smolak, and the Maidens defense. Time and time again the Maidens backliners were tested and every time one thought they would bend, a mark would be taken or a critical clear out would occur. Smolak, who would share Best and Fairest honors with Clark, seemed to have a Sherrin magnet in her jumper.
With less than two minutes in the game, however, the Bulldogs’ offensive pressure earned them a free kick from thirty meters out, which Allison Bremner converted to cut the lead to three points. The Doggies spent the remaining hundred or so seconds pushing for the winning goal. It wouldn’t come. The game would end 9-6 San Francisco with the ball 40 meters from the Denver target after it was held up.
The Maidens, having exorcised their blue-white-and-red demons, seemed incredulous at what had happened. This wasn’t an upset to be sure, but the fact that the long Bulldogs reign at Nationals would finally be over hadn’t completely sunk in yet. And, it wasn’t quite set in stone. They still had to play Minnesota in their final match, and they needed to win. A Freeze victory would have put them ahead of on the tiebreaker, and kept Denver’s hopes alive, assuming a subsequent win over New York.
Defeating Denver gave San Francisco the keys to the castle. Their performance over Minnesota was the coronation. Kicking two first half goals with the wind, again the Iron Maidens kept their determined opposition from Minnesota at arm’s length. The Freeze, led by Thelen, Hoha, and Andrea Tobias, tried to achieve where Denver hadn’t. Like the Lady Bulldogs, they were able to pierce the defense once, but only once, and that wasn’t enough. A 16-6 Maidens win completed the sweep, and a team which had felt the pang of coming so close in years past now bathed in the warm glow of victory.
“This win just means so much,” said Estrada, who helped found the club in 2012. “It's a milestone - not just by ending the reign of the formidable Denver Bulldogs, but also it's a testament to all hard work and dedication of the Maidens and the GGAFL. Not only this season, but for everyone who has worn a Maidens jumper and who has supported us.”
Both Estrada and Bruce gave credit to the nine rookies that joined the team this season, “This growth wouldn't have been possible without their commitment and new found love for the sport, which reignited the fire in us old/injured gals.”
They also gave much due credit to coaches Jobling and Salmon, not only for their tactical expertise, but also for bringing the team together as a unit. “[We] just can't say enough about our amazing coaches Jobbo and Tara. They coached us as footballers, as a team, and weaved all of our strengths together as one with unwavering belief of our success.”
Though San Francisco’s name is etched in the annals of the league as champions, all five of the teams could look back at a strong effort from Nationals.
Final Standings: San Francisco 4-0, Denver 3-1, Minnesota 2-2, Sacramento 1-3, New York 0-4.
WOMEN’S DIVISION 2 – WESTERN COMBINATION TOPS OF THE D2 TRIO
When four-year USAFL veteran Heather Serpico moved cross country from New York to Portland, Oregon, she found herself in a new city with a small yet passionate women’s footy club. She set her sights on bringing at least half a team to Nationals, and with five teammates in tow, joined with players from Seattle, Arizona, and Tampa Bay to make up one of three teams to take part in Division 2.
Most of them had already tasted victory at the Western Regionals back in July, as they teamed up with the Minnesota Freeze to sweep that carnival. But here they were now with a number of players from Arizona who was starting back up again, as well as Seattle and Tampa. The last two were new clubs to the women’s scene, but were filled with USAFL experience. Tampa’s Annie Jones, Dionne Jones, and Holly Weinrich were USAFL Women’s originals, and had played in the women’s final before. Seattle’s Valerie Barber-Axthelm and Cheung-Yi Tseng had also played elsewhere, and both looked to sure up their side’s defense.
Their first game was against the “EaJills”, a combination of players from Columbus and Baltimore-Washington. Going up against speedy and dangerous players such as Katrina Scherer and Emily Riehl, the Westerners went up 16-0, paced by the omnipotent play of Simone Sheppard, and the quickness of the Jones and rugby convert Heather van der Hoop from Tampa. Though Scherer and company would claw back in a furious second half, the Sockeyes combo would win 36-18.
The other massively combined team in the field eschewed the tradition of smashing their names together and simply called themselves the “Wild Bunch”. Made up of players from Montreal, Boston, Chicago, Des Moines, and Philadelphia, the Wild Bunch ran riot through the middle of the ground and blanked the EaJills 42-0. Valerie Moreau, one of the best midfielders in AFL Canada, ruled the midfield and her teammates converted on just about every chance.
That left the Westerners and the Wild Bunch to finish round robin play on Saturday in what was a virtual qualifying final – the winner would advance to Sunday’s Grand Final, while the loser would have to beat the EaJills on Sunday morning if they wanted a rematch. The Western conglomeration used the win to strike out to a huge halftime lead, and though the Wild Bunch would get a goal, it wasn’t enough in a 36-6 final score.
The rematch in the preliminary final was similar to the first meeting between the Wild Bunch and EaJills, and though the Columbus/BWE combo kept their foes in sights, it was the Wild Bunch that came through 27-13 victors. Despite being the odd one out in terms of medals, the players who donned the pink jumpers should be happy at their development over the past several years, as both clubs continue to grow. Scherer would be awarded most consistent, and was hands down the USAFL’s best rookie in season 2016.
With two wins now under their belt, the Wild Bunch went into the final against the Westerners in the hope of getting back up off the canvas and climbing the mountain. Though Bureau, Valerie Moreau and the blueshirts tried their best, they couldn’t penetrate the defense. Sheppard, who would win the Paul Roos Medal for Best and Fairest, spearheaded an offensive onslaught that ended with her team winning by 38 points. Jess Blecher, the other original Sockeye, asserted herself as well as a player to watch both domestically and on the international stage for some time.
The Wild Bunch had played well all weekend, punctuated by their newer players. Boston’s Tracey Toner, Des Moines’ Emily Rice, and Philly’s Erica Sacci and Amy Arundale had all performed well in their first ever Nationals, and the silver medal was well earned.
But for the Sockeyes, Grizzlies, Lady Hawks and Tampa, it was a well-earned win in what should be a boost for all four programs. For Serpico, who got a gold medal to go aside the silver she won with New York last season, the win had special meaning.
“Last weekend I was fortunate to be surrounded by a team of great ladies with incredible work ethic. Most of us had zero experience playing together – for two of our rookie players it was their first ever USAFL sanctioned game on Saturday morning.
“But when it came down to it every single player held one another accountable, guided each other, and communicated. It was hard to believe by anyone watching that we were a team of thrown together days before Nationals. We played as one from the first tap until the last.”
Women's D2 Grand Final: Portland/Seattle/Arizona/Tampa Bay 7.4.46 def Montréal/Boston/Philadelphia/Des Moines/Chicago 1.2.8