Season Preview Week 2017: Men's Eastern

Our first region to preview is the East; eight teams with varying histories and fortunes.

New York continued their dominance in season 2016, continuing to be the lead singer of the rock and roll band that is this grouping of clubs.  There are improvements and strength coming from up and down the east, especially from the Nation’s capital, Boston, and the Florida gulf coast.

The matches that will see these clubs bang their heads together (not literally, that would just be painful) should be full of intrigue and different styles.   This includes the Eastern Regionals at Raleigh on June 24th, where some of the lower ranked can test their might, Mortal Kombat style.

From Beantown, the Big Apple, and the Big Scrapple to Hotlanta and the FLL, here is how the Eastern Regional teams look for 2017:

One of the USAFL’s oldest clubs continues to plug away down in the South, as the Kookaburras head into this season looking to get back over the hump in Division 4.

The Kookas’ season last year began with a loss at home to arch rival Nashville.  They repaid the favor in the Music city, one of two wins during the regular season.  Their only other victory was against Baton Rouge, and they would team up with the Tigers at Nationals, missing the semi-finals agonizingly, but recovering to demolish Tulsa and finish in fifth place.

Chase Trujillo leads the charge for Brent Bacon’s side, as he has the last several seasons down in Hotlanta.  The oft overlooked midfielder leads a pacey team that is known for its determined play, as exemplified by their longtime clubman, Wayne Kraska.  Trujillo kicked two goals in their season opening loss against Nashville last weekend, but they’ll look to rebound as they once again strengthen themselves upon regional rivals North Carolina, Baton Rouge, and St. Petersburg.

There may be some question as to whether or not Atlanta will bring a full squad across to San Diego considering the distance, but whoever does make the trek out will give their team a peachy good chance at making it back to their first Grand Final since the D3 decider in 2011.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: Division 4

There was a theme of resurgence to past glory among several teams in the USAFL last season, and the biggest one came straight out of the nation’s capital.

Baltimore-Washington planted their stake for potential early on with a big win at North Carolina in June, followed closely by a 2-0 showing at the Eastern Regionals a couple of weeks later.  They would sweep the season series with Philly and Carolina, and go to Florida in October making the jump from D4 a season earlier and into Division 2, looking to pick off a couple of scalps.  They went 1-2 on the weekend, but their “W” was an intense 13-12 triumph over heavily fancied Sacramento in a game where neither team could kick straight, and their losses against Houston and group winner Columbus were highly competitive.

Not wanting to lose a trace of momentum, the Eagles hit the ground flapping in 2017.  While most teams were merely discussing the upcoming season, the Eagles were training in the gym as a team with former Adelaide Crow Rhett Biglands.  That set them up for a 3-0 showing last month in the Arctic Cup in Iceland, beating teams from Canada, London, and Scandinavia.

Jay Levesque, who won the D2 Roos Medal, is perhaps in the finest playing form of his long career as he prepares for IC17.  The team around him has steadily gelled into a fearsome unit.  Tracy Williams has asserted himself as one of the more dominant rucks on the East Coast, while second year players Nick Siska and Keith Thornburg have developed into dangerous players in the forward half of the field.  The addition of Peter Taylor from Denver should bolster the defense, and Aussie Kit Drury is the team’s offensive superstar; look for him to continue his habit shredding Eastern defenses.

The Eagles are for real.  They have the confidence to boot, and it shouldn’t be long before they challenge New York for Eastern regional superiority.  A Grand Final appearance shouldn’t be out of the question, either.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: High Seed, Division 2

If this were a game of Ticket to Ride, Boston would win the Globetrotting Bonus for getting to the most cities every year, and 2017 will be no different for the boys from Beantown.

The Dees went 1-1 at Eastern regionals, and notched wins over Baltimore-Washington, Philadelphia, and Quebec on the road.  Despite the wins, they were fancied as an outside shot at the Division II Grand  Final.  A disappointing 1-2 record knocked them out of contention, and though they put up strong efforts in all three games, including eventual champion Calgary, the performance continued the trend that Boston was a middling D2 side.

Jeremy Humm brought his experience and leaping ability to a team that already has guys who can get up off the ground a fair bit, aside players like Rusty Smith and Rory Smith. (No relation).  Most of the veterans should return, including Ari “I’m not Bruce Doull but I play like him” Joniec, Matty Garafolo, and the ever hungry (in the footy sense) Mike Sheppard.  The Dees did recruit well last year and youngsters such as Aaron Tenbuuren (who wears half of his name on his jumper) perked up the forward line a bit.

Boston always seems to pull through in tough games, and they’ll face another gauntlet of teams from outside their cozy Northeastern surrounds, including another match up with D1 Quebec as well as Chicago.  Any draw they get in Division 2 is going to be tough, but the Demons are still a hard hitting side that can steal four points from you if you don’t take them seriously.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: Low Seed, Division 2

The Floridians with the Funny Name have punched above their weight in recent years, and last season fought well despite a limited number of appearances.

Their only USAFL matches prior to Nationals were a home-and-home against St. Pete, which they split.  A late season encounter with the Swans was cancelled, so the bulk of their games came from metros.  They headed across Alligator Alley for Nationals as the bottom seed in Divvy 2, but despite their best efforts they were no match for their challengers and went three-and-out and into calamari.

It wasn’t all bad news bears for the Squids, as Tom Hecker and Mike LeValley were named to Tom Ellis’s Revo list, and the two American veterans are the engine room for a side that boasts a balance of up and comers with Aussie veterans.  Branko Milic, Glen Parrish, and Cameron Pinnock are among the men from Down Under who provide the skills that punish teams, and Russian-born Slava Belov was a strong pickup late last season who continues to bloom.

Being in a remote part of the country geographically may have hindered Ft. Lauderdale’s ability to get a lot of game experience, but they continue to be a consistent side.  After two years’ cameo in Division 2, however, a spell in Division 3 may find them more aptly matched before challenging up.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: High Seed, Division 3

New York, New York, it’s a helluva town; the Magpies are up… though last season was certainly not a cakewalk.

2016 was shaping up to be the perfect storm of powerhouses from each of the league’s three regions.  Coach Sean Holmesby and company were rewarded for their club’s recruiting efforts early; they survived their early season gauntlet by going 5-0 in June, with three of those wins in hinterlands.  Their only blemish was two tough losses in Texas, to Dallas and Austin, with the qualification that they didn’t have a full side for the trip.

They did bring a full complement to Sarasota, where they expected to blow through like a zephyr and into a Sunday showdown with Golden Gate, which they did with relative ease and precision.  The return of Alex Auricchio helped in the ruck, and with vets like Brenton Hocking and Matt Lovell hitting their stride, the Magpies looked the goods.  But they just weren’t good enough to get past Golden Gate despite a hard struggle.

The transient nature of New York City hasn’t affected the ‘Pies as hard as it tends to do other teams, and they’ll need to do it again this year, but it’s still a contention that they recover from very well.  Jim Andreozzi and Eddy Heppt had champagne rookie years for the Maggies in the forward line, and continue to complement their captain, Mike “Magic” Murphy up front.  Rob Cahpruet and Nico Alcayde were also star rookies last year and come into 2017 as proven role players.

The strength is in the midfield, which can pick apart or suffocate the other team as needed.  Angus Twopeny (best name in the league last season, btw) and Harry O’Sullivan are the two deadliest players in that respect, and vets Sam Jess and Jame Mirschin make up the steel tight defense.

New York is still the best team in this region, though teams like Baltimore-Washington and Boston will put them through their paces and are cutting down their undisputed claim towards Eastern beastdom.  When things go their way, there are few teams that can beat them; it just all comes down to how they do during that one weekend in October.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: High Seed, Division 1

True cat fact: Tigers have claws for clawing up things. 

The North Carolina Tigers continue to claw their way up the USAFL ladder, and were close to getting the paws attached to those claws on another trophy.

Carolina proved a scrappy opponent during the regular season, especially in their games against Baltimore-Washington.  The Tigers-Eagles matchups have always been hard battles, but there was an edge to the games this year that, in spite of three losses to their northern foes, forged a bit of character through the season.  That character was put to the test after going 2-0 on Saturday in D3 at Nationals, when they saw out a hard earned 15-10 triumph over Seattle put them into their second Grand Final in three years.  There they battled the wind and the Portland Steelheads, but fell on both counts.

The Tiges acquired two bona fide playmakers that helped them with their offense punch; Aussie Stu Mackenzie and Revo prospect Erik Hansen.  The two curly haired destroyers were the main attractions, but they certainly didn’t overshadow the efforts of speedy colleagues Nick Camilleri and Peter Capoziello.  Scott Bradley should be back as well; he is the team’s resident all-arounder, and gives both sides of the ball added depth.

Hosting the Eastern Regionals this year will be a good boost for recruiting for the 2014 D4 champions, as the YELLOW AND BLACK!! continue to make strides.  They cleared being the basement dwellers of the Eastern region long ago, and after a taste of being back in the Grand Final last year, they are a good bet to have another shot on Sunday afternoon this season.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: High Seed, Division 3

There was a good deal of hope surrounding the 2016 season in Philly, but it ended in disappointment, much like a cheesesteak from Pat’s or Geno’s.*

Philadelphia’s campaign started slow and tapered off, and though they played Baltimore-Washington, North Carolina, and New York all tough, they went through the regular season winless and was only able to procure one victory at Nationals with some help from Baltimore-Washington and Edmonton in Division 3.

The Hawkers have stepped up their recruitment game over the past two seasons and have incorporated a successful AusBall program that has also planted the seeds for their new women’s team.  While veterans such Jon Loring, Alex Lyden, Pat Miller, and Ryan McGettigan continue to a reliable hub for this team, the sands of father time have slowly taken their toll.  Chadd Baribault and Jon Ginsburg have been two irascible sources of excitement on either end of the ground, and defender Ted “Zombie” Heron had a strong rookie year on defense.

Despite the aging roster, Philadelphia continues to be a difficult game on the calendar for any team.  Games against Baltimore-Washington and Cleveland will be a litmus test of where they stand heading towards San Diego.  If they can inject some fresh blood into the club this year with their recruiting efforts, and if they can get good numbers to come out to San Diego, then they may be a dark horse for the D3 final.

(*Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this section regarding cheesesteaks do not necessarily reflect the views of the USAFL.  But seriously, there are way better steaks out there.  Just ask the locals.)

Nationals Seeding Prediction: Middle Seed, Division 3

The sun normally sets on the west coast of Florida, but a new day for footy is underway in that particular part of the sunshine state.

The club formerly known as the Tampa Bay ARFC made the most of their home field advantage last year in Sarasota, bringing with them 30+ players and making a strong run through the D4 gauntlet.  They beat Nashville/Cleveland in their opener, then drew with Tulsa to secure a place in the semis.  They saved their best offensive output of the tourney for the Grand Final, but it wasn’t enough to take down a strong and determined Ohio Valley outfit.

Overall, 2016 was a very successful year for the Bloods, with the growth of the club including a successful women’s program and a fairly sizeable metro competition that kept active in the off season.  The hope is to be able to spread the game from a singular outpost in the Tampa metro area to a further regional spread through the gulf coast and inwards through Central Florida.

St. Pete has built this growth by attracting new players, and 2nd year players Jordan Calero and Austin Kugler are among those who have joined the renaissance of footy in Tampa Bay.  The newbies are augmented by a number of USAFL veterans; Dustin Jones goes into his 19th USAFL campaign as the ageless star, and newcomers Pat Bilder (New York, Baton Rouge), Ben Walker (Tulsa), and Byron Spradlin (Denver) bring valuable experience to a squad that should turn more heads in 2017.

If they can summon the numbers to San Diego, the Swans should be in Division 3 next season, and if they are, they’re going to proof a tough nut to crack for whoever is in their pool.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: Low Seed, Division 3

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