Season Preview Week 2017: Women's East & Central

The emergence of women’s Aussie Rules football into the sporting consciousness of Australia has been a sight to behold.  It emerged from the precipice and into the white hot spotlight in February when, after years of talk and planning, the first AFL Women’s season came and went in a resounding success.

Following nearly in lockstep, the growth of the women’s game in the USA has been tremendous in the past two seasons.  2017 will see fourteen clubs field sides, and at least three more, Chicago, Des Moines, and Wisconsin, in development.

The growth has not simply been about numbers, however.  The quality of play has steadily gone up in recent years, as evidenced by the attention given to Katie Klatt and Kim Hemenway last season as part of recruiting for state academies in Australia.

We begin our look at the women’s teams of the USAFL with those based on the East Coast and Midwest.  Two of them: New York and Minnesota, have played in Division 1 at Nationals since divisional play began in 2015.  The others continue to recruit and build, in the hopes that they will get enough players to move up.  Efforts such as the East Coast Metro and Clinic series, beginning this weekend in Baltimore and continuing to Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, are part of the effort to keep the forward momentum moving.

It’s been a steady go for the ladies of the Nation’s Capital and Charm City.  Though they face the challenge of growing the team in the transient nature of Washington DC, there are good players to be found on the Eagles roster, and the birth of the new Eastern metro circuit should bolster the growth.

The Eagles opened last year with a hard fought loss to a hungry New York outfit, but played well throughout the rest of the year combined with Boston and some of the other East Coast clubs.  At Nationals, they joined with the Columbus Jillaroos, and played well despite their 0-3 record in Division 2.

The season started in a very Northerly fashion for BWE, as several of their players headed up to Iceland to form a North American combination that beat the SE London Giants ladies by four points.  It was the summation of an offseason that saw a lot of hours put in the gym and training ground, which should pay dividends on the field.

Freedom vice-captain Emily Riehl hasn’t lost a step over the past couple of seasons, and remains one of the best players in the league.  She begins the season in Sydney as she prepares for IC17.  Veterans Alex Pike and Karen Stablein have national team experience under their belts, and the latter is a consistent defender.  Newcomer Molly Halberstadt picked up the game quickly in her first season last year, and was named to this year’s Liberty development team aside teammate Sam Worrall.

Recruitment will be key, but there is already interested in footy in the Beltway.  BWE will be in Division 2 again most likely, but whoever they team up with will be benefited by solid players.

Like the Lady Eagles, the Lady Demons have had to deal with the turnover bug, and but at the core of it all is a reliable balanced attack of footballers representing the Freedom City.

2016 saw the Lady Dees with consistent numbers and performances, playing well in combinations with Baltimore-Washington and the East Coast conglomeration at Regionals.   In Sarasota they would be teamed up with Montreal, Philly, and solitary players from Chicago and Des Moines to form the “Wild Bunch”, which went 2-2 overall and came home runners up.  Rookie Tracy Toner performed admirably in the ruck in place of the injured Amanda King, and Colleen Cotto played well in the middle of the ground in her first Nationals.

Toner and Cotto will be back to join the familiar faces in the red and the blue, and will on-ball beside King, who will be on her way to IC17 as a member of the European Crusaders.  Lisa Arredondo sports one of the most durable Prius-like engines in the league, and surrounded by Ashley Mallatt and Cristina Glynn, form a core with a considerable work rate.  The Lady Dees will also welcome back Sarah Muscarella after a one year sabbatical, and Liberty callup Cailin Deal returns for what should be her first full season after her knee injury at the end of the 2015 campaign.

Boston is a hotbed of college and local talent, and the newer recruits are doing their part to help get them involved with the Lady Dees.  That the newer players have picked up the game as quickly as they have should yield dividends on the field, and the experience they get during the Metro circuit, Montreal tournament, and regionals will make them stronger ahead of Nationals.

From near oblivion in 2014, to one of the most improved sides in the league last season, Columbus continues to impress.  And while their success has been a team effort, as it always is in footy, the league was abuzz at the arrival of one player: Katrina Scherer.

If the USAFL were to have a Rookie of the Year award, one would be comfortable in placing a bet on Scherer, nicknamed “Sonic,” a former handball player from Ohio State.  Her coming out party was at the Eastern Regionals.  A speedy ruck is an oddball combination in footy, not unlike peanut butter and jalapenos, but Scherer’s acceleration and kicking skills caught the attention of everyone in Yonkers that weekend, including Freedom coach John Ironmonger.

The core of players who had been a part of the Jill’s rebirth several years ago showed steady improvement in 2016.  Despite their combination with the Lady Eagles not producing a win at Nationals, Scherer became the first Jill to win a medal at Nationals for Most Consistent, and was named to the Freedom squad for IC17.  Lauren Balsley, another rookie was named to the Liberty team, as was Ariel Balske, Stephanie Shipley-Snyder, and Amy Bryniarski.

Coach Alan Gardner approaches season 2017 with an emphasis on getting his forwards more opportunity.  Their most improved player was forward Ariel Balske, who may be the USAFL equivalent of Adelaide Crow forward Sarah Perkins (or maybe Perko is the AFL’s Ariel Balske?), and she and Snyder are capable of taking pack marks.  Defensively, Columbus is among the stingiest in the competition, and are anchored by full back Stephanie McKitrick, who is dependable and a tough mark to go up against.

The Jillaroos should be one of the more entertaining teams to watch during the season.  It may be a year or two before they can recruit enough players to get into Division 1, but it will be fun to watch, especially with Scherer’s meteoric rise.

One season after the “win heard round the world” – that famous victory over Denver at Nationals in 2015 – the Freeze came back looking for bigger and better results in 2016.

Heading west to Salem, Oregon for the Western Regionals, the Freeze teamed up with the Portland Sockeyes (because who doesn’t like Frozen Fish?) and pulled off three wins that showed that what many already knew – showed that both clubs had the hearts of mountain lions and the skills to match.  Cathy Hoha and Paige Kiecker were among the stars that weekend, with Hoha cashing in on loose balls in the forward 50 and Kiecker nearly contracting leather poisoning with the high number of disposals from the defensive half. 

The Freeze went to Florida and weren’t bothered one bit by the heat, going 2-2 in a 3rd place showing while giving the San Francisco Iron Maidens one helluva final hurdle to clear as their final opponent on the weekend.  Jackie Thelen was joint winner of Most Consistent with San Fran’s Brette Brower, and was one of the more active players in the midfield.

Minnesota has always been known for being good all around the pitch.  They had no less than fourteen players named to the travelling squad, including Hoha, Kiecker, Lauren Shelton, and Cathy Georgiadis.  “Georgie” continues to prove herself as an entertaining player, and the IC14 All-World Team honoree looks to continue her terrorizing of the midfield in 2017, alongside the ever present Thelen.

Hoha’s sniper like accuracy and physical prowess will be joined by Jackie Juan, who returns to the Freeze after a season off.  Also returning is center halfback Belle Ugalde and co-captain Lauren Shelton, who missed Nationals with an injury.  Both are experts at winning the tough footy on the ground, something the Freeze overall have a reputation for doing.  Kiecker is the team’s swiss-army knife, being useful and dangerous all over the field.  Her quick ascension to the Freedom in just two full seasons of football is a testament to her ability.

Minnesota also sports a number of role players that play a success on Dale Williams’ side, many of whom are headed to Australia as part of the Liberty, including stalwart fullback Lizzy Even and South Dakota native Rae Hale, among others.  You’d have to look very hard to find a weak spot on the field for the Freeze, as their depth chart will attest.

While beating Denver two seasons ago was seen as a bit of an upset, Minnesota are now on par with the upper tier.  If everyone can stay healthy, they’ll be up towards the top of D1 in San Diego.

After painting a masterpiece of a season in 2015 in claiming runners-up honors in Division 1, coach Christina Licata had in front of her a fresh canvas in which to paint the new season.  It was covered with equal amounts of Liquid Black and Liquid White, and with a crop of happy little rookies, set forth on a repeat performance.

(No, I didn’t binge watch a bunch of Bob Ross episodes before writing this, why do you ask?)

The New York club went hard on recruiting in the winter of 2016, and their labor bore fruit in the form of 12 rookies for Licata and her staff, which lightened the burden of a number of players which had moved on from the club during the offseason.   The new players and vets were put to the test early in the year, and shone through with a win at Baltimore-Washington and then a win over the All Comers side at the Eastern regionals.  Natalie Wolff was the best of the bunch; her basketball skills shone through and she played ruck as if she had been doing it her whole life.

Come Nationals time, the Magpies were expected to challenge again for a spot in the top three, but the injury bug (maybe it’s actually an arachnid?) chomped hard, and the ‘Pies never gave up despite dropping all four matches.  There were shining stars in the rough during the weekend, including defensive half Grace Koplow, whose quick tackles and ball winning bolster that side of the field.

With the newbs now having a season under their belt, 2017 should prove to be much better on the ladder for the Lady ‘Pies.  Taylor Davidson anchors the defense as one of the better fullbacks in the league, alongside captain Drea Casillas, who heads into USAFL season number thirteen.  Koplow’s hits should punctuate the defensive side of the center square, with sophomore campaigners Joanne Remillard, Danielle Gallagher, and Andrea Hargrave buzzing ‘round the middle.  Hargrave performed well in the ruck at Nationals allowing Wolff to play more defensively, where she also excelled. 

Up front, Queenslander KJ Russell was a key part of the forward momentum in the New York forwards last year, and the vitality of getting the ball to former Sydney Swans forward Kim Hemenway cannot be understated.  With the loss of a couple of key forwards, it’ll be up to Hemenway and another Aussie, Genevieve “Cobra” Lawless to handle the scoring opportunities.  Freedom vet Siobhan McHale may make some cameos inside forward 50 as well, as the ‘Pies look for offense, which is how one wins games.

The Pies will be better come October in San Diego this year, and a return to the top three looks pretty good.

The state of Minnesota has long been a hotbed of footy, especially when it comes to Women’s footy.  So it’s no surprise that the first independent women’s team in the USAFL would come from the North Star state.

Formed with a core of USAFL vets and coached by former Freedom player Brianne Theisen, the Blue Ox will have a good foundation to build their new club from.  Emily Smuder and Marie LaVictoire were both at IC14 wearing the American colors, and both are proven leaders.  Defender Olivia Vongharath is a dependable defender, which is important for solidifying the future on defence.

North Star has already started community gatherings in the hopes of recruiting more players to the club, and early returns have been positive.  They’ll be headed to Colorado for the Western regionals as well as to Nationals, where they’ll most likely be playing in Division 2.  Still, the Ox represent an important piece of growth for the women’s game, keeping pace with the strides being made in Australia and back in the US.

There had been talks in Philadelphia for years about the creation of a women’s team, and in 2016 that talk finally became action.  The Hawks’ inaugural AusBall season yielded a number of potential players, as did a clinic hosted in Philly with a number of players from the eastern USAFL clubs. 

In the end, the first two players to represent the city of Philadelphia in the USAFL Women’s division at Nationals, Erica Sacci and Amy Arundale, were both key contributors in the “Wild Bunch” combination’s runner up result in Division 2.

Both players have been extremely active in the offseason trying to recruit players and build the team, and the 2017 AusBall season has yielded some new interest, which is a good sign.  The Hawks ladies will be taking part in the new East Coast metro as well as heading to Montreal.  Both Sacci and Arundale are former soccer players, and have picked up the game quickly.

It’ll be interesting to see how fast the women’s side grows, but things are looking good with support throughout the region.

Like North Star, the Swans may have been a new club last season on the USAFL circuit, but they were driven by three veterans, Annie Jones, Dionne Jones, and Holly Jones.  Those three, together with newcomers Sharon Gam and Canadian Heather van der Hoop, were essential in the “Western” combo’s victory in Division 2, alongside Seattle, Portland, and Arizona.

Despite the veteran presence, the most impressive performer that weekend in Sarasota was van der Hoop, a rugby convert who had only picked up the game late in the season.  Her quickness and composure in the forward line turned many heads, and she complimented the front liners on the winning side exquisitely.

Like last season, the Swans ladies are playing mostly within their own metro league alongside the men.  There are no women’s games schedule as of yet, but they are expected to send players to Nationals again, and that should be a good sign for whoever they join in Division 2.

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