Freedom Captains Ready for IC Challenge

What once seemed like a distant constellation light years away is now so close one can taste it.  And for the USA Freedom, the ride from beginning to that metaphorical galaxy has been arduous, challenging, and worth every second of it.

For the ladies who head to Melbourne next week to represent the red, white, and blue in the 2017 AFL International Cup, all of the hours, months, days, and years of hard work will be boiled down into five matches in the home of football.  It’s a daunting task, but one that has been accepted by a group of women who love the game, and who want to bring a bit of glory back home to the States in the form of an IC Women’s Championship.

The triumvirate who head the Freedom are, in and of themselves, different in many ways.  Captain Hallie Kastanek (née Lee) of the Denver Lady Bulldogs and co-vice-captains Emily Riehl (Baltimore-Washington Lady Eagles) and Katie Klatt (Melbourne University via Sacramento Lady Suns) hail from different parts of the country, vary in their styles of play, have unique skill sets, and possess their own personal takes on the game itself.  It’s a micro-chasm of the Freedom as a whole, a diversity that makes one appreciates the others in the group as a family.

They have one glaring similarity, however – they all agree that the goal of this trip is to have fun, and take out the IC Championship in the process.

    
 

Captain Hallie Kastanek Vice Captain Katie Klatt Vice Captain Emily Riehl

 

It all starts with pool play, which begins on August 6 with defending runners up and IC11 champions Ireland.  They play Papua New Guinea in the School Round three days later, and then finish off the first phase in the Community Round against the European Crusaders composite side at Melbourne University. 

“I’m very excited to be in a pool with three teams that we didn’t get to face in the last IC,” said Riehl, who is playing in her third IC.  “Part of the fun of the tournament is getting to see what the rest of the world has to offer so this seems to be exactly as it should be.”

“I think each team will require a different emphasis from us,” said Klatt, who makes her IC debut next weekend.  “The big challenge will be Ireland. The European team is a bit of an unknown, as they're coming from all over - I'd imagine they're the best of their respective countries. PNG is always a physical and an intense match.”

Ever the realist, captain Kastanek, who like Riehl is a veteran of IC11 and IC14, is not looking past the first match against Ireland, but is looking forward to taking on a familiar foe: Laura Duryea, who debuted for the Melbourne Demons in AFLW this past season.  “I had to face-guard her in our IC2011 match.  I already had respect for Laura then, but seeing her now in her debut year in the AFLW is inspiring.  While I do not think I will have to guard her this IC, stopping her means stopping the Banshees’ momentum.”

“I hope we get to play Fiji in the semi-final,” Riehl adds, “because it would be fun to get a chance to face off against my UNSW Stingrays teammate Sera Kaukiono (a very dangerous center half forward).  Also, that outcome would line up with the smoothest possible route to Etihad.”

Following the pool round, the top two teams advance to the semi-finals on August 15, where the winners will meet on the 19th at Etihad Stadium as a prelude to an Australian Football League match.  Not a bad carrot.  Possible opponents in the semi-final and final are defending IC women’s champion Canada, a determined Fiji side, and debutantes Great Britain and Pakistan.

“It will take synchronization of a spread-out team (and country) to get to the Grand Final,” said Kastanek.  “This team is by far the most athletic and skilled team we have brought to date to the IC.  If we can bond better than any previous year's teams and synchronize for our common goal, I have the utmost confidence we will play at Etihad.”

Klatt agreed with Kastanek that unity is the biggest factor in how far the team will get, and also cited their commitment to the team and their goal.  “Each player is skilled and fit,” acknowledged the Virginia native, “but are we willing to backwards release to our half backs running forward? Are we willing to put our body on the line for our teammates to lay a block and protect? If we can come together and do those things, that will make us very dangerous indeed.”

Playing for the national team gives the Freedom players a chance to take the field alongside players they play against during the USAFL season, and the leadership group holds excitement in who they get to line up beside for IC17. 

Klatt mentioned IC debutante San Francisco Iron Maiden midfielder Sara Magallón, who caught her eye at the final Freedom training camp in Dallas back in May.  “Literally every time I needed to deliver the footy out of pressure,” Klatt says, “she was always in the exact right spot - always front and center and screaming for the footy. She will be very useful and dangerous for us on the wing.”

Kastanek had praise for another IC rookie, Maiden defender Bevin English.  “I am coming to the conclusion that she may be just the greatest human being on the planet.  Her knowledge, athleticism, and code in this team sport is right on point.”

Both Kastanek and Riehl had high praise for Klatt as well, and have been following her progress over the past year with the Melbourne University Mugars of the VWFL, having packed up and moved from Sacramento to Melbourne in the hopes of eventually possibly playing in the AFLW competition.

“The USA Freedom player I am most excited to play with has to be Katie Klatt,” Kastanek beams.  “It is just obvious. She has uprooted her life for this is sport, and I admire her for it.  Her presence on the field is unmatched.  This will be her first IC, and she will no doubt leave her mark.

“I’ll echo Hallie in saying that the player that I’m most excited to play with is Katie,” added Riehl.  “She totally blew me away with her poise and vision at training camp. She was in total command of her body and the ball at every moment. She’s the kind of teammate who can both own the spotlight and also set up her teammates to shine.”

Aside from the prospect of playing against and meeting other footy players from all over the world, the players expressed anticipation at being in Australia and, more specifically, Melbourne.  Riehl, a mathematics professor at John Hopkins University, plans to visit friends and colleagues at the Melbourne Uni maths department.  Kastanek is keen to support the USA Liberty development side, as well as indulging in afternoon tea and coffee with her wife and Freedom teammate, Lindsay Kastanek.

Currently already living in Melbourne, Klatt is focused on seeing her friends from the Freedom and Liberty, and making new friends in the footballing community.  “I am looking forward to some time to bond with my teammates. I'm also very excited to meet other footy players from around the world. I've already been able to get to know some players from AFL Asia; the international footy community is so welcoming and fun, I love that we can all bond over our love for the sport.”

In the end, all three players agree that the experience will be fun, but even moreso should the Freedom be lifting the trophy in two weeks’ time at Etihad.

Riehl put it succinctly: “Ultimately the surest way to the Grand Final is to want it more than any of the other teams. So many of our teammates have sacrificed so much to get to this point. I’m excited to see all the hard work pay off.”

To meet the entire USA Freedom IC squad, click here.

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