Roos Rise to the Occasion, Win First D1 Crown

In a trend where teams have been defying history – Tigers, Bulldogs in the AFL, Cubs, Astros in baseball, for example – you can add the Golden Gate Roos to that list.

Runners up on three separate occasions, and having to fight for the mantle of best team during the season when the pollsters were keen to give it to Austin, the Roos proved everyone wrong.  The crowning glory was Golden Gate 6.4.40 defeating the Los Angeles Dragons 2.1.13 at the Surf Cup Sports Park in San Diego, giving the Roos their first D1 title in their two decade history and perhaps cemented a changing of the guard in the USAFL men’s competition.

Though the two teams have met many times in regional play over the past eight USAFL seasons, the Roos and Dragons had not met in a game bigger than this.  Their track to the Grand Final varied, but both had certainly earned the right to play off for what would be the first D1 title for either.

The Dragons had survived an early dogfight against New York in their opener on Saturday morning, but managed to hang on by a single point.  They then humbled the two-time defending premiers Austin, who couldn’t seem to find an answer for target forward Pat Nicholls, and who couldn’t pierce Andrei Jensen and the defense.   A game but outmatched Baltimore-Washington side was accounted for by 44 points, and LA were onto the final, their fourth in club history and their first above the D2 level.

Much fancied to return for their second D1 decider in as many years, Golden Gate Turned aside Calgary and a strong Dallas in their first two games, then had to deal with nemesis Denver on Sunday for the honor of getting back to the Granny.  It was their stiffest test of the weekend to that point, and led by ruck Ben Dowdell, quickman Jack Lucas, and forward tower Bryan Dragus, the Roos topped the Bulldogs 45-30 to advance to their fourth D1 championship match.

Both teams looked to be balanced up and down the track, and the most intriguing matchup was in the ruck.  Golden Gate’s Ben Dowdell, a former Adelaide Crow listed player, and LA’s Donald Lee, the basketball player turned Revo, metaphorical weight room all game long.  Lee punched through a Steven Belstead set-shot to concede the opening score of the game after two minutes.  From the kick out, a free kick followed by a fifty meter penalty saw Matt Hitch pick out Nicholls on a string, and the LA forward made no mistake to register the first major of the game.

What three teams couldn’t seem to do, the Roos then attempt to: they double teamed Nicholls for the rest of the game, and led by Justin Mann and David Franco, the Roos defense figured that suffocating the Dragon’s lightning rod would force the others to take on Golden Gate in man-on-man football.  Any momentum from the opening goal would be neutralized by Jack Lucas and the Roo midfield, and Dragus would put his team back on top with a pretty, straight kick from the run of play. 

Hitch tied the game at seven a minute later, and the thirst for the football ratcheted up another notch.  Chris Bagot and Gary Green took nice marks for LA, and Lee buried Lucas in front of the Cooper’s beer tent, which got a rise out of the thousand-strong crowd.  The double-team against Nicholls wasn’t foolproof, however, and Paul Ioakim ran free and found the Dragon’s personal Jesus (so called by Grilla because of his long hair), albeit at an acute angle.  Guffawing at a 65-degree outlook, Nicholls’ banana again gave the boys in teal a zeal, and a six point lead. 

Jake Ryan literally came within a fingertip of tying the game thirty seconds later, but a desperate Robbie Descant put his body on the line to make a five-point save in conceding the rushed behind.  Halftime came with the Dragons 13-8, but with the flow of the game ebbing and flowing like the ocean just miles to the west of the Surf Cup ground.

Both teams began the second stanza in search of the first major score of the second half, and the Roos came out a bit quicker and a bit more disciplined, especially after Lucas was decked by Lee after earning a free kick.  Lucas would miss chance, and David Abernathy had a shot tipped at the line, but the boys from the Bay Area had the notion.  David Jennings would finally break through, converting off a free kick to put his team’s snoots in front.

Harry Dixon would take the best mark of the day not long after the goal… until Dragus bettered it with a screamer on the ensuing clearance.  Dowdell extended the lead from another set shots, and LA tried to counter through Nicholls, but he was bottled up like a case of Cooper’s.  Switching out to a zone helped the Roos pinch the Dragons and put the kibosh on any sort of comeback.  Kyle Johnson, arguably the heart and soul of the team for club and country, found got away a handball to Joshua Warren, who applied the sword into the Dragon heart.

Los Angeles had worked hard all season, and they didn’t let up.  Guys like Bagot and Ioakim and Green and Justin Kenna and Justin “Jabba” Hall had willed the team to this point.  But the efforts of Clark, Lucas, Johnson, and Dragus were too much.  Mel Chen had an understated performance, the former Sacramento Sun and Revo alumni worked with the efficiency of a Silicon Valley microchip to win the ball.  Lucas’s speed was too much, and the midfielder took home the Cann Medal for Finals MVP in the process.

In the end, the Roos were too good, rattling off 33 unanswered points to stomp home by 27 points.

The Dragons had been were the Roos were in 2016; coming off lukewarm results at Nationals in previous years to challenge for their first D1 title.  They claimed the scalps of the Eastern and Central regional champions on the way, and they should absolutely hold their heads high going into 2018 and beyond, because they will be back.  Nicholls took home the Roos Medal for Best and Fairest, and though that’s no consolation for losing out, if signified a sparkling weekend for he and the team.

But the day and the season belonged to Golden Gate Roos who, after four tries and nearly two decades after being founded by John Ironmonger et al, claimed the glory of the Division I national championship and the Papa John Harrell Cup.  Many punters around the league still saw them as second best to Austin, even after storming back to upend Denver at the Western Regionals.  But Manly Johnson’s team never relented the entire season.  The fact that they had six Revos on their side was a testament to the homegrown talent that complimented their Australian base of players like Ryan, Lucas, and Dowdell.

Dowdell would take home some personal hardware of his own, sharing Most Consistent honors with Dallas’s Jacob Willams.

“Everyone worked so hard for this,” said Johnson, who capped possibly the best season of his 100+ game career for club and country.  “Everyone played so well all weekend.  All 28 guys.  It’s the perfect ending to a great year.”

The win, coupled with their women’s counterparts, the San Francisco Iron Maidens, marked the first time a club had done the D1 Double since the Denver Bulldogs and Lady Bulldogs did it in Austin in 2011.  The Roos also became the first Western region team to win the D1 men’s crown since that Bulldogs victory.

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