2018 Season Previews - Women East and Central

We are living in the golden age of women’s football.  To deny that is to deny oneself the truth of how far and how fast this sector of the sport has come in just within the last three or four years.  AFLW and local programs are going forward at light speed, and footy internationally is booming.

There were nineteen USAFL and AFL Canada clubs represented in the two women’s divisions at the 2017 USAFL Nationals – a new record.  That may very well be smashed in Racine.  Eighteen clubs will be previewed here in the next two articles, and at least an additional five – Des Moines, Wisconsin, Chicago, Oklahoma, and the Arizona Outlaws – are either sustaining or starting up women’s programs this year.

Barring something unforeseen, two women’s divisions will be contested at the 2018 Nationals in Racine.  Of the teams in the Eastern and Central regions, Minnesota, Montreal and New York played in D1, while the others joined with others in Divvy 2.  No matter what happens, however, the goal is to lift the trophy on Nationals Sunday.

Between now and then, we’ll see a mix of American players who have sunk their teeth into this great game, Aussies continuing the tradition of their home sport abroad, and new players finding their legs.

Here is a look at the teams in the Eastern and Central regions, playing Regionals in Philadelphia (June 23) and Nashville (July 14).

Despite the fact that Baltimore-Washington Eagles expanded into two separate clubs in the offseason, the ladies of the capital region will play under the BWE banner in 2018 as both clubs recruit towards becoming standalone Eagles and Dockers teams.

That said, the Lady Eagles are coming off their most successful season, beginning with a win over the SE London Giants in Rekyjavik in March, then traversing the campaign against New York, Philly, Boston, and Columbus.  A 61-point win at home against a New York-and-company team was their biggest of the year, led by USA Liberty defender Karen Stablein and USA Freedom mainstay Emily Riehl.  The twelve players who went to San Diego for Nationals were the largest female contingent in BWE history, going all the way back to the first women’s comp in 2015.  Combining with Boston, the Lady Dee-gles went 1-3 in D2, but displayed an improvement in skills and play from years past.

Coach Danny Seow, who takes over the reigns as Freedom head coach, will see his Lady Eagles through another Arctic Cup (this time in Sweden), the EAFL gauntlet, and to the west coast to play rapidly emerging Seattle.  Three of his players, wily veteran Riehl, consistent defender Karen Stablein, and rangy forward Alex Pike, have national team experience and have provided good teaching for the young crop of players coming up through the ranks.  Third-year standout Molly Halberstadt in particular made her mark as a hard to stop onballer during the Eastern Regional match against New York/Philly, racking up possessions and showing her athleticism. 

The busy schedule will lend itself well to getting new players touches and game experience as the program(s) grow.   It would be great to see them build on the dozen they brought to San Diego a year ago, and their athleticism will be great asset to whomever they play alongside in Racine in D2.

The best way to show people the awesomeness of footy is to play it in a big public space.  The Lady Dees train alongside the men in Boston Common and in Cambridge, home of Harvard (or as they say up there, HAH-vahd), and it has yielded a number of curious locals to walk up and see what he sport is all about.

Those new recruits, like bees to the springtime flower, are ones that Coach Lisa Arredondo hopes to wrap around a core of locals who keep steadily improving as individuals and as a team.  Though the Lady Dees were disappointed to come in fourth alongside BWE in the five team D2 field, new players such as bruising rookie Diane Welch and midfield speedster Katie Rhee got valuable game experience at the Nationals level as they begin their footy careers.

With European Crusaders ruck Amanda King having off and on injury issues, Tracy Toner has had to come on and has done well against taller opposition in the middle.  When Kinga has been healthy, though, her hit outs are invaluable.  Rhee’s speed in the midfield is augmented by the deftness of Christina Glynn, Sarah Muscarella, and Ashley “the Hammer” Mallat.  The backline is kept together by USA Liberty player Cailin Deal, who was a rock for the touring side in Australia and is a quiet leader in the back half.

Like BWE, the Lady Demons are steadily improving and getting their numbers under their feet as they try to get back into the thick of things in Division 2.  They will be competitive in the new EAFL competition, and it will be fun to see how far the team goes in the coming seasons.

Sometimes, numbers don’t always tell the story of how far someone has come on their journey.  Such is the case with the Columbus Jillaroos.  Since coming back from near oblivion in 2014, the Jills have gone 1-12 in Nationals play, including going 0-4 at Nationals last year whilst teamed up with North Star and Chicago.

The Jillaroos 2017 regular season was the best in the history, going all the way back to their founding at the beginning of the decade.  They went 3-2, defeating Minnesota, Baltimore-Washington, and Boston and putting up impressive offensive numbers along the way.  Moreover, Katrina Scherer became the first Jillaroo to play for the Freedom, while three others – Stephanie Shipley-Snyder, Amy Bryniarski, and Lauren Balsley were all key contributors for the Liberty in Australia.  At Nationals, however, injuries and trouble finding the sticks would hinder their success, but that didn’t stop Scherer from taking out her first Roos medal, the first Columbus female player to do so.

Their robust campaign last year should hopefully give them some confidence ahead of the fact that they’ll be playing without Scherer; she’ll be in Los Angeles playing with the Dragons as she trains for the USA Handball team.  Another handball player, Bronwyn Smith, should fill in as the resident tall, and she has the skills to make the transition seamless. 

Up front, Shipley-Snyder’s confidence has grown with her trip to Australia, and both Megan Hils and Ashton Guy have the ability to create scoring chances for the mids and half-forwards.  Bryniarski and Balsley proved themselves to be tough to bring down with the footy in the middle of the ground, but also play good two-way footy in defense to help out the backs.

League and Regional play should be a great litmus test for the Jillaroos, who have taken on the identity of a hard working footy club.  The wins at Nationals will come as time goes on, and a good season to build momentum won’t let them down.

As I type this, it is still cold and snowing in Minnesota.  Not terribly conducive for footy, but the Freeze women have a bit of heat coming to season behind a playing group with an increasing number of games in their pocket for club and country.

With ten players in Australia in August for IC17 and the Liberty tour, the inter-squad schedule was a relatively light one for Dale Williams’ charges.  Their only two regular season games were a win over a North Star/Des Moines/Wisconsin combo at the 85/30 tourney in Des Moines, and a nine point defeat to Columbus in Chicago.  Thus, Minnesota were not expected to make much noise in their group.

But as I always say at least once in these things, footy is played on the field, not on paper.  Two tough, war-like wins over Montreal and Seattle had Minnesota in second place in their group, only behind San Francisco who blanked them despite a fighting effort.  Jackie Thelen, winner of the Cooper’s Medal in 2016, was the star on of the weekend for the white-and-blues, rising stars Leslee Uhrich and Kristel Carlson proving themselves valuable on the big stage.

Defense wins championships, and the Freeze’s defense is sometimes overlooked behind that of the western sides.  Lizzy Even’s play in Australia helped cement her among the best fullbacks in the league, and Paige Kiecker continued to get a fair bit of the Sherrin during the year for the Freeze and Freedom.  Midfielders Lauren Shelton and Andrea Mattison will constantly make runs for ruck Kathleen Michaels, as they feed the ball towards forward poacher Cathy Hoha and the opportunistic Jess Nelson and Kathryn Mullin.

Unlike last season, Williams and his team will have a pretty heavy workload during the year, heading to Des Moines, Chicago, Portland, and regionals at Nashville.  Early recruiting has been positive, and so has their mindset.  They’re perhaps a step behind San Francisco at the moment, but they are right on the cusp of that next level.

The success of the women’s Australian Football program in Canada has been the result of hard work to cultivate talent across the country.  In recent years, no one has worked harder than AFL Quebec, and it’s no coincidence that the two women named tournament MVPs in 2014 and 2017 were from Le Belle Province.

Montreal’s history at the USAFL Nationals is relatively long – in 2011 they combined with New York to come runners up to Denver, and they had two straight runners-up finishes out of D2 in 2015 and 2016.  They came to San Diego with their first ever full side, and with the likes of omnipotent forward Aimee Legault and Eastern Devils midfielder Valerie Moreau, the Angels had many people thinking they could upset oust San Francisco in pool play.  Though Legault and Moreau had excellent weekends on the pitch, Minnesota, Seattle, and San Francisco kept Montreal in check, and they went home without a win.

With AFL Quebec playing metro style footy during the season, chances to play 18-a-side are few.  The club has focused on growing the women’s program through different channels, including Equipe Montreal, to expand their local league and recruit players that will help the Angels and the National team.  Players who had come up through the Canadian development program, such as Larissa Andrusyshyn, tall ruck Joanna Rutkowski, and forward Dora Bartulovic, are blossoming as they get more experience around their team’s veterans.  Margo Legault continues to be the defensive centerpiece, and Caroline Leduc, who is playing for East Fremantle in the WAWFL, should be back for Nationals.

Hosting their women’s tournament featuring a number of USAFL sides, and traveling to NYC on ANZAC Day, the Angels will get good games in before Nationals with the hopes of sending a D1 side again.  If their recruits can gain confidence, they will be a competitive entity again in Racine.

Ten years into its history, and the New York Magpies women’s team have garnered a reputation of being a tight-knit side that prides itself on the mechanics of the game to topple opponents.  They’ve also been heckin’ busy at recruiting, adding a plethora of players to their roster through those efforts and winter indoor league, athletes who have adapted to footy nearly seamlessly.

Cristina Licata’s charges went 8-4 through a busy regular season that took them up and down the East Coast with some regularity, and five Magpies represented the country in Australia in August.  Natalie Wolff, in just her second full season, and Drea Casillas, in her 13th, were key contributors on defense for club and Freedom, and midfielder Siobhan McHale was like a ball-winning gnat in the middle of the ground during IC17.  The record will show that the ‘Pies went 1-2 at Nationals, but they held Denver to two scoring shots in their clash, and won an intense tug-of-war against Sacramento, another club growing around their new recruits.

With three key Aussies – Genevieve Lawless, Kat McKenzie, and KJ Russell – heading back to Australia, the Magpies’ Americans look to pick up the pace, both figuratively and literally.  Licata’s slide-rule coaching will look to have them spread the field to combat the congested style of footy in the USAFL game.  It will start in the middle, with increasingly improving ruck Andrea Hargrave and slick onballer Danielle Gallagher.  On Defense, 2017 rookie of the year Aishlin Greig has found a home in the league’s most experienced defensive half, flanked by Casillas, Wolff, and Taylor Davidson.  On offense, Liberty teammates Clare Algozin and Lauren Skonieczny have improved rapidly over the past two seasons, and provide the ever dangerous Kim Hemenway with support inside fifty.

New York is still the best team in the ever improving East, and this year may see them take the step towards being back in the upper crust conversation.  They have the personnel and know-how, they just need the execution.

It’s been a bumpy but encouraging year for the first independent women’s team in the USAFL.  The Twin Cities-based Blue Ox played their first games during the year, combining with Minnesota, Des Moines, and Wisconsin along the way, and then teamed up with Columbus at Nationals.  The combination may have gone winless on the weekend, but it was a great feeling for the inaugural quartet to have a run in their new yellow and Carolina blue jumpers.

With a full USAFL campaign under their belt, the Ox now try to ramp up recruiting as they prepare for the 80/35 tournament in Des Moines and the Central Regionals in Nashville.  All four players that played in San Diego – Marie LaVictoire, Olivia Vongharath, Helen Phillips, and Emily Smuder – contributed well at Nationals, and are looking to add on local talent in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.  Led by coach Brianne Theisen, North Star will be looking to bring a strong contingent across neighboring Wisconsin for Nationals and a shot at the D2 title.

Women’s footy has only been a tangible reality in the City of Brotherly Love for two seasons, and yet the Philly Hawks women have achieved a lot.  Div 2 runners up at Nationals 2016, East Regional champs alongside New York last year, and then a rollicking Nationals sweep in San Diego last year in tandem with the Portland Sockeyes.  It was the first National championship won by the club in fifteen years.

The impetus of the rapid success in Philadelphia has been Erica Sacci and Amy Arundale, who, with the help of the Hawks board, put a lot of effort on and off the field to bringing in new recruits.  Their efforts on the field were rewarded with call-ups to the Liberty tour in Australia, during which both loomed large in the offensive part of the field and got compliments from their Melbournian opponents.

The players who joined on at the beginning of the season learned the footy craft with a fair bit of swiftness.  Barb Dempsey, Michelle MeGill, and Jackie Kershaw are relentless at the football, and their skills are as good as some of the more seasoned players in the league.  Lauryn Kelly was arguably the Hawks most improved, making her mark offensively as her confidence has gone up.

Recruiting has been really, really strong with a number of events all around the Delaware Valley, and AusBall matches bringing in new blood.  More experience during the EAFL season is coming, and any team that is paired with them in Racine will be buoyed by the hope that Philly can repeat.

Footy, just like the stars at night, is big and bright *clap clap clap clap* deep in the Heart of Texas.  With three clubs entrenched in nearly the entirety of the USAFL’s existence, it was only a matter of time before the Lone Star State had a women’s team.  And no one could have expected how well it could have gone.

The Houston Lonestars and Dallas Magpies had long talked about adding women’s footy to their repertoire.  In late spring, 2017, they started “come-and-try” clinics in their cities, and they were a rousing success, especially in Houston, where nearly two dozen players picked up the game and held onto it.  After just three months of practicing and playing footy, Nineteen women – 14 from Houston, 4 from Dallas, and Wisconsin Wombat Nafla Poff – came together to form the Texas Heat.  Fifteen of the Nineteen had never played competitive footy before.

The result?  A 2-2 record, third place out of five in D2.  Bagley was the Heat’s BoG in San Diego, and came within one single vote of the Roos Medal.  Just about every player on the ground looked like season veterans.

Though turnover will affect 2018’s roster, recruiting is underway in Houston, Dallas, and now Austin, where the Crows are getting in on the act.  The core of the team still remains in Houston, where Bagley and rover Jaclyn Sparling emerged as two of the best new players at Nationals.  Sarah Pulliam, possessing the acceleration of an Italian Greyhound, and utility Taylor Ballinger were also thorns in the craw of opponents.  Up front, Crystal Winters, and Aussie Julia Wells keystone an improving offense.

There will be more games this year in the lead up to Racine, including regionals, and, a new coach to replace the departed Milo Lombardi, who was instrumental in getting the Heat so far so fast.  But there is tons of optimism in Texas for footy, and we might see them in D1 sooner rather than later.