2018 Season Previews - Women West

Women’s footy is growing across the board at a lightning pace; that is certain as certain does.

But if one were to pinpoint the strength of the game geographically, it would be, just as the men’s game, in the West Coast.  The teams in this preview – Denver is officially a part of the Central Region this year and will be playing in the Nashville Regional – have won a total of 9 D1 National Titles, and all three D2 cups (Calgary 2015, Arizona and Seattle 2016, Portland 2015-2017).

It’s also home to a good deal of homegrown, National Team talent.  Nearly thirty players from the teams in this piece went to Australia in August as part of the Freedom, Liberty, and Northern Lights.  That’s a lot.  But as the Bulldogs and Iron Maidens showed us, it’s not about who has the best players, but who has the best team.

The women’s regional at Sacramento on July 28th will be a cavalcade of talent, as will the games played during season 2018.

An original USAFL Women’s Club from waaaaay back in 2003, when Facebook and iPhones were but a glint in eye of some cosmic electronic cowboy, the Arizona Lady Hawks have had an up and down last recent history.  With a small, yet passionate core group, they have risen again over the past two seasons, and have an eye on going even further.

With veteran Melissa Wilhelm (nee Armstrong) returning to the fold after one season with San Francisco, and with the men’s team coming back into full numbers, 2017 was a successful campaign for Arizona.  They went to L.A. and beat the Dragons’ women by seven points in June, and were competitive as part of a massive combination at Western Regionals.  Combining forces with Los Angeles and San Francisco’s reserves, the trio representing the Lady Hawks helped their side to a 3-1 record and second place in Division 2.  In the words of that gif featuring President Obama, “Not Bad.”

Things are already shaping up nicely for the Lady Hawks, who will go host the Dollar Cup AFLX tournament in Phoenix with a full side.  A number of veterans have returned, including Vanessa Ley, Kelli Bishop, and Lindsay Hestand, all of whom have national team experience.  Lindsay Roberts and Megan Jones, two players who have previously gone through the rigors of the Freedom/Liberty camp, also come back into the fray.  Recruiting has been good this off-season, and has brought in two players with previous athletic experience; Dani Marshall has a background in rugby, while Casey Troy played hurling at the national level.

It’s great to see the Lady Hawks on the way up again, and they’ll most likely pairing with Los Angeles at regionals and Nationals this year, adding punch to another emerging side on the West Coast.

It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll.  And women’s football in Calgary has been doing that for the better part of the decade.  What’s more, the core of their squad helped formed a good chunk of the Canada Northern Lights team that went to Etihad Stadium and came within a bee’s whisker of repeating as International Cup champs.

That fact, and the Kookaburras’ history at Nationals – 2008 champions and D2 winners in 2015 – had many thinking they would get by Denver and make it to the Grand Final.  Behind pacy forward Caroline Ireland, Calgary won both games on Saturday, but the toll of the long season reared its head; they were shut out by the Lady Bulldogs in the final pool game on Sunday morning.

There’s always a silver lining and a lesson to learn, and for the Kookas, the injuries that hampered them during the year showed that they need to build up their depth.  A team known for their defensive strength, they come into 2018 looking to bolster their offense through recruiting at the university level.  That youth movement will be eager to learn from players who have excelled at the club, provincial, and national levels.

Ireland returns to the side, hoping to improve on what was a pretty magical 2017 season.  Her soccer background and sporting versatility makes her elusive, and she has a nose for the posts inside fifty.  Ultimate Frisbee player Jessi Temple has found her niche in footy, and her positioning helped net her rookie of the year honors.

The Kookas will see a few of their mainstays take a step back from the game, including veterans Tricia Rolfe, Dee Cook, and Lynsey Smith.  That said, they are keen to bring a full complement of players across to Racine, and should challenge for a chance at Sunday Afternoon glory.

Birth, death, taxes, and the Denver Lady Bulldogs playing for a title.  Those are some of life’s guarantees, and though injuries and the march of time threaten to take the last item off of that list, DLB finds way to win.  Even if the last two seasons have seen them came up one game short, coach Bruce Durrell and his team have rolled with the punches to remain at or towards the top of the USAFL women’s competition for almost a decade.

To begin 2017, Denver recovered from a road loss at San Francisco, to sweep the Western Regional tournament at home.  The rest of the season was relatively quiet, as five players went to Australia for the International Cup and Liberty Tour.  The trip took its toll; captain Hallie Kastanek injured her elbow in the second game of IC17, and Kassi Wilkerson did her knee in the very first game of the Liberty tour.  Though Kastanek would come back in time for Nationals, some had written off the Bulldogs heading into Nationals.

Proving any doubters wrong, Denver took both games on Saturday, then blanked fancied Calgary to make it to the Grand Final.  Adding to what is now the biggest rivalry in USAFL Women’s, the Bulldogs gave the Maidens everything they could handle but fell 14-6.

Denver’s constant success comes from the fact that they always seem to find players to fill in the gaps when veterans retire.  Last year, Rebecca Pieseski and Bailey Hurtado made immediate impacts on the club, and will try to do in year two.  Hallie Kastanek and wife Lindsey Kastanek form the core offensively alongside Freedom offensive threat Allison Bremner, while Ti Streff’s defensive strength will be joined by returning backliner Tara Cilke.

Moving to the Central region this year, the Bulldogs will find some new tests in Nashville.  It’s been shown that it’s wrong to doubt the ‘Doggies at Nationals, and they’re still one of the few clubs who can continuously challenge San Francisco; they’ll do it again this year.

Los Angeles is the land where dreams can be made or broken.  There was a bit of both in LA’s return to women’s footy, though there is a ton of optimism for the Dragons after their first season.

An early season win at Portland in the Stumptown Throwdown in their first game got them off to a flying start.  With USAFL veterans Leilani Silvio, Aileen Yoon, and Larin Sullivan at the center of the team, the club’s new recruits improved around them.  As the season went on, however, player numbers shrunk, and by Nationals the Dragons only had eight players to take the jaunt to Nationals in San Diego.  But the players who came paired with Arizona, Des Moines, and San Francisco’s reserves to go 3-1 and finish second in Division 2 in an inspired debut.

Recruiting in such a large and crowded sports market has proven to be a challenge, but the Dragons had two standout rookies in year one; midfield speedster/scorer Yuie Kawakatsu, and handball player turned utility Katiann Scherer, who was their rookie of the year.  Katiann’s sister Katrina, D2 Roos Medalist, comes across from Columbus for the year as she’ll be based in LA while she trains for the USA handball team.

Silvio’s offensive talents, which were on display on the Liberty tour back in August, have combined well with Ryan Bartz’s ability to make a pinpoint scoring threat up front.  Sullivan may be one of the toughest players in the league, as she is known for her shepherding ability and ballwinning skills.

Los Angeles’ success has gotten the attention of other teams in the USAFL after their first season.  The progress may not be as rapid, but they are heading in the right direction, and they’ll have lots of confidence in Racine this year.

A short time ago, in a galaxy far, far away – at least on the other side of the continent – a women’s footy club began and kept managing to win games at Nationals.  It was done through skill, speed, strength, and pluck. 

The Sockeyes fought to an up-and-down 1-3 season, including a tight series with emerging rival Seattle.  They brought 15 to Nationals – an amazing number, alas just short of the full side needed for Divvy 1.  But with reinforcements coming from Philadelphia, and with a strong lineup among the hoard who came down from Oregon, the Sockeyes swept through the D2 competition en route to D2 Cup #3.

Portland are a group of players with a plethora of experience in different sports; said experience has lent itself to the girls picking up the sport quickly and with excellence.  Simone Shepherd, who still holds the title (in this reporter’s opinion) as the best player in the league, was surrounded by several promising recruits.  Fellow Australian Lucy Parrington traded her ice skates for footy boots and brings an elusiveness to compliment Heather Serpico Freedom starlet Jess Blecher, while Hollie Petrie’s ball handling skills and decision making got her team out of many jams at Nationals.

With Jessica Detweiler gone for the year due to injury, and Blecher, who is in Melbourne playing for Keilor FC of the Essendon Districts league (she’ll be back in time for Nationals), the new recruiting class will get their share of touches.  Erin “Raven” Mahony returns after missing 2017 with injury to complement the muscle provided by gridiron veterans Oana Dimetriescu and Tara Kugel.

The Sockeyes will be competitive entity at D1 if they can field a full side in Racine.   But “if” is the thing.  It will be down to their already torrid recruiting.  Either way, Portland’s got a lot of talent, and will excel again in 2018.

The rise of the Sactown Lady Suns has been slower than that of the actual gaseous ball in the sky that gives us light and sustains life, but for the footy club, the progress has been constant.  The club built by the Bishops and Helen Mondia over the course of the decade has manifested itself as a tight knit group of dedicated people who continue to improve year after year.

Overall, Sacramento’s women picked up just two wins for the season, both coming combined with Seattle to knock off San Francisco and the combined All-Stars team along the way.  Rosie Kloh showed her versatility that weekend; the club best and fairest making the adjustment from ruck to full back in preparation for her stint with the Freedom at IC17.  The Suns played competitive ball at Nationals, including coming up just three points short to Calgary, and four to New York.

One thing that had been lacking from the Suns arsenal in previous years was their offense.  The emergence of Freedom players Liz Danielson and Oanh Nguyen on offense as well as forward liner Jessica Smith gave the Suns some punch on the scoreboard.  Two new recruits, Nicolette Clark and Tanya Wessman, created excitement as well, and the Suns are very excited about their potential.  The defense remains one of the better ones in the USAFL, with Liberty halfbacks Makenzie Carr and Lauré Kwoka coming off great campaigns for club and country last year.  Kloh’s development into a top level player continues to impress many across the league, and her transition in position adds to her value as a tall utility.

The Suns will have a new coach this year, and they’ll have to run the gauntlet that is the wild wild Western Regional against other improving teams and the two-time defending champions from two hours west.  Still, the club culture and the passion that the Lady Suns bring to the table heighten their game, and though they might be another year or so from the upper crust of the USAFL standings, this is a tough outfit to play and one that is still heading upwards.

When they won their first National Championship in 2016, there was the feeling lingering that it was a one off thing. 

That feeling lingered around an ordinary 2017 regular season, when they brought a shorthanded side to Western Regionals and proceeded to go 1-2, including a gritty loss to revenge-minded Denver.  With the wear and tear of a long season and seven of their best players still recovering from IC17 and Liberty duty, there were those that were counting the Maidens out before a game was played in San Diego.

But then the games started.  By scores of 34-0, 64-0, and 37-6, the Maidens skipped through pool play like an eight year old through the schoolyard at recess, and then outlasted Denver in a battle that was just as good, if not better, than their 2016 epic in Sarasota.  Carly Smolak and Jessica Estrada were the stars offensively throughout the weekend, but the 2017 season marked the emergence of Bevin English as the best defensive player in the country on an already strong defense.

English, Estrada, Smolak, Milli Bruce, and the rest of the Iron Maidens now are in the unfamiliar role of favorites, with Denver now among the pack and one or two teams still a heartbeat away from their level.

With coaches Michael Jobling and Tara Salmon moving on this year, the Maidens cohesiveness will be crucial in their search for a three-peat.  The core of the team has several years of football and two tastes of the trophy.  Outside of English’s dominance in flagging down footballs, Meg Leone stepped up in a big way for the Maidens and Freedom after Bette Brower went down with a scary injury at IC17, one that forced her retirement.  Elyse Gallagher’s suffocating pressure in the midfield netted her the Cann Medal in the Grand Final, and she’s primed for another big year.  Sophia Rutkin and Savannah Green were late newcomers to the squad and both helped out the reserves team in Division 2; both should have an immediate impact on the seniors squad.

If we as observers have learned one thing, it’s never count out the Maidens.  They will come to Racine ready to play, and they can be scratched in as your favorites when we get to Racine in October.

Grizzlies, when awoken from hibernation, generally do so in a slow process.  They stir, they stretch, and the amble out of their caves ready to start their day and do bear things.

The Seattle Grizzlies women, however, came to life with the pep and vigor of hummingbirds, and went from a handful of players assistant Portland to the D2 title in 2016, to a full-fledged D1 side last season.

New players came think and fast in the Emerald City, especially late in the year.  April Lewis took out the Western Regional best-and-fairest en route to a 2-1 finish alongside Sacramento, falling only to the hometown Denver Bulldogs.  They were competitive in the BCAFL competition, notching a couple of wins over Vancouver, and edged Portland in the Cascadia Derby series.  They brought 21 ladies to San Diego, and recovered from an opening game shutout to San Francisco to hang on over Montreal and give Minnesota all they could handle.

Seattle’s Australian veterans, Marian Dickinson and Tegan Hamilton teamed with midfielder Chung-Yi Tseng and Liberty Tour best-and-fairest Valerie Barber-Axthelm to help train the rookies coming on board the black-and-green train.  Lewis’s play in the ruck should catch the eye of new Freedom Coach Dannie Seow ahead of IC2020, and it helped to spring the offense, led by key forward Dickinson, to life.

The most exciting of Seattle’s newcomers last year is Amelia Kahr, who used her soccer and gridiron skills to provide capable ball handling and a dangerous option in the center.  Coupled with the athleticism of fellow sophomores Alisandra Alcocer and Amanda Boe, as well as the return of the injured Alison Leonard, the Grizzlies have the potential to put up lots of points while allowing few in return.

They’ve looked impressive to start their BCAFL campaign at 2-0, and the more time goes on, the more it seems that Seattle is for real with the players they have.  The Grizzlies women are my Nationals Dark Horse, and if not in Racine, you’ll see them in a Grand Final sooner rather than later.

Posted in