2018 USAFL Nationals Preview: Womens Division 1

When one thinks of Racine, a number of things come to mind: the lakefront, the diverse architecture, the charm of its residents, and of course that sweet, sweet kringle.

To sports fans and movie aficionados, the name “Racine” will instantly recall the Racine Belles of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.  The Belles were featured in the 1992 classic movie “A League of their Own,” and the real life Belles were part of a pioneering group of women during their existence from 1943-1950.

Just like those ballplayers then, the women who will take to the ovals of the SCORe Complex are in a league of their own.  Thirteen years after the first Women’s Division was contested at the USAFL Nationals up the road in Milwaukee, more than 220 athletes will take part in what is a faster, more fluid competition.  Two divisions with eleven competing sides, representing at least one player from 21 USAFL Clubs and two from AFL Canada, the largest club representation in history.

Two teams have won the last eight titles.  But four rapidly improving challengers will mean that each match means everything, and nothing is for certain.  Can the Maidens become the third team to three-peat?  Will Denver get back on top?  Or will there be a new team of monarchs ascending to the throne?


POOL A: San Francisco Iron Maidens, New York Magpies, Seattle Grizzlies

I’m a pretty big Led Zeppelin fan, and one of their most underrated songs is “The Song Remains the Same.”  That would be a pretty good description of the San Francisco Iron Maidens’ last three seasons.  In 2016 and 2017, the Maidens had pretty non-descript regular season campaigns, only to leap forth at Nationals like uncaged tigers and maul their way to championships.  Losses to Sacramento and Portland this year have written the same script heading into Racine, but we’ve seen this movie before.

Carly Smolak, who was a key ingredient to the Maidens’ winning recipe, has been out most of the year with an ACL tear.  They will have Brette Brower, however, having returned from that scary neck injury at IC17 playing better than ever in her two appearances for the season.  Brower is another tall weapon alongside Meg Leone and Panda Nguyen in the middle of the ground to feed Jess Estrada, Sara Magallon and last year’s Grand Final MVP Elise Gallagher.  Bevin English is the best defensive halfback in the league, and teams will need to be smart with their entry balls lest “Bevo” gobbles them up.

The Maidens have defeated both the ‘Pies and Grizzlies this season, but anything is possible at Nationals when you’re living and dying for forty minutes at a time.

New York has forged their development through hard work and grind-it-out battles up and down the East Coast.  As they have in each of the last three years, they have mined some golden talent from the concrete jungle of the Big Apple, and master footballing geologist Christina Licata has helped polished those gems into a sparkling future.  Both Licata and defender Drea Casillas have come full circle in a way, both having played in that first Women’s Nationals in ’05 in Milwaukee.

Defense is hardly ever an issue for the ‘Pies women; Casillas returns for Nationals number fourteen flanked by Taylor Davidson, hard hitting Grace Koplow, and two-way threat Natalie Wolff.  What has been a thorn in the craw, however, has been offense, but that has improved this year with Aussie imports Jani Boal and Jess Taylor coming into the side.  Andi Hargrave’s rucking continues to improve, and it will need to be top notch against what she’ll be facing in Racine.  Up front, the tag-team duo of Lauren Skonieczny and Clare Algozin have also gotten better this year and their team will be relying on them to clear out space and produce in the goal square.

Seattle made their Nationals D1 debut last year, and despite a 1-2 finish, they still earned heaps of praise from those of us in the peanut gallery for their progress from non-existence to contender in two short years.  The hype train was full of passengers as the season began, but an 0-3 showing at Westerns set them back a bit.  They finished the season with a 2-0 record at the Stumptown Throwdown and a good effort against their rivals from Portland, another emerging women’s team.

Reminiscent of those dominant Denver Bulldogs teams from earlier in the decade, the Grizzlies build their game plans around athleticism.  Amelia Kahr and April Lewis return from their CrossCoders stint in Australia as the main operators in the center of the ground, and sophomore players Alisandra Alcocer and Amanda Boe try to be the scoring threats they were last year in San Diego.  Alison Leonard, who helped lead a combined side to the D2 title in 2016, returns to Nationals after missing all of last year with an injury, and she has helped the side immensely.  Val Barber-Axthelm can show up anywhere on the field and be potent, as can the dynamic Aussie duo of Tegan Hamilton and Marian Dickinson.

POOL B: Denver Lady Bulldogs, Minnesota Freeze, Portland Sockeyes

When you win six championships in a row, not winning sucks.  As disappointing as it is losing out to San Francisco in back-to-back years in 2016 and 2017, the Denver Lady Bulldogs’ battles with the Maidens on Nationals Sunday since 2013 have forged a rivalry that the women’s game here in the States deserves.  The thing that has sustained the Doggies through the last decade has been its veteran leadership and its ability to get new players up to snuff to be helpful parts of the pack.

Seasoned veterans Anna Thexton and Sara Rohner have stepped up in the leadership group on and off the field this year for the Central champions, and that has seemingly rejuvenated the team as a unit.  Lindsay and Hallie Kastanek will be lurking the high balls and rucks, as will dominant tall forward Kaitlyn Mascher, tough half-forward Allison Bremner, creative wizard Jess Gray, and speed racer Twannia Clark.  Speedy rookies Alexis Koo and Zoe Do and sophomore ruck platoon Bailey Hurtado are having outstanding years in their own right, and all of that algebra makes Denver a possible part of the Grand Final equation.

But all is not cut and dry in this group, nor the road to Sunday glory, as the two other teams in this pool are coming off of positive road menus and look to dine on the championship feast in their own right.

With most of their team playing in Australia last year, the Minnesota Freeze had a relatively light regular season schedule.  Thus, their 2-1 record and second place in their pool in San Diego showed that they have the talent to take the next step.  This year, they played their entire schedule on the road, doing more traveling than LeBron James (oh come on you know they don’t call it) and notching a 3-1 record on the process.  They bring numbers in spades down I-94, as well as the chance to make it to their first D1 Grand Final.

Defensively, the Freeze are strong; opportunistic Paige Kiecker roams the backline with Tesla-like efficiency, and will be flanked by the smart leadership of Lizzy Sawyer (nee Even), Lauren Shelton and Terri Tupper.  Up front, sentinel forward Cathy Hoha has relentless support from Liberty players Kait Peterson, Briana Ostoff, and Jess Nelson.  Coach Dale Williams will need a big tournament out of Kathryn Mullin and rover extraordinaire Cathy Georgiadis to get his team in position on Sunday, as well as rapidly emerging Lindsey Stene at her sophomore Nationals.

After being a part of every winning D2 National championship since 2015, the Portland Sockeyes move up to D1 for the first time.  That’s good news for the rest of the D2 field, but not so much for the other five teams in Division 1, as the Rose City women immediately stake themselves as the leading prospect to wrench a finals spot away from Denver or San Francisco.  The Fish won the Western Regionals with an amazing day of footy, and though they did so with borrowed players, the core of the team will be intact in Racine.

Freshly returned from a triumphant season for Keilor FC in Melbourne, Jess Blecher is poised to have her best Nationals ever.  Rookie Brandy Machado is already on the Freedom radar for 2020, and at 5’11” can relieve Simone Shepard from some her rucking responsibilities so that Simone can go off and dominate like she normally does.  Regionals MVP Lucy Parrington’s venomous roving ability is coupled with Holly Petrie’s quick hands out of the midfield; the latter had a breakout rookie tournament last year and will try for it again.  Heather Serpico, who showed that she had a bit of a scoring touch about her in Sacramento, will try to carve defenses the way she does ribeyes.

PREVIOUS WOMEN’S DIVISION 1 WINNERS
2005: Atlanta 6.5.41 def Fusion 2.1.13
2006: Atlanta 3.10.28 def Pacific Coast 0.0.0
2007: Atlanta 7.7.49 def Arizona 0.0.0
2008: Calgary 4.3.27 def Atlanta 3.4.22
2009: Milwaukee 8.3.51 def Calgary 1.5.11
2010: Denver 3.1.19 def Calgary/Montreal 2.6.18
2011: Denver 3.7.25 def New York/Montreal 0.1.1
2012: Denver 3.4.22 def Boston/Baltimore-Washington 0.0.0
2013: Denver 3.7.25 def San Francisco 0.0.0
2014: Denver 2.3.15 def San Francisco/Portland/AZ Hawks 0.4.4
2015: Denver (3-1 in round robin, defeated NY in Tiebreaker)
2016: San Francisco (4-0 in round robin)
2017: San Francisco 2.2.14 def Denver Bulldogs 1.0.6

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