Skills Competition Wows Crowd at Nationals

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44 teams and nearly a thousand players gathered last weekend at the Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch, Florida, for the 2019 USAFL National Championships.  Over the course of Saturday and Sunday, eighty games whittled the field down to the six champions, who lifted the crown on Sunday evening.

But before all of that unfolded, some forty-plus put their hands up to take part in the USAFL Skills Competition held at Premier’s Stadium, in front of a couple hundred onlookers.  Some of them were teammates, and some were fellow players from other teams who were there to register and glad-hand with AFLW star Erin Phillips and American AFLer Mason Cox.

Three events were contested on the evening, shifting from the finesse of the handball drill, to the power of the longest kick, and finally the thrilling and popular goalkicking competition.

The handball was first, with players aiming for a bullseye, each getting two cracks with each hand at 5 meters in the first round before stepping back to the 7.5 meter mark and doing the same.

Seattle’s Tegan Hamilton built up a solid first round lead of 32 points out of a possible forty, and with an equally impressive 31 in the second round, turned aside the challenges of Austin’s Heather Serpico and Los Angeles Dragons player Aileen Yoon to take out the women’s competition.

The men’s event was fast and furious with just four points separating the top five competitors.  Dallas’s Zach McKinney and New York’s Adam Franklin found themselves tied on 64 points at the end of regular play, so the two played a further round.  This time, the distance was ten meters, and it was Franklin who prevailed in the duel.

From here, it was all about power in the longest kick competition.  But here too accuracy was key; each player got three boots of the ball, with the best effort being recorded.  The mark was taken from lateral to the yard markers, which meant that a wayward kick would cost the competitors.

Jenna Taipaleti was the second competitor to step up in the women’s longest kick, and her 47 yard (43 meter) bomb was not under much threat as the event wore on.  The Sacramento Suns rookie, who used her kicking range from the fullback position to great effect all weekend, would have finished in second place had she entered the men’s event.  That said, it was an excellent start for a player who had a breakout season for the young Lady Suns outfit.

As in the women’s, it was the second kicker who set the tone for the men.  Houston’s Carey Nolan sent his best ball 48 yards (43.8 meters) into the Florida dusk, a mark that was challenged several times over the next several minutes.  Nolan’s mark stood until the final longest kick attempt of the evening; Daniel Dahlquist’s third kick sailed towards the bleachers, but landed on the grass exactly 48 yards from the line.  Had Dahlquist been straighter with his kick, he would’ve won outright.  As it was, he went into a “kick-off” with Nolan, who produced the furthest slog of the night, a majestic 50 yard (45.7 meter) torpedo, which was 7 yards longer than Dahlquist’s go.

Goal kicking rounded up the competition, and here, each player would get a total of six kicks; three from two different distances (25m/35m for the women, 35m/45m for the men).

The six women took a couple of tries to adjust to the swirling wind inside the stadium as the sun set further into the start of the weekend.  Montreal’s Larissa Adrusyshyn and North Star’s Brianne Thiessen were locked in a tie after the first three rounds, with L.A. Dragon forward Leilani Silvio coming on strong in the second half.  But it was the Canadian who won out, outlasting the field with a clinching goal in the next-to-last round.

A full field of ten men took their chances, with half of the field still in contention at the turn.  With players perhaps saving their kicking legs for the competition just twelve hours away, many of the attempts from the 45m spots were attempts at Eddie Betts specials. 

Dallas Dingo Kyle Bass led for most of the competition, having slotted home four of his first five, but Sacramento’s Colby Campbell closed the gap to get within one of Bass.  Campbell tied Bass with his fourth goal in the last round but after Bass missed, a tie-breaker would again be needed to determine a winner.  After both players failed to connect from 50 meters, and Bass missed his chance from 45, Campbell coolly belted the ball through the swirling breeze, and the goalposts, to take out the title.

All six winners took home prize packs from the Bradenton Area Sports Commission, who were our gracious hosts for the weekend.

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