2015 USAFL Nationals Preview - Women's Divisions 1 & 2

You’ve come a long way, ladies.

A decade of women’s footy has come and gone.  From humble beginnings of nine-a-side matches and the “wrap rule”, the ladies who take to the field this weekend in Austin are a testament to what the game has become, and what great heights await in the future.

The growth of the women’s game in the US will be no more apparent than this year, when not one, but two women’s premierships will be played out.  Division 1 will see five full teams, each of whom will be able to play 16-a-side matches.  The competition will be a straight round robin, with the team accruing the most premiership points being declared the premiers.

Division 2 will be four teams, each of which will feature combinations of several clubs together, playing 12- or 14-a-side matches.  Like Divvy 1, this will also be a round robin, with the best record taking home the title.

The absence of a final shouldn’t dull the competition one iota, however, as every game will be even more critical to determining the winners.  Every kick, every tackle, and every loose ball will be magnified in the quest for the title of national champion.

WOMEN’S DIVISION ONE

Division One Clubs: Denver Lady Bulldogs, San Francisco Iron Maidens, Minnesota Freeze, New York Magpies, Sacramento Lady Suns

Five consecutive national championships is uncharted territory in the USAFL.  Or it was, until the Denver Lady Bulldogs hoisted “Cinco” in Dublin last year.  But the victory was not a cakewalk; Montreal/Baltimore had given them a scare in pool play, and San Francisco made life quite difficult for them in the final.  This year has been light on the intersquad schedule, as they played just three games – two wins over Sacramento, and a shorthanded loss at Minnesota.

What we’ve found out about this year’s team, however, if that they’re not just all about bashing the ball down the field and outscoring you.  They’ve added depth to their ball movement.  The roster is already well rounded up and down the field, beginning with ruck Hallie Lee and spreading to both ends.  Their defense has solidified behind Janell Myers and rookie Tara Cilke, and tall forwards Kaitlyn Mascher-Mace and Lindsay Kastanek offer potent targets.  Last year’s best and fairest Twania Clark was out for most of this campaign with an MCL injury, but she should be ready come this weekend.

With enough titles to fill a handful of fingers, and a 21-game winning Nationals streak on the line, one would consider title number six for the Mile High ladies to be a straightforward task.  But even they have acknowledged that the other clubs are catching up to them, and the four other teams they’ll face will have them in their sights.

No team’s aim on the Bulldogs is more acute than the San Francisco Iron Maidens, who fell to them in the Grand Final each of the last two years.  Even though there is no official Grand Final, their tussle with Denver will be the final game on Sunday may determine who wins the whole shebang.

The Maidens have played consistently good football throughout the year, and though they went 1-1-1 in their games against their NorCal rivals Sacramento, a wins at the Western Regionals and at the East-West Showdown in New York have stamped their meddle for this season.  Carly Smolak has developed into a formidable forward presence, Jessica Estrada has had arguably the best season of her career, and defenders Julie Marks and Sara Magallon lead a stingy defense.  The loss of Milli Bruce to an ACL injury will be significant, but the Maidens are deep enough to fill in the gap.

One big factor will be the play of ruck Brette Brower, who made the Blackchrome All-Star team in 2014, but also the emergence of rookie Meg Leone, who has excelled in the ruck and at forward.  Having two good talls is big in the women’s game, and may be a big difference maker.

The fastest growing club among the ladies’ ranks has been the Minnesota Freeze.  They haven’t broken through into that final two yet, but they have the balanced attack to do so this year.  They had a league-high nine players get selected to the 49th Parallel Cup this year, and their performances were solid.

Cathy Hoha, one of the Freeze’s national team reps, never gives up on the ball, and defenses will need to be wary of that.  Defender Brianne Theisen is tenacious and will look to spark counter attacks. 

The Freeze continue to make big strides in getting better, and it’s starting to show on the field.  They are easily capable of picking off Denver or San Fran, which may put them in contention for their first title.

In New York, the Magpies had arguably been playing in the shadow of the men’s team for the past several seasons.   But 2015 has been different.  Under new coach Cristina Licata, the ‘Pies have put forward the best regular season in their history, and are beginning to gel as a team on the field.  Licata’s ten years of playing experience has translated well into her tenure so far, and she has the team believing they can beat just about anyone.

Kim Hemenway has shown the way for New York this season.  She has played up front, in the ruck, and even a bit of defense, and has excelled wherever she has been asked to play, and was their best player in their Central Regional championship back in July.   Veterans Drea Casillas, Julie Lee, and Renee Coff has also stepped up their game around a wealth of new recruits.  Ashley Singer, rookie Grace Koplow, and former Maiden Taylor Davidson have stepped in seamlessly into the fold defensively, improving that side of the field too.

If there is a dark horse, the Magpies would have to be it.  Even if they don’t win the flag this year, their improvement will be the foundation for a long run of success in the coming seasons.

Rounding out the field are the Sacramento Lady Suns, who in their seventh season of existence have built a strong club atmosphere and good team football.  That hasn’t translated onto the field in terms of results at Nationals; they are 1-9 as a stand-alone team.  Fourth time may be the charm, as they continued to grow and their talent gets better.  They defeated and drew San Francisco this year, which will give them confidence heading to Austin.

The Suns have three strong American defenders: Lauré Kwoka returned from her stint in Australia after missing nationals last season, full back Makenzie Seckora who performed well for the USA Liberty at the Parallel Cup, and Freedom vice captain Katie Klatt.  Klatt, in just her second season, has gained a reputation as a tireless worker who has a spare energy tank.  Oanh Nguyen adds speed to Sactown’s offense, and gives them another threat who can rove.

WOMEN’S DIVISION TWO

The newly minted second division will not be a “minor” competition, not one bit.  On the contrary, the blending of clubs into four teams heightens the intrigue here, especially when one looks at how diverse the combinations are, and which players will be playing alongside whom.   The result should be a set of entertaining games with some fun matchups in the offing.

Division Two Teams: [Calgary/Portland/Vancouver], [Boston/Columbus/Chicago/Tulsa], [Arizona/Baltimore-Washington], [Minnesota/Montreal]

Back in 2008, the Calgary Kookaburras became the second ever women’s premiers when they ended Atlanta’s bid for four in row.  They’ve yet to get back to the top of the heap since then, but they are always a tough side to play against, and this year will be no different.  They were well represented at the Parallel Cup, led by defender Rachelle Chabot and midfielder Justine Stevens.  Vancouver’s Marlena Ginnochio, who captained the Northern Lights, will also be on the side, giving them punch up front.  Portland’s women’s team, the Sockeyes, will also take part, and their players will get a great experience from playing alongside teammates with national team experience.

The four team mish-mosh that makes up the division’s 2nd seeded team will have a bit of an advantage as they have played together on a number of occasions.  This will be the fourth collaboration between the Columbus Jillaroos and Boston Lady Demons at Nationals, and they put up a strong test against New York in the DC tournament last month.

Leading the “JillaDemons” will be Tasmanian-born forward Jess Wuetschner, who, in just six weeks with Boston as player-coach, has already brought that club up a level on and off the field.  Her experience and elusive skills will be unmistakable, but they cannot rely just on her. 

The Jills, many of whom were just learning the sport in 2014, claimed the Central Regional title behind Leah Heller and Stephanie Shipley, and have used that title to inspire them to a solid season.  Veteran fullback Stephanie McKitrick will be back after nursing a foot injury, and the addition of Amy McGuinness and Chelsea Vance, representing Chicago and Tulsa, respectively, provide speed on the wings.

Speaking of wings, the Arizona Lady Hawks’ program saw a resurgence this year and saw their numbers hit double digits for the first time in several years.  Melissa Armstrong, Courtney Church, and Nicole Fasula, all of whom have been around the Hawks for a long time, now find themselves mentoring a group of eager new recruits.  Valerie Barber-Axthelm has been the most impressive of the rookies this year, playing stout defense for club and country.

Playing alongside the Hawks are a small but talented group from Baltimore-Washington, all of whom have played for the national team.  Triple-threat Emily Riehl and defender Karen Stablein are pacy, and will be difficult to contain.  Samantha Schultz has proven to be a bit of a ninja on the field, showing up everywhere where you least expect it, and Alex Mims is back after a foot injury sidelined her last year.

The Hawks-Eagles entry may surprise a few people in the end, but they are a perfect mix of the women’s game past and future.

Rounding out the field is the Minnesota reserves/Montreal combo.  Montreal’s competition has grown in the last couple of years, and have produced some good talent, including Valerie Moreau, Gabby Bureau, and veteran defender Margo Legault.  The Angels teamed with Baltimore last year and gave Denver the biggest scare in pool play last year, and they’ll be primed to knock the competition over this year.  They’ll be supported by Minnesota’s reserves, led by tenacious defender Terri Tupper as well as Emily Smuder and Nafla Poff, whose national team experience will be huge in the team’s success.

 

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