Season Preview Week 2017: Men's North
They come from the land of the ice and snow, or at least that’s what the weather is like until April.
The Northern part of the USAFL’s Central Region has benefited from the fact that there are a number of teams in the upper Midwest, and their relative proximity to them. That has forged some of the league’s greatest rivalries, friendly and otherwise, over the past 20 years.
The eight teams listed here are among the big bumpers in their divisions, with three of them becoming fixtures in Nationals at D2 year in and year out. Despite the fact there aren’t any Division 1 teams here from last campaign, overlooking any of the teams, or the talent on them, is a fatal error, not unlike the ones that plague Windows Vista.
Always leading the way in the growth of footy in the US, this grouping here continues the trend. Here’s how the USAFL Norris (as Chris Berman would probably call them) should unfold:
Chicago’s Swans are like a box of chocolates. You just don’t know what you’re going to get.
And if one were to reach into a box of Chicago Footy Club brand delicious confections manufactured in the regular season 2016, they would’ve ended up with nothing but nuts and those too-sweet raspberry cream things. Losses to rivals Minnesota and Columbus were part of the growing pains involved with the arrival of a fair amount of new faces.
But the best pieces of footballing candy were saved for last (for the record, it’s those smooth caramels), as the Swannies went 2-1 including revenge wins over Boston and the Freeze, and though they were derailed by Calgary from a Grand Final appearance, those two victories will lead Chicago into 2017 with flying momentum.
The arrival of Revo veteran Bobby Sears will be a huge lift to the club as they attempt to build on the moment of that strong performance at Nationals. Another Revo, Jeff Kraemer has been one of the most consistent players for Chicago over the past several seasons, and should help the congealing process with recruitment booming.
The Windy City boys are a good tip on a good day, and if they can put together a good run through the regionals and the regular season, they may find themselves in the D2 Grand Final.
Nationals Seeding Prediction: Middle Seed, Division 2
It took a couple of seasons for footy to get going in Rock n’ Roll City, USA, but the heart is starting to beat a bit faster for the game.
Despite not picking up a win during the regular season, Cleveland’s numbers and skill improved steadily, and they came to Nationals teamed up with talented players from Nashville and Indianapolis in Division 4. Helped by big ruckman Ted Foecking and the ever dangerous A.J. Olding, the combo got into the semi-finals as a wild card before falling to Ohio Valley in a high scoring affair.
Revo hopeful Nick Bowman comes in from Ohio Valley to help boost the midfield for the Cannons, while Foecking is back as the new captain, looking to control the middle. Former Baltimore-Washington Eagle Chris Considine takes over as head coach, and the hope is that his guidance, coupled with the improving fundamentals of the young club, will rattle a few cages.
Cleveland will be playing in the Eastern Regionals this year, and aside from their Buckeye Derby matches against Columbus, will play a big game against Philadelphia in Pittsburgh. They’ll also try to avenge an 87-1 loss to Indy at the Central Regionals. Those games, as well as matches against teams like Ohio Valley and Nashville, should be a barometer of where the club is, but the trend is favorable.
Nationals Seeding Prediction: Division 4
It’s hard to believe that we’re closing in on a decade of Jackaroos footy. Every year’s effort from the Buckeye boys has been a steady improvement, and if it weren’t for a Canadian buzzsaw, we’d be talking about their second D2 title in four seasons.
Columbus, like a number of other clubs, took to the road in search of playing more footy to get them, shall we say, jacked up ahead of Nationals. They impressed at the Central regionals, hanging tough with Denver and Austin and coming within one point of knocking off Dallas. Wins over Ohio Valley and rival Chicago brought them into good position ahead of Sarasota. A well played 3-0 weekend that saw Chet Ridenour take home Most Consistent honors came to an end at the hands of the Calgary Kangaroos in the Grand Final.
Part of the pride of the Jackaroos growth has been that they have done it with a mostly American player base. Ridenour is the heart and soul of the team, being their founder and all, but athletic contributors like Dan Hamilton, Rob Adams and captain Clyde Simpson form a formidable and challenging midfield. The combination of Simpson and twelve foot tall ruck Mark “Stork” McClure, (okay he’s really only about 10’6”) is among the most efficient on-balling combos in all of the USAFL.
As aggressive as their schedule is, Columbus always seems to rise to the occasion, and their fitness levels are among the best. With Baltimore-Washington anteing up this year, and with Houston, Sacramento, and other perennial D2 mates getting better, the Jacks should be up to the test of getting to their fifth Grand Final in six years, but it won’t be easy.
Nationals Seeding Prediction: Middle Seed, Division 2.
Like their counterparts in Columbus, the Roosters’ American base has served them well over the years. Though 2016 was a rebuilding year in the Hawkeye capital, they have pushed recruiting hard and it should pay dividends for the men and women in red and black.
Pairing with Milwaukee for most of last season, the Roosters plucked a big win in their home tournament from Chicago. They would get another one in the Central regionals in a route over Cleveland, and come quite close to knocking off Minnesota in tandem with Chicago in late June, as well as Tulsa some weeks later. A 1-1 record wasn’t good enough to see them onto the D4 semi-finals at Nationals, but they did finish the season off with an emphatic 41-18 over Houston’s B team in the consolation round.
There has been optimistic preseason vibes coming from Des Moines, and with the hopeful growth of a women’s program, and the leadership of new president Emily Rice, the club eyes the halcyon days of their 2012 D4 premiership and beyond.
On the field, Iowa’s club will be represented in Revo colors by Hamilton May and big Ben Judge, who are known for their toughness in the center of the ground. Sean “Chico” Chicoine and Nanabayin Coleman are also ones to watch, and are getting better with experience, just like a fine wine or a good set of knives. Their continued association with Milwaukee may see them further than last season, as they’ll get a good set of players to help.
Nationals Seeding Prediction: Division 4.
Indianapolis is known for the tenacity with which it follows basketball. The Giants are starting to get in line with the other sports institutions of the state, and things are starting to rev up.
Indy hosted the Central Regionals and picked up the first two wins in club history, against Des Moines and expansion-mate Cleveland. They were a part of that combination with Cleveland and Nashville that saw them get into the semis before falling to the eventual D4 champion River Rats at Nationals.
The Giants enter 2017 with the best team in club history with a solid core of USAFL veterans. New coach Sam Gould was a standout in the middle for Indy, and young tall Shane Branscum’s footy career continues to be dazzling to behold. The G-men’s strength will be on defense, anchored by former Revo Matt Jaeger and flanked by Grant Lamie, Liam Sawyer, and former goal kicking champ Chris Moorman. Up front, full forward Pete Elliot and former Chicago Swan Josh Stanger look to pick off back lines like peaches off the tree.
The talent is there in Indianapolis for any team to be leery. Cleveland will know this best, having lost to them by 86 points. Consistent numbers and recruiting are the only thing standing between the Giants and a D3 berth, but that will come with time in the Hoosier State.
Nationals Seeding Prediction: Division 4
Milwaukee played with the Des Moines Roosters in 2016, and went 0-3 at the Central regionals before heading to Nationals and going 2-1. The Bombers will be teaming up with the Roosters again this year, with their rugged band of footballers, led by skipper Brenton Riggall, plugging along. Riggall has stated that this is a make or break year for the club that was a league power in its early days. There is buzz amongst some of the veterans to get numbers on training again, and there is hope that activity up in Madison with the Wisconsin Wombats nearly ready to join the league will help spurn some life into the Bombers.
Nationals Seeding Prediction: Division 4
The boys for the Land of 10,000 Lakes have forged a consistent, balanced style of footy over their decade-plus of existence. And though they had a disappointing Nationals last year, they should improve in season 2017.
A 2-1 record at the Des Moines tournament, including a win over Denver, propelled Mark Fischer’s side early in the season. Two gut-wrenching wins over arch rival Chicago set in motion an optimistic mindset heading into Nationals. They would offer strong resistance against Calgary, Boston, and the aforementioned Swans, the Freeze would thaw and go three-and-out.
The team has recruited in the Twin Cities using footy as a fitness tool, which has bolstered their numbers and added depth where it has been needed. Revo veterans Brent Fischer, Stephen Fashant, and Andrew “Tiger” Werner still are the anchorage for the blues, as they continue to manifest themselves as one of the most dangerous midfield duos in the league. “Fish” and Zach Weaver take over the captaincy for the club from Werner, who became a dad late last year. Most consistent David Walsh is among the cast of role players on the squad that comes through in the clutch, something that he’ll be counted on again this season.
Minnesota will be taking part in the Western Regional this year, their first appearance at a regional since the 2015 Centrals. Playing teams like Sacramento and Portland will give them a glance at how the D2 field will shape up, as will their yearly duels with Chicago. It’ll be a better year for the Freeze, as they go on the hunt for their first D2 crown since 2012.
Nationals Seeding Prediction: Low Seed, Division 2
The Rats had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at them in season 2016, just as they had the year before when they made it to the Division 3 Grand Final. Yet, they passed most of the tests, including a high scoring Division 4 Grand Final.
The conglomerate of players made up of the Cincinnati Dockers, Louisville Kings, and St. Louis Blues had a rollicking start to their regular season, finishing with a 7-3 record. Their best performance may have come in defeat to the D2 ranked Houston Lonestars at the Central Regionals in Indy, as they were beat on a goal at the siren. They went to Sarasota as the favorites to take out the Division 4 flag, and they won four in a row to fulfill the prognosticators. The last win, a 53-44 slugfest against Tampa, was probably the best of the Grand Finals that weekend.
Though the teams’ focus is on growing the game at each of their individual cities, the overall focus of improving the Rats as a whole continues. They remain an underrated side, despite having a stockade of talent. Eric “Sleepy” Floyd remains at the top of the heap, and he has the second best set of defensive hands in the country behind Saleh Tyebjee in Sacramento. Veterans Jack Jacobs and Matt Seuling form a potent offensive structure, and Scott Schroeder, Dave Zitko, and Mike Hanavan are tenacious ball-getters.
With five D4 titles in their cabinet to go with the D1 flags from the beginning of the league, the Rats should find themselves playing – and challenging – in Division 3 in San Diego. They’ve made it to the Grand Final in that bracket before, and there is no reason to see them not doing so again.
Nationals Seeding Prediction: Middle Seed, Division 3