Season Preview Week 2017: Men's Western

We’ve saved the largest grouping of men’s teams in the USAFL for last.  It’s the biggest, the most expansive, and full of some of the best footy in the country.

Since the first USAFL tournament in 1997, sixteen Division 1 Grand Finals have had at least one team from this region, and five deciders were all-Western affairs.  The Denver Bulldogs have their names stamped all over the division, with a total of eight titles, including four on the trot from 2002-2005, and the San Diego Lions, winners in 2001 and 2006.

With Golden Gate’s return to the big match on Sunday afternoon, a new era may have begun in this storied region.  The return to full fledged footy of San Diego, Seattle, and Arizona, and the continued improvement of Portland and Sacramento makes the mouth water with the matchups in prospect this season, and the impact on the Revolution National team is the proof in the pudding.

From up and down the Golden State, to the desert and Rocky Mountain highs, to the hilly and beautiful gloom of Cascadia, here is about 3000 words worth of how the Western teams look in season 2017.

Arizona almost disappeared off the map.  The footy map, at least – one can’t imagine that whole state simply falling into the Grand Canyon.

After winning the 2011 Division 3 Grand Final over Atlanta, the Hawks were poised to make the next step into Division 2, only to drop out a week before the tournament.  Though lukewarm attempts were made to restart the men’s team – the women had a rebirth of their own in 2015 – it looked doubtful that we would see the western Hawkers take the field.

Enter Jason Wilhelm.

“Pony” as he’s known, a veteran of the Chicago Swans and Dallas Magpies, and a sure bet to be in Melbourne for IC17 for the Revos, moved to the Phoenix area and has been instrumental in getting old blood back to practices while bringing in new recruits.  They’ve pulled in over 20 people to their practices in the desert, and are looking to bring a full-fledged side to regionals and Nationals.

As of this writing, they haven’t scheduled any USAFL matches, but that is sure to come during the season.  There is talent slowly coming up like heat off the pavement in the desert sun, but having the best American ruckman in Wilhelm certainly doesn’t hurt.

Where they’ll be seeded depends on how many games they get in and how many they bring to San Diego.  They could conceivably be back in Division 3, but that depends on the numbers.

Preseason Ranking Prediction: Division 4

It was a good year to be a Bulldog of the Footscray variety, having being crowned kings of the AFL for the first time in six-plus-decades in 2016.  For the other sons of the west, it was a year where good footy was overshadowed by a pack of teams much improved over the years.

There was a lot of really, really good footy buried under the results, including a come from behind draw against Dallas and a near defeat of Los Angeles at the two regionals they travelled to.  The Doggies would finish the regular season at 6-5-1, and would ride the mantle of dark horse into Pool A of Division 1.  An opening revenge win over Denver set them up for another rematch against Austin, but despite the efforts of human springboard Casey Robertson and now-Darwin Buffalo Tyler Ames, the Crows would come out on top, and a loss to Quebec on Sunday cemented a disappointing 1-2 outcome.

Despite the arrival of teams like Austin, Golden Gate, and Los Angeles into the upper crust of footballing excellence that the Bulldogs once held historical exclusivity over, the Rocky Mountain men remain a very, very good football side through the sum of its parts. 

They have three reps on the Revo callup squad, including forward rifle Brian Ripetto, heavy hitter Ryan Garthright, dependable ruck and famed skyscraper Adam Wufsus.  Their defense is always difficult to penetrate, with leaping Tom Harkness, veteran Tim Wilson-Humphries, and USAFL’s Mr. Football, Andy Vanica patrolling the back half.  Overall, they still are one of the most skillful sides in the competition.

Denver remains a top four club in the grand scheme of the USAFL landscape, which may not disappate the fact that they haven’t been to a Grand Final since 2011 – the longest drought for the eight time D1 champs.  With the USAFL Western Regionals in their backyard this year, they should be favored to challenge the Roos and Dragons for the Division 1 title in that competition, and how they do there should be a good indicator of where they stack up against their Division 1 Nationals brethren.

Preseason Ranking Prediction: Middle Seed, Division 1

It took 17 seasons for the Golden Gate Roos to get back to the Division 1 Grand Final at Nationals.  Despite falling just short to the powerful Austin Crows in the Grand Final, their run coupled with the Iron Maiden’s title claim on the women’s side made 2016 the most successful season in GGAFL’s long history.

The signal to how this season would go was blared loud and long at the Western Regionals, where they definitively swept Los Angeles, Orange County, and Denver.  Like Austin, they too had gone through the season unbeaten, and after continuing the trend at Nationals, complete with a strong win over New York, the Roos provided stout resistance to the Crows but could not stop the juggernaut.

Despite the setback in October, there is no reason for anyone in the GGAFL to put their heads down as they are in the ascendency.  Zac “Moose” Taylor was without a doubt the best offensive rookie in the USAFL, and coupled with veteran full forward Brian Dragus make a scary combination in the forward line. They may also form the same partnership up front for the Revos come August.

Though Australian players like Jake Ryan pace Golden Gate, their rise to the upper echelon has been forged by their American recruits, as evidenced by the fact that Tommy Ellis called upon no less than nine Roos for the Revos spring camp.  Taylor, Dragus, Jake Aulner, Dylan “Chokes” Chaney, and Timmy Lindfeldt had their best seasons last year, and rookie Cody Burman adds an athletic gun to an already deadly arsenal of talent.

Golden Gate may very well repeat their unbeaten regular season and Grand Final run in 2017; they’ll face one of the league’s hardest schedules again, but this is a club that is up to the test.  It will take something special to keep them out of the Grand Final and, if the seeds and chips fall that way, a rematch with Austin.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: High Seed, Division 1

After playing in the shadow of the Orange County Bombers since their 2010 debut, the Dragons came out of their lair and breathed a bit of fire into the competition last year.

Los Angeles’ two entries in the SCAFL came 1-2, and the momentum for the season surged from there.  They went 2-1 at the Western Regionals, took out the SoCal cup against OC and San Diego, and stomped into Nationals with a legitimate contenders’ chance in D1.  Though they would win only one game of the three (against Quebec, their first D1 victory), onlookers were pretty impressed at the teal-and-white’s showing in Florida.

Like Golden Gate, the Dragons have Australian talent in spades; midfielders Chris Bagot, Gary Green, Justin Kenna, and forward Justin Hall played key roles at the WRT and lend experience to the side.  But it’s the Americans that are the future of the club, and the athleticism of ruck Donald Lee, Gabriel Martin del Campo, and Bill McGovern – all three of them Revo prospects – is what makes the story of this Los Angeles team.  Robbie Descant had a career year for L.A., and looks to improve on that in 2017.

And, again like the Roos, they face a tough schedule among the California teams, in addition to a trip to Dallas to face both the Dallas Magpies and Austin Crows.  And Kenna, who takes over as coach this year, has had a host of new recruits to strengthen the D1 team and ensure a competitive seconds team takes the ground in San Diego in D4.

The Dragons are a very, very good side, maybe one level above being a dark horse team to upset the apple cart in Division 1 at Nationals this year.  The recruitment news is good as a club, and the talent is there to keep the LA boys flying.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: Middle Seed, Division 1

Sin City’s footy scene has been kept alive by the Anderson family; four footy fanatics who have been at the heart of the Gamblers, even in their leanest days.  They came together as a club to play one match last year, a loss to San Diego.

The Gamblers have been practicing during the winter in preparation for a rematch with the Lions this coming weekend, and the hope is that they’ll send some players to Denver for Regionals, as well as to San Diego in October for Nationals. 

Nationals Seeding Prediction: Division 4

It’s rare for a team to have a rebuilding year after striking their way to the top, but after two Grand Final appearances in Division 1, the Bombers got hit by the turnover bug as they muscled through the 2016 season.

A new coach and a new president attempted to right the ship last year.  An 0-3 performance at regionals, and a season sweep by rival LA belied a hardy effort from the players that made up the numbers in the OC.  Gareth Allen took out his second best-and-fairest for the club, and was his normal sparkplug self.  The Bombers were able to get back into D1 again despite a losing record, and after getting humbled by Golden Gate and New York, got up over Dallas to salvage a win for the weekend.

The good news for Chris Browne’s team is that the club looks to be largely intact from last season, with players like Allen, Adam Shanks, and sophomore tall man Mike Birch all coming back.  In even further good news, Buddy Spohn returns to the Bombers after a spell in Australia with Melbourne Blackrock.  Spohn impressed down under last season, and with a Revo callup in the offing, a big season by the Bud can notch a few extra wins this season.

Recruiting will be a huge lynchpin for how 2017 goes for OC.  They ran thin for most of last season, so reinforcements will be incredibly helpful in ensuring that they remain in Division 1.  The addition of Spohn will help that cause greatly, and they might be a good dark horse pick depending on who else is in their group.

How they do in the SCAFL and in the Regionals in June will be a good barometer of where they stand, and a late season match against the Roos will determine if they’re back up to their Grand Final form from a couple of years ago.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: Low Seed, Division 1

Rose City, Soccer City USA, and now Footy City.  2016 saw Portland bring home trophies on the men’s and women’s side, a remarkable feat that is a testament to how fast the club has grown in recent years.

It didn’t start all bright and sunny for the Steelheads, however – more like a grey cloudy day like you’d find up in Seattle.  They would drop both games at the Western Regionals down the road in Salem, and lose 2-from-3 overall from their Cascadia rivals in the Grizzlies.  Coming to Sarasota to defend their Division 3 premiership from 2015, the Fish got back into the Grand Final on the strength of percentage after drawing Austin’s B-side and beating up on Fort Lauderdale and Philly.  Led by teenager Matthew Motlop and best-on-ground Martin Coventry, Portland turned back North Carolina by 24 points to become the first team to go back-to-back in Div 3.

The ramped up recruiting efforts that helped the Steelheads build their team has already been in full effect, if the early training sessions are any indication.  On the field, Coventry will be back for yet another season, bringing his cool decision making and skill to the middle of the ground joining the pocket maestro, Seb Aguiari.  Luke Mooney will look to improve upon one of his best seasons with the club, as he took some mighty important marks in the forward line.

Portland’s schedule will look mostly the same as last year, including a trip down to Houston in early May, the Western regionals, and tilts against the Suns and Grizzlies.  After conquering D3 two years in a row, the Rose City boys should battle for things in Division 2 and hold their own after moving up.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: Low Seed, Division 2

The Suns experienced a hiccup at the 2016 Nationals, ending their streak of three straight Grand Final appearances in a row.  Despite that minor setback, a number of key long term players arrived on the season during the year to sustain a push back into championship contention.

Optimism ran high heading into the big dance in Sarasota; a 2-0 record at the D2 regionals, and strong performances against Los Angeles and Golden Gate perpetuated some buzz that a fourth straight granny appearance seemed attainable.  By the fickle finger of the footy gods flicked them away, as losses to Baltimore-Washington, Houston, and Columbus brought them back to the earth with an Icarian thud.

Though a number of veterans, including team co-founder Matt Bishop, are hanging up their boots this year, there were some bright standout performers that should buoy hopes of a return to glory in 2017.  Ed Manning stated himself as a consistent ruck, and Brennan Helwig proved to be a pacey option in the middle. 

The two most exciting prospects wearing the red and gold are Ramish Bahramand and Colby Campbell.  Bahramand put on a deadly performance in the forward line at the WRT, while Campbell is strong enough to bully defenders out of their lunch money if he really wanted to.

The star of the team is their captain and Revo, Saleh Tyebjee, who is so awesome that he gets his own paragraph.  Tyebjee is the best half back in the league, with the range of an army drone and the sure hands of a hibachi chef.

After a winless run in a tough group last season, one would wager that playing in-state will not yield the same result at this year’s Nationals.  They should at least be in the thick of it on Sunday in San Diego.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: Middle Seed, Division 2

2016 brought with it the rebirth of two great west coast clubs from the league’s first decade.  One of them was the San Diego Lions, who continued the momentum of their D4 championship the previous year.

Beginning the season with the SCAFL metro competition, the Lions’ entry finished in third out of six teams, ahead of the two OC entries and the Riverside club, while giving the LA clubs all they could handle.  They performed well in the SoCal Cup, holding their own with the Dragons and scoring two solid victories against the Bombers, including a thumping 81 point triumph at home.  They would go 1-2 at Nationals out of Division 3, but there were memorable performances including a tight 17-15 loss to Seattle and a 23 point win against the New York/Boston reserves.

Confidence is high in San Diego, and the National Championships hosts are looking for a big year to celebrate.  The recruiting game is strong with the mighty maroon, blue and gold, and their veteran core is back for another season.  Brandon Blankenship, Brian Steffy, and Justin Valley have Revolution resumes and were key components in their play last season. 

The Lions schedule remains similar to last year, and they’ll be fun to watch.  Their biggest test will be in the Western Regionals, as they’ll be playing clubs on the same level, including Minnesota and Seattle.  San Diego will certainly make some noise in Division 3 this year, especially with Nationals on their back porch, and picking up a trophy at home would be sweet.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: Middle Seed, Division 3

The bears from the Emerald City stretched, yawned, stirred, emerged from their caves after a brief hibernation, and went about clawing their way back to the USAFL scene in 2016.

A successful recruitment drive during the offseason yielded not only the numbers to rally a full team throughout the season, but also the birth of a promising women’s side as well.  The Grizzlies were just a defensive free kick from winning the D2 WRT flag, but bounced back to poise themselves for a run at Nationals.  There, they took out both games on Saturday before falling to North Carolina in a thrilling 5-point loss on Sunday, coming up just short of their first Grand Final in seven seasons.

Armed with that momentum, the Grizzlies should be an improved side in 2017.  They are once again taking part in the BCAFL with teams from Canada, and that, combined with their Cascadia Series matches against Portland should prepare them for a run in D3.

Part of the recruiting drive last season has already born fruit, with Jason Clifford and Karl McGough in good form after impressive rookie years.  Defenders Jonathan Achielles and Alex Jessup teamed with Revo prospects Kiel Rasp and Max Depina to put forth one of the most athletic back lines in the league, and was responsible for keeping opponent’s scores low and manageable.

Footy is thriving again in Seattle, which is great news for the league.  The Grizz will be a tough ask for any of their opponents, and in the open prairie of D3 at Nationals, they’ll be towards the top of the heap.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: High Seed, Division 3 

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