Season Preview Week 2017: Women's Western

We wrap up our season preview series, and our women’s previews, with the Western region.

The West is responsible for Women’s Divisional titles in each of the last seven seasons; Six in a row by Denver and last year’s steak ending triumph by San Francisco in Divvy 1, and Portland in Division 2, who did so alongside Calgary in 2015, and Seattle and Arizona in 2016.

The talent in the group of clubs is enough to suffice its own league, and when one considers that five of the seven teams here might very well be playing up in Division 1 at Nationals this year, that shows where the balance of power in the USAFL lies.  That isn’t to put down the teams on the Eastern half of the country, but rather to illustrate that herein is found a concentration of football prowess.

Many of these clubs will head to Denver for the Western Regionals, which should be a prelude to a great Nationals in San Diego.  Here is the how the Western women’s prospects look in season 2017:

Phoenix, the anchor city for the Arizona Hawks club, is an apt location for a team that has been reborn a couple of times.

From one of the founding USAFL clubs to near extinction to rebirth in 2015, the Lady Hawks had a down year numbers-wise last season when a number of players stepped back from the club for various reasons.   The players that stuck with the club during the hot summer continued to plug away, and on the field, there was a lot to be positive about. 

Kelli Bishop, Jen Ferrucci, and Andrea Placencio joined players from Seattle and Vancouver to go 2-1 at the Western Regionals in Salem, Oregon.  Ferrucci and Placencdio would head to Florida and play key roles in helping to lead their team, with players from Seattle, Portland, and Tampa, to the Division 2 women’s premiership.

Original Lady Hawk Melissa Armstrong has come back to the team after a year’s cameo helping San Francisco to the Division 1 title.  Her involvement, as well as the influx on enthusiasm on the men’s side, has brought in a number of new recruits, and with regionals in Denver and Nationals in San Diego being nearby, the hope is they’ll bring good numbers to both and help the Hawks come back for the long haul.

If one were to thumb through the history books, one would notice that very few dynasties disappear faintly.  The Denver Lady Bulldogs were no different.

Denver had gone through six National Championship tournaments in a row, losing a grand total of two games and ending each of them with grins and medals and a trophy to bring home.  The hashtag in 2016 was #SevWIN.  After getting to Sarasota and taking their opening two games, they faced their nemesis San Francisco with a win securing them yet another premiership.

Trailing 9-0 at the half to the determined Iron Maidens, the Doggies rode the wind and the efforts of Hallie Adrian, Lindsay Kastanek, Twania Clark, and Allison Bremner as they furiously tried to defend their title.  They had come back from tougher fights than this, but on this day, it wasn’t to be.  Though they were gracious in defeat, the disappointment of the loss was etched on each face.

Bruce Durrell’s team can be summed up in one word: driven.  They’re driven by success, and their wanting to stay at the top.  That defeat will surely drive them as they take on a role they haven’t had since 2009: that of the challenger.

While players such as Adrian, Kastanek, and Clark put in their usual dependable athletic prowess, a number of new recruits had solid debuts as well.  Sarah Chmielak was quick to pounce on opponents with the ball, Ealga ni Ahoda culled her Gaelic football skills, and Monique Fair got by a number of defenders on the forward line.  Jennifer Baumgarter was also persistent in the forwards, and she will look to improve to help out players up front in Kastanek and tall forward Kaitlyn Mascher-Mace.

The addition of Fair added to an already quick midfield, which include Freedom player Jessica Gray and diminutive utility Kassi Wilkerson.  On defense, fullback Ti Streff had a fine season, as did keystone Janell Myers and Tara Cilke.

The leadership group of the Lady Bulldogs have been around through all of the good times, and they’ve succeeded with the coolness and steady play of Adrian and Anna Thexton.  The prospect of a rematch in San Diego with the Maidens will be downright delicious to the footy fan, and Denver will believe that they are the better team; that’s just simply something that they’ll need to prove on the day.

Southern California had one of the first USAFL women’s clubs over a decade ago with the Orange County Bombshells.  After fading away shortly after the foundation of the women’s division at Nationals, women’s footy is back in that area with the foundation of the LA Dragons women’s side.

The Dragons were founded by Americans Larin Sullivan, Aileen Yoon, and Brazilian-born Lelani Silvio.  Sullivan played for New York last season, and was previously a member of the UTS Shamrocks.   Yoon played her first full season of footy with Sacramento, while Silvio also played for the Suns each of the last two seasons after moving from Boston, where she played with the Lady Demons.

Benefitting from the help of an already established men’s club, as well as the melting pot nature of the Los Angeles area, the Dragons are already off to a flying start, with nearly twenty registered players.  That list includes a handful of Aussies, including boxer Diana Prazak, and Melbourne native Shayla Chalker.

The new players will have solid experience from the vets.  Silvio is the most experienced member of the team, as she heads into season number four, having gained a reputation for her quick decisions.  Yoon’s rookie year was punctuated by a superb Nationals in the midfield for the Suns, and she’s become a good two-way player.  Sullivan’s toughness at the footy was on display at the Eastern Regionals with the Magpies, and the ladies of the teams out West will get to know that fairly quickly.

Under the tutelage of coaches Andy Moulden and David Morrow, and with good numbers in the first few months, the Dragons are not your typical first-year team; they’re better.  It may take a season or two for things to gel and for the first year players to find their legs.  That said, if they’re able to get enough players to head down I-5 to San Diego for Nationals, they’ll be a fun team to watch in Division 1.

All it takes is one person to spark a revolution.  It happened to both Cascadia clubs on the women’s side last year; for Portland, it was former New York Magpie Heather Serpico.

Having moved cross country following the 2015 season, Serps joined forces with the Steelheads to help take the Sockeyes, which had only three regular players after 2015, into a full-fledged footy team.  Armed with a number of new recruits alongside all-star athlete Simone Shepherd and rising star Jessica Blecher, the Sockeyes played alongside the Minnesota Freeze in the Western Regional.  There, they ran the table impressively, including a win over the eventual Division 1 National Champion Iron Maidens.

They then went to Sarasota for the Nationals, and, teaming up with Seattle, Arizona, and Tampa, again went 3-0 on the weekend to lock up their second Division 2 title in a row.  Shepherd, playing covering the field with the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, was Best and Fairest and Grand Final MVP, winning both fairly convincingly.  Just as important, however, was the contributions of their rookies, including breakout midfielder Zaya McSky and roller derby skater Erin “Raven” Mahony.

Though Mahony will be out with an ankle injury for most of the season at least, her connection between the footy club and roller derby has led to a partnership in the Portland area, which has helped with recruiting as Megan Moffatt crosses codes to make her Sockeyes debut.  Air Force vet Jessica Powalski-Detwiler is also a new player to watch for in the blue and salmon.  Shepherd and the speedy Georgina Clegg will be joined by fellow Aussie Lucy Parrington, who brings even more experience and leadership to the team.

The fruits of last year’s recruiting drive continue to bear, including dynamo forward Amanda Weaver, and utility Paige Mayer.  With all of the talent on the team, and with Shepherd providing most of the spark, Blecher’s improvement into a star will be fun to watch, not only for her Sockeyes but also for the Freedom at IC17.

With Nationals being much closer to home in 2017, the Fish are looking to bring enough players to contest up in Division 1 this year.  The addition of USAFL Women’s founder Kathryn Hogg as assistant to head coach Seb Aguiari will also be a huge boost to the structural makeup of the team on the field, and if they do make it to D1, they’ll prove to be very competitive.

If my wife’s cooking has taught me anything (aside from the fact that she is awesome), it is that the best foods are the ones that take a long time to prepare: chili, soup, braised ribs among them.  The Lady Suns have developed as a club in the same way; steady, and with meticulous preparation.

Sacramento’s women’s outfit has always been built on a strong club culture since their founding in 2009, under the tireless work of Matt and Amy Bishop.  The Lady Suns have always been one of the hardest working teams in the country, but had little success to show for it in the way of victories on the scoreboard.

The improvements made in 2015 finally became tangible in that respect in 2016.  The Lady Suns played consistent footy throughout the entire year which netted them wins over a combined Denver/San Fran reserves side in June, New York in September, and another win over the Lady Magpies at Nationals on Sunday.  Though they would finish 1-3 and in 4th place on the D1 ladder last October, the message had been sent that this team is much improved.

In her first full season last year, Rosemary Kloh became the team’s best and fairest, becoming a dependable ruck and not afraid at all to challenge some of the best rucks in the country.  What’s more, her second efforts at the hard footy make her invaluable.  Her commitment to the game and constant improvement are why she’ll be in Melbourne as a part of the Freedom IC17 team, and she should certainly be a favorite for a Roos Medal in her hometown of San Diego.

The Suns continued to sport one of the most cohesive backlines in the competition, even with the departure of Katie Klatt in June to go play for Melbourne University.  Liz Danielson also got a Freedom call-up; like Kloh, she played her first full season last year and flourished, with her tackling and tight defense forcing a number of free kicks for her team.  Mackenzie Carr is the keystone in the back, and Lauré Kwoka’s outlets will help spring midfielders Oanh Nguyen and Vicky Shoennagel forward.

The one big puzzle for new coach Andy Jacobs will be where his team will get offense from.  While players such as Nguyen, Kasey O’Connor, and Olivia Christensen have injected life inside 50, they still need that one key forward to take them over the top.  But the red and gold will be better than last year, and a top three finish in D1 is certainly attainable.

Some of the best stories are not always ones that are action packed and filled with drama for cover to cover.  They require build up, character development, and plot development.  If that all comes together, how the climax is told can make a good story extraordinary.

The story of the 2016 San Francisco Iron Maidens season did not begin in the in-your-face blockbuster fashion they had hoped for.  A split in the Sacramento tournament in June and a disappointing 1-2 performance at the Western Regionals had some questioning if perhaps they had missed their chance to challenge Denver’s streak as they had in each of the last three seasons.  But a sweep of the East-West Showdown, followed by a solid late season win against the Lady Suns, and the Maidens were back in the conversation.

Having finished 2nd, 2nd, and 3rd in the previous three tournaments, San Francisco was determined to climb the mountain.  After winning their first two games with relative ease, it was the Maidens and Bulldogs.  San Francisco had never kicked a goal against Denver in five previous Nationals meetings.  And despite Milli Bruce ending that string, the Bulldogs were only down 9-0 and had the wind.  The feeling was it likely that the streak would continue.  A funny thing happened, however.  Every time the Bulldogs went forward, there was Carly Smolak taking a timely mark, or Sara Magallón and Nicole Makenzie making a stop, or Jackie de Leuw or Meg Leone winning a key hit out.   San Fran would win 9-6, then beat Minnesota.  Defense won this championship, and finally brought a D1 women’s title to San Francisco.

Title defenses are always difficult, but the Iron Maidens come into 2017 as the favorite – a role they are unaccustomed to but are ready to play.  Recruiting has been strong, and the addition of a third team to their metro program will help as they prepare for their season.

The biggest rookie acquisition on any team last year was be de Leuw, who stepped into the ruck seamlessly and was a consistent hit out winner to midfielders Magallón and Jess Estrada.  What’s more, it allowed coaches Michael Jobling and Tara Salmon to platoon Brette Brower either in the forwards or on defense, and she thrived equally in both spots.  Leone’s play up front was massive in her first full season after coming on board as a backup ruck in 2015, and she’ll be going to IC17 as one of nine call ups to the USA Freedom.

While the Maidens have talent and balance all over the field, their defense is what will continue to be their key to repeating this year.  Smolak’s fly-paper like hands are some of the safest in the league, men or women, and she’s thrived in the back line.  Bevin English and second year player Danielle Gallagher are dependable, and veteran Julie Marks remains one of the best full backs in the women’s division.

The Maidens will have the target on their back as they head down I-5 for Nationals.  They’ll have teams like Minnesota and especially Denver hungry to pick the trophy away, but the Maidens have to be favorites to repeat.

Valerie Barber-Axthelm discovered footy while living in Arizona.  After one season with the Hawks, she decided that, when she and her husband moved to Seattle, that she would continue playing in her new home.

That required the startup of the Grizzlies women’s team and, with the help of the men’s team who themselves were heavily recruiting, found themselves with an enthusiastic player base.  After a playing their first game alongside Portland up in Vancouver, the Grizzlies would team up with Arizona and Vancouver for the Western Regional and go 2-1, an on-the-siren kick away from winning the whole shebang.   At Nationals, however, there would be no doubt, as they teamed up with Portland, Arizona, and Tampa to go 3-0 and win Division 2.  Not a bad opening act.

Barber-Axthelm and former Boston Lady Demon Cho Tseng played excellently at Nationals as part of the premiership, and both were rewarded with call-ups to the Liberty development squad this year.  The best rookie was Allison Leonard, who got many touches of the footy in Florida, and turned some heads.  Though she’ll miss this year with an ACL injury, Leonard is dedicated to the game and should remain with the club hoping for a comeback in 2018.

The Grizzlies are hoping for a full team to play in Divvy 1 down in San Diego this year, and their recruiting has gotten off to a roaring start.  New captain Marian Dickinson adds an athletic weapon to the green and black, as does rugby convert Hayle Ziobro and rookie ruck April Lewis.  Midfielder Sage Reed-Cowles was a consistent performer last season, and she’ll be back and improved this year.  Barber-Axthelm is a small but quick half-back who is dependable for a high tackle count, while Tseng’s reputation as a fast and hard-working wing should pace the offense.

It would be great to see Seattle bring enough players down the coast to move into the upper Division at Nationals.  Should that not occur, however, they’ll be fancied as a good bet to repeat in Division 2.

Posted in