Portland's Blecher Making an Impression on Footy Journey

Not long after joining the Portland Sockeyes, USAFL veteran Heather bestowed the nickname of “Baby Goat” to a young up-and-coming new teammate, Jess Blecher.

“Baby goats are bouncy, full of energy, and wild,” Serpico explained.  “She has that kind of personality; she has fun playing footy.”

And just like the enjoyment she gets from playing the game, Blecher’s football prowess is equally undeniable.  The 24-year-old midfielder has grown steadily in her four year USAFL career, one that has netted her three Division 2 National Championships, and a call-up to the USA Freedom national team to represent at the AFL International Cup.

Blecher’s footy career is on the ascendancy, and thanks to the USAFL Australian Exchange program, it will grow even further.  She is spending the 2018 season in Australia; she has recently completed the Darwin portion of her trip and is down in Melbourne for the remainder of the campaign.  She is the second female USAFLer to make the journey, with Sacramento’s Katie Klatt currently playing for the VWFL’s Melbourne Uni Mugars.

A native of San Jose, California, Jess Blecher discovered footy in 2013 while studying at Notre Dame in Western Australia.  The university’s study abroad program presented an opportunity to learn footy with a local club and have trainings every week.  When she returned home to Portland, Oregon, she found out about the local club through her best friend, who also happened to be a part of that same study abroad program.

“We decided to go to their trainings and see what it was like,” Blecher recalled to USAFL.com.  “Back then it was only a couple girls training with the men's side.”

In 2015, Blecher’s first full year, the women’s team had gone from being known as the Bridgetown Banshees to the Portland Sockeyes.  Though the team had had a dozen or so players put on the blue jumpers for the team during the year, only she and Melbourne-born all-arounder Simone Shepherd made the journey to Austin for Nationals.  The Portland girls joined up with the Calgary Kookaburras to take out the Division 2 title.

The following season was a major turning point in Blecher’s footballing fortunes.  First, Serpico arrived from New York and was keen to build the Sockeyes into a sustainable and successful program.  Blecher was the key; with talent infusing both sides of the ground, she was that speedy, athletic linkup that solidified a group of relative newcomers into an immediately competitive team. 

That summer, the Sockeyes combined with Minnesota to hoist the Western Reigonal title, and Blecher was invited to the Freedom summer camp, which would help determine the roster for the 2017 AFL International Cup.  She also would meet Northern Territory Football League (NTFL) legend Mark Motlop, who was over in Portland to assist coaching both the men’s and women’s sides, a meeting that would have a very positive impact on her eventual football journey to Australia this year.

Nationals weekend 2016 was nothing sort of perfect for young Blecher.  Portland joined forces with Arizona, Seattle, and Tampa to earn back-to-back Nationals D2 championships, and Blecher was selected for the Freedom squad that would compete at IC17.

Success on-the-field was helpful in congealing her love for the game, but so too did Sockeyes’ coming together.   “They have made me into the player and club member I am today,” she said.  “The team has helped develop my skills, coming out early to trainings or off days to work on skills and fitness. They developed me as a player, prepared me for IC17 with the Freedom, and supported me when I decided to make the journey [to Australia] for the season.”

Blecher had a solid tournament in Melbourne, contributing to the Freedom midfield during the team’s 4th place finish.  She had drawn praise from onlookers and commentators at the tournament for her speed and skill, and it was apparent that there was a future for her in the game in Australia.  The trip was a learning experience for her, and she took full advantage of being able to improve her game from it.

“[The] Freedom helped show me what high level footy is like. Playing with and against the top players in the international circuit not only challenged me as a footy player, but also made me determined to get better. Playing against high caliber players, including those who play in the VFL and AFLW, created a higher level game play which isn't as common in the states, since we have so many new players who are just learning the sport.”

Having had a contact in Advisory board member Tony Fairhead from her study abroad days in Perth, she reached out looking to spend a year playing footy in Australia.  As it happens, Motlop was looking to recruit a woman over to the NTFL after successfully recruiting Denver’s Tyler Ames to Darwin last season, so it was natural that a stint in the top end would be Jess Blecher’s first stop there.

Blecher traded in the blue-and-salmon of Portland for the black-and-gold of the Nightcliff Tigers, taking the field for the last three games of the home-and-away season.  It was the end of a tough, winless season for the Tiges, but Blecher drew a lot from playing with a group of developing players much like one she played with back home.

“Many of my teammates were first year players, and was great to see that women all over Australia are picking up their country’s biggest sport. We ended bottom of the ladder, but the growth seen even in my short time playing with Nightcliff was encouraging for the future of this club.”

Much like the Sockeyes, there is a lot of support from all over the club, including that of the men’s team.  The senior men’s side, which finished second in the eight team competition, were ardent supporters of the women’s team both in word and deed.  “It was inspiring to see such support from the men’s side,” Blecher said.  “Even while busy vying for a premiership, the men took the time to being runners, water carriers, and cheerful supporters.”

One similarity of playing in the Northern Territory to that of playing in the USAFL is that both competitions run during the summer.  The NT’s dry season can offer triple digit temps (Fahrenheit, of course), drenching rains, and humidity so thick it makes molasses seem like oil.  But Blecher reveled in it.

“It’s amazing seeing the men and women playing the sport so well when the fields are flooding, footies are slipping all over the place, and you can barely see through the rain. But the days it isn’t raining are perfect for a run near the beach, avoiding the stingers and crocs in the water, of course.”

With her time in Darwin now completed, Jess Blecher moves onto the next chapter of her footballing journey.  She’ll be joining the Keilor Blues Football Club of the Essendon Districts Football League, located about 12 miles northwest of Melbourne.  Keilor ran the table in 2017 to win the EDFL women’s premiership, winning all fifteen of their games en route to the flag.

Blecher is on track to debut for the Blues this coming Friday (Thursday night US time) in their opener following the men’s seniors match at the Keilor Recreation Reserve.  The twilight match is expected to bring a crowd of up to 6,000 spectators, and both the Keilor club and EDFL will be spotlighting her journey as it gets underway.

And as exciting as all of that is, her time at Keilor may possibly be a prelude to something further down the road.

Blecher attended the Round 7 AFLW match between the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne as a guest of the Bulldogs, and took part in a closed, invite-only training session as a group of players that the Bulldogs are eyeing as potential draft selections in 2019.

The prospect of her becoming the first USAFL draftee in AFLW is an exciting one for the American footy community, and for the game at large.  Despite the heady possibilities, however, Blecher is keeping things in perspective, and focusing on the process and what’s in front of her, and her role in the community.

“Most people in Darwin were shocked when they heard not only about Americans playing AFL, but also how large and expansive our league is. But this American has improved in skills while up north, which will be taken down to Melbourne. I wouldn’t trade my time in Darwin for anything, but also very excited to start the next chapter of my footy journey down South.”

Whether or not we see a "Baby Goat" running amongst the defending AFLW premiers in the near future, Blecher will have a lot of people on both sides of the Pacific barracking for her.

Posted in