2018 Season Previews - Men South

Much like the teams in the yonder part of the Central Region, the teams across the Sun Belt each have long histories in the USAFL, with several here having put the two decade mark to stern.

Denver, Austin, Dallas, Atlanta and Nashville have weaved their way through the game’s landscape over the years, and have yielded competitive footy along the way.  For Houston, Baton Rouge, the newly christened Oklahoma club, and still freshly minted Little Rock, they’re writing their stories as the development of communities of local born players.

The clubs in the South are good at footy, but you will find some amazingly deep cultural roots here in building the types of entities that you would see in Australia.  The future of the game is bright in the heartland, especially with three D1 sides and challenging squads at the lower divisions.

The city of Atlanta is seeing a bit of a sports renaissance over the past year, with the opening of their new baseball and football stadiums and the wild popularity of soccer team Atlanta United.  The Peach City’s Aussie Rules team hopes to be the next on the up-and-up, and will be turning inward to help grow the side.

It was a rocky year for the Kookas, though they went through the year 3-5; wins over Baton Rouge, Nashville, and Tampa were decisive during the year and they looked lined up for a good showing at Nationals.  They could only muster a handful of players to make the trip to San Diego, however, and they ended up combining with Baton Rouge to go 1-2 on the weekend.

Wayne Kraska, who returns as president of the club, has shifted the focus of the Kookas towards building a new culture through AFL Social, a non-contact co-ed program.  Thus far, it’s been immensely successful, as heaps of men and women have come out to try the game.  What’s more, they keep coming back.  Though getting those players through to the full contact game is an eventuality, right now Kraska and company want to get people excited about the game and the footballing culture first, and then go from there.

The Kookas will play a limited schedule this year, including trip to the Central Regionals in Nashville.  Last year’s B&F Ryan Downey shifts from the back line to the midfield this season, while veterans Paul Balding and Brett Hester come back alongside Kraska to form the heartbeat of the team.  No matter what happens in interleague matches this year, there is a lot of deserved positivity for football in Atlanta.

Projected Nationals Seeding: Division 4

Just as the Denver Bulldogs had done in the ‘00s, the Crows seemed destined to be the team of the decade.  They entered last season having not lost in more than a year, and it seemed like they would continue their dominance of the men’s division and make wine out of the competition.

The Crows seniors side saw their winning streak snapped at 27 at the hands of the Dallas Magpies at the Central Regionals, but they went into Nationals the favorites to seek out a three-peat.  Instead, they were made into Crow pie by a pack of hungry (LA) Dragons.

With Golden Gate ascending to the top of the USAFL ladder, new coach Stefan Barr will have the task of getting the boys from the Texan capital back on track.  The likes of Ben May, Grant Campbell, and Bronson Bartel have been the lightning rods for the Crows over the years, but now it’s on the American corps to step it up. 

Nolan Cox, now in his fourth USAFL season, has emerged as the best of the bunch.  Hunter Lentz and Sam Gigliotti are reliable utility players who have multiple weapons and can play anywhere on the ground.   Daniel Brown’s crumbing skills are among the best in the league, and Michael “Shark” Linehan came off of an impressive campaign for the Revos to lead Austin down the stretch.

Austin’s strength is bolstered by the fact that they have a very successful reserves team in tow; they did take out the inaugural ressies Grand Final over Golden Gate, led by former Roos medalist Noor Jenghir.   The Central Regional should be a ripper, with Denver and Dallas in the mix.  They’re still among the top three teams in the country, but they’re now behind the likes of the new west coast powers.

Projected Nationals Seeding: High Seed, Division 1

As constant as the weather, and life and death and taxes, are the efforts of the Tiges who roam the Bayou.  Year after year, challenge after challenge, Baton Rouge continues to grow and play teams tough in the Southern part of the country.

Beginning with the Ruggles Cup in Houston on April 21, the Tigers look to build off of a strong 2017, where they made the move up to D3 and went 1-2, grabbing a famous win over the Tigers of different colored sash along the way.  Melbourne native Lachlan McQueen-Miscamble, whose coming out party was the Central Regionals, emerged as a defensive wall in the back, and he’ll be back in 2018 to sure up the midfield alongside Austin LeBouef.  Captain Josh Cartmill, who missed the end of last year due to an injured finger, should be ready to go beside the Moran clan: Brady, Kyle, and Ryan.

Always an entertaining and fun team to watch, Baton Rouge should be at the Central Regionals in Nashville and they will challenge teams like Oklahoma there.  They deserve to be up in Division 3, but if not, they’ll be a tough to tame in Divvy 4.

Projected Nationals Seeding: Division 4

A streetcar named Desire ran through the streets of New Orleans, and a freight train named “Magpies” ran through the heart of Texas to knock off the best team in the country.  There have been questions in the past several years as to whether the Lone Star version of the white and black should be Division 1 challengers, but last year they answered that emphatically that they belong in the top tier of the competition.

Behind veterans Grand Jortner and Craig Storer, the ‘Pies snapped the Austin Crows’ 27-game winning streak to take out their first regional title, then knocked back travelling Los Angeles late in the year.  Their two point win over Denver snapped a nine-game D1 losing streak, and though they lost to Golden Gate, their win over Calgary to finish 2-1 gave them some added boost heading into 2018.  Dave Grzeiak also made his mark on the International stage with a sparkling IC17 run.

Dallas plays with the toughness of the land that surrounds their great city, and it’s exemplified by the hard hits of Jack O’Dell and Patrick Pryor.   On offense, Mike Mayne and Matt Taggart are deadly, and they consistently rack up goals year after year.  Cory Colvin provided the spark defensively at Centrals, and he will be called upon again as Dallas continues their ascendency.

Between Centrals, the Texas Cup, and the return trip to Los Angeles, the ‘Pies will be fully tested during the year, and they’ve shown they can pass whatever is sent to them.  I have them down as a middle-seed in Divison 1, but since they’ve broken their duck, they might be a good dark horse pick for the Papa John Cup.

Projected Nationals Seeding: Middle Seed, Division 1

Once the master of the USAFL house, the Denver Bulldogs are now the guard dogs.  They live just on the outside looking in, but are still vitally dangerous and doing their best to earn their way back up to the top.

2017 was a rough year for the Bulldogs on the field, on the road and at home.  Golden Gate bet them three times during the year: on the road early on, at home in that thrilling Regional final match, and then again at Nationals.  The usuals were their usual self, but a 1-2 finish in San Diego was not how the eight time D1 Men’s Champions wanted to end their year.

Even though they have not tasted the sweet bubbles of premiership since 2011, the Bulldogs go into each year with the belief that they can win Nationals.  It’s not just something that they convince themselves of – its in their blood, it’s a mindset, and it’s proven that it can happen.  From veteran defender Andy Vanica to fearless Michio McGrath to the neigh unstoppable juggernaut that is one Casey Robertson, you cannot sleep on Denver because they are so dangerous.

Three American players led the way, however, at least in terms of their potential for their footballing future.  Brandon Kaufman, former NFL receiver turned Gold Coast prospect, impressed many at regionals and Nationals with his skills improvement.  Tyler Ames came back from a successful stint in Darwin and Montrose to join Robertson and company in the front line.  And, Ryan Garthright made the All-World team at IC17 with his timely intercepts and ball pressure.

Much like Austin, the Bulldogs find themselves playing catch up behind the Roos and the Dragons.  But it’s very, very difficult to count them out of anything.  They’ll be in the top five teams once again, and they’ll knock teams sideways like they always do and be in the thick of it.

Projected Nationals Seeding: Middle Seed, Division 1

If Texas’s footy teams were the Beatles, the Lonestars would be George Harrison.  Perhaps overlooked behind two more well-known members, but still splendid and very, very good in their own right.

Though the Lonestars fell to Austin and Dallas in the Texas Cup matches, they put in an impressive third place finish at Regionals, accounting for Nashville in the consolation match.  They had a handle on sides like Tulsa and Baton Rouge throughout the year, and defeated Portland at home.  They recovered from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey late in the season to take their place as spoiler in D2 at Nationals; the Lonestars went 1-2, their Saturday morning win over Chicago their only tally.

David Restrepo’s goalscoring outburst in Melbourne had opponents keeping an eye on him, and his time at Melbourne Uni sharpened his nose for the targets.  The team around him has been steadily improving; from consistent BOG’er Stu Job, to playmaker David Anastas, to the ever dangerous Triegue Allen and Jesse Carcamo.  And, they’ve recruited a number of rookies through their “Fitness Through Footy” campaign, which should bring more American talent to their layer of Australian vets.

If any club has deserved a much needed break from the year it was Houston.  Aside from Harvey, they’ve had a big year with the growth of the club on the field and off, including the debut of their women’s team.  What’s more, their club culture is towards the tops of the league, and that’s why the ‘Stars are good year in and year out.  They’re still a few steps behind the D1 sides, but with a good draw and a good showing, they’ll be in the hunt for their first flag since the 2013 D3 title.

Projected Nationals Seeding: Middle Seed, Division 2

The Natural State saw Aussie Rules come to its metaphorical shores in 2016 and then saw a whole bunch of Australians come to celebrate said coming last June.  For the Coyotes, it was a very astute happening in the club’s first full year.

With more than 150 locals coming to check out the Central Regional Tournament, Steve Grandfield’s club got a shot in the arm in terms of attention, and they have had good numbers come out to training in the club’s formative days.  Though only two players would play USAFL matches – Jeremy Ingram and Grandfield once he was healthy – the duo helped Oklahoma onto the D4 title in San Diego.

The interest in the game has been peaked, and there has been good local support from the rugby community and from others in the area.  Hopefully in time the Coyotes will follow the path of Des Moines, Tulsa, Houston, and Columbus, and be able to steadily grow as it gets going.

Projected Nationals Seeding: Division 4

Twenty years as an established Aussie Rules club is a pretty good feat, and last year the Kangaroos wanted to cap off that milestone with another one; their first National Championship.  Armed with a dozen rookies and led by Revo standout John Freeman, the Kangas went 7-5 during the home-and-away-ish season, with a couple of wins over Baton Rouge and Atlanta to their bag.

Despite going into Nationals heavily favored to possibly take home the chocolates, the injury bug chomped down hard on the Kangas late in the year, and they wobbled into San Diego.  Despite good performances from Freeman, Mo Howell, and James Duty, Nashville lost to Philly and Seattle on Saturday.  They upended rival Columbus on Sunday morning, however, to finish out the season on a positive.

Season number 21 brings with it a new outlook, new futuristic looking jumpers, and the Central Regional Championships, which they’ll host.  Depending on how many teams come, and the format, Nashville will be extremely competitive.

Freeman and Howell, who each now enter their third full year, are amongst the most athletic players in the country.  Freo has been galvanized by his Revo play, and that should make him more of a threat in the middle and inside 50.  Cliff Cosnahan is still the big target in the forward arc, and veterans David Harris, Evan Ling, and Dee Vsetecka still produce at work rates harder than miners in the caves.

Staying healthy will greatly improve the chances for the Music City footy club, and they should challenge in Division three again.   They are more athletic than some of the other teams in this Division, but that fact hasn’t come to fruition yet.  This year might be different.

Projected Nationals Seeding: Middle Seed, Division 3

Two weeks before Nationals, the Tulsa Buffaloes and Oklahoma City Flyers merged to form the Oklahoma FC.  And all they did was go on and win the D4 title, brushing past New York in the D4 final match.

Before the merge, however, the Flyers, which had formed official in 2016 as an offshoot from the Buffs, won their first game against Chicago at the 80/35 cup.  Tulsa, which had been around since 2010, picked up just two wins from the regular season; one at the Central Regionals against Baton Rouge/Des Moines, and then once again later in the year against Denver’s B-side on the road.  At Nationals, OFC were the class of the division, showing perhaps they deserved to play up a peg in D3.

All told, there is a lot of good, homegrown talent in this bunch, and some Revo-possible names on the roster.  They’re a hard-nosed side; Chris Cox, Shane Hood, and Andrew Sneed are among the toughest.  Caleb West and Kye Stoneham are coming off good 2017s, and the Rasbold twins, Andrew and Stephen, are good through the middle and look to trouble their opponents.

There is a lot of unity here considering that the two entities that make up OFC are almost two hours apart by car.  But there’s a lot of love and dedication here.  Coach Alex Mirakian, one of the few Aussies on this team, brings his know how to a group that is passionate about footy and its future in the Sooner State.  They will return to D3 at Nationals for the first time since 2015, and this time should give a helluva show to the top teams there.

Projected Nationals Seeding: Middle Seed, Division 3

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