2018 Season Previews - Men West

In the words of Dean Wilson, the swimming, surfing and diving otter from the 1980 animated classic Animalympics, “The west is the best!  Yeah man, fer suuure!”

Dean was talking about life in California, but in this context, it describes the west coast Aussie Rules scene.  It had been apparent for a while, but it manifested itself statistically in 2017.

At least one team from the West region (including Denver, who has switched to the Central for 2018), has played in the D1 Men’s final every year since 1998.  Last year, at least one west coast team finished in the top two of each of the seven divisions contested at Nationals in San Diego last year.

The target is on the back of these clubs, especially with virtually all of the teams here having some sort of a chance at making it to their respective Grand Finals.  With Golden Gate and Los Angeles showing the way in D1, four teams having a fair go in D2, and two clubs in Arizona joining San Diego in D3, we could see another left coast domination in Racine.

We’ll see these teams do battle in Sacramento on July 28, and though it’ll be nearly a month after our nation’s birthday, there will certainly be fireworks in store.

With the San Diego Lions and Seattle Grizzlies springing to life to successful growth in 2017, it was only fitting that the Arizona Hawks men’s side followed suit.  Led by Revo tall man extraordinaire Jason Wilhelm, the Hawks fielded a full men’s side for the first time since 2011.   You might say that they were a Phoenix rising in Phoenix.

After a respectable 1-2 showing at Western Regionals, the Hawks went to San Diego and finished 2-1 in Division 3, their only blemish a loss to the hometown Lions on Saturday afternoon.  To go from a blip on the radar to D3 contenders, however, showed a lot of promise for footy in the desert.

With a number of veterans moving to the new crosstown Outlaws side, Hawks coach Darren Henderson will have a youthful lineup with an eye towards the future.  Recruiting ahead of the Rob Dollar Cup AFLX tournament on May 5 has been strong, and despite the presence of Wilhelm and a couple veteran holdovers, the average age is in the low 20s.

Wilhelm will have company on tall front by Finnish veteran Fredi Romar, who rucked against Wilhelm at IC14.  Having been a national team captain, Romar’s experience will help newer players such as Dan Hall, who has been consistently strong since joining the team last year.  Irish born midfielder Barry Mullen possess Tesla-like efficiency, but also has range with his kicks.

It’s rare that a team that is still building can compete for a National title in the way the Hawks are.  They’re on the way up, and they will be very much alive come Sunday in Racine.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: Low Seed, Division 3

The name and the jumpers may be fresh off the presses, but the USAFL’s 39th club has experience from the pre-hiatus days of Arizona footy.  They too will take the 2-1 Nationals record that they earned as part of the Hawks and have that drive them into the beginning of their history as a competitive entity.

Part of the rebirth of football in the Sun Devil State centers around the Lutostanski (they just go by Luto) family, all six of them.  Rob Luto has played twice for the Revolution, and brothers Ryan and Robbie have three premierships for the Hawks and Los Angeles Dragons in their case.  Joey Luto took out best and fairest at Nationals playing for the Hawks last year, and alongside his brother Rylee form what is awaiting for the Outlaws in the future.

The Lutos and Aussie veteran Morgan Taylor average five-plus years of footballing experience between them, and that should put them right where they left off last season in Divvy three.  They’ve recruited pretty heavily in the East Valley region, and will look to draw from the many higher learning institutions in the area to grow.

They’ll be at the Dollar Cup as well, and once they get going against old rivals San Diego, OC, and LA, they should know where they stand compared to 2017 and the rest of the competition.  They believe they can challenge for the D3 title, and no one would disagree with them.  It just depends on the draw and staying healthy.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: Middle Seed, Division 3

You could feel it at the final siren of the 2016 D1 final, when Golden Gate lost to Austin.  They went unbeaten all year and then came up one game short.  And yet, there was a sense that this team could do it if given another chance.  And that was the engine that drove the Roos to the top in 2017.

That they did it should have been of little surprise to anyone.  There they were, champs of the West after a thrilling come from behind win at Denver over the Bulldogs, and that wasn’t enough to convince the Top 20 pollsters that they were better than the Crows.  Neither did an 8-0 record.  So Bryan Dragus, Manly Johnson, Jake Ryan, and the rest went about bulldozing the field in San Diego, and, after figuring out how to handle LA’s Pat Nicholls, outkicked the Roos and finally lifted the Harrell Cup.

The win, coupled with the Iron Maidens Women’s D1 title, and the Roos’ Reserves losing in their own Grand Final, capped off arguably the most successful Nationals by a USAFL club.

Now, they just have to stay there.

Ryan takes over for Christian Chynoweth as head coach that will have new parts and missing old ones.  Dragus and Chris Johnson have retired, and a number of other players have departed to other clubs.  Four incoming players have USAFL experience, led by midfield havoc maker Ryan Cartwright (BWE) and speedster Harry Dixon (LA), and two veterans from Australia, Lewis Haralambous and Adam Caroll.

As good as GG’s Aussies are – Ryan and gargantuan ruck Ben Dowdell among them – they have long had the best American class in the country.  Five Roos went to IC17, and their play has helped them sustain their breakneck pace.  Now it’s up to the next set of Yanks brewing in the metro system, guys like Dylan Chaney, Sam Cohen, and Brett Barnard, to keep that trend going.

There will be a lot of teams nipping at the proverbial ankles of Golden Gate.  But pencil the Roos in as the favorites to repeat in D1.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: High Seed, Division 1

The heartbeat of footy is still beating in Vegas, truly a city that never sleeps, and the Gamblers are still rolling along, if only in small batches (but most things are good in small batches – especially food, but that’s another story).

The Anderson family – Brett, Matt, and Cameron – have kept the Gamblers competitive over the years, and they were at the center of a tightly contested game at home against San Diego, their only full game of the year.  At Nationals, players from Vegas helped Cincinnati and Philadelphia top up their numbers in D4 and D3, respectively.

A couple of players will be heading down for the Dollar Cup, and get some game experience in during the year ahead of Nationals.  Nothing is on the schedule for the year just yet, but the Andersons are good recruiters.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: Division 4

To say that seeing the Dragons in the D1 Grand Final last year was a bit of a surprise may be a bit of an illusion.  Perhaps few saw them getting by Austin on Saturday, or the fact that they were 1-5 since being promoted to Divvy One in 2015 loomed as a harbinger.

But after another strong SCAFL season, a respectable effort at Westerns, and another SoCal Cup win, the Dragons were certainly in the thick of it.  After a one point squeaker over New York, a 22-point statement over the defending champions gave notice to the competition that they were for real.  One reason why they were so good: Roos Medal winner Pat Nicholls.  No one could figure out how to defend him inside forward 50 for their first three and a half games, but when Golden Gate cracked the code, that was the difference.

2017 was the best season in Dragons’ nine-year history, and like the other D1 teams, the differential is their American talent.  Gabe Martin del Campo and Sam Murphy, will be playing most of the USAFL season in Australia, but the trip will put a bit of heat into their already strong ability.  Ruck Donald Lee had a career year in 2017 both for club and country, and his ascendency in the middle has been a spectacle. Defensively, the guile of Andrei Jensen and Bill McGovern is still there, with tough nugget Chris Bagot ranging from halfback to middle.   Nicholls’ strength in the forwards has given Gary Green and Justin Kenna some room to run and some extra weapons that teams will be unable to sleep on.

Though recruitment has been admittedly slow during the winter, it has picked up as the weather has gotten better (though isn’t it already good in SoCal?).  The Dollar Cup will be close to their hearts, seeing as though Rob Dollar won the 2014 D2 title with them, and a hot clash with Denver and Dallas in August will be a very good barometer.  Their depth, with a defined first and second team, sets them apart.

The Dragons are here to stay for a bit, and they are the Roos’ strongest championship contender.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: High Seed, Division 1

The 2014 and ’15 D1 runners up have spent the last two seasons rebuilding their playing lists, regrouping and recovering from turnover.  Across USAFL and SCAFL competitions, they went a respectable 14-10, and were fierce contenders in SoCal and SCAFL play.

OC travelled down I-5 for Nationals, having taken a step back to D2 for the first time in a decade.  Installed as group favorites, they shook off a shaky kicking performance against Sacramento to knock down Boston and Minnesota and go into the D2 Grand Final.  There, they fought gamely against Quebec but could not overcome the powerful Saints.

Time has proven that being relegated galvanizes a team in the long term, and 2017 saw Lloyd Davis, one of the Bombers’ Nationals standouts, take out team B&F.  Harris Eilenberg, a late recruit from last season, was a standout performer once he donned the sash; he should be recovered from the broken collarbone he suffered against the Freeze at Nats to continue his torrid form.  Teenager Abe Chase, who made his debut last year at age 16, is one to watch for the future.

In spite of longtime vets Brad Weatherall and KB Nelson hanging up the boots, and Chris Angus moving on to a strictly coaching role, there is a good amount of experience here.  Most of the roster has at least three seasons of play under their belt, and they’ll be rejoined by rabbit-like midfielder Seb Aguiari, who comes back after two seasons in Portland.

OC will go into 2018 with only five Aussies, their lowest total in club history.  That said, you need good Americans to win and that’s what the Bombers are developing.  Depending on the draw and their travels through the year, they could be in the Grand Final again for Divvy 2.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: High Seed, Division 2

It may very well be lost among the higher level exploits of the teams to the south, but footy in the Rose City has been at its zenith in the last three seasons on both the men’s and women’s side.  The Steelheads, fresh off two straight D3 titles, came into 2017 with the hopes of putting a dent in D2.

Portland went through the season with an overall 6-5 record, including a 2-1 stint teaming up with Sacramento at Western Regionals.  They began the year with a good showing on the road in Houston against the Lonestars and Austin reserves, and took four of the six matches against Cascadia rival Seattle.  After a goalless loss to eventual premiers Quebec, they would finish on a kick, defeating Houston and Chicago.

Deft midfielder John Kim has flown under the radar for the Fish, but he was best on ground at San Diego for his team.  He and local boy Tyler Cox provide the spark for a side that is surrounded by veteran Aussie talent.  Forward sharpshooter Luke Mooney and league legend Martin Coventry are notorious for poking holes in team’s defenses.  Overall, it’s a team whose skills you can set their clock to; they have clean kicks and when they are accurate, they are a tough team to stop.

After bumping up and down between D2 and D3 for a couple of years, the Steelheads should be a fixture in D2 as they come up the league ladder.  They’ll be busy as bees this year, between Westerns, their series with Seattle, and hosting the annual Stomptown Throwdown, they’ll have some good competitive footy ahead of them before Racine.  There may be a couple of teams ahead of them in the D2 pecking order, but if they get hot, we’ll see them in their third Grand Final in four years.

 Nationals Seeding Prediction: Middle Seed, Division 2

In 2009, Matt and Amy Bishop, along with Helen Mondia, planted the seeds of a football club in California’s capital.  After a decade of service to American footy, the Bishops hae returned home to Australia, but the fruit that has bloomed from those seedlings have grown in the Golden State sun into a club that has become known for its strong footballing culture and for disciplined team play.

Looking for their third straight D2 Western Regional title, the Suns combined with Portland to go 2-1 on the weekend, falling two points short to Minnesota in the final game.  They came to Nats for D2, wanting to send “Bisho” off on a winning note.  A 0.8 score line against Orange County put that in doubt, and though another loss to Minnesota ended the dream, a thumping win over Boston sent the man who gave so much to American footy off on a winning note.

2018 marks season number ten for the Suns and the beginning of a new era.  Kendall Hutchings took arguably the mark of the year 2017 at Westerns last year (or at least the best one I saw), and he’ll be back from a knee injury in time for the start of the year.  Ruckman Ed Manning continued his improvement into a durable ruck with steady skills, and Colby Campbell adds his ball-winning muscle to the middle of the ground.  Local Tim Peterson impressed in his rookie season, and the Suns are expecting him to contribute more in 2018.  And finally there’s Saleh Tyebjee, who took home another All-World Team nod from the IC playing from the back and in the forward line.

The Suns will face stronger competition on the regional and National level, but they should be up to the task as they search for their first flag since D3, 2014.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: Middle Seed, Division 2

The chance to host the USAFL National Championships is a rare one.  When you get it, you make the most of it.  For the San Diego Lions, a team that had gone from interrupting the great Denver dynasty of the mid-naughts to near oblivion to D3 challengers in the span of a decade, they seized the opportunity and came darn near close to raising a trophy on home turf.

Putting together a strong top-3 performance in the SCAFL for the second straight year, the Lions were competitive with LA and OC in the SoCal Cup and in D2 at regionals, notching a win over Denver-B and playing Seattle tight.  In October, however, they turned on the juice.  With veterans John Carpenter and Justin Valley leading the way, the Lions outlasted their pool to face the Grizzlies in the final.  Though they would fall by seven points, their furious second half charge won them a massive amount of respect.

Recruiting has been excellent in the past three years, and it continues in 2018.  Carpenter, who takes the reins as coach this year, will oversee a youth movement with sophomores Tony Ballis and Brendan Heussler in the center of it.  They will learn a lot from the American vets of the team, with Valley and Brian Powers still providing place and ball handling. 

Their regional clashes against Arizona and the Western Regionals in their sights, the Lions remember the halcyon days and their D4 title from three seasons ago.  That and the Grand Final from last year will have their mouthwatering to get back there in 2018.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: Middle Seed, Division 3

Few USAFL clubs can boast of the growth that Seattle has achieved in the past two seasons.  That paid off in spades when the club lifted the D3 trophy, their first since winning the D2 title in 2008.  What’s more is that, watching the Grizzlies go from game to game, it seems as though they’re just getting started.

Exorcising several of the demons (the regular kind, not the Boston kind) from the near miss of 2016, the Grizzlies won the Western D2 title in Denver, getting a bit of help from Minnesota eking out Sacramento/Portland in the end.  A 3-4 season in the BCAFL and 2-4 record against Portland set up their run in San Diego.  With defensive gun Alex Jessup, multi-talented Karl McGough, and rising Revo star Max Depina all in the running for the Roos medal, the Grizzlies didn’t allow a single goal in pool play before holding off the hard charging, hometown Lions in the final.

With the celebrations and the overall merriment of 2017’s success behind them, the Grizzlies early season activities have brought in new blood, some of which to replace a number of players who have moved on.  They’ll retain Jason Clifford, who will still play for the Grizzlies despite moving to Hawaii.  Jessup, who ended up winning the Cooper’s Medal for Most Consistent at Nats, will play along side Kiel Rasp, who sadly did his knee right before IC17 but recovered to keystone the backline at Nationals.  And of course there is Depina, who might end up being the best on-baller in the league by time the year is out.

Some interesting games loom on the horizon for the emerald-and-black, including hosting DC Eagles in July for the first time, and Westerns.  It usually takes a team a year to get adjusted to a new division, but there is athleticism, pace, and plan old courage here that might make Seattle a D2 dark horse.

Nationals Seeding Prediction: Middle Seed, Division 2

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