Hot As Sherrins - Previewing the USAFL Western Regionals

The last time the USAFL Western Regionals was in Sacramento, the high temperature reached 101 degrees Fahrenheit (39 degrees C); by noon, we could’ve had our own sausage sizzles in the parking lot.  Literally.

Topping out at around 100 degrees again, Sacramento, or rather the western suburb of Davis, welcomes in a dozen footballing entities from up and down the Pacific Coast.  The weather may be hot, but the footy will be hotter.  The longest running Regional Championships has always produced thrilling games and even better footy, and this weekend looks to be no exception.

On the men’s side, the top two nationally ranked teams – the ones who played out an exciting D1 men’s final at Nationals last year – are joined by the two clubs who tangled for the D3 crown.  In Division two, four clubs with long term ambitions duke it out for regional bragging rights, with the hope of getting a foothold on ascending the Nationals ladder.

There is a great deal of excitement in the women’s division, however, as the two-time defending National Champions face three teams with eyes on making history and drinking from the giant cup of awesome on Sunday night.


2018 USAFL WESTERN REGIONAL TOURNAMENT
Saturday, July 28, 2018 – 9am through 6pm PDT (17 hours behind Melbourne)
Davis Legacy Soccer Club, Davis, California
Broadcast – To Be Confrimed (either facebook.com/usafl or youtube.com/usafl1997)


MEN’S DIVISION 1:
#1 Golden Gate Roos (2-0)
#2 Los Angeles Dragons (1-1)
#15 Seattle Grizzlies (0-1)
#17 San Diego Lions (6-1)/Arizona Hawks

After huffing and puffing and blowing down the house of cards that was the USAFL men’s competition last year, the Golden Gate Roos are fixing to make themselves a fixture at the top of the mountain for some time.  Their Nationals and Regional title defenses, after two wins against the Sacramento Suns, kicks into high gear this weekend; the climax being against the Dragons on Saturday afternoon.  Though the Roos will have a number of players playing for the Revos in Ireland over the next week, they still have a talent-laden squad.  Kyle Manly “Manly” Johnson is the heartbeat of the Roos, pumping the footy to attacking players Dave Franco, Dan Livy, and triple-digit gamer Mel Chen.  Ben Dowdell’s rucking will be a huge key here, and after their battles in last year’s D1 Grand Final, it’ll be fun to watch him go up against Donald Lee again in the nightcap.

Los Angeles’ ascension to the higher tier of the USAFL table has been swift since their founding in 2010.  Emerging from their Metro season in the SCAFL, the Dragons went 1-1 to open SoCal Cup play in San Diego, losing to the Lions but being Orange County in the process.  Last year’s D1 runners up are on a season long mission to put their snouts in front of Golden Gate and everyone else in their way, and the names and talent are there.  Revo big man Donald Lee has improved yearly since his debut in 2015; his job will be to make sure David Dollar, Lucas Golson, and his rovers get the ball often to pump it into the forward line for Paul Ioakim, Justin Kenna, and company to convert.  Andrei Jansen and Chris Bagot are two of the better defenders in the league, and they’ll be tasked with keeping small numbers on the opponent’s side of the scoreboard.

If you’ve read my previews over the past two years, you’ll know that I keep talking about how Seattle, as a club, has come quite far since 2014, when they were just a handful of men playing Division 4 at Nationals.  The Grizzlies bring a fully loaded side to Sacramento, still beaming from winning last year’s Western D2 and Divvy 3 Nationals, but with an eye on going further.  Despite being 2-5 in BCAFL play, Seattle has gamechangers all over the field.  Max Depina, who turned many-a-head last year in Melbourne, is the talisman for the green-and-black, and he and finals MVP Alex Jessup form a formidable combo in the back.  Tex Edmonds and Brian Flaherty are deadly accurate, and the athleticism of Austin Cox and Olympic rower Robert Munn add to the Emerald City arsenal.

Losses are sometimes great motivators, and it seems that falling eight points short to Seattle in last year’s D3 Grand Final on home soil has done exactly that for the San Diego Lions.  They’ve come, literally and figuratively, roaring out of the gate at 6-1, taking out the SCAFL Grand Final and beating LA and OC at home in the process.  Wrapped ‘round the core of veterans on this Lions side – including Brady Minich, Brandon Blankenship, and Brian Steffy, is a group of steady footballers who are looking to take the next step.  Augmenting them further is a handful of Arizona Hawks players, of which includes Irish magician Barry Mullen.


WOMEN’S DIVISION:
San Francisco Iron Maidens
Portland Sockeyes/Los Angeles Dragons
Seattle Grizzlies/Arizona Outlaws/Las Vegas Gamblers
Sacramento Suns/Arizona Hawks

After living in the shadows of the Denver Lady Bulldogs for the first half of this decade, it is the San Francisco Iron Maidens who have emerged at the top of the pack nationally in American women’s footy with two straight Nationals titles.  They pulled off a big win in Denver in their only game this year in their quest for a three-peat.  Though they won’t face Denver as they try for their first regional crown since 2015, it will be a challenge.  Forward juggernaut Carly Smolak will be out for some time with an ACL tear, but Nicole Makenzie, Milli Bruce, and Sara Magallón will still be there giving defenders headaches.  Meg Leone has quietly become one of the best rucks in the league and she’ll set things up for midfielders Jessica Estrada and 2017 Finals MVP Elise Gallagher.  Bevin English is the keystone of the Maidens defense, and her play for the Maidens and Freedom cemented her as the best defense in the country.

But the Maidens will have three hungry packs of footy players at their proverbial heels, and the hungriest dog of all might be the Portland Sockeyes.  Four times in a row winners of the D2 National title, and 2016 WRC champions alongside Minnesota.  This time the omnipotent Simone Shepherd, lightning deft Lucy Parrington, and bruising tackler Erin Mahoney are joined by a solid contingent from LA.  The already potent Sockeyes attack will be augmented by Leilani Silvio and Yuie Kawakatsu’s work rate, as well as New York forward Lauren Skonieczny.  Minnesota’s Paige Kiecker, who was fullback on the ’16 WRC winning side, returns to patrol the defense.

The only thing that is soaring to the lofty heights of the mercury in Davis this weekend is the Seattle Grizzlies, who come to town unbeaten in BCAFL play, and who have two convincing wins over rival Portland this season.  Last year they combined with Sacramento to beat San Francisco, and this year they have a full side alongside a trio of Arizona Outlaws ladies and one from Las Vegas to take the whole package.  Last year’s B&F April Lewis returns surrounded by weapons; be it speedy athletic wunderkind Amelia Kahr, crafty veterans Marian Dickenson and Teagan Hamilton, or versatile utility (a redundancy?) Valerie Barber-Axthelm.  Add in the reinforcements, led by former national teamer Drea Placencio, and this should be a fun team to watch.

It’s been a steady climb for the Sacramento Lady Suns, but they look forward to this weekend looking to make some noise at home alongside the Arizona Lady Hawks.  Though they’ll miss the height supplied by the injured Rosie Kloh, the Suns still have a formidable defensive wall, led by Liberty standouts Makenzie Carr and Lauré Kwoka, and veteran Erin Graham.  Midfield general Vicky Schoennagel will get an added boost from Arizona and Freedom veteran Melissa Armstrong and rookie sensation Dani Marshall.  Up front, SacAFL leading scorer Christine Flok and Freedom forward Oanh Ngyuen will be the main targets.


MEN’S DIVISON 2:
#8 Portland Steelheads (2-0)/Seattle-B
#7 Orange County Bombers (4-3)/Golden Gate-B
#14 Sacramento Suns (0-3)
Arizona Outlaws/Las Vegas Gamblers

The 2015 and 2016 D3 National Champion Portland Steelheads have yet to break through on the regional scale, but they are the top seeded team of what should be a very competitive second division.  Martin Coventry’s team has two wins so far this year, and brings speed, skill, and a fanatical desire to keep the football with them to the ground.  John Kim, the relatively diminutive midfielder, has a history of running rings ‘round opponents, and veterans Tyson Okely and Tyler Cox will try to add offensive heat to the already torrid weather conditions.

Much like their SoCal neighbors in San Diego, the OC Bombers have a Grand Final loss in the back of their minds as they kick away in 2018.  Last year’s D2 runner up went 4-0 in the SCAFL regular season, and fell to the Lions in a tightly contested final.  After going 0-2 to start the SoCal Cup Campaign, William Mounce, Adam Shanks, Seb Augiari and the battle-hardened sashes look to shake the apple cart with their first regionals title since this thing was held in Sacramento last, in 2015.  Keep an eye out for Adrian and Pablo Orazco, part of OC’s young renaissance.

Last year in Denver, Sacramento fell two points short of victory in their final game, a lost that cost them the Western D2 cup at the hands of Seattle.  This year, with new head coach Vicky Schoennagel at the helm, the hometown Suns have their briefcases in hand as they look for their third regional championship in four years.  Saleh Tyebjee skippers a fundamentally sound side, with high flying Kendall Hutchings looking to top the specky he took last year, and muscle provided by Colby Campbell and Traxel Towe.

Footy is a family affair, and the combination of the Arizona Outlaws and Las Vegas Gamblers exemplifies that to a “T”.  Six members of the Outlaws’ Lutostanski clan, and the three Vegas Andersons are among the assemblage on this composite side.  The Outlaws began their year co-hosting the Rob Dollar AFLX tournament in May, and played well despite only picking up one win.  Vegas, meanwhile, went 2-1, including a victory over the Outlaws’ B-side.   And imposing team, they should very much be in the thick of things by the end of the day on Saturday.

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