Crows Soar to D1 and Reserves Double at Nationals

Treats from Oz

A year’s worth of debate, of back and forth, of questions as to who was the best USAFL team of them all boiled down to forty minutes in America’s heartland.

There, with the northern sun sinking lower than a student unsure of his answer in open class, the Austin Crows rode off into the sunset with not one, but two more cups.

Claiming their fourth Men’s Division 1 title in six seasons, the Crows knocked off the reigning D1 champion Golden Gate Roos 30-25 in front of a teeming crowd of old and new footy enthusiasts at the SCORe Complex in Racine, Wisconsin.  Earlier in the day, the Crows reserves completed a three game sweep of that division to win their second straight Ressies title.

What everyone will remember about the main event, however, isn’t just that the Texan side took back their crown after a year of fermenting feelings, but rather that it was a game that showed the courage and resolve of both teams.

Of the six teams in the competition, all eyes were on the Crows, Roos, and LA Dragons on advancing to the Grand Final.  From Group B, the Crows and Dragons each knocked off a plucky but overmatched group from Quebec in their first matches to clinch their spot in Sunday’s semifinals.  Playing for top seed in the group and an avoidance of the champs the following morning, Nolan Cox and Austin outlasted Pat Nicholls and the Dragons, 25-13.

Over in Pool A, it was all Golden Gate.  Led by Jack Lucas, Ryan Clark, and Steve Balstead, the Roos got by New York and Denver by a combined 87-7 score.  The Magpies’ exciting 15-13 win over the 8-time D1 champion Bulldogs secured the other semifinal spot.

On Championship Sunday, the Roos were put to their paces by the Dragons, whom they accounted for in last year’s final to win their first D1 premiership.  They would triumph again by nine points, with eventual Paul Roos medal winner Chris Bagot and LA giving Kyle Johnson’s team everything they could handle.  In contrast, the Crows’ got off to a fast start over New York and romped to a 44-7 decision in their semi.

Despite the long rest in between games, Austin’s relatively bigger win had many thinking they were the form side, despite both teams playing their best games of the year over the course of the weekend.  Both undefeated, both coming into the final showdown with a full head of steam.

And all of it in front of a National TV audience.

The Crows’ draw the first turns of the Cooper’s scoreboard with a behind two minutes in, and applied all of the early pressure.  Hemming the Roos into their own fifty meter arc, it took a few minutes for the Gaters to switch the direction of the ball and find openings.  Just past the five minute mark, a center clearance found its way into the hands of forward David Jennings, who somehow got a kick away with Cox breathing down the back of his jumper.  The effort was true, and Roos were on top 6-1.

Sensing that the game now had a thick heartbeat about it, the Crows went back on the attack and Golden Gate parried away all that they could.  But Johnson, the Roos’ inspirational leader, made an uncharacteristic mistake.  Kicking from his defensive right half back flank, “Manly” made an unforced error, turning the ball over to Austin coach Stefan Barr.  Barr’s free kick found another Aussie veteran in Ben May, who recovered his own fumble and had the composure to slot one home from 15 meters out across his body to put his team back on top, 7-6.

Johnson turned the ball over to Barr, kicked into May, dropped the ball, picked it up and kicked a goal from 15 meters out across the body to put his side on top 7-6.

Two minutes later, Austin went down through four kicks to set up a free kick for another veteran, Grant Campbell, to slot home their second in a row.  Cox and fellow American wunderkind Daniel Brown smelt the blood in the water, but Johnson and the Roos stood tall to stop the bleeding.  Austin had the sway of play in the opening term, leading the inside 50 count 18-8, but only leading 14-7 on the cash register. 

Champions seize the moments that are given to them, and Campbell, having been through several of these sojourns with the murder, kept things rolling for his side.  35 seconds into the second stanza, an outside checkside goal extended the lead.  Despite the impending tsunami of navy, red, and gold heading their way, defenders Robert Humann and Matt Lege remained composed and stood in the way of the game becoming a rout.  Those deflections of attack led to Jake Ryan getting a genuine Roos scoring chance that was marked on the last line by Clements, who quietly had a solid game on the defensive side.

With Ben Carpenter-Nwanyanwu racking up the possessions en route to a Geoff Cann Medal, and with the crowd entertained by AFL umpire Ray Chamberlain faithfully performing boundary umpire duties, an Austin Crows victory seemed imminent.

But all was not over just yet; with six minutes left in the contest, young Josh Warren converted from a free kick to draw Golden Gate within fourteen points.  Kenrick Tyrell took the mark of the day for Austin down the stretch, but he could only manage a behind off the free kick.  Two more minors followed, putting the game at 30-13.

The Crows opponents on the day didn’t get to where they were on talent alone.  They got there on heart.  Miles and miles and miles of heart.  And the conclusion of the game wrought the most frantic two minutes in the 22 year history of the Men’s D1 Grand Final.

Warren took another mark and kicked his second in a row from 55 meters out with two minutes left to make it 30-19.  Scurrying back into the middle to make the most of the time remaining, Justin Mann won a quick hitout and again the Roos scratched out another free kick with Carpenter-Nwanyanwu was called for contacting Warren high.  When the Crow talisman failed to give the ball directly back to Warren, he was penalized fifty meters, bringing the Gater forward directly in front.

Warren kicked the apparent goal, but as the umpire hadn’t set the mark, meaning that Warren would have to retake the kick.  By the time the ball was retrieved from his first attempt and he properly kicked the six pointer, a further thirty precious seconds had eternally ebbed from the clock.  When the ensuing ball up was called, Austin had too many men in the enter square, giving Mann a free kick with ten seconds left, enough time for one last prove forward.

Mann gave the ball a mighty boot into a gaggle of players, but the ball fell harmlessly to the perfectly manicured grass.  The hooter followed soon after.  Game over.  Austin 30, Golden Gate 25.

The Roos had spent the better part of two decades getting to the top.  They got there, and they are still at the precipice and they will be there for a while.  Their 25 points tied with the 2011 Calgary Kangaroos for most points by a losing team in the D1 Grand Final.

But the day and the season belonged to the Austin Crows, who went through a 13 game season with no blemishes.  If the Denver Bulldogs’ seven championships made them the league’s first team of the decade, surely Stefan Barr’s side is locked in as the team of the 2010’s.

“We were pretty happy with the weekend,” said Barr, who was in his first year coaching the Crows. 
“We didn’t make it to that stage last year, something that we were disappointed with off the back of 2017.   To make the final was going to be a “pass” mark in 2018, but the goal was to win.”

Though the teams at the top of the D1 ranks have their share of skilled Australian players, the different between the teams is their American talent.  Since Barr’s arrival in 2013, the Crows have seen several waves of new locals come through to sustain their success.

“We’re lucky with the talent we have in Austin, talent helps others develop,” said Barr.  “It’s people returning the favor to the next generation.  The first generation of guys like Ben [Carpenter-Nwanyanwu] and Christian Merritt have given way to guys like Cox and Sam Gigliotti.  In our top five, three of our guys are Americans in that mix.”

Earlier on championship Sunday, the Crows’ reserve side won their second consecutive Reserves Division flag with a 3-0 record in the four team round robin format.  A 72-6 win over New York was followed by a tight 23-20 victory over Denver on Saturday afternoon.  Like their seniors side, the ressies had to deal with Golden Gate, and they skated home 57-16 victors to take the chocolates.  Ryan O’Malley took home the Cooper’s Medal for Most Consistent.

The Crows have a rare luxury in the USAFL in that they have enough players to have a seniors-reserves structure, and they played three games during the league season to prepare them for their run in Racine.  American Ben Altmann, who played in Sydney, brought a unique understanding of the game to the side’s coaching role.

“We saw them as a development side,” said Barr.  “We gave them three standalone games during the year including against Houston, Dallas, and Oklahoma.  We’re lucky to have the numbers we got, especially with the Americans, and hope to see some of them come up to D1 in the next year or two.

“I had faith in the side, and a lot of it came back to the American talent.  But we have a great culture; we keep ourselves hungry.  We had a camp at the beginning of the season and set the goal of winning two cups, and everyone agreed on the goals we set from the start.”



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