Maiden Heaven: San Fran Completes Three-Peat

Move over Rice-A-Roni, there’s a San Francisco Triple-Treat.

For the third straight year, the San Francisco Iron Maidens navigated the crowded waters of the USAFL Women’s D1 competition to be crowned National Champions.

But the story here wasn’t just that they did it, but who they defeated to get to the top in 2018.  The Seattle Grizzlies, just three years into their existence as a women’s program, reached the Grand Final in just their second go at Division 1.  Though they were whitewashed in the final game by twenty points, their campaign was a successful one, and planted the flag for future seasons to follow.

Both Grand Finalists advanced from Pool A.  Seattle blanked New York 20-0 in the early game, and went into their duel with the champs with a full head of steam.  Their performance over the Maidens in this year’s pool match was an improvement over their showing last year in San Diego and earlier this summer at the Western Regionals.  They only fell 15-0, and put together a solid effort behind ruck April Lewis, key defender Amelia Kahr, and rover Marian Dickinson.  The Maidens, led by their own star on-baller Elise Gallagher, accounted for San Francisco by six goals to clinch top spot in the group and secure Seattle’s place as runner up.

Pool B was billed as anyone’s to win, with upstart Portland, well-stocked Minnesota, and six-time champion Denver in the mix.  Portland’s defense in their Division 1 debut was superb; they allowed both opponents just 12 points each, but could only muster 10 against the Freeze and two against the Lady Bulldogs.  Though Minnesota and Denver knew they were onto the semi-finals, the winner of their game would ensure that their path to the Grand Final wouldn’t go through San Francisco.  In one of the best games of the tournament, Sara Rohner kicked two magical goals in the span of a minute to give Denver a 23-21 comeback triumph.

The semifinals were both even arm wrestles.  In both cases, the teams who combined for the last eight women’s D1 National championships faced upstarts who had played excellent football on Day 1 of Nationals and were looking to make their first Grand Final appearances.  The Maidens saw off the Freeze 10-7, though the Freeze announced themselves as contenders for the immediate future.  The Grizzlies, however, would end the Denver Lady Bulldogs’ eight year stay in the USAFL’s top two women’s sides.  Amanda Boe would account for all of the Emerald City scoring, kicking two goals as the Grizzlies defense held off Rohner and Denver by a 12-8 count.

Come the Grand Final, and though Seattle was still riding high from their semifinal triumph, they were down several players due to injury, and had no bench to supplement their fight against the defending champs.  That said, their determination and skills kept the contest a contest.

Early in the Grand Final, any probing opportunities by Seattle were easily marked.  Defensive star Bevin English may have been out of Nationals with a hand injury, but Meg Leone, Nikole McKenzie and Julie Marks took easy interceptions to hem Seattle in for most of the first half.

McKenzie, however, would be the lightning rod for the three-peat.  If the San Francisco Iron Maidens are the USAFL equivalent of the Beatles, McKenzie is perhaps their George Harrison.  Sometimes overlooked in the analysis of the team’s success, but equally as brilliant as the more well-known members of the squad.

The Modesto, California native was the impetus of the game’s first goal two-and-a-half minutes in.  After having a kick from fifty smothered by Stephanie Peterson, Julie Marks picked up the ball and handballed to Jessica Estrada who went back to Marks.  McKenzie cut through to relieve Marks of the ball as she was tackled by Lateah Holmes and booted home a pretty punt from 35 out to make it 6-0.

Then minutes later, after a behind made it 7-0, three more cogs of the Maidens machine manufactured another clockwork goal.  After Sara Magallón intercepted the ensuing kick-in, she floated the free kick in for Brette Brower, who dropped the ball but gathered her own crumbs in time to find Milli Bruce.   The Victorian forward instinctively snapped for goal and fitted it just inside the left goal post to extend the lead.

San Francisco held their structure well for the rest of the half; McKenzie’s rove work was cutting off the circulation to the Grizzlies bloodflow to their forwards, and Panda Nguyen was spoiling plays around the ground.  In all, Seattle could only penetrate the 50 meter arc twice in the opening twenty minutes, while San Fran had fourteen sorties forward.

Halftime came with the score 14-0, but the Grizzlies were still playing top quality football and still very much alive.  April Lewis was winning the ruck battle against Panda Nguyen; in the back line, Dominique Gaudyn was talking timely marks, Amelia Kahr was keystoning plays forward, Alesandra Alcocer was throwing shepherds to spring Holmes, and Peterson and Marian Dickinson kept fighting away to win crucial possessions.

Dickenson settled the Grizzlies down to start the second half for Seattle, who came out with a renewed vim and vigor, considering that they were down to their final twenty minutes of their season.  Nicole Kepron and Allison Leonard were chiseling out more inside 50 chances, with Amelia Kahr and Valerie Barber-Axthelm and Amelia Kahr pushing the ball forward.

But the Maidens had been here before; for all of the Grizzlies’ athleticism, the Maidens experience was enough to ensure that the Grizzlies would not trouble the scorers.  The Iron Maidens were better at maintaining possession, and up stepped Savannah Green, who earned two key free kicks including one from the doorstep at a slight angle.  Her kick on the latter was true, and at 20-0 with 13 minutes, the issue seemed settled.

With thirteen minutes left, Green’s connection would be the final score of the match.  That the Maidens kept the Grizzlies off the scoreboard was one thing, but that shorthanded Seattle kept San Francisco off the board other than that one kick for all of their final twenty minutes of the season was arguably more impressive.  Kahr, Corie Hou, and Rhyan Johnson earning possessions and digging forward.  Kahr, Johnson, Barber-Axthelm, and Dickinson kept throwing caution to the wind and desperately going after the ball and willing their team to remain in it with Estrada and Green pushing for another knockout blow.

The siren came and went with the Maidens joining the 2005-07 Atlanta Lady Kookaburras and 2010-2015 Denver Lady Bulldogs as three-peat winners, 20-0.  Nikole Mackenzie rightfully pocketed the Geoff Cann Medal for MVP of the Grand Final.

For the third straight year, San Francisco came through the fog of a bumpy campaign and soared into the blue skies of premiership glory.  Even with missing two of their best players in English and Carly Smolak, the rest of the squad stepped up throughout the weekend.

Gallagher, who played a pivotal role in her own right, was proud of her own team but also praised the Grizzlies in their Grand Final debut.

“The Grand Final was exciting for the Maidens because we have played the Grizzlies a few times in 2018,” the midfielder and GGAFL women’s director told USAFL.com, “but everything is different in the Final. Teams with less experience can come out winners because they have that desire and drive that got them to the championship in the first place.   It's who is the best team on the day. 

“As a team, we took deep breaths to calm down and remind ourselves to play our game, and we did. The Maidens play and thrive as a whole team and will continue to do so. We enjoy playing the Grizzlies, they are talented and play hard and clean. We look forward to seeing them on the field next year!”

Much like the Lady Bulldogs before them, the Maidens know the rest of the field is coming up to them fast, a challenge Gallagher recognizes and welcomes:

“The development in women's footy has been incredible with better skill, new teams, and growth of existing teams. Seattle is a prime example! They have grown a full D1 team in one year and then made it to the National's Grand Final in 2018, that's truly incredible. We are impressed and excited for more to come. Even as one of the largest clubs in the country, we still struggle with recruitment and development, but we will continue to work hard to grow the game and better our players.”

For Seattle’s part, Valerie Barber-Axthelm has seen the team she started bloom into a Grand Finalist in just two short years.  From a promising showing in D1 last year through this year’s finish and a team led by Roos Medal winner April Lewis, Val and the Grizzlies know this is just the beginning.

“To return to D1 this year was huge accomplishment, but we were hungry to do better than just play in D1,” the Oregon native said.  “We wanted to be contenders, to show that we had learned from a frustrating regional tournament and we were not to be overlooked.   Beating two very established and experienced teams, Denver and New York, did just that. Neither victory was handed to us, our team earned them.”

“Of course, next year our goal is to come home with the trophy. I am so incredibly proud of what we have achieved in the past year, especially with so many women playing their first full year of footy this year. How quickly we grew and progressed as a team is a testament to the support from the club, both men and women, and the Grizzly Community.”

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