That Was the Year That Was 2018

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, 'It will be happier.'” – Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Lo, Earth hath done her cosmic duty, oblivious to the deeds and tasks of men and women living upon her.  She cares not that we are all going to drink and be merry tonight to celebrate an arbitrary cycle of time, she just does her thing.

And much like Earth, the USAFL continues to do its thing.  The league’s age pales in comparison to that of the pale blue dot – though we are of legal drinking age now, which will be good news for our friends at Cooper’s.  And yet, this year has had much happening on the field and off of it, from changes in leadership, to new clubs springing up, and the prospect of the Aussie Rules’ popularity growing with the stature of a 6’11” Texan ruckman.

2018 was a pretty good year.  And here’s why.

Busy Busy Busy Busy

Preluding the 2018 playing campaign was one of the busiest offseasons that anyone who has been around the USAFL can remember.  From a league standpoint, it was the beginning of a new stage in league history with the election of a new board at the 2017 AGM in October. 

Six of the seven positions were filled by new members; the only exception being longtime veteran player and coach, Sebastian Aguiari.  The California native, who began his career with Golden Gate before going to Orange County, Portland, and then back to OC, became Western VP in 2016.  He was elevated to president in late December, 2017, when Steve Grandfield stepped down.

Since taking over as president, Augiari has overseen the creation of a number of committees, including the Development, Sponsorship, and Competition Committees, to help develop ideas and actions to get more people involved and to help grow the league’s structure and sustainability.

From a club standpoint, by fusion and fission and all points in between, USAFL club membership ballooned to 42 teams, with representation in 27 states.  It started last year, when Tulsa and Oklahoma City merging to form the Oklahoma Football Club in October.  Then in December, the Baltimore-Washington Eagles expanded into the Baltimore Dockers and DC Eagles.  2018 saw the creation of a second team in Phoenix, with the Arizona Outlaws joining the fray in February, followed by the Maine Cats in April.  The next month saw two more teams come in from the South, with the Jacksonville Saints and Rome Redbacks being added to the family. 

Finally, in June, the Columbus ARFC aligned themselves with the Geelong Football Club and took on the Cats moniker.

Foreign Legion

More than a dozen American born-and-raised players played football in Australia in 2018 as part of the league’s Australia-US exchange program.  Pulling on jumpers for clubs in four states and the Northern Territory, our men and women made their mark this year and continued to make progress for themselves and for others going over in the future.

On the women’s side, Sacramento’s Katie Klatt had a sterling season at fullback in her second season for Melbourne University Mugars of VFLW.  Playing alongside and against many AFLW players over the course of the season, Klatt made the team best four times during the season, including a best-on-ground performance in April against Geelong.  Portland’s Jess Blecher experienced a meteoric rise in her stock; after starting the year with Nightcliff of the NTFL, she moved to Keilor FC of the Essendon District league in Victoria and helped lead the Blues to a Grand Final appearance.  Her play garnered attention from AFLW and VFLW clubs, especially with the women’s competition expanding over the next couple of years.

Columbus midfielder Katrina Scherer arrived at Bond University late in the season to provide goal scoring ignition, including a two game stretch when she booted home eight goals.  Late in the year, Seattle’s Amelia Kahr and April Lewis travelled over to take part in a combine as part of the CrossCoders program alongside prospective players from Europe, Canada, and Fiji.

Several American men led the charge overseas in 2018, led by Los Angeles’ Sam Murphy; the Dragons’ tall man appeared for the West Perth Falcons reserves, making the most of his chances in the ruck.  Alex Aurrichio, the former New York Magpie ruck, made an impression with the SANFL’s South Adelaide at the end of the season, impressing observers in the Festival State as the Panthers made a run to the finals.  Columbus Cat Clyde Simpson took the Jeparit-Rainbow Storm to an impressive premiership run in the Country Victorian league of Horsham Districts.  Tyler Ames (Denver), Gabe Martin Del Campo (Los Angeles), Buddy Spohn (OC Bombers), Brian Traut (Minnesota), and Brian Rippeto (Denver) also put in solid campaigns at the regional level across Victoria.

Roll Up -- It's the Magical Mystery Tour!

The Great Summer Road Show rolled on for its fourth year, as the Regional Championships Series took place in Philadelphia, Nashville, and Sacramento.  Last year saw favorites take out the cups, and though Austin, Golden Gate, and the Denver Lady Bulldogs all held serve as champions, there were some upsets in the offing.

On a rainy day in Philly, the ERC produced two stunning results, as the reign of New York as the unquestioned beasts of the East came to an end.  The homestanding Philly Hawks upended the ‘Pies men to take home their first regional D1 title, while Baltimore-DC and Boston combined to defeat the Magpies women in a tough encounter that was decided late in the second half.  Columbus nudged out Boston on percentage to take out D2.

There were no real surprises in the Central Region, as both Austin’s men and Denver’s women plowed through the competition to take home the bikkies in Nashville, and Ohio Valley claimed their first ever regional title out of the men’s D2.  Out west, Golden Gate marched to their third straight Western flag from men’s D1, but the hot afternoon in Sactown was a great day for the Rose City.  The Portland Steelheads teamed up with the Arizona Hawks to win the men’s D2, while the Sockeyes ladies lifted their second Western chalice in three years, teaming up with a talented grouping from LA.

Revos in Ireland, and the Summer Camp

With IC17 in the rear view and 2020 dead ahead, Tom Ellis took a team of perspective national team players to Ireland.  Some of the 25-man squad had missed out on the Cup roster from the year before, while others were new recruits getting their first crack at the National team level.  Topped off with Revos veterans such as Philly-turned-LA gunner Ryan McGettigan and Denver/DC defender Peter Taylor, Ellis and company spent a week on the Emerald Isle playing three games.

All reports from the coaching staff and observers report an encouraging showing from the red-white-and-blue in two losses to the Irish Warriors, sandwiched around a midweek loss to the Belfast Redbacks.  The Revos led three-quarters of the way through the final match against the Warriors but fell in the end by 25 points.  Still, there was a great amount of upside from the trip, as players took in the tour and used it to further their game for club and country.

Three weeks after returning home, Ellis held the first IC2020 Revolution Camp in Richmond, Virginia.  Over 50 players were put through their paces as the staff eyes talent for the next world carnival in Melbourne – which is now in just twenty months’ time – and the 2021 Trans-Atlantic Cup in Great Britain.  The Revos are aiming for three teams in Melbourne: the seniors, a seconds, and a youth team.

Freedom Camp, and the Growth of Women’s Footy

From her time in Arizona with the Lady Hawks through her role in co-founding the New York Magpies women’s side and her stint with the national team, Christina Licata has seen just about everything in the USAFL’s women’s program.  In 2018, she was selected to take it into its future as head coach of the Freedom, becoming the first American, the first woman, and the first former player to take up the role.

Her first glances towards IC2020 and the T-A Cup 2021 began with camp in Denver in the shadows of Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.  Dozens of women, among the best in the nation, came with hopes of wearing the Statue of Liberty as part of the Freedom and Liberty.

As has been the case in almost every season since the first women’s competition in 2005, more clubs added women’s programs to their ranks this year, and start up programs saw their numbers rise as well.  Chicago and Nashville were two of the biggest stories, as both were on display at the Central Regionals as part of the Midwest All-Stars side.  Philadelphia, Columbus, Baltimore-Washington, and North Star Blue Ox all had new players, while Portland made their Division 1 debut at Nationals.

Hello, Mr. American Pie!

Mason Cox’s first twenty games in the AFL were feast and famine.  In his maiden two seasons with Collingwood, the big Texan slotted home 25 goals, but his presence with the club was met with polarizing opinions from the Magpie faithful down under, with many calling for him to be sent back to the VFL to improve, or to be sent back to the oil fields of Dallas.

But coach Nathan Buckley had faith in his big, angular ruck, even when he was suspended for one game following an incident in the opener.  Still had faith him after a rough patch through the first two months of the season.  Then, Cox’s production picked up.  In an eleven game stretch, he kicked goals in ten of them – Fifteen in all, including a bag of five against Melbourne in Round 12. 

Collingwood finished second, and Cox became the first born-and-bred American to play in an AFL finals match.  After two non-descript games in the first two rounds of the finals, many expected the same from Mason Cox in the preliminary final – even if he didn’t know what that was.

Instead, Cox booted home three goals, bringing a full and raucous MCG to its feet, chanting “U-S-A!” over and over again.  Not even a president could do that.  His performance and the Magpie win brought media attention from both sides of the Pacific, boosting the profile of the man and highlighting his journey and the footballing community here in the States.  Cox and the ‘Pies fell to West Coast in the Grand Final, but the legend of the American Pie has grown, and may continue to grow in 2019.

Aussie Rules, On Wisconsin

2018 marked my eleventh USAFL National Championships, and I, nor any of the more seasoned league veterans, had ever seen a Nationals the likes of the one that occurred in Racine, Wisconsin in October.  The city of Racine rolled out every sort of figurative red carpet they had on hand.  Never before had a host city embraced the carnival the way the Belle City did, and it not only welcomed players and fans, but an array of names from the sports world.  Mason Cox, Erin Phillips, Sarah Perkins, and Matthew Dellavadoya were all among the names who came to Nationals and to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of USA-Australian Mateship.

For the first time since the expansion of divisions in 2001, none of the seven competitions were contested with eight teams.  This led to semi-finals and finals matches being played on Sunday, and out of the five divisions that had Grand Finals, four of them were rematches from Saturday afternoon.  The Austin Crows staked their claim to dynasty status for the 2010s, dispatching of Golden Gate for their fourth Men’s D1 title in six years.  The reserves side turned away Denver to complete their first ever double premiership.  Elsewhere, The San Francisco Iron Maidens became the third women’s team to three-peat at Nationals, shutting out surprise package Seattle in the D1 decider.

Minnesota (6 years) and Philadelphia (16 years) erased championship droughts in Men’s D2 and D3 respectively on the weekend, the former denting Portland’s unbeaten record not once, but twice.  Baltimore ended their marathon first year with a D4 victory over a combined Arizona Outlaws/Las Vegas/Seattle-B outfit, and the Sacramento Lady Suns, Montreal Angels, and Wisconsin Wombats came together to win their first National Championships out of the Women’s D2.

And that’s a wrap for the year.  Thank you, our friends, players and fans, for making it another good one.  I’ll see you in 2019.

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