Season Preview Part IX - Womens West

What a long, strange trip it’s been.  We’re finally at the last of the nine part season preview series.  And we saved the best for last.

Just as it has in the men’s game, the West has produced some of the best women’s football, and, owing to the fact that Denver was in this region up until last season, an astounding nine D1 championships on the trot, as well as all four D2 titles contested.

That’s impressive.

Everyone in the league will be trying to stop the San Francisco Iron Maidens from becoming the second women’s team to win four D1 premierships, as well as the third team – men or women’s – to win four in a row.

From the desert risers, to the roaring bears, the shining daughters of NorCal, the fighting fish of the Multnomah, and the firebreathers of La La land, the women who play the game on the left coast are set to produce one of the best seasons in memory.  The Western Regionals on July 27th in Salem should be something to see.


2018 Nationals:                 2-2          4th Place, Division 2 (w/ Calgary, Nashville and North Star)

2018 Recap: A USAFL women’s original, the Lady Hawks have ebbed and flowed in the last several years in terms of numbers.  They got a shot in the arm in 2015 when the USA Freedom Camp was held there, and last season saw a number of highly touted recruits come in to help bolster the side.  One of the biggest acquisitions was former Colorado School of Mines soccer player Dani Marshall, who as it turns out was the best rookie in the USAFL women’s competition.  The Hawks played to a 1-1-1 stalemate against the Outlaws and New York combo at the Rob Dollar tournament, but notched a satisfying 20-point win on the road against a talented LA Dragons outfit.  Sending seven players to Sacramento for regionals, the Hawks split their ranks with three players playing for Sacramento, and four playing for Sacramento.  The seven, which included Marshall, Freedom player Melissa Armstrong, and Gaelic convert Casey Troy, impressed onlookers and helped both sides immensely.  Four Lady Hawks went to Nationals to play alongside Calgary, Nashville, and North Star in a 2-2 result for the weekend, but it was Marshall who shone brightest, achieving the rare feat of winning the Roos Medal in her debut tournament.

Key Matchups: “Key Matchup: The AZ Lady Hawks are excited to travel to Denver for their first matchup of the season on June 8th. The Hawks will be pairing up with the LA Dragon women's side to clash with the Denver Bulldogs. With some heavy recruiting during the off-season, the Lady Hawks look to bring at least 5 rookies to the match and are excited about their debut. Paired with some strong support from the veteran players, they are looking to surprise the Lady Bulldogs. With the Bulldogs being in a different region and in a different division at nationals in 2018 it has been over a season since the two teams have met in a game and it will be a good test to see if the Lady Hawks are ready to soar in 2019.” – James Bingaman, Vice President

2019 Outlook: As I type this, Marshall is in Melbourne right now on a trial with the Western Bulldogs of VFLW, but she is just part of the story that is the Arizona Lady Hawks.  Just like in 2015, the 2019 Freedom Camp has attracted new players as well to join an already stellar sophomore class. Troy, Cassie Cox, and Leigh Honzatko were also bright spots for Arizona in their first seasons with the team, and midfield speedster Olivia Huesing also had a sparkling rookie campaign.  Their game against Denver will be a great test for them ahead of regionals in Oregon, seeing as though the Lady Bulldogs will be full of sophomores in their own right.  And though Florida is a long, long way from the Sun Devil State, it will be great to see them compete at Nationals again this season.  Recruiting has been really good so far; hopefully they can bring a majority side to Division 2 to challenge for the premiership.

2018 Nationals:                 2-2          3rd Place, Division 2 (w/ Texas)

2018 Recap: After a successful first full season in the back pocket of LA’s women’s team and a 3-1 finish at Nationals, the Dragons came into 2018 looking for more players to join the fleet.  A loss to the Arizona Hawks to begin the year was remedied in July, when five Dragons joined forces with Portland to take out the Western Regional flag.  The SoCal quintet all contributed to the triumph, with midfield sensation Yui Kawakatsu having the best day of them all.  With good hit-out against Denver in the summer, the Dragons and Texas Heat were paired, and the two biggest surprises of the 2017 Nationals were poised to make a championship run.  They ended up in 3rd at 2-2, and once again the teal-and-orange contingent proved potent, with Kawakatsu having another fantastic carnival and Liberty forward Leilani Silvio coming in third overall in the Paul Roos voting.

From the club: “The Dragons women are even hungrier to make a big splash this season and grow as a team while cultivating our current team. This year, almost all of our current roster of players are looking to make the Freedom/Liberty teams, so main priority has been development alongside recruitment. We strongly believe the talent of our team matches up against some of the high profile full side squads, and hope to bring the heat into the competition once we can continue to bring in more talent.”

Key matchups: “We always look forward to playing against San Francisco. They have the talent and competitive drive as well as the experience that backs them as the best team in our league. We've beat them in one on one games in the past (in LA as well as in SF paired with Sac) in addition to beating them at Western Regionals alongside Portland. It shows that we're right up there with them in terms of talent and bring a different competitive edge than I think they're used to in the past. This year we're planning to target more games by pairing up with the Arizona Hawks, and together, I think we can make a huge difference in the women's competition.”

2019 Outlook: The core of a successful team is there for Los Angeles, it’s just a matter of building up their numbers in order to build it up, and they’re getting there.  This talent has been recognized by Freedom coach Christina Licata and her staff, as Kawakatsu, Silvio, and Aileen Yoon are all headed for the Training Squad camp in Racine.  Kawakatsu, who was her team’s best and fairest in 2018, is poised for a breakout year in 2019, and the Dragons are expecting a lot from sophomore player Kelsey Casillas.  Casillas, no relation to the venerable New York defender of the same surname, is a natural athlete who has picked up Aussie Rules swiftly.  This is a group that deserves to be playing for a National Championship, and this year looks like a good one for it.

2018 Nationals:                 1-2          5th Place, Division 1

2018 Recap: Winning doesn’t get old when you make more friends along the way.  For three years, the Fish of the Rose City were part of the Division 2 Championship teams.  In 2017, however, they were the main article.  With a handful of Philly Hawks in their ranks, the Sockeyes ran table, won another trophy, and went flying headlong into 2018 like some sort of flying fish.  A new batch of recruits donned the sky and salmon, and from the get go, all appearances were that of a banner breaking year.  It was an epic tug of war with their rivals to the North from Seattle all season, but the piece-de-resistance was going down to Sacramento and winning their second regional in three seasons.  Aussie veteran Lucy Parrington won best-and-fairest on that blazing July day, but with veterans Simone Shepherd and Heather Serpico in control, the Sockeyes/Dragons combo looked neigh unbeatable.  That momentum looked to carry into Portland’s first ever berth in Division 1 women’s at Nationals.  Led by Jess Blecher, fresh from a year in Australia, the Sockeyes allowed just 24 points in their two pool games.  Unfortunately, they only scored twelve, and lost both.  An 11-7 win over New York in the consolation match, however, put a punctuation on the statement, “we’ll be back, and we’ll be better.”

From the team: “In 2018, after years of hard work and recruiting by the indomitable Heather Serpico, the Portland Sockeyes finally reached the highest level of womens footy in the U.S, competing in Division 1 at the USAFL Nationals.”

2019 Outlook: After an unlucky end to their season last year, Portland is primed not just to swim upstream, but to power over the waves.  Looking up and down the lineup, there are players who excel at different aspects of the game.  Shepherd is the Swiss Army knife of the bunch; she can ruck, defend, bowl you over, and then kick a goal.  Parrington’s experience in ice hockey has allowed her to cut through the middle of the ground like a knife through a tomato, and she’ll be accompanied on the ball by rookie Gabby Johnson and tagging specialists Aman Weaver and Lindsay Schmonsees.  Five of Coach Martin Coventry’s charges will be in Racine for the Freedom Camp; current exports Jessica Blecher (Collingwood VFLW) and Olivia Artaiz (UCC Cork), second year stars Brandy Machado and Lauren Williams, and New York transfer Lauren Skonieczny.  “Schnitz” joins fellow former Magpie Serpico as well as gridiron converts Hollie Petrie and Tara Krugel up front with their metaphorical pick axes looking to mine some goals.  The gridiron and roller derby lineage shows through in the hard hitters, and with Erin “Raven Mad” Mahony and skillful utility Zaya McSky in the midst, opponents will need to hold on to the football or suffer the scoreboard consequences.

2018 Nationals:                 4-0          Premiers, Division 1

2018 Recap: Any doubts as to the legitimacy of the Iron Maiden’s claim to the Iron Throne of USAFL Women’s were erased on that hot Nationals Sunday in 2017 when they triumphed a second time over mighty Denver.   Whereas the run up to the titles of the past two seasons was rather non-descript, San Francisco’s 2018 campaign was more promising despite the injury bug that would crop up.  Bookended with losses to Sacramento at the beginning and end of the season, the Maidens’ best showing of the regular year was at Regionals in Sacramento, when they dispatched the Suns and Grizzlies, only to fall to Portland/LA in the final game; arguably the match of the year.  They finished the year with a 2-0 sweep at the East-West Showdown in New York, but couldn’t overcome the Suns, losing by 1 point in their season finale.  Despite Carly Smolak out the entire year with an ACL injury, and with All-World defender Bevin English a late injury loss, San Francisco’s depth installed them as the favorite for the three-peat.  Though challenged by New York and Seattle in group play, the Maidens made quick worth of both to go to the Semi-finals.  Sunday morning saw them arm-wrestling with a determined Minnesota team, but even with the Freeze throwing everything from the hotel kitchenettes at them, the Maidens went through by three points.  A rematch with the Grizzlies in front of a National TV audience loomed, and though the shorthanded Grizzlies put up a supreme effort, the Maidens were much the best, with best-on-ground Nicole Makenzie leading San Francisco to that coveted third cup.

2019 Outlook: With a distinguished playing career behind her, Smolak, now head coach, had the task of leading the Maidens to finish the decade with National Championship number four, and bring them another step closer to the Bulldogs’ mark of six-on-the-trot.  Eight Maidens made the Freedom training squad; that part isn’t a surprise.  What is a surprise, however, is that five of those names are Freedom camp debutantes.  Ellise Gallagher, Caitlin Lutz, Annica Stull-Lane, Panda Nguyen, and Sophia Rutkin have all been a part of the Maidens’ success during this stretch. But that they all got picked alongside veterans Meg Leone, Robyn Leslie, and new acquisition Katie Klatt, shows how deep the champs’ bench runs.  Nguyen came into her own in the ruck last year, if she can round off her rucking technique she will be even tougher to stop in the contests.  The addition of Klatt, coming home from her 2.5 seasons at Melbourne University, takes an already good defensive half and throws in another layer of steel.  Of the up-and-comers, Lutz is the most primed for a breakout year; her work around the ball was keenly effective at Westerns and in Racine and was a key part of the championship.  The forward line looks as dangerous as ever, with Jess Estrada, Sara Magallon, Milli Bruce, and youngster Savannah Green all returning.  There have been questions with other teams about making cross-country trips to Nationals, but the Maidens, having won their first of their three in Sarasota, have already proven they can win at Premier Sports Campus.  They will look to win their first regionals in four years, and then go on in search of a four-peat at Nationals.

2018 Nationals:                 4-0          Premiers, Division 2

2018 Recap: 2018 marked the 10th season that the Sacramento AFC (once the Saints, then the Screamers, then the Suns) have sent a women’s team to Nationals.  The ledger hadn’t been totally kind to the Suns, whose improvement year after year as a club and as a playing unit had been steady and strong.  Injuries and life took hold, but as the season went on, a talented and competitive bunch of Lady Suns traversed the campaign.   And early season upset over San Francisco was followed by a robust showing in Oregon against the Sockeyes despite the heavy loss.  Hosting Western Regionals, the Suns, playing with several Arizona Hawks players, tested the Maidens and Sockeyes but fell, but salvaged the weekend triumphant in a 7-3 struggle over Seattle.  Finishing the season with a 1 point win over San Francisco to win the season series, Sacramento headed to Racine, determined to make the most out of their demotion to Division 2.  But here, a group of women who had always come away with moral victories stood a real chance of getting a tangible one.  They would team up with Montreal and run the gauntlet; Led by Freedom forward Liz Danielson, they would go 3-0, putting the cherry on top with that exciting ten-point win over Columbus in the deciding match.  Ten years on from their founding, the Lady Suns were wearing National Championships medals.

From the team: “Last year was a rebuilding year for the Lady Suns. We had several players with major injuries, others who had moved away or moved on with life changes; look out Nationals 2040 we're repopulating the future Lady Suns roster! Unfortunately, we had to drop to Division 2 as we didn't have the commitment to bring a full team to Nationals in Racine. Until the week of, we were unsure who our team would be paired up with (many changes happened last minute as numbers changed and expanded for several other women's teams).  It was stressful and nerve wracking week for our coach, Brad Anderson. Going in with little to no knowledge, we were paired up with the Montreal Angels and the Wisconsin Wombats. This ended up being the dream team, and this combo team, who coined the name SWangels, swept the Division 2 competition and came home the trophy! This was a career ending highlight for former Lady Suns Coach, who had announced his retirement prior to Nationals. For 2019, we are recruiting heavily and early hoping to get our numbers up for the season. All our veterans are excited for the new season and the new opportunities and we are riding the high from last year's National Tournament." -Makenzie (Seckora) Carr

Key Matchups: “I think our Lady Suns are looking forward to all of our games as all the women's teams have progressed in such a short period of time. Take both Portland and Seattle for example, in just 2 years they have both fielded full teams and entered the Division 1 Women's Competition. Our team is eager to field a full team for 2019 and return back into Division 1”

2019 Outlook: There are plenty of rays of sunshine lighting the way to this season coming from the Golden State capital.  The Suns have always been one of the tightest in terms of club culture, and they are one of the best recruiters across the USAFL.  There are good players in abundance wearing the red and gold, three of whom are in the Freedom Training Squad.  Erika Titus-Lay and Erin Graham are two new Freedon call-ups; Graham is a versatile mid who can create chaos in and around the center square, while Titus-Lay has the key outlet defensively, with her booming kicks coming from the back of the pack.  Rosie Kloh, who missed all of 2018 with an ACL injury, has from all accounts come out from her setback a fitter footballer than before, and the Freedom defender provides a tall option not only on defense, but in the ruck contests as well.  Bruising midfielder Anysia "Nysi" Avila will be clearing the way in the center of the park for the forwards, with Oanh Nguyen and the possible return of defender-turned forward Chiara Adamo.  It would be great for the competition to see Sacramento return to Division 1, and if they do they should be the most competitive side we’ve seen them field.

2018 Nationals:                 2-2          Runners-Up, Division 1

2018 Recap: At the beginning of 2016, there was no Seattle Grizzlies women’s team.  And I’m sure if you travelled back in time to the spring of that year and told followers of the league that the Seattle Grizzlies would play in the Division 1 Grand Final just two years later, they would probably freak out because time travel isn’t a thing yet.  All the same, after stunning Montreal at the 2017 Nats to end their D1 debut at 1-2, there was enough promise around the Grizz to light up a small room.  But after dominating Vancouver in BCAFL play for most of the spring, a winless Western Regionals brought expectations back down to earth, despite April Lewis taking out her second straight best-and-fairest.  After sweeping Portland and Minnesota in the Stumpdown Throwdown in August, and Portland accounting for them by 37-points in September, Seattle’s prospects at Nationals seemed more of the dark-horse variety than an actual threat.  They blanked New York 20-0 in their opener, and though they themselves were whitewashed 15-0 at the hands of the Maidens, they had played the Maidens as tough as Denver had in years past.  They were, however, hurting for numbers and were thin heading into their match against the Lady Bulldogs.  But this was a team that had come too far not to seize the moment; Seattle held Denver’s potent attack to just one goal, and Amanda Boe kicked two of the biggest goals of her life to put the Grizzlies onto the final.  The Maidens may have gotten the ultimate say, but to all observers, Lewis, Amelia Kahr, and the Emerald Girls won admiration for what they had accomplished.

From the team: “2019 was a great year for the Seattle Grizzlies Women’s team. After have been formed for only one and half years, the team put themselves on the map in 2018 by winning Stumptown in Portland and taking 2nd place in the Div 1 National Championships. Furthermore one of our strongest players, April Lewis, made the jump to Australia playing for the Essendon football club in the VFL.  In 2019, our objective is to build on 2018 by recruiting additional talent as well further developing our existing list. Our team is very hungry for success with our eyes squarely on the main prize of winning the Div 1 National championship.” - coach David Tomaselli

2019 Outlook: The Grizzlies’ rise has generated a lot of excitement about the USAFL Women’s competition, coupled with the equal rise of their rivals from Portland.  They are unbeaten in BCAFL play as of this writing, and last weekend staved off a combined Edmonton/Vancouver side by two points.  While April Lewis is in Australia as a member of Essendon’s VFLW list and Valerie Barber-Axthelm is headed overseas as well, the core of the Grizzlies is formed by the other six Freedom call-ups, as well as an exciting mix of new talent.  Of the vets, Boe has continued her goalscoring ways in the BCAFL season, and the former Washington University-St Louis soccer goalkeeper is beginning to emerge as a goal square target.  Australian midfielder Marian Dickinson is the engine that makes this bear train go, as she consistently racks up the touches to create opportunities for Rhyan Johnson the blazing quick Alisandra Alcocer, and skillful rookie Rachel Blum.  Across the defensive half, athletic Amelia Kahr and Tegan Hamilton keystone a defensive unit that is arguably the most athletic in the league.  Lateah Holmes’ ball movement and quick clearances were impressive, and the smarts displayed by Alison Leonard, Stephanie Peterson, and Dominique Gaudyn from the defensive arc can outduel most opponents.   The Grizzlies will have the longest travel of any of the mainland USAFL teams to get to Nationals, but if they can bring the full complement of players to Sarasota, they’ll have another medal hanging ‘round their necks on Sunday night.

Photo: Ray Kwan Photography

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