Crows Fly, Freeze Burns, Dogs Howl at Centrals

Last month, it snowed in Colorado.  That's what happens when you're so far above sea level.

This past weekend, however, it was the opposite.  It was hot.  And though the sun wore down the combatants at this year's Central Regional Championship in Westminster, Colorado, it didn't deter from the quality of Aussie Rules played.

As the Rocky Mountains kept vigil over the proceedings, the home team's reserves took home the men's division 2 title, the Minnesota women teamed with Chicago and Wisconsin to put forth their names as challengers for a National title in October, and the Austin Crows won yet another [explitive] cup.

MEN’S DIVISION 1: CROWS TAKE HOME ANOTHER CUP TO THE NEST

With three teams having traveled to Denver to take part in the highest tier of the carnival, the division would be decided by matches of four fifteen-minute quarters.  Under hot Colorado sky, all of the teams were put to the test in matches that were twenty minutes longer than they would face at Nationals.

For the Minnesota Freeze, this was purely a measuring stick to see where they were against teams they would most likely face at Nationals later on.  Having won Division 2 last season, they will be moving up to D1 for the first time 2014.  In their first game against Denver, Mark Fischer’s team put up a gallant fight against the home side, led by Australian Leigh Dean.  The Bulldog forwards, led by Anthony Grippa, and defender Tim Wilson-Humphries and company, controlled the game but for some brilliance by the Northerners.  Denver went into their lunch break with a 57-point win in their pocket and a chance to win their first regional.

The Freeze, meanwhile, had one more game.  And it wasn’t about to get any easier.  Austin had been licking their chops to finally get onto the oval in search of their fourth CRC title in five years, and for lunch, they dined on Yeti.  Midfielder Harry Burgess was king of all he surveyed in the middle of the park, defender Mike Montgomery anchored a shutout on defense, and former Golden Gate Roo Jake Ryan was the link between the centers and forward line.  Though Minnesota’s day ended with an 86-0 rout, every player, to a man, called the day a vision of what they will be up against in Sarasota, and how they can cope with it.

But for the Bulldogs and Crows, sixty minutes and each other stood between themselves and lifting silverware at the Irish Rover in downtown Denver later that night.  The flagship club of the league’s first full decade vs the current dynasty in a showdown with the Rockies leering in the background.

By now, the weather had gone from blazingly hot to blustery, and the Crows took the win and sailed off to a lead behind coach Stefan Barr’s goal four minutes in.  Ryan and the venerable Kenrick Tyrell provided opportunities for Austin, but unlike their first game, the defense was more under attack.  Grippa and Lachlan Fleet took aim at the Crows goals, and the latter got his team on the board late in the first term to make the score 14-6 at quarter time.  The pace, the wind, and the scoring picked up in the second stanza, with the teams trading early goals.  Stefan Barr added another one, brother Dylan got the ball a bit, and Ben Carpenter-Nwanyanwu threw himself into the contest against Denver’s Tom Harkness.  Drew McMahan tackled Barr as he was going to deliver another goal.  Austin led 33-13 at the main break.

Austin had the wind again in the third and now tried to put the ball away behind Burgess, who would go on to win Best and Fairest.  Andy Vanica and the Denver defense met them toe-to-toe, and held the champs to just seven points.  That was the good news.  The Crows, however, were just a little bit better and prevented Denver from getting back into it.  Denver trialed 40-13 heading into the fourth quarter, and had the wind.  But this was the Crows; Ryan and Dylan Barr punched the ball forward again and again, and though Fleet got another goal late to close the gap, Austin was too strong, coming home 56-20 winners.

Crows coach Stefan Barr had complimentary words for his team, the competition, and on the tournament:

“Really well hosted by the USAFL and the Denver Football Club. I think the quality of play from all three clubs in Division 1 has improved in the past 12 months and full credit to Fish & Jarryd for overseeing their sides improvement. I think we'll see good representation from the central region in Florida.

“We're getting close to a level I'm comfortable with,” Barr continued, “but I was pleased with the development of some of our newer players, talking with Ben Altman (reserves coach) after the game, we were happy with the improvement of Salim Hajjar, Alex DiValerio & Will Stewart - three guys who had successful years in reserves last year & made a strong case to come up permanently in our D1 squad.”


WOMEN’S DIVISION: NORTHERN COMBINATION FREEZES OUT COMPETITION

With the retirement of many of the players who had brought them six straight titles at the beginning of the decade, the Denver Lady Bulldogs have been working hard to recruit players to help spawn the next run of titles.  Hosting regionals allowed a showcase of the growth, as 30 Bulldogs women turned out for the day.  This allowed there to be two Denver sides among the four competing.  The Bulldogs “Red” unit was made up of all Denver players, while the Bulldogs “Blue” team had a dozen home teamers, two players from Des Moines, two from Ohio Valley and three from North Star Blue Ox.  The teams were balanced with respect to veterans and rookies alike, and for many of the new players, this day would be their first competitive hitout in Australian rules football.

The other two teams in the field were made up of core teams from polar opposites of the region.  The Texas Heat, mostly Houston players alongside two from Austin and one from Dallas, was joined by the five rising stars from Nashville, and Arizona’s Melissa Wilhelm to form the South All Stars.  The North All-Stars were formed from a dozen Minnesota Freeze athletes, five from the Chicago Swans, and Wisconsin Wombats rookie, Caitlin O’Malley.

With seven current national team players in their ranks, the Northern team was installed as the favorite.  And in game one against the Bulldogs Blue, they held form.  Minnesotans Cathy Hoha and Catherine Georgiadis were misers with the footy, and Hoha’s three first-half goals pushed themselves in front.  But it wasn’t just her that was contributing to the scoreboard pressure, as Lindsey Stene and Chicago rookie Kelsey Lawson also peppered the posts.  The Bulldogs weren’t completely overmatched, despite the 60-8 final score, as veteran Anna Thexton provided a steady presence, and Denver local Tori Galvan showed poise as she racked up possessions.  The size of the win, as it turned out, was important for the Northerners’ title hopes.

Denver’s Red team, meanwhile, had their hands full with the Southern All-Stars, and with Nashville duo Natalie Smith and Alexa Roncancio.  Smith’s defensive prowess and Roncancio’s helter-skelter midfield play confused Denver.  But Western Australian native Tess Maisey stood tall, and with Freedom veteran Jess Gray in full form, the Bulldogs outlasted the Southerners 17-9 in a well-earned performance.

The two Doggies teams switched dance partners for round two, and this time the Blues had to deal with both the heat and the Heat.  Thexton was magnificent in this match, creating early chances for her team and showing the steady determination that has made her one of the league’s most consistent players over the past dozen years.  This was easily the best game of the day, a game that flowed as well as any women’s game this reporter has seen in the past five seasons. 

Texas’s Hailey Rebar, in her first major event as captain, used her frame to shepherd for her quicker teammates.  She was also there to keep her teammates in line when the game got physical.  The addition of Wilhelm was an important one; she kicked the opening goal of the match off of a soccered goal that seemingly channeled Megan Rapinoe.  The South lead at the halftime break by seven points, and with Thexton and Juliet Moya pushing for the go ahead score, it wasn’t to be, and the South team hung on by three points.

Minnesota’s train kept on-a-running in their sandwich match, as again it was Georgiadis leading the charge in a 40-13 decision over the Bulldogs Red.  With the North and South tangling in the final game, the South not only had to overcome the Northern side to win the day, but also had to do it to the tune of about fifty points to make up the percentage gap.

Smith and the Southern defense had to stand up big against the Northerners.  So did Rebar and Heather Serpico, making her Heat debut.  But Hoha was magnificent again, as she the rest of the offense went all sentinel like on their foes, and though the game was closer than the 37-7 score indicated, Minnesota, Chicago, and Wisconsin had a squeaky clean record, Georgiadis had a best-and-fairest medal, and there was a trophy heading back to the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

For the other three teams, including the “Mixed” Blue Bulldogs, who got their first win of the day, a four-pointer, in their finale, there was a lot of optimism to be had.  The Heat and Kangaroos will be formidable come October, Des Moines and the Blue Ox will be welcome additions to any team in D2, and the Bulldogs depth will be deadly with games under their belt.


MEN’S DIVISION 2: OLD ‘DOGS LEARN NEW TRICKS, LIFT CUP AT HOME

The six teams in Divvy two found themselves in a two-game showdown shootout to advance to the grand final later in the day.  And the Nashville Kangaroos, who had seen five players become available to make the trip over to Denver last minute, was ready in spades.

In Pool A play, Nashville teamed up with four players from Wisconsin to face Chicago, a team they had already turned aside this season, combined with players from and Des Moines.  The Roos also had a bit of a secret weapon; the addition of free agent Jason Wilhelm, whose height and strength gave Nashville a little something extra.

The Kangaroos combo would win both of their matches.  But they were not easy at all, and in both cases, the lead was like a playground see-saw.  Flying Scotsman Stu Nicol, and Des Moines loanee Peter Bailey, put scoreboard pressure on the Kangaroos, and on fullback Dee Vstecka and the defensive core.  But the running of Kersi Davis, John Freeman, and the scoring prowess of Eric Topfer, was enough to hold off the Swans by 11 points. 

Game two against Houston was even tighter, and a draw was even on the cards coming down the stretch, with Houston’s Aaron Tenbuuren and William Weikel starring offensively.  But Davis was the star again, and so was Wilhelm, whose rucking ability, and go-ahead goal, but Nashville and company into the final, to play for their first-ever regional title.

Pool B came down to a final match between Denver’s reserves and the Dallas Dingoes, who were supported by last year’s D2 champions, the Ohio Valley River Rats.  Both teams were winners earlier in the day over Oklahoma, though the Okies put in two valiant efforts led by Andrew Rose and Stephen Rasbold.  Denver’s “B” team was not made up of scrubs; players from the clubs’ halcyon days, including Brent Dowling, Rich Mann, and Phillip Camping, were too much for Dallas and on went the Doggies into the Grand Final.

The ‘Roos and ‘Dogs came together for the final in a breezy and increasingly cloud Westminster City Park.  They also came together in one of the most jarring contests of the day.

Jason Wilhelm inserted himself almost instantly into the play, taking a huge mark in the game’s third minute, and converting to put Nashville in front.  Denver’s old hands, Mann, Camping, Ben Harling and Geoff Shakespear, responded by lifting their intensity level and making the ‘Roos earn every ball from there on out.  The hard work led to the tying goal.  The Nashville defense tightened up like a snare drum in kind, led by Frosty Harris and eventual Best & Fairest winner, John Freeman.  As the madness escalated, another longtime Bulldog veteran, Max Eckstein, took a key high mark from in front, converting it for his team’s second goal.  Denver was up 12-7 at recess, but there was still all to play for.

Nashville could smell their first regional title in sniffing distance, and forward Brad Chamberlin brought them on top of the plate of spaghetti with a converted free-kick four minutes in to put Nashville on top by a single point.  But Bulldogs President Steve Noble wasn’t about to let his team drop a Grand Final on home turf.  Towards the midway point of the period, Noble took a loose ball from a pack, dropped the ball on the outside of his shoe, and put home what turned out to the game-winning goal.  With game MVP Brent Dowling leading the defense, and the Kangaroos asking more questions but getting no answers, Denver clung onto their five-point lead like a kid hanging onto a teddy bear.  They held on to win its first men’s regional championship, 19-14.

Posted in