That Was the Year That Was 2019

Time knows no boundaries.  It is us as humans who set them.

And the ones we have set mark two things.  One, that this year of 2019 is coming to an end in a matter of days, and with it the end of the second decade of the 21st century.

The end of any year is a good time for reflection.  At least, that’s what the media has told us, and so we follow.  And being a part of the media, I guess, here we have this article.  But because in a few days the New Year will end with a zero, that inward retrospective stretches back deeper, not just personally, but to that of our surroundings.

We all know where we were ten years ago compared to now.  Hopefully you, the person who are reading this, are in a better place than at the beginning of the decade.  If not, there are better things on the horizon for you I promise.  You may not be exactly where you want to be, but I’m sure there things you have accomplished that fill you with pride.  And you can build from that.

2019 brought down the curtain on the second full decade in which the United States Australian Football League has existed.  For a league and a program that has been around as it has, the prospect of breaking barriers, physical and otherwise, is still met with incredulity.  But it happened.  On and off the field, to and fro, the sport of Australian Football in the USA grew and set up the next year in ways that makes the imagination spark with possibilities.


THE CLASS OF 2019

As if some unique form of manifest destiny, the USAFL map expanded into both charted and charted territory.  Three of the five teams joining in the Class on 2019 shored up the southeast as one of the fastest growing regions in the league.  The RVA Lions, Savannah Hurricanes, and Tampa Bay Tiger Sharks all became members of the USAFL family, adding to fellow newcomers in the region such as the Rome Redbacks and Jacksonville Saints, as well as stalwarts in the North Carolina Tigers, Atlanta Kookaburras, and Ft Lauderdale Fighting Squids.

Representing the northern part of Utah, the Wasatch War Gulls will look to build and give teams from the mountain west section of the country, such as the Denver Bulldogs, Las Vegas Gamblers, and the two Arizona clubs, some competition and a new destination.

The most interesting addition to the club roster is the Hawai’i Eagles.  Formed in late 2018 as the brain child of two men with the dream of starting a club in their home, the Eagles are up to two dozen strong to their games, and have attracted interest from far and wide.  More on that in a bit.

Already there is talk of new clubs joining in 2020, including interest in Memphis, as well as a second team in the Denver area.  More on that in the coming weeks on here and our social media.


MAKING THE MARK OVERSEAS

The USAFL and American flags were flown high in leagues over in Australia this year, and nearly a dozen Americans took to the ovals down under in regional and state league play. 

Among them were Seattle’s Max Depina, who joined fellow Revo player David Restrepo at Melbourne University (VAFA).  Both players featured in the Blacks’ third team, with Max kicking 15 goals in as many games, and Restrepo bagging 11 in 13 matches.  Each also had stints up with the Reserves side as well.  Los Angeles Dragon Rick Shaibani debuted for the Caroline Springs of the WRFL this year, collecting a goal in eight appearances for the young Lakers’ reserves side.  Colorado native Tyler Ames kept up his hard work with the Montrose (EFL) reserves team, posting nine-best-on-ground nods in seventeen games for the Demons.

The progression of women’s football continued in 2019, as new ground was broken.  In addition to two new USAFLers going over to play local football – Valerie Barber-Axthelm (Seattle, Darebin) and Marissa Suslowitz (Columbus, Monash Uni), a record five Americans were listed by VFLW sides.


HEAR US ROAR

Jessica Blecher was named as the first ever winner of the Tony Fairhead Scholarship at the beginning of the season, and after finishing up her second stint with Nightcliff in the Northern Territory league, she was plucked by the Collingwood VFLW side.   Jess would notch eight appearances with the ‘Pies, and though she would end the season with Port Melbourne of the SEFL, Blecher can count herself as being part of a VFLW premiership winning team.

Seattleite April Lewis, fresh from her CrossCoders appearance, signed on with Essendon.  Lewis would battle injuries for most of the year, but got to don the sash in an exhibition match against GWS and post six starts for the West Brunswick Magpies (VAFA).  She came home after the season and helped lead her Grizzlies to another Grand Final appearance, however.

Two other Americans, who had picked up Aussie Rules outside of the USAFL, also toed the line for VFLW teams in 2019.  Californian Katie Stone, who had learnt the game in Great Britain, played two games for Carlton, while Minnesotan Erin McLaughlin played ten games for Darebin.  Both were named to the USA Freedom team for the AFL International Cup.

But the biggest performer of the lot, and the biggest story of the year, was one Dani Marshall.


DANI BREAKS THROUGH

The story has been told several times.  But I like retelling it. 

Danielle Marshall came across Aussie Rules on TV in 2009, when she was a freshman soccer player at the Colorado School of Mines.  Eight years later, after a successful collegiate career, her former college teammate, Aubrey Bagley, told Dani that she was playing that sport that they discovered.  And, that there was a team in Dani’s current hometown of Phoenix.

Marshall and her husband started playing for the Arizona Hawks in 2018.  At the end of her first year, she earned best-and-fairest honors at Nationals, and it was clear that she was arguably the best player in the country.  In May, she travelled to Australia to see how far she could go towards possibly landing a spot in AFLW.  It was a long shot, but as Michael Scott said, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. – Wayne Gretzky.”

A successful trial with Aberfeldie of the Essendon Districts league led to a move up the ladder, with the Western Bulldogs VFLW side.  Marshall had three games to make her mark before heading back to Phoenix at the beginning of June.  In those three games, she kicked five goals, and earned a VFLW Team of the Week nod.  That was enough for the Bulldogs to lock in Marshall on July 10th, making her not only the first American signed by an AFLW team, but the first USAFL product to be signed by an AFL club.

The epilogue to this chapter was that Marshall would finish the year with 10 goals in as many games, make a game saving mark in the ‘Doggies first round finals match, and help lead her side to a Grand Final appearance.  Then she came home and led her Arizona Lady Hawks to their first USAFL title.   She made the Bulldogs AFLW list for the 2020 season, and is preparing for the next chapter, which begins in February.


HOLY CRAP, IT’S SAM MITCHELL

Every once in a while everything seems to come together in a deliciously random way.

And it's not uncommon for AFL or AFLW players to happen upon, or plan to happen upon, USAFL games or trainings.  The New York Magpies have had a cavalcade of cameos this season in their own right.

The aforementioned Hawai’i Eagles played their first ever USAFL game, in Honolulu, on September 7th, welcoming in the Seattle Grizzlies.  It was the first organized Aussie Rules football game in Hawai’i since Melbourne defeated Melbourne as part of a two-game post-season series in 1963. 

The Eagles practice and play at Kapiolani Park, which is just steps from the world famous Diamond Head Beach.  It’s a helluva recruiting spot.  The game was two quarters old, the Grizzlies were leading, and it was and otherwise unremarkable game.

An Australian tourist, who had been in the area on his way hiking to Diamond Head, walked over and struck up a conversation with Seattle’s Tegan Hamilton, who was on the bench at this point in the game.  Minutes later, the Australian ran onto the field with an Eagles jumper over his grey t-shirt.  And just about every other player on the field recognized him immediately.

This wasn’t just another tourist.  This was Sam Mitchell – Hawthorn Hawks legend, Brownlow Medalist, and four time AFL premiership winner.  A pretty handy addition.

Despite having the assistance of one of the best players to ever lace up football boots, the Eagles were unable to account for the Grizzlies.  But the game was the winner on this day, and everyone who was there has some great stories to tell.


CLAMORING FOR THE CUP

2020 brings with it the AFL International Cup, to be held July 25 – August 8 in the Sunshine Coast, Queensland.  No doubt the weather will be better than it was in Melbourne three years ago.

And “Sunny” will also be the disposition of those who were named to the Revolution and Freedom teams, following a series of training and try-out camps, and countless hours of work away from the oval in search of that rare chance to represent their country.

Freedom coach Christina Licata and her staff named their 28-woman roster at the USAFL Nationals in October.  Just seven of them return from the IC17 squad, and three from the Liberty touring group from that year.  The rest are National team debutantes, with most of them having taken up the game in the last year.

As for the Revos, coach Tom Ellis released a list of twenty players who are for sure making the trip, and an additional group of men who will battle it out during the first half of the year for the remaining spots.  Ellis has made it known that having experience will be automatic in terms of making the side.  Those who don’t, however, will be up for selection by Revo alumnus Kyle Strenski, who will take an American side to face reigning IC17 D2 Men’s champions Croatia in Zagreb this April.

Either way, both the Revos and Freedom will have their eyes on their first Grand Final, which will be held at the Gabba, home of the Brisbane Lions AFL team.


OLD CHAMPS AND NEW IN FLORIDA

The USAFL Nationals carnival headed back to the gulf shores of Florida, as the Premier Sports Campus of Lakewood Ranch was the scene for the world’s largest Aussie Rules carnival for the second time.  The top levels were won by repeat champions, and a few old colors lifted hardware.

On the men’s side, Ben Carpenter-Nwanyanwu and the Austin Crows lifted their fifth D1 men’s trophy in seven years, cementing themselves as the team of the decade.  The road to the final featured an all Cox-brother jubilee, with Nolan’s Crows defeating Austin and the Seattle Grizzlies in pool play.  Younger brother Mason cheerfully took up his water runner role again in the process.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Iron Maidens, bolstered by the addition of now-former Melbourne Uni Mugar Katie Klatt, wrapped up their fourth straight flag.  It’s hard to believe that only two teams managed to win the D1 National Championship in the span of ten years, and that neither string was unbroken in the process, but the field this year showed that things may be different in the next decade.  Erin Phillips, two time AFLW premiership player, was on hand for the second year in the row.  In between taking pictures with fans and taking in the ever-improving women's divisions, the Adelaide Crow stated that she was looking forward to making Nationals part of her yearly schedule.

Down the ladder, the San Diego Lions took out the Men’s D2, their best finish since being demoted from D1 in 2010.  Boston combined with the Maine Cats to win their first flag in twenty years, turning aside Columbus in the D3 Granny.  Ohio Valley wrapped up their sixth D4 title, while Marshall and the Arizona Lady Hawks teamed with Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore to take home the women’s D2 bikkies.

And so, another year is in the books.  Next year is gonna be awesome from beginning to end.  Thank you to our friends and fans for being around the great game of Aussie Rules with us in 2019.

See you in 2020.

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