Centennial Tigers Roar Onto Scene as USAFL's 46th Team

Sara Edwards Rohner has taken on a lot of challenges in her athletic life.

The former USA rugby player came to Aussie Rules and helped be a part of the Denver Lady Bulldogs’ juggernaut at the beginning of this decade.  She has represented her country with the USA Freedom, racking up caps as a dependable on-and-off field leader.

Now, she takes on a new challenge: part of the founding group of the Centennial Tigers, the USAFL’s 46th member club.

The Tigers join the Twin Cities-based North Star Blue Ox as the only clubs in the league initially focused on developing women’s footy.  And, like the Blue Ox, it too is part of a dual USAFL club market.  The moniker of “Centennial” is double-sided.  It is the name of the largest of Denver’s southern suburbs at around 100,000 people, and it’s also the nickname of Colorado, which brings in a larger representation.

“Some people may not realize this, but the Colorado Front Range’s (Boulder and Fort Collins down to Colorado Springs) population continues to rapidly expand, and it spans over 100 miles from north to south and 50 miles west to east,” Rohner explained to USAFL.com.  “I felt that it was time to start a second team to accommodate the many people who live south of Downtown Denver. Realistically, people could not handle the evening rush hour commute across town during the week, and we were seeing significant drop-off of athletes because of this reason. I, personally, live 20 miles south of the city so I decided I wanted a team that primarily recruits from the south metro area.

”Anyone from anywhere is encouraged to join, but these are our main focus cities/towns. And if folks down south find the Bulldogs to be a better fit for them, I absolutely support their decision.”

Rohner has made growing the game in the league’s central region a mission of hers over the past several years.  Serving as the USAFL Women’s Association Central representative, she helped grow the regionals competition from zero teams in 2016 to a full four-team round robin in 2019.  The Lady Bulldogs sent enough players to supply one full side and another that was topped up with players from other emerging markets.

Despite it being a lean year for the Lady Bulldogs at Nationals – Denver went 0-3 on the weekend; their lowest finish in a decade – they had a total of 38 registered women, the most of any club.  This signaled an opportunity to expand and offer more chances to adapt to the rapid interest of Aussie Rules in the area.

“Creating a second club is really the next logical step,” Rohner said.

The existence of the Tigers gives the Lady Bulldogs something they’ve never really had – a reasonably located opponent.  Their closest team is located in Phoenix, and their nearest fellow D1 rival is based in San Francisco.  The new side hopes to be involved with matches based in the area, as well as being able to travel on their own.  In addition, with the Western regionals in their backyard and Centrals a relatively quick plane ride down to Dallas, there are plenty of chances for match experience.

Despite having the running start of being in an established market, being the “other” team in the area presents a unique series of challenges for the Centennial Tigers.

There have been different opinions in the Denver football community about the new club, Rohner states that she understands and respects those feelings.  “However, this is bigger than one person or the small circles that encompass us.  This is about growing footy, especially among women, in the state, region, and country,”

“I would like to believe that if we can have regular USAFL games against [between the Tigers and the Lady Bulldogs], that will bring the level up locally.  In turn, both teams will perform better at regionals, and with that, those teams we play will be able to take their abilities up a notch, too, and eventually improve the level on the national scale—kind of like a ripple effect.”

In addition to the on-the-field boost, the Tigers are well supported off the ground as well.  Rohner explained: “One of our earliest supporters, John McCully, is a die-hard Richmond fan. He is the founder of The Footy Factory, which is a girls footy academy in Melbourne designed to elevate girls’ football skills by learning from some of the top AFLW athletes. We also decided, that although it would be cool to have a local theme, we think it’s important to have brand recognition if we’re dealing with AFL fans outside of the US.”

So far, Centennial has attracted a solid core of players from in and out of the footballing community.  Several former Lady Bulldogs have come on board with the Tigers, including a number of former players who are able to better commit to the sport because of the team’s location.

 “Our recruiting efforts are looking good for being able to field a full squad. Of course recruiting is the easy part—retention is another story, so whether or not these numbers maintain is yet to be seen. We have no Aussies on the squad—this is pure American grassroots footy.”

The Tigers will have the services of American coach Destry Gillette, who is a two-decade veteran of the USAFL.  “I have the utmost respect for all teams and players who participate in this sport,” Gillette stated. “It takes loads of personal sacrifice, desire, time, and determination to be successful at it. All those who commit to it should be rewarded with a shared dedication and support from their teammates and coaches. I believe the Tiger players who get rostered will really push themselves and their teammates to represent their new club with determination, effort, and grit. It will make for a successful first year.”

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, they were also participating in training clinics with USA Revolution head coach Tom Ellis, who has helped with conditioning and fundamentals.  Over the past several weeks, the club has been remaining engaged via Zoom, social media, and remaining in contact via phone and e-mail.  They are also eagerly awaiting their jumpers, which will be black, yellow, and purple.

Centennial is not just looking to simply be represented at Nationals in 2020 and beyond.  Rohner and the leadership group feel that they can bring enough, both in quality and quantity, to debut in Division 1.  It’s a goal Rohner deems “attainable,” based on the club’s first two months of existence.  Veterans Carly Austin and Becca Pieseski keystone the defense, and Rohner’s sister, Amanda Newell, returns from giving birth earlier this year to anchor things in the fullback role.  Both Juliet Moya and Alexis Koo have impressed in their first two seasons of playing footy, and give speed and athleticism to the playing group.  Rohner pointed to forward Jen Elliott and tall option Kim Dickey as being integral not only to the team’s performance, but to their character, as well.

“[T]heir unwavering dedication, team spirit, energy and camaraderie really inspire the players around them,” Rohner added of the last two players in that paragraph.  “You can have a team of individuals, or you can have a team of teammates; they undoubtedly make the latter possible.”

From a football standpoint, the Tigers will look to cement and teach the fundamentals of Aussie Rules to rookies and vets alike.  As a community, Rohner stated a much deeper purpose, something that that will make the Tigers a sustainable part of the Aussie rules and sports landscape that reaches far and wide.

“The Centennial Tigers were established on a foundation of core values: Tenacity, Integrity, Grit, Empowerment, Respect and Sportsmanship (TIGERS).”

And that is what they’ll look to bring to the USAFL women’s competition in 2020, and in the ensuing years.

For more info on the Tigers, visit them online:
www.facebook.com/centennialtigersafc
www.twitter.com/centtigersafc
www.instagram.com/centennialtigersafc
www.centennialtigers.com

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