Central Regionals Retrospective

The COVID-19 crisis, much like the grey colored piece in Settlers of Catan, hath doth absconded with the 2020 USAFL Regional Tournament Series.  Under normal circumstances, we would all have our bags packed en route for flights to the Dallas Metroplex for the first of three stops on what has become the Great American Aussie Rules Roadshow.

Alas, it’s not to be.

But we are slowly moving towards returning to play, with the hopes that we will all get to have our great big family reunion in Ontario, California, this October.

In the meantime, however, we do have our memories of the last five years at the Central Regional Tournaments to tide us over.  You’ll see the Austin Crows name a lot, as they have managed to claim four of the five Men’s Division 1 championships contested so far.  But you’ll also see the development of other teams across the other tiers, especially in the women’s division.  With four teams turning out in Denver last year, and with more teams and more development on the way, the hope is 2021 will see an even bigger competition on that front.

July 11, 2015 – Racine, Wisconsin (Schedule / Replays)
Austin (MD1), New York/Columbus (WD), Dallas (MD2)

Three years before we all chilled our various extremities off at the USAFL Nationals in Racine, the league made its first sojurn to the Belle City on a hot June day. 

Austin, who on that frigid weekend in 2018 would hoist their fourth (of five) National titles for the decade, announced their arrival as a perennial powerhouse with their first regional title.  Having accounted for Denver and Chicago in pool play, the Crows met the injury-affected New York Magpies in the Grand Final.  The then-defending National champs, with borrowed ruck Jason Wilhelm leading the charge, were picked apart by Grant Campbell, Christian Merritt, and then-new acquisition Kenrick Tyrell, en route to a 21-point clinching win.

But it wasn’t all bad news for the ‘Pies, who went all out in two regionals in 2015.  Their women’s team also trekked west to Wisconsin, and would link up with the fledgling Columbus Jillaroos (now the Cats) to take on the Minnesota Freeze.  The Freeze, led by Freedom forward Cathy Hoha, nearly overcame a four goal second half deficit, but the Heather Serpico led Jill-Pies had enough in the tank to come home 15-point victors.

Dallas, at that time known as the Magpies, ran the gauntlet in Men’s Division 2, and stood toe-to-toe with a vastly improving Columbus Jackaroos outfit.  Despite Jacks captain and talisman Chet Ridenour’s passion, it was Tim Zorko and Big D getting the chocolates with a 15-point win of their own in a physical contest.

June 11, 2016 – Indianapolis (Schedule / Replay)
Austin (MD1), Houston (MD2), Nashville (MD3), Columbus (W)

A bit of history occurred at the Indianapolis World Sports Park, as the 2016 Nationals were broadcast live on GoLive SportsCast.  It was the first time a USAFL tournament had been streamed by a third party, and fans from all 50 states and nearly 40 other countries tuned in to watch twelve men’s teams and a metro women’s match.

The Indiana wind blew towards one side of the park the whole afternoon, and it was on those brisk zephyrs that the Austin Crows repeated as Central champions.  Denver played in two of the best games of the season that year, scoring 14 points in the final four minutes to achieve a 31-31 tie with Dallas, and then losing a second half four goal lead to the Crows.  Columbus, who had moved up to D1 from D2 the previous year, almost got revenge from the ’15 Grand Final with a 30-29 loss to Dallas.  Austin’s new ruck, Nolan Cox, and Australian-trained Ben Carpenter-Nwanyanwu, were key figures in the final win over the Dallas Magpies as they went 3-0 to win again.

Like the previous year, a second Texan team also took home regional honors.  In this case, it was future USA Revolution superstar David Restrepo who used his goal kicking match to help the Houston Lonestars turn aside Ohio Valley, Tulsa, and Chicago and win Division 2.  Mo Howell and the Nashville Kangaroos were victorious in Division 3, as they accounted for Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Des Moines.

The Columbus Jillaroos, along with a handful of players with the Chicago Swans, contested a mixed metro match that was the coming-out party for Katrina Scherer, who would go onto success with the Freedom the following year in just her sophomore season.

June 10, 2017 – Little Rock, Arkansas (Schedule / Replays)
Dallas (MD1)

Six teams, all men’s sides, contested the first ever Aussie Rules tournament to be held in the Natural State, as organized by the Little Rock Coyotes.  The lower turnout didn’t dampen the afternoon one bit, as a crowd of over 300 locals ventured out on a pleasant afternoon or Footy and saw some more USAFL history.

Austin had entered regionals that year having won 25-straight matches, and having not lost in two years.  They added two more to that total in pool play, fending off Houston and Nashville.  Dallas, whose battles with the Crows had now become legendary, defeated Oklahoma and Baton Rouge/Des Moines to earn a chance at their first regional championship.

Craig Storer led the ‘Pies out to a two goal halftime advantage, and 20 minutes away from the unthinkable.  With Ben Collins leading the charge up front, and veteran Jack O’Dell laying shoulders into the Crows’ sides, Dallas went on to defeat the two-time defending National Champions by 21-points and sing home a famous win.

And somewhere, the Denver Bulldogs breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that their 46-game mark remained untouched.

July 14, 2018 – Nashville (Schedule / Replays)
Austin (MD1), Denver (WD), Ohio Valley (MD2)

The 2018 Centrals were played on a humid, sweltering afternoon with the constant whoosh of planes taking off and landing at Nashville International providing the backdrop.  This was the first Central Regional tournament that featured Denver as an official member of the region.

Austin arrived in the Music City with a chip on their shoulder, having been upended by Los Angeles at Nationals nine months earlier in their attempt for a D1 Nationals three-peat.  They were also looking to exact revenge on Dallas for defeating them in the 2017 regional Grand Final.  After turning back Denver and Chicago in pool play, they arrived at the regional D1 Grand Final to face surprising Houston, who had defeated Dallas by a single point in their pool semi-final.  With the normal cast of characters led by Nolan Cox and Mitchell Dell, Austin ripped through their three games by a combined 194-1 tally.

After a two year hiatus, the women’s division at the Central regionals was back.  The revival was spurred on by Denver’s region shift, the quick growth of the Texas Heat side, and the almost overnight acquisition of players in Chicago and Nashville.  The Kangaroos new players, including future Freedom call-ups Alexa Roncancio and Natalie Smith, were standouts for the Midwest All-Stars.  Texas’ Aubrey Bagley’s lightning quick reflexes earned her MVP honors for the tournament, and the Heat’s rookie ruck Hailey Rebar had a breakout performance.  But it was the veteran Lady Dogs, led by Anna Thexton, Kaitlyn Mascher-Mace, and Hallie Kastanek, who were too good as Denver won their second straight regional.

Ohio Valley, bolstered by stalwarts from the Queen and King Cities, lifted their first regional championship trophy with wins over Des Moines, Oklahoma, and Atlanta to claim the Men’s D2 chocolates.  Their seven point win over OFC was one of the best games of the tournament, as Kyle Strenski and company kept the Okies at bey down the stretch to hang on.

July 13, 2019 – Denver (Schedule / Replays)
Austin (MD1), Minnesota (WD), Denver Reserves (MD2)

For the second time in three years, the carpet-like surface and mountainous backdrop of Westminster, Colorado, were host to a regional championship carnival.  This time it was the Centrals, with the homestanding Bulldogs trying to pull off the first ever regionals triple, as they had entries in all three competitions.

In Men’s D1, it was the same old song.  Austin would lift their fourth D1 regional crown in five years over the game hosts and a Minnesota side who was coming of their third ever D2 National Championships.

For the Lady Bulldogs, it was the beginning of their first season of rebuilding.  With many of their veterans retired, they were now relying on a new crop of rookies and second-year players to carry the flame forward.  Indeed, they had brought enough for two teams, and with more players from Des Moines, Chicago, Wisconsin, North Star, and Nashville, to go with Texas and Minnesota, this would be the first Central Regional Women’s Division Championship contested by four sides.  The Freeze were much the best on the day, however.  The midfield wizardry of Catherine Georgiadis and the defensive stoppages by Paige Kiecker led the charge for Minnesota, who hoped to use their second regional flag as momentum for a Nationals won in three months’ time.

But it wasn’t all bad news for the host.  Denver’s reserves, peppered with names of yesterday and up-and-comers of today, advanced to the Men’s D2 Grand Final against Nashville, who had some help from Wisconsin and Revo veteran Jason Wilhelm.  The ‘Roos threw everything AND the kitchen sink at the ‘Doggies, but it was Denver and Brent Dowling who got up by five points.

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