2021 USAFL Nationals - Men's Division 1 Preview

The story of the John Harrell Cup has been one of dynasties.

If you exclude Vancouver’s upset in 2008, and the vacated 2012 championship, every Men’s Division 1 title since 2000 has been won by just five clubs.  And, oddly enough, all five of them -- Denver (8), Austin (5), New York (2), San Diego (2), and Golden Gate (1) -- will have a go at ticking those numbers in parentheses up by one this coming weekend in Austin.

And when you consider that Los Angeles, the only team in this six team field who hasn’t broke their D1 duck yet, is the only thing that has kept the Crows from coming into the 2021 Nationals looking for six-on-the-trot, the credentials are certainly unprecedented in this tournament’s 23 previous iterations.

Add to the fact that all six teams have new blood of some sort, either by move or recruit, and all of them have remained steadily active in some way, shape, or form during the COVID pause, and you’ve got the recipe for some deliciously entertaining matches (thanks, Bruce) at Onion Creek.

As was the case in 2018, this six team field will go through two group matches on Saturday, needing to finish in the top two in order to advance to Sunday morning’s semifinal matches.  But even if those spots are assured by Saturday afternoon, those late games which pit the four best teams (statistically, anyway) in the country will be vital in determining the path to glory after a good night’s sleep.

Will we see the continuation of the Austin Juggernaut?  Will Denver lift that big cup for the first time in a decade?  How about San Diego, for the first time in a decade-plus-five?  Will it be Flagpie time?  Or some Roo redemption?  Or will the Dragons breath some fire.

That’s a lot of question marks.  But before they get periods put on them, here is a look at what might transpire out of Men’s Division 1:

POOL A: Austin Crows (7-1), Los Angeles Dragons (5-3), New York Magpies (6-2)

There is some history amongst the three teams in Pool A, especially between the Crows and Dragons, who have been paired in the same group every year since LA made the step up to Division 1 in 2015.  Austin has won four of the five meetings at Nationals between the two sides, the only blip in their being 2017 when Pat Nicholls and the Dragons made their only Grand Final appearance at the highest level.  New York was in the group with both teams that year, and last faced Austin at Nationals in 2018 when they fell in the semifinals.

In 2011, the first year that Nationals came to the Texan capital, the home side took out the Division 2 Men’s title.  Little did anyone know that it would be the beginning of the most dominant juggernaut the league has seen in a decade.  Five D1 National Championships, two win streaks of 27- and 37- games, and a steady parade of players playing at the national team level has shown the Austin Crows’ dynasty to rival that of the Denver Bulldogs.  The club who, by the way, stopped the latest of the two aforementioned win streaks a couple of weeks ago.  But, more on them in a moment.

The 7-1 Crows welcome in the field with a deep side that has a lot of names from their past runs.  Their Americans are among the best in the comp, led by forward threat Ben Carpenter-Nwanyanwu, defender Mike Montgomery, and ruck Nolan Cox, whose famously tall brother will be patrolling the boundaries.  Most of the veteran Aussies will also be back, including the omnipotent Kenrick Tyrell, speedster Ben May, and Peter Daicos clone Grant Campbell.   

The Crows have never lost a Nationals game at home, but this may be the toughest field they have come up against.

Weathering one of the toughest schedules in the league as one would weather an afternoon walking through Zzyzx, the Dragons have fought strongly against fellow D1 teams San Diego and Golden Gate, and against highly ranked D2 side Orange County.  If nothing else, Los Angeles is positioned well to make it through the semifinal play on Sunday, and to possibly repeat their heroics of 2017.

Two newcomers increase the heat spit out by the teal-clad side; Adelaide-born playmaker Dominic Graves (San Diego), and South African-born David Abernathy (Golden Gate & New York).  They take their place along former Manly-Warringah Wolve Justin Hall; “Jabba” is known to kick bags from his perch in the goal square.  The local contingent is spearheaded by feisty and slippery David Dollar, cool marking Frederik Schulin, and the doubly-tall twin threat of Donald Lee and Sam Murphy, who can platoon in the ruck and down the spine of the oval.

In New York, where champions are forever even when they’re having an off year, the Magpies returned to their rightful place on the throne as the best team in the East after five seasons.  Losing one game all season, the ‘Pies swept aside reigning regionals champs Philly at the Hawks Nest and never looked back.  Led by Summer Series B&F Karl “Schuey” Schoenmkers, New York got back to the fundamentals that led them to D1 titles in 2010 and 2014, hoping to erase an 0-3 mark from two years ago.

Besides Schuey, the likes of Adam “Buddy” Franklin, Troy Danillo, and Connor Delves lead a team who can pick out targets at their wont, and do so around the best of the defenders.  Tim Arakelian and “Jersey Mike” Fraieta are amongst the national listed players who have been around a long time and bring more athleticism to the veteran punch, as do the Foreign Legion of William Leverick, Tommaso Lana, and Micaehl Hiebl.

POOL B: Denver Bulldogs (3-2), Golden Gate Roos (3-0), San Diego Lions (6-4) 

Pool B is a redemption song.  Denver made it back to the D1 Grand Final for the first time in eight years last time out, only to be felled by Austin.  This year, the Bulldogs chopped off the Crows’ four season win streak.  Golden Gate lost two our of three Grannies before getting tripped up by Denver in Florida on Sunday in 2019.  And San Diego makes their first trip to the top rung of the latter in a dozen years, facing new rivals from up I-5, and against a team in Denver that was the Yankees to their Red Sox for most of the 2000s.

If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to want a glass of milk.  If you give a Bulldog a chance at a Grand Final, they’re gonna want to come back the following year and win the whole shebang.  Denver went 3-2 for the season, but their victory over Austin at home on September 18th has them thinking that they’re the best team in the country.  Are they?  Well, that’s what Nationals are for.  The ‘Dogs have brought the deepest club roster, spanning four of the five divisions, that anyone can remember.

And they might have the team to do it, with a good crop of local talent supporting a nicely wound Aussie core.  Revolution All-World player Ryan Garthright, long timer Max Eckstein, former Dallas player Lachlan Beatty, and former Des Moine Rooster Theodore Schleisman dot the field with talent.  The backline is led by the aerial duo of Tim Wilson-Humphries and Tom Harkness, while Cann Medal winner Tom Cremari and another former Dingo, Ben Collins, pace the attack.

Golden Gate’s men’s side peaked at the end of the last decade, right around the time Bruno Mars did.  But the Roos are still one of the best teams in the country, taking out the Sacramento Summer Series carnival, and coming into Nationals weekend have the momentum and the gumption to flip the table and take home their second ever D1 Cup.  And despite some turnover within their ranks, theirs is a side that will change for the spotlight of Sunday afternoon.

A big get is former Sacramento Sun Colby Campbell, who is a literal bulldozer in the middle of the field with licence to roam a bit.  Tim Lindfelt is a good, consistent ruck option, and dangerous Dan Livy leads a goal scoring threat besides Zac “Moose” Taylor that will put defenses under Queen-and-David-Bowie-like pressure. Quickman Ryan Clark leads the Gaters’ Aussie group, while Justin Mann adds more tall timber.  As evidenced by the thrilling 2018 final where the Roos’ almost erased a three goal deficit in the last two minutes against Austin, they can score quickly.

2009 is a long time ago… It makes one feel old.  But that’s the last time that San Diego played in Division 1.  After dropping to Division 4 and then slowly clawing their way back with their sharp lion claws, the Lions come to Austin as the reigning D2 title holders and one of the most improved sides in the last several seasons.  A solid season playing clubs from D1 foe LA to D4 Vegas and all points in between has the Lions installed as a dark horse to possibly upset the apple cart this weekend and win their first D1 men’s final since 2006.

San Diego controls their matches through their Aussie vets, and 2019 Cann Medal Winner Michael Coffey’s accurate kicking will be the key for Michael Ross’s charges.  And though the Lions have a plethora of American talent, including Brady Minich, Brian Steffy, and the ageless Justin Valley, their newcomers have added an injection of skill that has carried them through the ranks.  Ryan Milne, Brett Macquarrie, and Johnathan Chin have been amongst their most consistent performers and may take home the Cooper’s Medal for said category in the process.

Previous Winners, Men's Division 1

1997 - Cincinnati def Nashville
1998 - Boston 15.7.97 def Golden Gate 1.1.7
1999 - Boston 4.2.26 def Golden Gate 3.2.20 (Extra Time)
2000 - Denver 3.4.22 def San Diego 3.2.20
2001 - San Diego 10.4.64 def Boston 2.5.17
2002 - Denver 8.1.49 def San Diego 0.2.2
2003 - Denver 8.5.53 def Boston 1.3.9
2004 - Denver 2.6.18 def New York 1.1.7
2005 - Denver 4.8.32 def Milwaukee 1.1.7
2006 - San Diego 4.9.33 def Denver 2.0.12
2007 - Denver 3.3.21 def San Diego 2.3.15
2008 - Vancouver 4.4.28 def Baltimore-Washington 2.0.12
2009 - Denver 2.5.17 def Seattle 2.2.14
2010 - New York 4.4.28 def Denver 1.1.7
2011 - Denver 3.2.20 def Calgary 0.5.5
2012 - Title Vacated
2013 - Austin 4.2.26 def Calgary 4.2.25
2014 - New York 2.4.16 def Orange County 2.1.13
2015 - Austin 4.4.28 def Orange County 2.4.16
2016 - Austin 6.3.39 def Golden Gate 2.1.13
2017 - Golden Gate 6.4.40 def Los Angeles 2.2.14
2018 - Austin 4.6.30 def Golden Gate 4.1.25
2019 - Austin 8.3.51 def Denver 1.2.8


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