Like Disco Lemonade - Previewing the Central Regionals

Water water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.  Though I do hear the skating is pretty good.

Ice hockey, curling, lakes, elongating the letter “o”, and lutefisk.  These are some of the things that Minnesota does right.  Though you might have to trust me on the lutefisk part because I’m staying a Tiger Warner torp away from fermented fish on a plate.

But for nearly two decades, the Twin Cities has produced a wealth of Aussie Rules football talent and interest.  First it was the Minnesota Freeze, who reached the Men’s Divvy 2 Grand Final five times in eleven years, and whose women’s team had constant and vital representation on the national team.  In 2017, North Star Blue Ox made history as the first club to put women’s footy first, and it’s a legacy that lasts to this day.

The passion for footy flows freely and strongly, much like the river that originates here and carries with it legend and lore down the backbone of our country.  Minnesota has always been a party to some of the biggest moments this league has seen in 25 seasons, and now that has been rewarded with hosting a USAFL tournament.

So much like famed absolute unit Paul Bunyan and his noble companion, we make the sojourn due north to a palette of green in a place called Blaine, and the National Sports Center.  This leg is the second of three in the Regional Championship series, and while the most successful men’s team in the last decade tops the field here, it’s fitting to see so many longtime clubs also come to the NSC with upset on their mind.

And from all corners of the land o’ lakes comes two teams of women who are keen put their best foot forward in front of their own fans in a mini Twin Cities Derby.

Break out the Prince, the Marcy Playground, and the Semisonic, let’s look at the teams: 

2022 USAFL Central Regional Championships 
Saturday, June 18, 2022
National Sports Center, Blaine, Minnesota
First game: 10am CDT (Full Schedule Here)
Coverage: USAFL YouTube (on delay)


POOL A: [Austin / North Texas / Louisville], [Nashville / Chicago], [Des Moines / Wisconsin]

Deep in the heart of Texas, a dynasty lives.  It’s been mostly sunny skies for the Austin Crows, National Champs in six of the past eight seasons.  Since the current Regionals format started in 2015, Austin has won every Central Regionals except one: 2017.  That loss to Dallas snapped a 27 game winning streak, and the Crows failed to make it to the National Grand Final that year.  But after a win at home against North Texas last week, they’ll join up with the Devils and Louisville in search of their fifth Regionals title.  With two of the best players in the league in Ben Carpenter-Nwanyanwu and Nolan Cox supported by an overwhelming arsenal in their supporting cast, all eyes will be on the tri-colored hoops.

But winning the group requires defeating two skilled sides.  Nashville made it to the D2 Grand Final at the last regionals back in 2019 in Colorado.  The ‘Roos have always been a combination of skill, speed, and experience, and all of that combined back in October to yield a first ever Nationals title, in Men’s D4.  They’re 3-1 on the year, coming off of home wins by 1-point over Baltimore and by 38 over North Carolina, and arrive in Minnesota with some summer-caliber heat.  Veteran Revo prospect David “Frosty” Harris, and skillful players Saul Camarena and Maurice Howell will be joined by players from the Chicago Swans, a longtime midwest rival.  The Bloods bring nine reinforcements looking to rebound from a home loss to Boston, led by seasoned defender Tim Hermann.

It’s only a few hours up I-35 from the heart of Iowa to the NSC, and the Des Moines Roosters head up the road to join the Wisconsin Wombats in pressing the top two teams in this pool to the limit.  Splitting their games at home in their 80/35 tournament last month, including a tough effort against Denver and a handsome win against Kansas City, Jacob and Zach Vander Ploeg lead an all-American outfit that plays consistently game in and game out, and will force the Crows and ‘Roos to have their hackles up for all eighty minutes in group play.  The ‘Bats travel well, and their contingent will have lots of games under their belt with Lucas Pillar, Eric Monroe, and Milwaukee stalwart Brenton Riggall amongst those trying to lead from the three-seed.

POOL B: Minnesota Freeze (2-1-1), [St Louis / Denver], [Oklahoma / Houston]

It’s taken a long time for the league to bring an event to the North Star State and yet here we are.  And don’t let the name of the footy club fool you, it gets [expletive] hot in Minnesota in June.  D2 champs in 2007, 2012, and 2018 at the National level in D2 have shown that this is a team that knows what it takes to lift a giant trophy.  They’ll bring all of 25 players to the NSC, led by National teamers Big Country Brent Mergen, Tiger “Nobody Calls Me Andrew” Werner, and Stephen Fashant.  Ryan “Hanga” McLuen, the hero of the 2018 decider, is always lurking in the forward line and could be an X-Factor if the Freeze find themselves in the Grand Final.

There’s no second-year St Louis swoon, as the Blues’ return runs strong in 2022.  They’re still looking for their first win in tournament play after not achieving the dub a season ago, but this is the 25th anniversary of footy in the Lou, and they hung tough with Cincy and Columbus in their opening two games.  But they’ll be playing alongside the Denver reserves, a collective that loves playing at regionals and who took out the D2 title at home three years ago.  There is a rocky mountain heap of experience in the likes of Geoff Shakespear, Ben Marcum, and Luke Durkin to go along side the Blues’ Dave Zitko and up-and-comer Dalton Foster.

The Buffaloes roam once again on the Ovals of Oklahoma, as the Okies bring back the name and familiar angry looking logo that was the trademark of the club in their first seven seasons.  They’ll pair up with the Lonestars to round out the pool in an “okay you can play with us but only if your logo has horns” arrangement.  The Buffs are still riding the high of a 60-60 draw against Minnesota at the 80/35 in Des Moines and are led by hardnosed players, with Chris Cawood and Stephen Rasbold leading the way aligned with an equally robust group from Houston.  Jeff “Jammer” Jamnik and Nick “Beardy” Plaisance both have styles of play that compliment Oklahoma’s well to where it might confound their three opponents on the day.

Minnesota Freeze vs [North Star / Houston]

Two weeks after a handful of their players teamed with women from Philadelphia and Columbus et al to take out the Eastern/Central Regional Women’s Division, the Minnesota Freeze and North Star Blue Ox will face off in an all-comers match, giving veterans and newbies alike the chance to play what should be a very competitive match.  There are a good number of Freedom and Liberty players on display here, and the teams should be evenly matched.

The Freeze team is led by defensive magician Paige Thell, who is adept at counterattacking and seeking out uncontested marks.  Brianna Ostoff, Jess Nelson, Kathryn Mullin, and Kait Peterson all played for the Liberty in Australia in 2017, and have long held themselves as being part of Minnesota’s balanced attack over the years.  They’re also great at helping develop relatively new teammates such as Freedom-caliber player Lindsey Stene, and rookie Liz Edd, who turned in a sparkling performance two weeks ago in Philly playing in the ruck for the first time.

But there’s talent wearing the light blue and yellow of North Star as well, led by Freedom alumni and rabbit fast veteran Marie LaVictoire and handy utility Jackie Thelen.  Helen Phillips and Olivia Vonghararth add further experience, and are tenacious at the ball.  Four Minnesota players will cross town-lines to take up the fight for the Blue Ox, including sentinel forward Cathy Hoha and halfback Jeri Johnson Chambers.  Two more former national teamers, Becky Kraft and Rae Hale, help to provide linkups to the forward line where they hope Hoha and company can light up the scoreboard.

Photo credit: @sipidation

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