2022 USAFL Nationals - Men's Division 1 Preview

Eight is wonderful, eight is great.  That was a song on Sesame Street once, right?

Well, it’s true after all.  A year after six teams took to the ground in Austin to determine the USAFL Men’s Division 1 National Championships, a full eight-team field returns to determine who will lift the John Harrell Cup as the best men’s team in the land.

For the past four years (including the one where there was no footy), that cup has called Austin, Texas home.  I’m sure it has enjoyed the music scene and food just like anyone else who goes there.

But there are seven clubs coming to Ontario, California, who want to have their shot at giving the trophy a tour of their own hometowns.  It has visited the Bay Area, Denver, New York and San Diego in the past; perhaps it would enjoy its time there, or even a spell in L.A., D.C., or Seattle?

Well, to do that, it takes four games in two days of nothing but excellence to climb the mountain.  The Crows know how to do it, but they will have to overcome the rest of the field and the specter of traveling to the West Coast to do so.

Can they do it, or will we be celebrating a new team of champions in 2022?

Each of the eight teams is divided into two pools of four.  After round-robin matches on Saturday and Sunday, the winner of each pool will play off for the title at 4:30pm PDT on GoLive SportsCast.

Here is a look at the combatants in Men’s Division 1:

Pool A: Austin Crows (7-1), Golden Gate Roos (3-3-1), Los Angeles Dragons (3-8), DC Eagles (8-5) 

The numbers don’t lie.  Since coming into Division 1 back in 2013, the Austin Crows have won 27 of 30 matches and six National Championships (including three in a row), and ride a 20-game Nats winning streak into Ontario.  Their lineup has remained virtually unchanged in that time and the core of their team still revolves around some of the best American talents in the league, namely Ben Carpenter-Nwanyanwu, Nolan Cox, Michael Linehan, Sam Gigliotti, and the stout defense of Bryan Dragus and Mike Montgomery.

The Crows are once again the favorites to become the second team (after Denver) to four-peat, but it will be anything but a cakewalk on the way to cup number seven.  Why?  Again, the numbers don’t lie: the only team to beat Austin – the Denver Bulldogs – is looming over in Pool B, and the last time the Crows lost at Nationals was in 2017… the last time we had the big dance in California.

And oh look, there are two Californian clubs here in this group.

Winners of the 2017 Grand Final, the Golden Gate Roos had long been the best of the west, winning the regional championships four seasons in a row.  That run came to an end in Denver, when they compiled a 1-1-1 record.  Looking for redemption after an upset loss to New York in the semis last year, the Roos and Crows will meet in pool play for the first time since 2015, and like their rivals from Texas, bring an accomplished mix of Aussies and Yanks into the fold.

One big name coming in is Kyle “Manly” Johnson, whose leadership and personality are just about unmatched across the USAFL. His experience will bolster an already experienced lineup that features strength around the oval.  Big Zac Taylor is poised for another big Nationals, as are two more National teamers in Dan Dahlquist and Dan Livy.  Will their fluid pace of play be enough to end the Gaters’ hex over Crows at Nationals?

That’s a good question.  Another one is, can the L.A. Dragons repeat the heroics of 2017, when they upended the Crows on the way to their only D1 Grand Final appearance so far?  It’s been a bumpy yet competitive season for the boys in teal, and having the tournament in their backyard against clubs that have to travel many a click to get there will be an advantage in getting back to the big game on Sunday afternoon.

Bringing the height to the party like one does potato salad, the Dragons have two options at ruck, with the athletic Donald Lee and Sam Murphy being capable of also offering tall leading opportunities around the goal.  Frederik Schulin, Rick Shaibani, and Dominic Graves also lend experience, and if the Dragons can keep their skills tight, they may find themselves battling it out for the Harrell Cup at the end of the weekend.

While we’re reminiscing about that bright weekend in San Diego five years ago, it was the last year that the Baltimore-Washington Eagles played in D1.  After the tournament, the Eagles expanded into two clubs, and after taking out D2 over a full-strength Boston squad in Boston a season ago, the D.C. Eagles make the move up to D1 for the first time.

Though they won’t have the services of former St Kilda Saint Brodie Murdoch, D.C. does have a capital squad coming to make that next step.  Seasoned vet Jay Levesque is always lurking up front with Michael Hoffman, and they’ll be joined by talented teen and Eastern MVP, Jack Needham.  Sam Rowley’s strong marks will be there if the midfielders can pinpoint them like they normally do, and American recruits Tom Mathew and Paul LaShier are capable of upsetting the ol’ apple cart on the way to the Beltway Boys’ first D1 crown.

Pool B: Denver Bulldogs (7-0), New York Magpies (5-2), Seattle Grizzlies (1-3-2), San Diego Lions (7-3)

Who is the only undefeated team in the USAFL?  Who is the only team to Beat Austin in the last two years?  That would be the Denver Bulldogs, winners of eight men’s D1 titles and arguably the second-best team in the last three complete seasons.  Those two victories over Austin happened in regular season play (one at home and one in Seattle), but when the two met in the ‘19 decider and the ‘21 semifinals, the Crows had the goods..

Denver’s ability to take the contested mark and manufacture uncontested ones has kept them in good stead during this run. Local son Tyler Ames comes over from Australia after a successful season with EFL side Vermont (the one near Melbourne, not the one with the maple syrup) to possibly keystone the forward line beside Matt Howell, who lit up the scoreboard en route to a Western Regional title.  With other long-tenured Bulldogs Lachlan Fleet, Max Eckstein, and Tim Wilson-Humphries patrolling as well, Denver will be eying their first premiership in 11 years.

Making the Grand Final as the last seed in any division is an accomplishment.  The New York Magpies of 2021 were able to do it in Division 1 and though they ultimately were yet another of Austin’s title victims, their run was their most memorable since their 2014 championship.  They arrive in Ontario as the beasts of the East, having run through every club in the region and installed as the Regional Championship winners.

The ‘Pies have always been good at attracting local talent, as guys like Mike Murphy, Tim Arakelian, and former Minnesota player Spencer Reisbick can attest, and German-born Michael Hiebl is always a consistent performer.  The style of play, however, has been formed by its long-standing Australian contingent.  Adam “Buddy” Franklin held tons of poise in the forward line last season, and Nathan Freebody constantly pressures opponents into mistakes. There are new faces wearing those famous stripes in 2022, but the goal is the same: win.

You can make a joke about Seattle’s Grizzlies being afraid of playing under than big glowing ball in the sky, but it’s all business for the Emerald and Black. Winners of D3 in 2017, they shot up to D1 in 2019 and return there after a fourth-place showing last year.  They’re not afraid of the more perennial D1 teams, as evidenced by their thrilling draw against Golden Gate at Westerns, and they will play any team you place in front of them with determination and grit.

The Griz are chock full of National team talent not just from the USA but also from across the border in Canada.  Jim Oertel and Trent Loosemore bring the skills that have powered the Northwind to augment the speed and cunning play of Max Depina and Zach McKinney, and the inimitable defensive presence of Saleh Tyebjee.  Overall, it’s a largely local team that is dotted with Aussie know-how up and down the list, and if you’re going to circle any of the three or four seeds as a dark horse, Seattle would be a good fit.

Once the Hanshin Tigers to the Denver Bulldogs’ Tokyo Giants, the San Diego Lions have stamped their name into the top spot of clubs in Southern California and are looking to run the table for their first D1 championship since 2006.  Runners up of D3 in 2017 and winners of D2 in 2019, the Lions will present a cagy challenge against teams they know well from battles over the past several years.

Michael Ross leads the maroons on the field and on the whiteboard, and comes out with a side balanced defensively but knows where the big sticks are.  Michael Coffey was the team’s star during their D2 title run, and he continues to pester defenses up front.  Coffey, Tony Ballis, and John Carpenter are the most active of the Aussies on the Lions, a team also has talented Americans such as veteran Justin Valley and utility Kevin Abblitt.

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