Entertain Us - Previewing the 2023 Western Regionals

Tucked away in the northwest corner of the US, sometimes (unfairly or no) under a constant yet occasional gray cloud or two, the Emerald City area is indeed a rare gem.

It’s in that sweet zone between the gateway of the Pacific and rising mountains on either side.  Truly a spectacular sight on this or any other continent.  It’s known for its earthy music, hilly terrain, and literal (if not human propelled) flying fish.

The Seattle area has long loved its sports.  The Kraken, Storm, Mariners, Sounders, Reign, and Seahawks are truly beloved by the people here.  Even Tacoma and Everett, large cities just a light rail and a short bus ride away, are into the act.  (I just like saying the words Aqua Sox.)  There’s even a junior hockey rivalry between the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Steeltips.

They love their oval sports too.  The Seattle Thunderbolts are the defending Minor League Cricket champions, while the Major League Cricket Seattle Orcas are set to make their debut, albeit playing their home games in Texas.

2023 USAFL Western Regionals
Lake Stevens Community Park 
First game at 9am - Complete schedule here
Match replays on YouTube.com/USAFL1997 starting next weej

But in Aussie Rules, you look no further than the Grizzlies.  Celebrating 25 years in 2003, the team that was once known as the Geelong Football Club of Seattle (I swear to Ablett that’s what they were called), the Grizzlies have a rich history that weaves its way in with the rest.  The men’s team, D1 Grand Finalists in 2009, has had a delightful resurgence in the last decade, winning the D3 Nationals in 2017 and rising back to the top level.

Its women’s team, however, is a great story.  They went from a couple of players accompanying Portland to the D2 National cup in 2016 to D1 Grand Finalists in 2018 and 2019.  They have National team experience, and their recruiting efforts have bounced back in a major way following the pandemic.  A true testament to the growth of the sport.

And so finally, a deserved chance to host a USAFL event.  It will be the best of the West Coast – and they have been very, very good – travels to a lush patch of grass in beautiful Lake Stevens, to do battle.  Can Golden Gate hang on in unfamiliar hinterlands?  Will the home side spoil the party?  Or will we see an upset or two delight the fans in Snohomish County?

Here’s a look at the competing sides for this seventh tournament:

Men’s Division 1 – Golden Gate Roos (2-1), Sacramento Suns (2-1), Seattle Grizzlies (1-2), [Los Angeles (2-5)/San Diego (7-1)]

New York, Austin, Denver, Golden Gate.  Four teams that are no strangers to consistent success at Nationals.  The Roos won four straight Western titles from 2016 through 2019, and the Sacramento Summer Series two years ago.  All of that streakiness ended with an 0-2-1 record at Westerns in Denver last season.  That setback was nullified by a Nationals run that saw them come one point short of upending Austin’s run.

Here in 2023, the Roos have had two real battles in their three matches.  They were nudged out by a point against San Diego, and needed a kick after the siren to turn aside Sacramento a couple of weeks back. The focus of their success, despite the talents of their Aussies, has been their Americans.  Lots of domestic and National team experience, especially in the forward line, led by Dan Livy and Zac Taylor.  Tim Linfieldt will be a vital tall target, and Luke Myer returns to the side after being a key ingredient in the DC Eagles’ D2 Super Regional triumph a few weeks ago in KC.

Golden Gate’s early season results, combined with Denver’s defeat of Austin at the Super Regionals last month, should lift the spirits and intensity of the other three teams in this division and make for some even more intriguing contests.

Sacramento’s near-miss at home a few weeks ago will have them up and ready for the day at Lake Stevens.  They are another consistent Regionals performer, with D2 Cups in 2015, 2016, and 2022.  They took a very good Boston team to the mats in the National D2 final a season ago, and coach Faku Lay and the rest of the men in red endeavor to outshine the field.

Always known for fundamentally sound footy, the Suns have depth all around the oval.  Ruck Julian David keeps improving with every game, and the defense of Toby Simmons is indelably reliable.  There is speed an athleticism up front, with Ramish Bahramand, Nico Caprignano, and the ever-lifting Kendall Hutchings always on the lookout on the lead.  This might be the best Suns team to come to a USAFL tournament, and they have real chance to spoil their neighbors' title hopes. 

The long wait to host a USAFL event is over, and you know that each and every one of the Grizzlies crew will be eager to take advantage of this chance.  They’ve been very cagey opponents when they’ve played at the top level of late at the Western and National level.  They won a titanic six-team D2 tussle at the 2017 Westerns, and have finished runner up in D1 in 2019 and 2022.

Always an athletic outfit, the Grizzlies have their familiar veteran weaponry, and with enough national team talent to weather any storm.  Kiel Rasp and Saleh Tyebjee have the defensive know-how to turn retreat into attack, and Max Depina dips in from Australia with his supercharged wheels.  Canadian Trent Loosemore is a tall, muscly unit that can poke holes in team’s resistances, and key role players like Matt Leinbaugh, Matthew Zapel and Aaron Tomaselli can play wherever they’re asked.

Los Angeles and San Diego’s rivalry goes all the way back to 2010 when the Dragons came into the league, but the roots of their battles go all the way back to the early days of the USAFL.  This weekend, they’ll join forces in an attempt to bring that D1 cup back home to SoCal.  L.A. has had the more success of these two sides at regionals with two D1 runners ups, but the 7-1 Lions will look to change that with the help of the feisty Dragons.  

Height and strength will be in order for this combination, with Sam Murphy (LA) and Donald Lee (LA) able to show up in the ruck or forward line.  Defenses will have to be quick, however, with the likes of Rick Shaibani (LA), Michael Coffey (SD), and John Carpenter (SD) roaming around.  Despite being the four seed, the boys from the beach will be bring that flair to the northwest flavor of this carnival.

Women’s Division – [Golden Gate Iron Maidens (1-0) w/Portland & Austin], [Seattle Grizzlies (0-2), w/ Wasatch, Orange County], [Sacramento Suns W (1-1) w/ Vancouver & Denver, & Arizona]

New great name, same great team.  After eleven seasons of existence, the Iron Maidens have taken on the “Golden Gate” moniker, in alignment with their club name (Golden Gate AFL) and their men’s counterpart.  But don’t worry, they’re still the juggernaut we’ve come to know and either love or loathe, depending on what side of the fence you’re on.  Western winners in 2015, 2019, and 2022, the Maidens had a rollicking win over Sacramento to kick off the season, and are on the hunt for their fourth regionals crown.  They’ll get some help from a few women from the Portland Sockeyes, who have wins in 2016 and 2018 - both at the expense of the Maidens - to show for their winning know-how.

Though a few names are missing, Meg Leone (GG), Ellise Leone (nee Gallagher, GG), Katie Klatt (GG), Jess Blecher (GG), Nikole Makenzie (GG), and Jess Estrada-Finley (GG) will all be there.  Throw in extra National team experience from Heather Serpico (AUS), Lauren Williams (PDX), and Lauren Skonieczny (PDX), and the side has depth at all positions. This will allow newer players such as Lily Hamilton (GG), Kaley Marden (GG), and Alyson Grunsky (PDX) to get valuable in-game possessions as they gain more traction in the sport. 

However, if one team has consistently given the Maidens fits during their six-year run as National Champions, it’s been the home side.  Seattle gave them whatfore AND whatfive in their two Grand Final meetings in 2018 and 2019, and kicked three goals against them in a regionals defeat last year.  And, the only time the Maidens have played against the emerald-and-black in Seattle, it was locals who came away with victory.  An athletic and skillful bunch on home turf plus national level talent from three other sides may spell a first ever regional cup.

Orange County and Wasatch played alongside the Grizzlies at the 2021 Nationals, meaning that Amelia Kahr (SEA) will have the equally deft Aileen Yoon (OC) and defensive leader Lizzy Sawyer (WWG) alongside her and the Grizzlies again.  Valerie Barber-Axthelm (SEA) makes her return to the Grizz after several years in Australia, and the diminutive dynamo leads a balanced attack that will be deep at every position.  Jennifer Anderson (SEA), Katya Hewitt (SEA), Amanda Boe (SEA), and Rachel Blum (SEA) will be among those trying to light up the scoreboard.

It’s been rough going for the Sactown Suns W side of late, and they’ve not had much success recently at regionals.  A win over Seattle in the Midway Mashup, however, has built up some confidence as they come into Regionals.  Vancouver, who last played in the 2016 Western Regionals, joins Sacramento and brings some additional defensive talent as well as playmaking skills.  Add in athletic reinforcements from Denver and Arizona, and you have a entry that could very well win the tournament from the three-seed.

Defensive talent is in strong supply on this side, with National teamers Makenzie Adamo (SAC) and booming kicker Jenna Taipaleti (SAC) keystoning the back.  You want speed?  You’ve got it: Amanda Mora (ARZ), Erika Titus-Lay (SAC), and Allison Dykes (DEN) can all skedaddle, and Marissa Poorboy (DEN) can kick highlight reel goals.  The Canadian contingent adds more experience, with national teamer Erin Regan (VAN) and Aussie vets like Molly Coulter (VAN) and Shannon Maguire (VAN).

Men’s Division 2 – [Portland Steelheads (0-2) w/ Wasatch], [Orange County Giants (1-3) w/ Golden Gate Reserves], [Arizona Hawks (0-1) w/ LA Reserves, SD Reserves, Seattle Reserves, Las Vegas]

Making their way up I-5 with a strong contingent, the Portland Steelheads roll into Lake Stevens trying to win their first regional flag in three seasons.  They went back-to-back in 2018 and 2019, and provided three players to Seattle in Denver last season.  Dropping both matches in the Midway Mashup last month has served as motivation to devour the competition, and they’ll have the help of a hungry group from Utah in the Wasatch War Gulls.

Rose City’s Aussie contingent has always been a consistent performer group in these tournaments, and so has the local recruits.  Scott Waggener (PDX) leads the forward group, Terry Brasch’s (PDX) Aussie experience makes him extra dangerous, and the ball skills of Jevon Mason (PDX) and Travis LaJoie (PDX) will look to create chances.  The Utahn trio is headed by Tyler Sawyer (WWG), and Mexican-born rookie Efrain Villalobos Santana’s (WWG) height will be an asset for the top seeds.

Battlers in Men’s Division 2 at the National level for the past several years, the keepers of the big big sound have played neigh D1 level footy since wrapping themselves in charcoal and Orange.  OC is off to a 1-3 start in 2023, all against San Diego and Los Angeles, but remain a competitive side once again  They’ll have the help of reserves from Golden Gate and Sacramento, and a reinforcement or two from Denver as they go after their first regional title of any sort since the 2015 Western D1 triumph.

The G-Men will look to a couple of their Aussie vets to lead them; Harris Eilenberg, Tim Ellis, and Adam Shanks should be counted on to rack up possessions and Best & Fairest votes for their team.  John Case and Trever Osterholm lead the American contingent for the side, which will also include a group of Golden Gate reserves led by Tysen Bravo.

Arizona has come riding into this new season having made back-to-back Div 3 Grand Finals at Nationals.  Led by their coach and spiritual leader Darren Henderson, the Hawks put together a respectable 1-2 record in Denver in 2022 and have designs on lifting another trophy, as they did alongside Portland out of D2 in 2018.  

Versatile Alex Fernandez (ARZ) and Peter Abernathy (ARZ) head up Hendo’s crew, accompanied by Vegas’s Tevye Schuettpelz-Rohl (LV) and Brett Anderson (LV).  The reserves that round out the side will be immensely handy, with Zachary Johns (SEA), Matt Hocking (SEA), and Alex Rowe (LA) hoping to take the Hawks and friends to the top out of the three spot.

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