2023 USAFL Nationals - Women's Div 1 and 2 Preview

It was twenty years ago today, that the women began to play.

Well, not quite. Women’s Aussie Rules was being played for decades off and on, even before the founding of the VWFL in 1981.

But it wasn’t until 2003 that the first ever women’s match took place at the USAFL Nationals.  Granted, it was an exhibition played with the wrap rule (no tackling yet), but it was the first step.

Two decades later, there are more than 200 women set to take to the ground at Lakewood Ranch.  They’ll encompass nine teams, four full sides playing in Division 1, and five further teams made up of combinations to play in Division 2.

Much like that first game between the Orange County Bombshells and the squad of All-Comers from around the country, there is history to be made at the 2023 Nationals women’s division.  After building up to the point where they could dethrone the then-six-time defending champs from Denver, the Golden Gate Iron Maidens have put together a half-dozen cup run of their own.  

This could be the year they stand alone – not just as the winningest women’s team, but to be the first team of any sort to win the National title seven years in a row.  They’ll have some very talented teams on their tail, however, looking to create some magic of their own.

And then there is Div 2.  Clubs of different shapes and sizes coming together as one for their own bit of Glory.  Austin Crows and Houston Lonestars won it all last year as the Texas Heat.  How will they do on their own?

Women’s Division 1 – Golden Gate Iron Maidens (3-0), Minnesota Freeze (6-0), Denver Bulldogs (2-2), Seattle Grizzlies (2-3)

This four team round-robin comes with a dynamic schedule. The Iron Maidens will play the Grizzlies on Saturday morning, while the Freeze will tangle with the Bulldogs. The two winners and two losers will face off on Saturday afternoon, with the remaining two matchups taking place on Sunday morning. The top two teams will square off in the Grand Final; and while rematches at Nationals are rare, there’s nothing like a little extra heat to elevate a decider.

And the Iron Maidens have played in a decisive match every year since 2013, Grand Final or otherwise. They may be known as Golden Gate now, a much welcomed change to align with their men’s team counterparts (and the name of their league, the GGAFL), but this is still the juggernaut that we have come to know and love. They went through an unbeaten season, though they were put through their passes by Seattle and Sacramento at regionals.

Still, the Maidens are on the precipice of not just Women’s Division 1 history, but setting a new tournament mark.  Four more wins to their 24-game Nationals winning streak will surpass Denver’s men’s mark from 2002-2006, and seventh straight championship would surpass the Bulldogs women in both total WD1 titles and most overall consecutive titles.

No pressure, right?

This is a largely unchanged team from the one that staved off Minnesota to win number six in Ontario. Leilani Cordoba comes back from impressing at Subiaco in the WAFL to join the regulars; Klatt, Bleacher, Brower, Estrada-Finley, Leone (both Ellise and Meg), Green, Magallon, Mackenzie, and Nguyen. If you’ve followed the USAFL long enough, you know what those names can do. Add up emerging talent in Kaley Marden, Lilly Hamiton, and Nagmeh Novbahtian to that, alongside ruck option Seini Moimoi, and you have a side that looks to be very much a San Francisco treat.

But let’s not kid ourselves. This four team field is loaded from top to bottom in every sense, and if the Maidens are to set the record, they will need to earn it.

And that statement is no truer than with the second seeded Minnesota Freeze. After a decade plus of near-misses, they finally made their first D1 Grand Final. Athletes such as Catherine Georgiadis, Paige Thell, Cathy Hoha, Rae Hale, and Jess Nelson, not to mention many others, finally had Nationals medals after coming so close. 2023, however, was a focus of their mission. Coach Mark Fischer had his charges ready for every challenge, and they flew over each hurdle with top marks, taking out the Super Regionals and Yeti Cups.

Ten members of their teams played for the Freedom at the 49th Parallel Cup, and all were vital in that close match. There is a heavy gridiron influence, stemming from the work of Connor Lewis, the team’s keystone in the middle. Kaiya Sygulla, Liz Edd, and Sophie Pfluger have excelled at confusing defenses in on-ball and offensive roles, and Lauren Uhl has complimented Thell well across the backline.  This mostly American side (with the exception of Tasmanian Lauren Burrows-Cheng and Reykjavik’s own Olof Indridadottir) is primed to make history of its own.  Will we see a Grand Final repeat?

Almost fittingly, it’s been a mountain of a rebuilding process for the Denver Bulldogs, but the team who currently sits equal with Golden Gate for most women’s championships won’t let their rivals shimmy past them so easily. There has been an extra snarl returning to the tri-colors in 2023, and though the scoreboard indicates a sound defeat at Super Regionals to the Freeze, they played top notch footy all weekend.  The question will be whether or not they can find the form that netted them six cups of their own on the trot and turn that into number seven.

Many of the Doggies also play Gaelic football; something they’ve used as a recruiting tool over the years.  That’s netted them forward Shauneen McAleer, who has a nose for the goal alongside fellow newcomer Kylie Haun and veteran Lindsey Kastanek. Iris Wu, Rita Hill, and Marissa Poorboy’s speed gave opponents lots to think about this season, as has the consistent play of Alison Leonard and Alison Bremner. The veterans and fresh talent here have what it takes to make a deep run and reclaim the trophy. All they have to do is execute over four games.

Seattle is the fourth seed of four teams, but that is misleading. So is their 2-3 mark on the season. They have always held their own against the Maidens, perhaps the only team to consistently do so during Golden Gate’s run. And they still remember what it was like to come up short to them in the Grand Finals of 2018 and 2019. Athletic, experienced, and with an eye on defense, the Grizz are known for grinding out victories, and are on the hunt for a premier title of their own.

Though Emerald City will be missing a couple important players, there is still plenty of talent on the field and bench here. Canadian captain Anna Brancati paces a quick midfield, with NTFL export (and last year’s B&F Amelia Kahr, returnee Rhyan Johnson, Amanda Boe, and Alisandra Alcocer also providing speed. There’s also a lot of ball-winning strength exemplified by Natalie Griffin and April Munn, and the playmaking of Katya Hewitt and Kelli Kaskiw.  Grizzlies games are always exciting, and win or lose, this reporter is eager to watch them play at Nationals again.

Women’s Division 2 – [Quebec/North Star], [Austin/North Texas/Boston], [New York/Columbus/Arizona/St Louis], [DC/Philadelphia], [Houston/Sacramento/Denver-R/Wasatch]

For the first time since 2018, Div 2 will be a five team round robin, with the best team at the end of play on Sunday being declared the champion. Every game is therefore magnified, and with the first tiebreaker being head-to-head instead of percentage, victories and losses have the potential to carry extra weight to them. The plot, therefore, thickens.

Like the Iron Maidens, the Quebec Saints changed their name from the Montreal Angels to align with their men’s side, another one whose time has come. Returning to Nationals for the first time since their semi-final run in 2019, and winners of D2 the year before, les Bleus bring a team that is well led by the inspirational Larissa Andrusyshyn (QUE). Former East Fremantle Shark Caroline Leduc (QUE). The experience of tall ruck Joanna Rutkowski (QUE) and the rapidity of Natasha Teich (QUE) and Julie Patricio makes for a dangerous attack set up. Add in a seasoned quartet from the twin cities led by Freedom program products Marie LaVictoire (NS) and Autumn Swiger (NS), and you’ve got an entertaining combo.

Women’s footy in Texas is approaching full maturity. Austin, Houston, and Dallas combined to form the Texas Heat in late 2017. That year, they finished 2-2 and turned more than a few heads. Last season, the Heat won their first D2 flag, and now they’ve grown to where they can start forming teams in individual cities. Austin brings a team-high 15 players with them to Florida, and there is plenty of electricity here. Barb Williamson (AUS) played superbly in the ruck for the Freedom, Elizabeth Thoms (AUS) has emerged as a forward threat, and Lindsey Turse (AUS) is a hard working ball-getter. North Texas’s additions bring them diminutive dynamo Olivia Parsons (NTX), and Boston’s Allison Monaghan (BOS) rounds out a team with a ton of upside.

It’s been a rough season for Troy Danilo’s New York Magpies, who are still in search of their first victory in 2023; a long way from their semi-final run in D1 in 2019. But the ‘Pies from Gotham have winning in their blood, and win they’ll try. Nine Aussies dot their initial roster, including tall option Lucy McLeod (NY), and the one-two Jani-Janie punch of Boal (NY) and Green (NY).  The legendary Drea Casillas (NY) will finally play her 300th game after being denied by mother nature, and the hope will be that it ends with their first ever women’s National title. There is a tone of speed here, with Tracey McLane (ARZ), Amanda Mora (ARZ) and Emma “Squid” Whewell (STL) primed to run amok in the midfield.  Include the experience of a Buckeye trio led by Katrina “Sonic” Scherer (CLB), and the ‘Pies may turn things around to end the year.

Finishing seventh from seven teams on D1 debut in 2022 was not a shameful result by any stretch for the DC Eagles. They had earned their way there and played solid footy against hardened D1 competition. Finalists last time at Lakewood Ranch four years ago, the Eagles have essentially a full side, accompanied by two key cogs from Philadelphia in Perthite Caitlin Tilsted (PHL) and rookie Kendall Bedford (PHL). Stepahnie Hower (DC) and Alex Trollip (DC) headline the Eagles’ foreign legion, who have quickness and swiftness of their own from Claire Conley (DC) and Mariam Mehter (DC). There’s also Morgan Daugherty (DC), who is an emerging star in the ruck and gutted out a hearty showing at the Parallel Cup for the Freedom. They went right to the end with Quebec, and played strongly against New York. They should like their chances.

Houston and Sacramento’s women’s programs have historic significance in that they were the first in their region. They’ll come together as one packing a stout defense that might prove to be difficult to penetrate. Makenzie Adamo (SAC), Jackie Sparling (HOU), and Wasatch’s Lizzy Sawyer (WWG) usually win their way to the ball first, and put tons of pressure on the forward line. Jenna Taipaleti (SAC), normally in the backline, showed at the 49PC reserves match that she can use her strong leg to kick goals too, and getting the ball will be key if she continues in that role. Hailey Rattan (nee Rebar) (HOU) returns to Nationals and offers more strength in aerial contests alongside Bianca Marshall (SAC).  This conglomerate should also be worth keeping an eye on, especially with medal winning memories still fresh.

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