That Was The Season That Was 2023

Another year, another cosmic journey around the sun, another season of Aussie Rules football in the USA.

The theme of the time around New Years is the same… out with the old, in with the new.  Some things have become traditional, some old hat, but some new things always seem to work their way in.  Some with staying power, some without.

That was the thought as we crossed into USAFL season 2023; would there be new champions and new things a part of this season.  And in some way, that did happen. We crossed some new frontiers; a new regionals format in new locations.  An American born-and-raised player would lift the AFL premiership cup for the first time.  New faces on a national team program that had not fully stretched its legs in seven years.

Twenty-seven years after it was founded, the USAFL and its clubs rolled through challenges and triumphs as it always did.  When the season ended, long championship streaks were kept intact, a new era began at the top of the league, and a new direction for our National team programs took shape.

Anyone who has been in our league as long as I have will tell you that each season tends to feel different from year to year. Though it didn’t come with the pomp and circumstance of our silver season last year, this campaign had its bright spots and memorable moments, ones that we will hang on to as we hitherto continue the march of time.

This is the season that was, 2023.

It’s not just regionals… it’s Super Regionals!

There’s always been talk of reformatting the long-held Regional Championship Series.  From its official establishment in 2015 through 2019, then continuing last year, there had always been a packed Saturday of footy in each of the three regions.

Starting in 2023, however, the East and Central teams would be combined into one large Super Regionals.  The result was the largest USAFL carnival that wasn’t Nationals. Eighteen teams representing two dozen clubs from Boston to Denver and from Minnesota to Texas gathered in Olathe, Kansas. 

The first thing to know about Kansas in June is that it is hot. Each team not only had to deal with their opponents on the day, but also with a triple-digit heat index. And playing three games in one day did take its toll on all and sundry. 

But we did see some of the best footy of the season nonetheless. It was topped off by the Denver Bulldogs’ Lachlan Fleet winning the game - and the men’s D1 championship - for his team with a goal after the siren to knock off the National Champion Crows. The Bulldogs would also take out D3, combining with the Wisconsin Wombats to do so.  DC and Nashville teamed up to win D2.

On the women’s side, Minnesota squashed any talk of their Grand Final appearance at the 2022 Nationals being a fluke with a comprehensive sweep of New York, Texas, and Denver. It was enough to convince most observers that the Freeze were, at worst, the second best women’s team in the country.

Three weeks later, the team that beat the Freeze in Ontario nine months earlier held up their end of the bargain.  At the Western Regionals in Lake Stevens, Washington, the newly re-christened Golden Gate Iron Maidens managed the honorable challenges of hometown Seattle and Sacramento to lock up their third straight Regional title.  It would be a weekend of doubles in a three-division format; the Golden Gate Roos joined the Maidens as winners of Men’s D1, while the Portland Steelheads, whose Sockeyes sisters helped the Gaters to victory in the women’s, championed men’s D2.

Red, White, Red, White, Blue, Red, White, Red, White, and Blue

2015 was the last time a full-fledged 49th Parallel Cup was held.  2022 saw the North American championship return, but only with men’s matches.  This year, not even schedule conflicts could prevent the rise of the 49PC to its former glory; both the men and women from the USA and Canada would battle in Racine, Wisconsin, but over two different weekends. 

August 5th saw the Canadian Northwind men blow in to try and beat the Revolution for just the second time in their history in this, their eighteenth meeting.  And my good word they came awfully close. 

After being tied twice in the second half, the Revos found ways to manufacture goals against a stifling Canadian defense.  Coach Tom Ellis relied on old hands to eventually get the job done – Steve Fashant, Donald Lee, and Andrew “Tiger” Werner were among the key cogs in a squeaky 36-33 triumph.  It was the closest margin in 49th Parallel Cup history since the Americans won by two all the way back in 2003.

Despite the veteran presence, there were also signs of the future in the reserves match, a rout by the Americans. Joel Freisen, who has been one of St. Louis’s leading talents in their resurgence, was named best on ground.  All in all, a positive weekend, one that would end up being Ellis’s swan song after seven years at the helm.

A fortnight later, it was the Freedom’s turn. And for Christina Licata, named head coach in 2018 and building a culture and program against the backdrop of cancellations and postponements, a tangible measuring stick. After a rousing training camp in Philadelphia in May, the women’s National team would play their first competitive games since the 2017 AFL International Cup.

Tricia Rolfe’s Northern Lights and Midnight Suns (reserves) hadn’t lost a step in the six years since they went to the IC final in Melbourne. Well coached, talented, and tough.  The Freedom and reserves were, themselves, a conglomerate of seasoned veterans and newcomers, some with less than a year’s experience.

The reserves clawed tooth and nail but fell to the Suns by three points; the highlight being Sacramento Sun’s Jenna Taipletti’s spectacular mark and goal.  The seniors, seeking just their third win over Canada, kept pace behind the their Minnesotan core of Connor Lewis and Lindsay Eliason.  Good Lights defense and wayward kicking, alas, would doom the USA as they would fall 26-15.

Hands Across the Water, Heads Across the Sky

The International Cup, originally scheduled for 2020, saw numerous postponements.  Last year was the latest of them, with a possible resumption for the summer of 2024.  Weeks after the Parallel Cup ended, however, the AFL announced that instead that the IC would be replaced, temporarily at least, by regional tournaments.

Though there was some disappointment that a trip to Australia to play in a global tournament wouldn’t be in the cards for next year, focus and excitement turned to the planning of the Transatlantic Cup, which will take place in Toronto on August 2-11. Our friends from AFL Canada will be there, and it’s expected that we’ll see teams from Colombia, the UK, and from continental Europe.

As part of the preparation for this and for future international tours and competition, the national team programs were reformed under one umbrella - the USAFL International Program.  Led by founding president Paul “Plugger” O’Keeffe, both the Revolution and Freedom teams are brought together as a larger entity for resources.

Part of the transition meant new head coaches for the teams. Seattle Grizzlies coach Andrew Donlen adds Freedom Head Coach to his list of titles, while the Cincinnati’s Kyle Strenski takes over the role for the Revolution.

Both teams will have challenges ahead in picking the best teams, but with the talent available in the USAFL, the teams that end up playing in Canada in seven month’s time should be fun to watch, and hopefully bring some more hardware back home.

Premiership Winner Mason Cox.  Yeah, I like that.

When a gangly, almost-seven-foot American lined up at the MCG for the first time in an AFL match on ANZAC Day of 2016, those words seemed downright humorous. How on earth would he make it through his first game, even?

Yet when the siren sounded at that very same ground 2,704 days later, Mason Cox was indeed an AFL Premiership Winner.  Those many days were filled with many ups and downs.  Injuries, setbacks, and critics from so-called experts and keyboard warriors alike.

It’s hard not to get behind his story. From knowing nothing about the game to being at its peak, Cox has taken a very difficult trail up the mountain. And it’s won him fans not just amongst the Collingwood faithful, but from football fans around the country too.

His tale in season 2023 was one of many for a Magpies team that was full of intrigue. Cox specifically told of how coach Craig McRae had had an impact on his development since coming on board, and that seemed to spread throughout the entire side.

In talking to him, his success has been one of community. From Collingwood and the sport beyond, to his own family.  And Jay, Phil, Austin and Nolan (the last two being pretty good footballers in their own right), were there to celebrate with him.

And so, in spirit, were the many of us American footy fans who have been behind him since day one.

Export Report: Endings... and Beginning

The end of AFLW Season 8 saw the curtain come down on the two women who played both top grade footy in Australia and the USAFL.

Dani Marshall, the first American woman to play in AFLW, called time on her pro career after four seasons and 23 games. Though she shifted to a more defensive role with the Essendon Bombers the last two campaigns, she will go down as having roosted a brilliant 45 meter goal in their first ever league match against Hawthorn last year. Her athletic career is not over yet, and she still has lots to give to the growth of the sport.

Marshall’s teammate, Jessica Wuetschner, also announced her retirement in November. Woosha played with Boston in 2015, then went on to be one of AFLW’s inaugural draft picks.  55 games in total in six seasons with Brisbane then two with the Dons, and a premiership with the Lions marked a courageous career from one of the all time best humans to play the sport.

While Marshall and Wuetschner’s careers wound down in Australia, another American woman began her quest on the other side of the Pacific. Seattle’s Amelia Kahr, who had been over in Melbourne in 2019 as part of a talent search, headed to Darwin this time as part of the NTFL’s St Mary’s FC.  At the holiday break, she had kicked six goals in ten games, helping the Saints to joint-first at the top of the table. She also earned selection to the NTFL rep team, which will play Essendon’s VFLW side.  

Kahr is the fourth USAFL woman to play in the NTFL, after Jess Blecher, Rosie Kwoka, and Grizzlies teammate April Munn, and so far things are coming up Milhouse.

Dreaming of Floridays; Nationals Shatters Records

By the time October rolled around and the more than a thousand athletes did the same into Lakewood Ranch, Florida, teams had prepared themselves for one last push towards that National Championship.  They also readied for the biggest bash of the year, with 43 teams across seven divisions making the trip to a blustery ground several clicks from the gulf.

For as far as anyone can remember, many of those clubs were chasing the Austin men and Golden Gate women. And they would have to do it again at the Premier Sports Campus.

The Iron Maidens and Freeze, who had emerged as the two best women’s team in the nation, did meet not once, but twice during Nationals.  In round-robin play on Saturday, Minnesota did what no one could do since 2015 – beat Golden Gate at Nationals.  But 24 hours later, when they met again in the Grand Final, the turntables turned.  Trailing 8-7 with a minute to go, Golden Gate tied it, then won it on a Jessica Estrada-Finley goal at the end.  For the Maidens, it was their seventh National title in a row; tops of the women’s ranks, and the most cups on the trot of any team - men or women - in Nationals history.

Austin, meanwhile, would eventually come face to face with Denver again for the men’s D1 title for the third time in four seasons.  This time, the Crows would avenge the heartbreak of Olethe with a convincing win, albeit with the Bulldogs playing better than average against the wind in defeat. Their eighth triumph now ties Denver with the most in men’s D1 history, and their fifth on the trot - something the Doggies had never done during their long run of the ‘00s.

The Crows also did another thing that was even more unprecedented.  Coupled with their wins in women’s Division 2 and the Men’s Reserves, Austin became the first club to rack up a treble – three championships at a single Nationals.  Not only is that a testament to the depth on their men’s side, but also the rapid growth of the women’s team.  The last time they were in Florida in 2019, they had just two players.  Now they had 15, topped up with a half dozen from the North Texas Devils.  And, with Nationals in their backyard in 2024, it’s an odds on bet that the Crows will have enough for a D1 side next season.  One can hope.

The undercards were just as exciting.  Sacramento finally won men’s D2 in their third attempt, after nearly blowing a 24-1 halftime lead to Seattle to hang on by three points.  Philadelphia hoisted their third D3 championship in four seasons, linking up with the emerging Virginia Lions to defeat Oklahoma in the Granny.  And, a win for the home state as the Jacksonville Saints and Wisconsin Wombats came together to go 4-0 and win Division 4, giving both clubs their first ever National titles.

April Munn, President of the USAFL

One other big event came to pass during Nationals weekend, before the games were even played. At the league’s AGM on Friday, April Munn was elected to the role of USAFL President, succeeding the retiring Sebastian Aguieri.

Seb was president for six whole seasons, and presided over a time of great challenge and progress in the league.  He was there to guide the USAFL through a pandemic, and, with the help of the board and staff members serving beside him during that time, was able to help return the league to stability within two years.  And I, having been media manager during his whole tenure on the board as West VP then president, cannot think of a person who cared for this league more and worked harder to make it the best it could be.

In April, the league has a leader who has experience as both the team and national level.  Having served on the board of the Seattle Grizzlies and BCAFL, and two seasons as the head of the USAFL Women’s Association, April has been at the forefront of growing footy not just in the Pacific Northwest, but across the country and beyond.  I’m excited to see what she and the board can accomplish in this new season.

Here’s to More in ‘24!

2024 will have lots of excitement brewing on the horizon; from the regionals in Ohio and Utah, to the Transatlantic Cup, onwards to Nationals in Austin.

As we close another year, and begin the whole ball of wax again, I want to add one more little personal note to you all.

This is the end of my tenth season as the media manager.  In many ways it was incredibly challenging.

One of the things I love most about this sport is the community. The people; from all walks of life, all backgrounds, races, colors, creeds, religions, whatever.  We’re all different, we’re all unique, and we all have our own ideals.

We should always rejoice in any common ground we can find.  And for us, that is this sport, and this league.

We all know each other because of this great game and the people around it. And while we should always stay true to ourselves and listen to our hearts, we also need to look out for our teammates, our opponents, our volunteers, and our footballing neighbors.

Perhaps we can channel what we feel into building a better game.  I will do my best to honor that this year.

Until then, have a great new years, and I’ll see you out on the ovals again in 2024.


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