Buzz Buzz Buzz Buzz - Previewing the Western Regionals

Utah might be the strangest looking hexagon out there, but it is definitely unique.

It was the pioneer spirit and want of a new life that brought Brigham Young and his fellow settlers to the little groove between the Great Salt Lake and the rising peaks of the Wasatch Range. When he arrived, he noticed that there were no natural sweeteners other than honey available. Just bees. Lots of bees.

Honeybees are industrious, just like those who worked hard to build anew. And though Young lost out in his suggestion to name the territory “Deseret” after an ancient Mormon word for honeybee, the state nickname - and new flag - bears out this symbolism.
Two decades after Brigham Young and his fellow pilgrims arrived, the golden spike that officially finished the Transcontinental Road and made our great continent that much smaller was driven home at Promontory. St Louis may be the gateway to the west, but Utah is its crossroads.

And thus it does seem very fitting that teams from the Pacific coast should join with teams from east of the Rockies in this beautiful, bountiful, and bustling place for the 2024 USAFL Western Regionals.
They do love their sport out here. They may not have jazz, but they have the Jazz. No royalty, but Real Salt Lake. Utah Utes and BYU Cougars athletics, as well as that of a half dozen or so other major college sports. And next year the Utah Utahns (working title) will bring NHL hockey to the region for the first time.

The growth of Aussie Rules in the greater Salt Lake region has been one of hard yards, patience, and dedication. It’s a familiar story. Danny Cowser started the Wasatch WarGulls in 2018, eager to bring his native game to his new home. It’s been kicked into a new level by national team product and Minnesota-native Lizzy Sawyer, who, with pious fervor for the “footy gospel,” has built the club one of the most tight knight clubs in the USAFL. And this weekend should more than put that on display to the rest of the league and beyond.

Wasatch will try and defend home turf on both the men’s side alongside Portland, and the women with Minnesota. The Western Regionals usually produce very tight games from start to finish, and here in Farmington Utah this seems to be the case again. Will the Freeze/Maidens Grand Final rematch live up to last year’s decider? Can the Grizzlies or Suns and friends upend the train? Will it be California love for the Roos, Lions, Dragons, Giants, or Suns or will someone else steal their sunshine?

Here is a look at the teams taking to the ground in Farmington. The (#) numbers indicate each team’s standing in the latest ODIN Insurance Coaches Polls. And, be aware that this takes into account rosters received as of 12:01 on Friday June 28th.

#1 Golden Gate Iron Maidens (1-0) / Orange County Giants (0-0)
#2 Minnesota Freeze (2-0) (w/ Wasatch War Gulls)
#4 Seattle Grizzlies Women (1-1½) (w/ Arizona Hawks)
#8 Sacramento Suns (0-1) / #3 Denver (½-½) / Portland (1-0)

Minnesota and Golden Gate gave us two of the best games of the season last year at Nationals; the Freeze ending the Maidens’ 25-game win streak at Nats, followed by a last second win to etch the Gaters’ into history as seven-time consecutive Women’s D1 National Champions. For the first time, they’ll meet in the regular season as full sides; the Freeze combined with Portland to take out the ‘16 Westerns. But there are four teams full of talent here, which should make for an intriguing and thrilling round robin.

Katie Klatt, who was the backbone of the Maidens’ defense for their last four championships, has moved into a coaching role for club and country. Here she looks to continue her side’s run of success, with four straight regional and sub-regional titles to go with all of the others. After accounting for Sacramento in the opener, the Maidens come to Utah confident they can do it yet again. Accompanied by the OC Giants, there will be a ton of Freedom Level talent with the likes of Nikole Mackenzie (GG), Leilani Cordoba (GG). Jess Blecher (GG), Delphina Delgadillo (OC), and Aileen Yoon (OC). The side’s shamrock-combo of Nicole Feery (GG), Niamh Morris (OC), and Ciara McGuire (OC) are joined by a talented batch of newer recruits, such as Elenista-Ann Lam (OC), Taylor Julson (GG) and Naghmeh Novbakhtian (GG).

The scoreboards may say otherwise, but the Minnesota Freeze had to fight hard to sweep their two Super Regional games in Ohio a fortnight ago. If nothing else, their work ethic and dedication off of the field is translating into results on it, and while a number of these players are looking to earn and retain their spot on the Freedom ahead of the TransAtlantic Cup, they would really, really like to beat the Maidens again and take home both regionals trophies. Eliasen (MIN) and Sygulla (MIN) both took home medals again from Super Regionals, and the scoring punch of Hoha (MIN) and Gerogiadis (MIN) will want more points in Utah. This weekend will see a reunion with longtime Freeze player Lizzy Sawyer (WWG), who along with Jessica Rojas (WWG) represent the homesteading Wasatch WarGulls.

At the National level, the Grizzlies have finished either 2nd or 3rd in the last four tournament’s they’ve brought a full side to. They’ve posted three straight runners-up placings here at Westerns, and will arrive in Utah having been tested and tempered by playing Canadian teams in the BCAFL. So far, Seattle’s trips up north have been fruitful, and amidst all the talk of a Maidens-Freeze showdown to decide things, the Grizz hope to roar their way into spoiling the party. Natalie Griffin’s (SEA) tackles and goal sneak status is invaluable for a team that puts on more pressure than David Bowie and Queen. April Munn (SEA) and Alisandra Alcocer (SEA) both were part of the regionals winning team two weeks ago and would love a double of their own. Canada Northwind Captain Anna Brancati (SEA) alongside Arizona Hawk Tracy McLaine (ARZ), rising star Kelli Kaskiw (SEA), and utility keystone Valerie Barber-Axthelm (SEA) is a great case for a dark horse.

Minnesota isn’t the only women’s side doing the regionals double. The neighboring Denver Bulldogs team up with Sacramento and Portland in a potentially potent combo. There’s plenty of midfield talent; Marissa Poorboy (DEN), Alison Leonard (DEN), Lauren Williams (POR), and Erika Titus-Lay (SAC) have noses for the goals, and there is good forward line presence with Ally Dykes (DEN), Kylie Haun (DEN), Kaitlyn Mascher (DEN), and Lauren Skonieczny (POR). “Schnitz” kicked the game winning goal last year in Seattle to seal the regionals victory for the Sockeyes/Maidens conglomerate, and this season bring some new talent in Dani Bridges (POR), Indigo Ao (POR), and Ryann Sotello (POR). Add in more Sacramento veteran presence from Helen Mondia-Harvey (SAC) and Jessica Swart (SAC), and you have a hungry team of Sunny Dogfish trying to make waves.


#3 Golden Gate Roos (2-0)
#7 San Diego (1-1) / #18 Arizona (1-0)
#9 Seattle Grizzlies (3-½)

As long as one can remember, the Golden Gate Roos have always been one of the USAFL’s elite clubs. That hasn’t always led to success at the Nationals level, but at the Regional level it’s been pretty consistent. Since 2016, the only year they haven’t come out on top is 2022, when Denver proved to be rude hosts. But with a win over Sacramento to kick off the year in arears, this will once again be the Gaters’ coming out party for the season. There are a lot of familiar names on this roster, including Revos greats past and presence. Zac “Moose” Taylor is one of the strongest full forwards in the league, and Tim Lindfelt will get a boost from the addition of former Denver Bulldog Alex Mayberry. Can the Roos rule once again?

San Diego and Arizona have something that is pretty common in the USAFL… a friendly rivalry. There is truly a lot of respect between these two teams who compete each year in the “Sand and Surf Cup”. Now, they’ll get the chance to play aside each other at Westerns. Both the Hawks and Lions are used to being winners at regionals and Nationals, and with the amount of American and Australian veterans available, they might make a run at top of this group. The Lions are a balanced team with All-Regionals selection Max Rintoul (SD) and veteran John Carpenter (SD), while big Greg Dodaro (ARZ) and speedy onballer Alex Fernandez (ARZ) pace the Hawks contingent.

Hearts have perhaps healed a bit from being broken in the Men’s D2 Grand Final at Nationals, but the Grizzlies surely haven’t forgotten their tough loss to Sacramento. They too have been plying their trade up north in the BCAFL, and have swashbuckled their way to a winning record both there and against Cascadia foe Portland this campaign. Though they sit as the three seed, the mixture of American, Canadian, and Australian experience here will have them be competitive all Saturday long. Bear-like size peppers the lineup here, via Trent Loosemore, Matt Leinbaugh, Matt Hocking, Rob Munn, Austin Cox among others. Josh de Grandi is looking for a big tournament, and Max Rennie is hoping for another All-Regionals nod, in addition to a championship.

#5 Los Angeles Dragons (2-0) / #20 Orange County Giants (0-3)
#8 Sacramento Suns (1-1)
Wasatch WarGulls (0-0) / #19 Portland Steelheads (0-3)

A year after combining with San Diego, the L.A. Dragons go dancing with their other SoCal tango partner, the OC Giants. Giant Dragons sound scary, and here they are out to stomp and scorch everyone en route to L.A.’s first regional crown and OC’s second (2015 being the first). Winners of the Rob Dollar Cup and the first two legs of the SoCal up, the boys from Hollywood come in with real momentum, and the Giants hope a good showing can get their season back on track. L.A. has Americans Sam Murphy (LA), Rick Shaibani (LA) and Gabe Martin del Campo (LA) with experience playing in Australia, while Jack Butler (OC), Pablo Orozco (OC), and Mike Tarascio (OC) lead the boys from Irvine.

It took fifteen seasons and three tries, but the Suns finally ascended to their highest heights… champions of Division 2 at Nationals. They always test their meddle against the tough sides that also call California home, and were D2 champs at Westerns in 2015, 2016, and 2022. Making it to the finals of the Rob Dollar Cup and earning a home split against Golden Gate and Portland, Sacramento is determined not to be eclipsed. Their stout defense will again be anchored by Toby “Sheik” Simmons with brother Guy making his regionals debut, Tristan Boyer cutting from half back, Julian David adding his height as a target, and Kendall “Rabbit Hutchings” running and hopping around the front.

Seven seasons after adding Utah to the USAFL map, the Wasatch WarGulls get to welcome in the league. And it’s a well deserved honor. This is the ‘Gulls biggest presence at a league-run tournament, and they hope this will springboard them onto greater things. Six of their players are Australian, including four from the Queenslander Cruwys family – Dad Luke and sons Ian, Tristan, and Noah. They’ll link up with Portland, who have also won D2 three times – 2018, 2019, and last season. It seems strange for seagulls and fish to work on the same side for a change but this ain’t science class. Though they themselves are on the hunt for their first wins of the season, they are themselves a well seasoned bunch, with Elliot Boys, Scott Johnson, Travis LaJoie, and the semiquincenturion Martin Coventry looking to rise from the three seed and challenge onto the final.

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