Arizona Hawks Win Qantas Division II Premiership

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In August of 1999 one Aussie and a handful of intrepid Americans had an organized kick for the first time in Arizona.  By November of that year their numbers had grown into the teens. For the first official match of Phoenix Scorpions in February of 2000, 35 eager but inadequately skilled footy players took the ground against the Inland Empire Eagles.  The lack of skill and knowledge was more than made up for in the hard-hitting and unrelenting style of play that has become the hallmark of Arizona Footy.

Only 5 original players from the inaugural season are now members of the Arizona Hawks.  Of those, two were on the ground for Arizona in the 2004 Pratt Industries USAFL National Championships in Atlanta.  Jeff “Fingers” Purcell and Darren Toohey have represented the Hawks (nee Scorpions) in each of the five seasons of existence.  Andrew “Floyd” Ashworth, Lee “Buddy” Fraley, and John “Pops” Meier are the remaining hold-outs from that first season.

Fast forward to 2004.

The Hawks, bolstered by the huge talent pool of the Arizona Australian Football League took an astonishing 29 players to Atlanta to lay claim to the Qantas Division 2 National Championship title.  A younger, fitter and stronger side had never before been assembled for the quest.  Still stung from last year’s dismal performance, these Hawks were determined to prove to the USAFL that a strong side of predominantly American players, led by an American coach, can and would win the Premiership.

The first match for the Hawks was against the Nashville Kangaroos.  A seven point loss to the Roos in the 2003 National competition was all the reason needed to inspire the boys.  A slow start by the Hawks in the first half found the teams tied at the break.  Strong defense and relentless attacking put the Hawks up for good in the second half.  At the final siren the Hawks had ran out winners by 13 points against Nashville.

Next up for the Hawks were the North Carolina Tigers.  Much like the Hawks, the Tigers were heavy on American players (and a fair amount of college players as well).  Unlike the Hawks, the Tigers were unable to mount any sort of sustained attack against the Brown and Gold.  Arizona won easily by 8 goals, finishing the day at 2-0.

The mid-morning match on Sunday against Chicago should have been an uneventful affair.  Chicago had thumped the Tigers but lost by 1 point (at the siren) to Nashville.  Riding a 4 goal lead into the half, the Hawks became the victim of three baffling 50-meter penalties (one of which was more like a 90-meter penalty) which resulted in a draw.

Still, the Hawks were in the Title game!

The team prepared for this match as though it was going to be the last one ever played.  Players like Matty Bracher, Chad Martin, Brad Pope and Jeff Purcell who had played in Grand Finals before still were notably focused on the task at hand.  The new young guns of Arizona Footy, Rob Luto, Josh “Touph” Ashley, Robbie Dollar, and Darren “DK” Kelley, were primed and ready for what lay ahead.

The Hawks opponent was, well, the Hawks.  Philadelphia had won their pool as well and the other spot in the Grand Final.  Hawks on Hawks did present a problem, but Coach Eric Aramian, in a move which could only be described as strategic genius, won the coin toss and the right to wear the Brown and Gold.  Philly had to change their strip to the red, white, and blue of the Revolution uniforms.

From the opening siren the match was tough, tight and evenly matched.  The Arizona side went in extraordinarily hard for every ball.  The mid-fielders gave the Philly boys no quarter on any 50/50 contest, and came out of the crowd with the pill more often than not.  Matt “The Missile” Sovereign played like a man possessed on the wing, flying around the field, making options and wearing his Philly opponent out.  The manic onball play of Brad Pope inspired his teammates to copy his intensity.  Jason “Yogi” Parks repeatedly emerged from a pack with the footy and sent the ball soaring forward to his well placed forward line.  One questionable call by a certain Canada-based umpie stalled an Arizona drive for a certain goal when Parksie was called for an illegal disposal.  On a not-so-questionable call, Touph (a la Pops) was sent off for a minor assault against his Philly mark a few seconds (15) after the lad had booted a free kick.  But such was the passion in this match.  As the legendary Essendon Coach Kevin Sheedy had said at the USFooty banquet the night before, “Ma’am, if you’re worried about your boy, perhaps he should play tennis”.

The first major of the match came as a trio of Western Hawks forwards hand passed the pill deftly one to another until it was snapped through for six by forward pocket Michael “Mental” Levenbaum.  The Arizona and Western Region supporters made themselves known with a resounding roar.  Having the first goal on the board gave the Arizona boys even more lift. 

Stung by the quick score, Philly went on the attack.  Nearly every time the Philly side pushed into the Arizona back line, Darren Toohey and company were there to repel the attempts.  Toohey’s spectacular spoils allowed Danny “D-Train” Reidy to scoop up the crumbs time and again to halt the advance of the Eastern Hawks of Philadelphia.  Still, the Philly boys managed to send through a major to close the gap.  The Philly boys weren’t going to go down without a fight.  It was apparent that the two best sides had made it to the finals.

The Arizona Hawks were unable to convert a couple of opportunities late in the first half and were forced to settle for single points on each attempt.  Fingers pulled down a screamer on the far side of the field at the 18 minute mark of the first half and quickly sent the pill to leading Full Forward Matty Bracher.  On his lead Matty was mugged, molested and otherwise soundly abused in ways completely unfit for print.  To add astonishing insult to injury, no free kick was paid for Matty’s pain and suffering at the hands of the Philly thug.  In an absolute travesty of footy justice, the head-whip, wind-expelling, grimace-producing, arm-flailing battering Matty took upon his delicate back-side went unnoticed by everyone not wearing the Hawks Brown and Gold.  Even the pleas of mercy from the gallery went without notice.  Such is the burden of a superstar, I suppose.

The first half found the Desert Hawks with a meager 4 point lead.

The final period began with the same intensity that ended the first half of play.  Arizona Ruckman David Verwolf continued his domination of the tap, giving Arizona the advantage out of the center square.  Strong marking by Gabe Miritello on errant Philly kicks was crucial to the Arizona game plan.  Gabe’s 60 meter torpedo into the forward line drew a loud response from the crowd, but Arizona was only able to convert the effort for a point.  Philly meanwhile, had obviously made strategic adjustments to the Arizona side and were experiencing some measure of success in moving the ball into their forward line.

A Philly goal at the 5 minute mark into the period gave them the lead for the first time in the match.  For the time being it appeared as though Philly had swung the momentum of the match slightly to their side.  The grimly determined Arizona defense battled back with renewed passion, sending the ball quickly forward.  The midfielders of Arizona pressed hard for the pill, and with a quick kick, sent the ball bouncing in front of a sprinting Kent Blasingame.  Kent caught the lucky bounce, gathered the pill and sent it through for his first major of the match and returning the lead to Arizona.

Philly was determined not to concede the match and with some excellent passages of play managed to force the ball once again deep into the Arizona defense.  The Philly forward caught the fortunate bounce and with only minutes remaining, soccered the ball through once again to recapture the lead.  For the first time in the match, the concern showed on the faces of the veteran Western Hawks.  With encouragement from all sides, the senior members exhorted their teammates to push onward.  Chad “Tank” Martin and Pope furiously charged into the square on the subsequent tap and led the Arizona offensive against the resolute Philly defenders.  Possession of the red pill was exchanged in the next few minutes.  Arizona Coach Eric Aramian shouted instructions anxiously to his midfielders.  Coach Aramian sent a now rested Eric “Hitman” Dole onto the field as a calculated move to disrupt any Philly momentum.  Skillfully Dole forced a turnover and the prized pill once again was sent to the Arizona forward line.  A mad scramble ensued for the footy when, on a hard angle, what only can be described as a miracle took place.  The wind and field conditions had to be just right.  The bodies crashing together in a tangled mass had to fall just so.  The pill glanced off first this leg and then that hand.  A tap of the ball.  Then a roll.  Finally an opportune bounce gave occasion for a Hawk to be a hero.  Mental, without hesitation, without daylight showing between the bodies and the posts, defying the laws of natural physics, time/space continuum, and several major religious tenets, incredulously kicked the footy in mid-air through the bodies and posts for his second and most important major of the match.

With only a couple of minutes remaining, the Philly side mounted a furious attack to regain the lead.  A long kick along the far boundary by a determined Philly halfback was dragged out of the air by a leaping Chad Martin.  The crowd held their collective breath as Martin fought the demons inside calling upon him to play on.  Forcing himself to drop back and line up a strong kick, Chaddy punted the ball deep into the Philly defense.

A mad scramble for the footy ensued but time had run out.  A hard fought and well played match between the Western Region Hawks of Arizona and the strong and determined Eastern Region Hawks of Philadelphia ended with a scant 2-point margin of victory in favor of Arizona.  At the final siren, the Arizona Hawks Australian Football Club now are known as the Qantas 2004 USAFL Division 2 National Champions. 

The final Arizona 3.4.22 def. Philadelphia 3.2.20

A tip of the hat to the Philadelphia Hawks players, coaches, staff and supporters.  They are truly a worthy opponent and class organization.


- John Meier

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