Twelve months after lifting the Women's D1 National Championship trophy in Sarasota for the very first time, the San Francisco Iron Maidens tried to do it again. This time, they'd face the largest field of standalone teams ever assembled.
Despite the bumps and bruises sustained during the course of the long season, the re-emergence of the Denver Lady Bulldogs, and the much ballyhooed strength of the two Canadian teams in the field, the Maidens turned back all comers and earned the repeat. San Francisco 2.2.14 defeated Denver 1.0.6 in the Grand Final at the San Diego Sports Cup Ground, becoming the third team in USAFL Nationals history to repeat as Women's D1 champs.
Both finalists had injury concern to veteran leaders following IC17 in August. Denver's Hallie Kastanek dislocated her elbow in the PNG game, and her replacement in the ruck, San Francisco's Brette Brower was ruled out after suffering a neck injury in the semifinals against Canada. Denver was also missing Kassi Wilkerson due to a knee injury in the opening game of the Liberty tour, and another of other players due to turnover. All of that phased neither team in pool play, however.
Denver found itself in three hard games with three hungry opponents, and the defense, anchored by Ti Streff and Carly Austin, managed to keep their opponents to just two points in 120 minutes of Pool B action. They held on to a 12-2 win over New York in their opener, but fought back to blank Sacramento 18-0 on Sunday afternoon. That set up a virtual semi-final with Calgary, who had also gone 2-0 on the weekend. Inaccurate kicking threatened to doom the 'Dogs against a Kookaburras side that carried a number of offensive weapons, but the defense clogged the Calgary system and held onto a 19-0 win to advance to their 6th title game under the Grand Final format.
San Francisco, meanwhile, had little trouble in their opening games on Saturday. Their offense, led by Carly Smolak and Jessica Estrada, posted fifteen goals in two matches, while Bevin English and the defense held Seattle and Minnesota scoreless. Defeating the Grizzlies 34-0 and the Freeze 64-0 meant that the Maidens were pretty much through to the Grand Final from Pool A, but an emphatic 37-6 win over the Montreal Angels sealed the deal anyway.
A year ago it took most of the first half for the Maidens to score the first goal. In San Diego in 2017, it took all of 90 seconds. Smolak put the first attempt on goal after picking up a probing pass from Freedom teammate Meg Leone, and her dribbling shot was desperately cleared by Carly Austin for a rushed behind. But after dodging that opening bullet, the Bulldogs got burned when Estrada picked off Jessica Gray's kick in, and the seven-year USAFL veteran strode in and split the sticks for the first major of the game. It was also the first goal allowed by Denver all weekend.
Up 7-0 and sensing that their foes were shellshocked, the Maidens kept the pressure up, and Smolak started to rack up the touches. The Bulldogs veterans had been here before, and though they were required to play more urgency to stop the bleeding, held their own. Twannia Clark, who has proved her merit as a footballer by virtue of the Roos Medals in her awards case back home, made the Maidens work for every ball and tried to lead the team into the forward, looking for targets in the forward line. In a recurring theme, Bevin English, the All-World Team selection from IC17, would track back and take a number of defensive marks, which would allow Milli Bruce and Sara Magallon to keep the screws on.
The physicality picked up as the half went on, as the Bulldogs were able to parry away chances and Alison Bremner got involved, laying out Ellise Gallagher with a clean and hard tackle. Veterans Anna Thexton and Susie Ohle Elmer got involved as well, cleaning up the ball and looking for options. Hallie Kastanek lifted her game too, and took a nice contested mark in front of Magallon. Rookie Baylee Hurtado began to rack up the possies as well, but Leone and Leslie denied chance after chance.
The Maidens added another minor off of a free kick-fed scramble. Smolak attempted to add to the lead, but Streff, Gray, and Clark were there to say no. Denver finally got a chance inside 50, and on a broken play, Lindsey Kastanek ran onto a loose ball and struck gold from 35 meters out in the shadow of halftime. It was only the second goal allowed by San Francisco during the tournament, and when the break came, one could sense the momentum turning with Denver as they now trailed only 8-6.
Both sides came back onto the ground underneath the warm California sun with twenty minutes left in their season. Unlike last year, where there was another game looming for both, this was it. In 2016, the Maidens had to deal with the wind and the Lady Bulldogs, but they also had a nine point buffer. That margin was now only two points, but at least the Pacific breeze was not there to help Denver; they'd have to do it on their own against the mighty Maidens defense.
In 2016, it was the defensive ensemble that won the game for the Maidens. This year, though there were a number of splendid solos splayed through the second half that denied the Bulldogs -- Gallagher, Julie Marks, Marion Jeanne, and Nikole Makenzie among them - the star performer was Bevin English. It seemed like every time Gray and the Bulldogs half backs and backliners tried to go down the guts, English would roam over and take an easy defensive mark to turn her team back into attack.
Back and forth the game continued as each team parried the others attacked. But the final - and winning goal - would come in transition. Marks picked off a Denver pass, found a wide open Magallon at midfield who sent a long ball inside 50. The ball landed with a hop as ugly as my 10 grade Spanish teacher, but right at Smolak, who twisted her body around and connected. An eight point lead with minutes to go seemed just about secure, and the Maidens had one hand on the cup again. Smolak, who won her third Paul Roos Medal by a country mile, did what big game players do and won the game for her team.
As Peter Holden mentioned on the broadcast, the crème rose to the top for both teams, as their star National teamers kicked all three majors. Needing to kill the clock, the Maidens threw abandon with desperation to win the football against an equally desperate Bulldogs team. San Francisco successfully saw out another triumph over their rivals, vanquishing the doubters, and getting revenge for their Western Regional loss.
The sequel was just as good as the original, and though it was the Bay Area girls that got the chocolates, the Lady Bulldogs once again played with the hearts of champions. They just came up eight points short. Clark would take home most consistent honors along with New York's Natalie Wolff, whose own football skills have improved rapidly in just two seasons.
But the weekend belong to the charges of Michael Jobling and Tara Salmon. The comprehensiveness of the four game sweep brought to mind those of Denver's halcyon years during their six year string. But to have only allowed two scoring shots in what would normally be two regulation games of footy, and to have done it against the teams they did perhaps made it the best performance in Nationals history.
'It is incredible to look back over the years to see how the women's game has grown,' said Marks. 'It has been through this growth that has pushed us all to get better. Along with the support of our broader GGAFL family and our commitment to each other, this has allowed us to truly perform, and win, as a team.'
Marks also credited coaches Jobling and Salmon with keeping the squad together as a unit, and Salmon, who returns back home to Australia after a successful stint with the Maidens, echoed Marks's statement.
'Winning the Nationals D1 championship again in 2017 is testament to the grunt and determination of our players both on and off the field. We've worked hard this year on growing the game, bleeding new players, and having plenty of fun along the way. That's reflected in our three-team San Francisco women's league, our D2 combined squad (who came runners-up in their first Nationals!), and our seven national representative players.'
Aside from joining Atlanta (2005-07) and Denver (2010-15) as multiple winners of the Women's D1 National Championship, the Maidens win, coupled with the Golden Gate Roos Men's D1 title, signaled only the second D1 Double in USAFL History (Denver's 2011 Double being the first.)
'These trophies belong to each and every Roo and Maiden that have ever worn the blue and orange, said Marks, who is also the president of the GGAFL. 'They may not have been on the field with us, but they helped us get here. I am so incredibly proud to be a part of this club.'