Bulldogs shine in Sarasota, secure second-place finish

From the earliest preseason meeting right through the summer schedule, the Bulldogs showed flashes of potential to challenge for a national championship but endured as many painfully close losses as thrilling victories on the way to entering the 2019 USAFL National Championships (Oct. 12-13) as underdogs.

The Bulldogs avenged a loss from earlier in the season by winning their opening match on Saturday against the New York Magpies (4.6.30 — 3.1.19) for an ideal start to the campaign, but the victory only scratched the surface of what the team was to accomplish on the pristine fields at Premier Sports Complex in Sarasota, Florida.

Further victories against the Minnesota Freeze (7.6.48 — 4.3.27) and Golden Gate Roos (4.3.27 — 2.5.17) put Denver all the way into the Division 1 Grand Final for the first time since 2011, setting up a third meeting of the season against the reigning national champion Austin Crows.

After tough losses to Austin at the USAFL Central Regional Championships in Denver in July and a rematch in Denver in August, the Bulldogs were eagerly anticipating making the third time the charm in a bid to end the Crows’ recent USAFL dynasty. However, with the Grand Final broadcast on ESPN3 in front of an international audience, the Bulldogs’ remarkable run ended in defeat (1.2.8 — 8.3.51), leaving the Doggies ruing a missed opportunity, but still basking in a silver finish.

“I was really proud of what the boys were able to achieve at the tournament,” coach Jarryd Watters said. “Whilst it was a disappointment to go down in the final, it was a huge turn-around from last year. There are a lot of positives to take out of it from the performances of our rookies to the continual development of our Americans and less experienced players.”

While the Bulldogs organization was setting a high bar for its Division 1 squad, the championship mentality spread to the Bulldogs Reserve team, which had already picked up a major trophy as the Division II Central Regional champions.

Playing among a highly competitive Division III field in Sarasota, the Reserves not only proved that they belonged in a higher division than they had competed in at previous nationals but finished within sniffing distance of a chance to play in a Grand Final themselves.

Victories on the opening day of the tournament against the Oklahoma Okies (5.5.35 — 2.4.16) and Chicago Swans (5.4.34 — 4.2.26) set up a make-or-break date with the Columbus Cats early on Sunday morning with a spot in the Grand Final at stake. A slow start proved costly, however, as the Cats held firm against the Bulldogs (1.3.9 — 4.6.30).

“Our boys played their hearts out and were just outmatched by a team that had more skilled players than we had,” Reserves captain Phillip Camping said. “We didn’t execute in the slippery conditions and when they got the ball forward they converted and we didn’t, unfortunately. I couldn’t fault our guys’ hardness and desire to get the footy, that never stopped throughout the weekend. I loved being the captain of the ressies and playing amongst great mates!”

Bulldogs send historic numbers to compete in Sarasota

The Denver Bulldogs’ nationals campaign began with a strong sense of tradition on the Friday evening prior to the tournament.

The Bulldogs contingent gathered at the Comfort Suites Sarasota-Siesta Key, filling the hotel’s conference room beyond capacity for the ceremonial jersey presentations. It was very likely the largest number of players the Bulldogs have sent to a national championship.

Club founders Paul Renouf and Matt Dainauski began the evening by reminding those in attendance of the 21-year Bulldogs legacy they were continuing, telling stories of the early days of the club, the eight Division 1 national championships already in the trophy case and the pride of fielding a Division 1 side at every single USAFL nationals in club history. Renouf and Dainauski then did the honors of presenting each Division 1 player with their number for the weekend. Later in the weekend, the pair continued to aid the club from the sidelines, from managing the interchange to even running water for the team.

Reserves coach Rich Mann, himself a life member of the club and an instrumental figure in establishing not only the Bulldogs’ winning culture, but helping to found the USAFL itself, presented the jerseys to the Reserves squad.

Long time Lady Bulldog and current captain Anna Thexton presented the ladies with their jersey. This year the ladies would have 12 debutants amoungest the remaining premiership players.

Club veteran Alex Mayberry was named as the Division 1 captain, with up-and-comer Tom Crameri shouldering the vice-captaincy. Camping took the honor of captaining the Reserves, with Drew McMahan named as vice-captain.

In addition to club founders making the trip with the team, former Bulldogs from all over the country exhibited their continuing loyalty to the club by taking the field with the team in the tournament, including Shawn Clark, Byron Spradlin, William Taylor and Michio McGrath. The Denver contingent ranged from players with multiple national championship medals in their possession, to players still a bit wet behind the ears in their footy careers.

Division 1 squad rebounds from 0-3 finish in 2018 with best showing in eight years

The action on Saturday morning began in slippery conditions for the Bulldogs — not due to any rain in the summer-like Sarasota conditions, but because of condensation forming on the grass from the overnight humidity. Playing with a wet ball caused havoc early on as Denver looked to start the tournament in the win column against the Magpies.

Starting ruckman Patrick Devlin played a crucial role in helping keep the ball in Denver hands as much as possible, as the Bulldogs were able to escape the first half with a narrow lead (2.2.14 — 2.1.13). Crameri and Lachlan Fleet tallied goals in the first half for Denver.

Having endured a 5-point loss on the road against New York on Sept. 21, the Bulldogs knew they wouldn’t be content simply holding their own against the Magpies this time around. Also aware from previous years that a loss in the opening match at nationals usually ends all dreams of competing for a championship, the Bulldogs came out with all guns blazing in the second half.

The Denver back line of Mayberry, Tim Wilson-Humphries, Andy Vanica, Ryan Garthright, Brodie Fleet, Max Eckstein and Leigh McMahon held New York to a single six-point score in the second half.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs hardly allowed the ball to progress back past their own midfield, powered by on-ballers Crameri and Daniel Duffield and fellow midfielders Tom Harkness, Dave Nelson, Nick Moretto, Cameron Freeman, Watters and Jared Thompson. Devlin and fellow ruckman Taylor Morseth continued to give Denver the advantage in the ruck.

This lockdown pressure forced almost all of the scoring action to the Bulldogs’ forward 50, where goals by Devlin and Lachlan Fleet, as well as a barrage of behinds, took the Bulldogs over the finish line for an opening 11-point victory. The doggies would now have a four-hour rest and recovery before taking on their next opponent.

In contrast to the redemption story of defeating the Magpies, Denver opened as favorites in its next match against a Minnesota squad that it had soundly beaten by a 9-goal margin at the Central Regionals in July. However, with the Freeze entering the tournament as the previous year’s Division II champion, they were looking to defy the odds and prove that they belonged amongst the Division 1 competition. There would be no room for the Bulldogs to be caught sleeping on the Freeze.

Right from the outset, it appeared the Bulldogs were well prepared to cruise to another victory against Minnesota, kicking three unanswered goals in the opening minutes. Lachlan Fleet set up the first goal by playing on with a deft handball to Crameri after securing a mark 15 meters in front of goal. The second goal was also assisted by Fleet as he directed the ball into the waiting hands of rookie Derrik Hanson for his maiden nationals goal, before Fleet finally ended his unselfish ways by putting through the third goal himself.

However, before the Bulldogs could extend the lead further, Minnesota kicked into a higher gear and staged a furious comeback attempt. The next two goals both went Minnesota’s way, including a booming 50-meter goal by Minnesota’s Andrew Werner, to leave the contest still very much up in the air at halftime.

Denver dug down deep in the second half, realizing that gritty, tough footy was going to be the difference-maker in the game. Hard contests for the ball and crunching tackles every time the Minnesota players got their hands on it characterized much of the second half. This style of play successfully halted the Freeze’s momentum, with goals from Hanson, Duffield and another pair from Lachlan Fleet keeping Denver comfortably ahead. Duffield also provided perhaps the highlight of the day by chasing down a bouncing shot on goal by the Freeze all the way into the goal square, diving at full extension to get his fingertips on the ball to reduce the score to a behind.

The Bulldogs also were highly successful in shutting down key Minnesota cog Brent Fischer, thanks to lockdown defense from Clayton and Andrew Alvarez. Clayton continues to play for the Bulldogs as much as possible throughout the year despite currently residing in Minnesota.

In the midst of the second-half battle, Harkness provided a shining example of the hard-nosed Bulldogs effort by winning a tough contest in the middle of the field but unfortunately came out of the contest with a broken left leg. After Harkness left the field, the atmosphere of the game continued to stay chippy, with Crameri baiting Minnesota veteran Zach Weaver into bumping him to the ground at a stoppage of play, resulting in a yellow card being shown to Weaver.

Despite the shadow of Harkness’ injury, the resulting 21-point Bulldogs victory set the stage for Sunday: a win against Golden Gate would put Denver all the way into the Grand Final.

Sunday morning’s game against the Roos was the Bulldogs’ first appearance of the tournament on the main ground, Coopers Field, and it was a match that was certainly made for prime-time.

Golden Gate had the early run of play, aided by kicking with the wind in the first half. Despite this early advantage, the Bulldogs held the Roos to just two first-half goals, with Denver adding a goal of its own on a left-footed snap kick into the wind off of the boot of Tommy Ryan.

In Harkness’ absence, Scott Tuttle was called up from the Reserves squad, running well in the middle of the ground. Marcus Colby also saw plenty of the ball after playing with the Reserves side against Oklahoma, with Brad Mathers also stepping up after a game with the Reserves against Chicago.

It was the addition of Mathers to the lineup that led to the play that turned the momentum firmly in the Bulldogs’ favor. With the Bulldogs still looking for a breakthrough score in the second half, Mathers ran down a Golden Gate player just outside of Denver’s offensive 50, drilling his opponent into the ground and earning a free-kick when his opponent lost his handle on the ball.

Mathers’ shot on goal from 55-meters outstayed true, trimming Denver’s deficit to less than a goal. From that point on, the Bulldogs managed to keep the ball in their forward half to set up the go-ahead goal on a cracking kick by Duffield, followed by an insurance goal from Lachlan Fleet that sailed high above the right-side goal post and brought elation to the team bench when it was confirmed for the full six points. Colby added a kick that almost perfectly matched Fleet’s, but ended up as a minor score.

At that point all that the Bulldogs needed to do was hold tight on defense to seal the victory, which they did highly successfully, hardly letting the Roos touch the footy in their attacking half of the ground. However, even after the sound of the final horn confirmed a famous 10-point victory for the Bulldogs, the players kept their celebrations calm and collected, united in knowing that only a Grand Final victory would allow for raucous celebration to begin.

While Denver had played its way past each of its opponents in Pool B, Austin had been taking care of business in Pool A, notching a trio of comfortable victories against Seattle, Quebec, and Los Angeles while outscoring its opponents by a combined total of 162-38.

The Bulldogs knew that containing the Crows would take a mighty effort, but after each of their two losses to the Crows during the season, the Bulldogs had succeeded in raising their game up another level. Any complacency by the Crows would be ruthlessly seized upon by the hungry Bulldogs boys.

With the ESPN3 cameras rolling and all the fanfare preceding the Grand Final taken care of, the Grand Finalists on both teams came out of the blocks playing their best footy, contesting every ball and giving the commentators a handful in trying to keep up with the pace of play.

Unfortunately, Austin continued to execute its near-clinical brand of footy right throughout the match. Each Crows attack was propelled down the field with short, sharp kicks to open men before almost inevitably finding the almost unmarkable tall Australian forward Kenrick Tyrrell in their forward 50.

Sheer dogged determination by the Denver players and strong veteran leadership from the likes of Vanica, Wilson-Humphries, and Mayberry helped keep the game well within reach throughout the first half, but the Bulldogs weren’t able to take advantage of their few entries into their forward 50. By the time Lachlan Fleet tallied the first Denver goal of the game early in the second half, dreams of a comeback were still well within the realm of possibility, but the Crows’ precision never wavered.

With each fresh Austin strike in the second half, the Bulldogs’ burden eventually became too much to bear. A slew of late goals by the Crows eventually led to a lop-sided scoreline, but even then the Bulldogs played on right until the final horn sounded. “I couldn’t be prouder of the boys — every single one of them left it all out on the field in every game we played,” Mayberry said. “Nothing makes me happier than being out there with this group, and I can’t wait for next year when we’ll be bigger, better and stronger.”

Crameri continued his strong play in the middle of the ground throughout the match, the likely Best on Ground candidate for the Grand Final if it hadn’t have been for Tyrrell’s goal-kicking clinic. Crameri’s efforts in the tournament earned him the medal for Most Consistent Player in Division 1. He also took home the Denver Bulldogs Best on Ground award for the tournament as voted on by his teammates.

Hanson, playing in Division 1 despite having taken up the sport mere months ago, was selected as the Bulldogs’ Division 1 Rookie of the Year. Watters also earned some recognition in the form of the Clanger Award, for accidentally setting up Minnesota with a walk-in goal after a failed attempt to rush a behind.

With the rapid turnaround from an 0-3 showing in 2018 to a 3-1 finish and a near-miss for a national championship this year, there is no doubt that taking home the cup will be the only satisfactory result next season for the club.

Division 1 Lady Dogs proud of new pack of rookies, gain valuable Nationals experience.

Not all seasons can be winning ones in scores, but the Division I Lady Bulldogs made up for it in growth this season. Out of the eighteen rostered  women, twelve saw their first Nationals this year and only three women have been on the team for five years or more. Elder veterans Jess Gray, Anna Thexton, and Jen Wilson-Humphries along with coach Colleen MacNab guided the rookies and newer veterans on and off the field providing support when the could for the inexperienced team. The entire season was a learning experience for the women, which ultimately accumulated into a hard-fought Nationals, providing valuable learning opportunities over wins this year.

On Saturday’s first match the women immediately started a fast paced and aggressive game against the Seattle Grizzlies. Seattle scored their first goal within the first three minutes of the game, giving the Bulldogs added motivation to be more aggressive on the field. While Seattle kept it in their forward line for most of the half, the Bulldogs fought back hard and looked to have an opportunity to move the ball down the field with three beautiful marks in a row from Toria Baker to Hanna Lang to Anna Thexton, before turning it back over to the Grizzlies.

The Bulldog defense kept pounding hard against the Grizzlies with excellent tackles from Val Gil and Megan Larson and long, wide kicks from Lang, Jenn Elliott, and Dino Avendano. Larson and Gray’s continual shepherding allowed for the Bulldogs to get the ball out of the pack for opportunities to bring it down the field, but were met with an onslaught of Grizzlies forwards. The women’s defense remained strong going into the end of the first half.

Second half- the Bulldogs came out hard allowing for the offense to finally have a go at touching the ball. Jessica Lin was barely eked out while rucking for her first National’s game. Larson, Koo, and Zoe Do provided well-timed and hard tackles in the middle, allowing for the ball to stay in neutral territory. Koo and Do kept at it in the middle with give-and-go’s trying to get the ball up the field into a scoring opportunity, but fell short as the Grizzlie’s seasoned offense kept the upper-hand. Several turnovers late into the second half led to the Grizzlies scoring multiple behinds thus ending the game with a Grizzlies win 5.11.41 and Denver 0.0.0.

With the first loss under their belts, the Bulldogs left their nerves on the sidelines and came out stronger and harder against the San Francisco Iron Maidens for their second game of the day. The Bulldogs were able to move the ball into the forward line allowing for veteran player Wilson-Humphries to score a behind.

Rookies Shay Sulisz, Ashlea Mayberry, Alexa Benitez, and Anais Mancha Valenzuela showed their strength and determination against the defending National Champions, and held tough against the Iron Maidens throughout the game with hard-hitting tackles, hand passes, and being able to quickly get rid of the ball.

In the second half, the Bulldogs were able to get a second behind kicked by Gil, her first points ever playing footy. Dot Wheeler’s intensity and athleticism at ruck led to increased chances for the Bulldogs to gain possession of the ball. While the women fought valiantly, the end resulted in a win for the Iron Maidens 9.4.58 to the Lady Dogs 0.2.2.

Sunday’s consolation Division I game against the Portland Sockeyes came as another loss for the Bulldogs with the Sockeyes dominating score of 6.7.43 to the Bulldogs 0.1.1.  However, even in defeat the Bulldogs remained positive and upbeat in spirits further proving that this team plays with guts, heart, and determination. Rookies, like Angela Graham, who have not participated in many trainings or games but still come out and leave everything on the field is something to be in awe of and give inspiration to the ever growing team.

Nationals may have been a huge learning curve with a predominately rookie team for the Bulldogs, but the real win comes from the camaraderie, sportsmanship, and love these ladies have for one another on and off the field. You cannot slap a score on the invaluable nature of the Denver Lady Bulldogs. They will always just keep coming back bigger, stronger, and ready for more.

Bulldogs Reserves prove their mettle with 2-1 record in Division III

The sheer numbers that showed up in Sarasota for the Denver Bulldogs led to stringent competition to be named to the Division 1 side. As a result, the Bulldogs Reserves team contained a number of players with Division 1 experience, while also having the luxury of having enough players for a full interchange rotation during games.

On paper the Bulldogs Reserves seemed as good of a bet as any team in Division III to end the weekend holding the cup; they let there be no mistake that that Bulldogs had arrived in Florida to bring home not just the Division 1 trophy, but also a Division III championship.

Denver opened the tournament against a familiar opponent on Saturday morning in the main spotlight on Coopers Field, having twice faced Oklahoma during the regular season. Despite Denver having won both of the previous contests (at home in the Central Regionals in July and on the road in Tulsa in August), the Okies were fielding their strongest team of the season and were not a team to be taken lightly.

With conditions having dried up since the Division 1 squad had competed against New York, the early part of the contest was an exercise in energy, discipline, and momentum. The Bulldogs stayed focused and composed in the first half despite kicking into the wind, with Bayden Goodall setting up Drew Wolfe for Denver’s first goal of the game before adding a goal of his own later in the half. The Bulldogs’ backline held tight to keep Oklahoma from kicking a single goal in the first half to take a lead into halftime (2.1.13 — 0.4.4).

Attacking the goal-kicking end in the second half, the Bulldogs finally started to create some breathing room. Led in the midfield by Colby, Wolfe, Brent Dowling, Tuttle, Camping, McGrath, Luke Durkin and rookies James Madsen and Deshawn Clark, the Bulldogs created a number of incursions into their forward 50. Forwards Goodall, Troy Kirk, and Nick Garcia took a number of spectacular marks, with Goodall and Garcia rewarded with a goal apiece in the half. Colby added a further six-point score, with the Bulldogs also peppering the posts with four behinds in the half.

Vice-captain McMahan led a veteran backfield unit that also included Jeff Posey, Jeremy O’Connell, Steve McVicker, Shawn Clark, and Mann. Contributing through the interchange were Dylan Braun, Alex Johnson, Geoff Shakespear, Daniel Kerwin, Ben Marcum and Taylor in his long-awaited Bulldogs comeback.

“It was tough as we were kicking into the breeze for the first half, but we kept doing our team rules (handball off the deck, quarterback pass) and we went up at half time,” Camping said. “In the second half I know we made adjustments because we had better rotations in the middle, and we really got that going and pumped the ball into our forward line. I was very excited we got past Oklahoma as I knew they wanted to best us for Centrals, but the boys played the way we wanted to play and moved the ball around nicely in the second half.”

With a six-hour wait until their game against Chicago, the Reserves players took time to scout the opposition, learning that both the Swans and Cats had brought their A-games to the tournament.

It didn’t take long in the game against Chicago for the Bulldogs to experience this first-hand, with the Swans taking the early momentum in the contest.

Through the Bulldogs’ scouting efforts, the Swans’ big-bodied center had been identified as a priority target to shut down, but the early attempts to do so proved fruitless, with Mann even incurring a dislocated shoulder for his efforts. By the time Mann quieted the big center down later in the half with a much more successful hit, the Swans had already used their midfield advantage to kick three goals to put Denver firmly on the back foot.

Unluckily for the Bulldogs, all three of Chicago’s first-half goals were the result of the Swans latching on to loose balls in their attacking goal square. The Bulldogs were able to stem the tide somewhat with a pair of goals in the half by Goodall, but they entered halftime (2.2.14 — 3.2.20) needing to play catch up in the second half.

“Having a 6-hour break I thought was going to be a detriment to us… I think it showed for the first 10 minutes of the first half as the Chicago midfield definitely was on top and driving forward, putting our defense under pressure,” Camping said. “I give a lot of credit to our defense, as [Chicago] could have kicked three or four more to really put us under the pressure, but they held up like champions. Going into half time and only being down by a goal I thought we had a good sniff of winning this.”

Chicago struck with the first goal in the second half, putting the pressure on the Bulldogs to get the ball back down the other end of the field for some much-needed goals of their own.

It turned out that the ball hardly entered the Chicago forward half for the rest of the match, giving Denver plenty of opportunity to flip the score around in its favor. The first step in doing so came off the boot of Mathers, who made up for a pair of behinds in the first half to bring the Bulldogs within one score of taking the lead.

However, still trailing and desperately looking for the go-ahead score, the Bulldogs were kicking behinds instead of the goal they needed. Garcia, Goodall, and Kirk all worked hard to secure the ball in the forward line through marks or to cause turnovers with their tackling, but each forward lacked the finishing touch to put the Bulldogs ahead.

In the end, it was Mann who provided the decisive blow.

After being sprung from the pack by a pair of shepherds from Wolfe, Mann leaped for a vertical mark at the 50-meter line. He immediately received the benefit of a 25-meter penalty after his defender blind-sided him with a late hit. Taking his time to line up his kick, Mann kicked straight and true to give the Bulldogs their first lead of the game.

All that remained was to keep Chicago away from even sniffing a goal opportunity, as the margin was still less than six points. The Bulldogs did just that with relentless ball pressure, keeping the footy solidly inside their attacking half for the rest of the game, with the horn finally sounding as Garcia snagged a mark well inside the Denver forward 50. Garcia converted his effort to add some insurance points in case the pool winner would have do be decided by percentage points.

“I knew if we could just hold on and play smart footy we could win this,” Camping said of the team’s late-game effort. “Our midfield played great, but our forward line’s pressure, tackling and desire to get the footy was outstanding. Never have I seen a bunch of guys want the footy more and make great tackles to keep the ball in our forward 50… I think that game, especially the second half of the game, is the highlight of my footy year — just the way we played and our never-say-die attitude was amazing!”

With the benefit of a night’s rest before playing Columbus the next morning, the Bulldogs were able to play well-rested and recuperated against the Cats. However, with the Division 1 squad needing reinforcements, the Reserves played with slightly lower numbers for this crucial clash. Thankfully Spradlin — who made his long-awaited Bulldogs return in the Chicago game — remained available and Alvarez was added to the lineup.

“I knew we prepared well for this as the night before I got around a lot of the boys to tell them how proud I was of their efforts on Saturday and to rest up (get an ice bath etc.) so they would feel great Sunday morning,” Camping said. “Columbus from [Marcum’s] scouting report sounded very decent and had some gun players.”

Once again the Bulldogs had a slow start to fall behind early, with the Cats applying the early pressure in the game. By halftime, Columbus had kicked three goals and two behinds to Denver’s tally of just two behinds, leaving the Bulldogs needing another comeback to make it past the Cats and into the Grand Final.

Whereas the Bulldogs had been successful keeping the ball in their scoring half against Chicago, this time around it was the Cats that clamped down in midfield and gave Denver scant scoring opportunities in the second half.

The Bulldogs’ lone goal came after Goodall snapped the ball into Denver’s attacking 50, where a Columbus player was first to receive it. However, unbeknownst to the Columbus defender, Shakespear was hot on his heels, laying him out with a takedown tackle that led to a Denver free kick on goal. Just as his beloved Richmond Tigers had done in the AFL Grand Final, Shakespear sent his effort straight through the center of the posts for the first goal of his Bulldogs career.

The final 21-point losing margin was a tough pill for the Bulldogs to swallow after such high hopes, but just like the Division 1 side, the Reserves are set up well for continued success in the future and another run at a championship in 2020.

The Cats ended up losing in the Grand Final later in the day to the Boston Demons.

Dowling was voted Denver Bulldogs Best on Ground by his teammates, with Madsen taking Rookie of the Year honors. Camping earned the Clanger Award for accidentally adding hot water to the Saturday night ice bath.