Philadelphia Lady Hawks – 2019 Women’s Division II Champions!

Defense wins championships. Sure, offense looks good, but defense takes home the hardware.

The Philadelphia Lady Hawks flew into Sarasota-Bradenton knowing that defense was going to be key to having any chance in Women’s Division II. This would be the Lady Hawks’ first year as the lead team in a partnership, leading the charge alongside a handful of members from the Arizona Lady Hawks, Baltimore Dockers, and Boston Demons.

Kicking off the weekend, the Lady Hawks opened against some familiar faces – the Columbus Cats, who the Lady Hawks partnered with at the 2018 finals and who they had partnered with a few weeks prior in DC. The Cats, joined by a large squadron of Nashville Roos, were hoping to put the Hawks behind them from the start and get a leg up for the rest of the weekend.

Bursting out of the gate, it was clear the Lady Hawks were amped for the contest. From Barb Dempsey crashing through a contest from the start, to instant tackling pressure from Lindsey Turse, to Erica Sacci’s on-field leadership, they were able to get the Cats onto their back foot. Regular pushes forward found the mark, and the willingness of the Lady Hawks to lay out for a ball allowed them to snag the advantage – including a courageous mark by Arizona’s Cassie Cox.

The Cats were able to keep the Lady Hawks within arms’ length as the game moved along, as the Lady Hawks won the field position battle but failed to capitalize on some of their inside-50s. While the Hawks moved within striking distance far more times, they managed to come away with only two majors, with a mix of off-line shots and Cats players killing the ball leading to five behinds. Still, you don’t need to put a ton of points on the board, you only need to outscore your opponent – and that constant pressure kept the cats to only two scores, for a final of 2.5.17 for Philly against 1.1.7 for Columbus.

Wrapping up the matches for the day, the Lady Hawks came up against a Sacramento Suns squad that brought big numbers across the country. Coming off a 10-point win earlier in the afternoon, the Suns were on tired legs – and it showed. The Lady Hawks pinned the Suns deep in their zone from the get-go, and never let up. Constant pressure around the ball and true team contribution made a massive difference, as everyone from newcomer Megan Chiodo, to Arizona’s Casey Troy, to the Lady Hawk’s backbone of Lauryn Greenburg and Leslie Gartner impacted the contest.

With a commanding lead at halftime, the Lady Hawks continued to ignore “bend-don’t-break” defense in favor of not even bending. With the exception of a few desperation kicks down the field, the Lady Suns failed to make any forays into the front half – and those kicks constantly found the hands of the Lady Hawks defenders playing up from the square. The end of the game couldn’t come fast enough for the Suns, as the Lady Hawks secured their play-in chance with a resounding 3.7.25 to 0.0.0 victory.

With a chance to gain a finals berth on the line, the Lady Hawks turned around to kick off the next morning at 9 am against the Montreal Angels, featuring members of the Sydney Swans. It quickly became clear that the Hawks were not holding back, and weren’t continuing their brand of high-pressure footy from the night before.

With key tall Gartner gone for the day, and the Angels featuring plenty of tall timber, it looked like Montreal could take control through solid kicking for overhead marks. The Lady Hawks put a stop to that quickly, being first and hardest into the contests. When the Angels did manage to corral a ball to send down field, it was often under pressure, and affected by Lady Hawks players lunging for a smother. The weather didn’t hurt either – a dewy morning left the ball to pick up moisture, making it hard for those all-important marks.

Once again, the Lady Hawks made their mark not necessarily by chalking up points, but by making sure the opponents were constantly choked off when they attempted a push forward. Time and time again, Lady Hawks roved the pack, collected the mishandled mark, and trapped the ball into tight tackles, allowing the Angels to get only a single successful push throughout the match, and that ended in a behind. By the end of the match, the Lady Hawks had a commanding 1.4.10 to 0.0.1 victory in hand – having let up a single behind over four halves of footy.

For the Women’s Division II championship, the Lady Hawks would have to face down a familiar opponent – the DC Eagles. Coming off an ugly loss to DC in the final regular-season match, the Hawks were looking to avoid a repeat.

And avoid it they did.

Facing off against a tough ruck match-up, Dani Marshall was able to craftily outmaneuver the taller Johanna Gleeson much of the time, although Gleeson held her own against the top talent. Around the contest, Turse and Alex Trollip had a running battle, and while Trollip’s height and marking ability helped turn the tide for the Eagles at points, Turse’s tenacious tackling and ball gathering helped to even it out. Early on, Rose Stokley put her mark on the game with pack-breaking gathers and runs, although her game would be cut short with a head injury late in the first half.

With such a high-stakes game, the result came down to the defense standing tall. Without her usual partner in defense, Dempsey worked in tandem with the Arizona Hawks’ Melissa Wilhelm to continually repel DC scoring attempts, including a match-saving goal-line mark. With a long struggle through the mid-field, the ball moving between the 50s, the score seemed stalemated at 8-6 in favor of the Eagles well into the second half. After a missed opportunity on a deep push brought the Hawks within a point, the ball headed back the other way as time began to wind down.

More pushes from the Eagles were turned away, until with only two minutes remaining, the Eagles rotated their hardest players into defense to try and keep the Lady Hawks at bay. The break came, with a long kick into the forward 50 leading Chiodo and Cox to come together and affect an attempted intercept mark by the Eagle’s defender. In the ensuing pack, Cox was paid a prohibited contact free kick, and under the pressure of the game being on the line, split the sticks to give the Hawks their first lead of the match – and all they would need. While the Eagles tried to rush play down the field in desperation time, the Lady Hawks stood strong, to finish the match at 2.1.13 over the Eagle’s 1.2.8.

At the end of the weekend, it was team defense and pressure that brought home the 2019 Women’s Division II Championship for the Lady Hawks and their teammates from Boston, Arizona, and Baltimore. Allowing only 16 points in total over the course of their four games, including a lengthy goalless stretch from part way through the first game through mid-first half of their final game, they made it clear that their adversaries were going to be limited in their shots, and wouldn’t get a run on goal.

So congratulations to the Lady Hawks on their inaugural USAFL Women’s Championship, and looking forward to more to come!

Bring on 2020, and CARN THE LADY HAWKS!

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