WEC 2019 Review
WEC 2019 Review
Images Geoff White and Dave Tidswell
Well, if you wanted a high-octane Football experience, crafted with all the essential ingredients to bring you joy, sadness, frustration and excitement, you needed to be at the IFAF Women’s European Championships in Leeds. Over the six days of the “round robin” tournament we saw three very closely matched teams and one never say die plucky outfit who between them served up a glut of great games that would leave you asking, when can I see some more Women’s Football.
Firstly I’d like to apologise to our friends from Finland, Sweden and Austria for not giving a more detailed analysis of all their efforts, but this article is focused on the exploits of the GB Lions in their quest to take the gold medals and become European Champions. I’d also like to “big up” the BAFA events team at the stadium for ensuring everything ran like clockwork, well done team!
I’ll take each of the six games in the order they were played, leading up to the grand finale that was GB v Finland on the Saturday night!
On a fresh Monday afternoon in West Yorkshire, the opening contest in the competition had the reigning European Champions from Finland taking on the less experienced Austria. Despite a gutsy effort from the Austrians, they were no match for the powerful Fins and their dominant ground game, featuring Tytti Kuusinen. Finland laid down a marker of their intent with an emphatic 50 -0 win. The Swedes and Brits were watching and no doubt taking notes before they themselves took to the field for the second game on day one.
The 7pm kick-off time gave the local fans the opportunity to get in their seats in time to see GB’s first game against Sweden. The Lions received the kick, giving quarterback Sydney Green the ball and the chance to drive the offence down the field. With the adrenaline pumping she overthrew her first two targets, before going to the ground game and the reliable Ruth Matta. Green then went on a keeper before finding Emma Taylor with a crisp spiral. GB were poised at 4th and 2 but had to turn the ball over on downs. Finland’s first possession saw their quarterback, Johansson make the acquaintance of defensive end Aimee Cottingham who slammed her to the ground. Undaunted Johansson aired it out on third down to Karin Ullen who burst past the chasing defenders for the first score of the game. They attempted to kick the PAT but Phoebe Schecter smothered the holder, leaving the score at 6-0 to the Swedes as the first quarter closed. Green had the ball again at the start of Q2 and showed her ability to extend the play with her legs.
Phoebe Schecter doesn’t let go!
In short time the teams extended punts. Matta ripped of a twenty-yard run and Green found Siobhan Walker with a good ball across the middle. A PI penalty on Sweden had the Lions at the 45 bit they stalled and had to punt. Finland had the ball, but the GB defence were bringing the heat, Lewinska delivered a massive hit in the backfield, which was followed by a pick by Schecter! Green handed off to Matta who burst for 45 yards before being tackled and at the two-minute warning the Lions were at 4th and 3. They decided to go for it but turned it over on downs. With Sweden looking to extend their lead Affia Law broke up a pass and they were forced to punt. With little time left Green found Walker and Matta racked up some more yards, but as Green went deep, she was picked off, leaving the Swedes to take the knee to close out the half and preserve their one score lead.
As the second half got underway Sweden had the first possession. They ran for a first down before Schecter intervened and buried the ball carrier! Ultimately, they had to punt the ball away, pinning the Lions on their own five. Matta loosened up with a short run before breaking free courtesy of some impressive blocking by the O line and sprinting fully 75 yards for the game tieing touchdown. GB were unable to convert the score, so it now sat at 6 apiece.
Matta sprints 75 yards to score
Sweden attempted to get their ground game going but Schecter was having none of it, dishing out a succession of big hits to prevent a Swedish first down. As the third quarter came to an end there had been no further scores. Opening the final quarter poised at the GB 25, Sweden’s head coach decided to attempt a field goal, but the ball sailed wide. Back in possession GB couldn’t get any momentum going and had to punt. Starting their drive at the GB 49 the Swedes crafted a run through the middle, leaving Becky Williams to chase down the runner and make a touchdown saving tackle at the 10-yard line. Sweden had three attempts to find the endzone but were held out by the staunch Lions defence. On 4th down the chose to attempt another field goal and this time they were successful, edging them to a 9-6 lead. With just over 6 minutes on the clock GB still had time to craft a game winning drive. Runs from Matta and a pass from Green to Schecter saw them land at the Swedish 15 as the 2-minute warning was given. Matta racked up another 6 yards, then Green dove for the endzone on a keeper but was stopped at the 1. Would we see the Lions power the ball in? unfortunately not! On what appeared to be a broken play Green was forced to scramble and launched a pass towards the posts, but it was picked off and effectively the game was over. Sweden had the ball back and ran off the clock. Not the start GB were hoping for, the had some great moments but were unable to close the deal. All the teams now had a day’s rest before the second pair of games on the Wednesday.
I asked Monika Lewinska for her thoughts. “We expected a tough game and Sweden didn't disappoint. They have some talented players and used them very well. Losing is always tough, but we took a lot of positives from the game and came out proud of our performance. It really was a game of inches! With the next game so soon though we don't have much time to lick our wounds. We'll certainly look to see if there are any corrections to make but will need to quickly switch our focus to Austria. We've never played them before, so that is especially exciting!”
GB MVP for this game was Ruth Matta
Wednesday afternoon, and the first game of the day saw Sweden take on Finland. This would be a good measure of how strong the Swedes were, given that they had just edged GB and Finland had put 50 points on Austria. In a game that was full of highlights and which delivered a spectacular fourth quarter, we witnessed Sweden take and hold the lead for the majority of the game, only for Finland to come back and nick it at the end by a score of 27-20.
With the stadium still buzzing from the afternoon’s game the GB Lions would take on Austria in the evening match-up looking to re-establish their credentials as title hopefuls. GB received the opening kick-off in the shape of Oxford Saints Jo White who took the ball all the way to the Austrian 32-yard line. Keeping the ball on the ground we saw Sian Kersse and Sydney Green make good gains, but when Siobhan Walker was handed the ball she switched on the jets and found herself in the endzone for the opening score! Green added a two-point conversion and at 8-0 it was just the start the Lions wanted. Austria looked shocked and when Aimee Cottingham burst through to sack quarterback Cornelia Pripfl you got the impression it could be a long night for the team from the Tyrol.
Cottingham brings the heat!
Things got worse when they had to recover a high snap in the endzone giving GB a safety, 10-0. The Lions got back on it with a big return from Oli Davies, followed by a 25-yard Green to Walker connection, but the drive stalled, and they had to turn it over on downs. The Austrians couldn’t get things going and were forced to punt, but GB were then stopped on 4th down giving the ball back. As the first quarter ended Pripfl went to the air but Schecter tipped the ball away. Delta Npuna delivered a big hit to stop the Austrian’s progress and the ball went back to the Lions. Elizabeth Bush came in at QB and found Schecter with a smart pass to move the chains. Ruth Matta was now in the game and behind some behind great blocks from the o line got the Lions to the Austrian 15, then the 1 and then the endzone! The PAT was not converted so the score stood at 16-0. To be fair to the Austrians they kept on trying but serious hits from Lucy Peaty and Jayne Meadows soon put pay to their progress. As the end of the half approached Green attempted three long passes but was unable to connect, leaving it 16-0 at the half.
The third quarter started with the Austrians in possession and Schecter delivering a string of big hits! When the Lions took over Green went to the air, but the pass was picked off and returned to the house! giving Austria their first points of the tournament, but they were unable to convert it. It kicked the Lions into action as successive first downs from Schecter, Matta and then Matta again who courtesy of a huge block from Antoinette Morgan, added another score for the Lions pushing it to 22-6. They went for 2 but didn’t make it. Austria were trying to craft some yards on offence but hits from Lucy Peaty and Becky Martin forced them to punt. Green handed of to Walker, who for the second time in the game out ran the defence to the endzone, 28-6 Lions.
Walker has turbo speed!
On the next Austrian drive Aimee Cottingham forced a fumble, but the ball was recovered to sustain the drive. The Austrian’s were still having issues with their snaps and one sailed high over the QB deep into their own territory. The ball was recovered by Rachel Moody at the 5-yard line setting up Green to go in for a score on a keeper, Matta went in on the two-point moving it to 36-6 Lions, to close out the quarter. With a full twelve minutes left to play you’d expect the Lions to add to their tally, but despite some relentless defensive play that included big hits from Oli Davies, Affy Law and Aimee Cottingham, they were unable to add any further points. It was the win they wanted, but the bigger test was waiting for them in the shape of Finland.
GB MVP for this game was Rachel Moody
With the final games being played on a Saturday you’d expect there to be a bigger crowd and you’d be right! First up was Sweden v Austria. The Swedes could technically still take the gold medals, depending on how the GB v Finland game ended up, but first of all they would need to defeat the plucky Austrians. As ever, Austria didn’t give up for the full four quarters, but ultimately the Swedes took the game by a score of 48-6. This put them in a strong medaling position along with Finland and GB. The Scoring system for the tournament had plenty of people baffled and I won’t attempt to unpack it, suffice to say, If GB could beat Finland by 6 or more points, they would be European champions, just bare that in mind as the final encounter unfolds.
Finland won the toss and chose to receive the ball. As you’d expect they gave it to power-back Kuusinen to hammer at the GB defence, but fierce hitting by Schecter and Robyn Steward meant the Fins had to punt the ball away. Green ran for a first down and fed Matta who edged the Lions into the redzone. The Finnish defence stood firm as Kersse bulled her way forward, but choosing not to go for a field goal, GB ended up turning over the ball on downs. It was give and take as the first quarter ended scoreless. The Fins had to punt again at the start of quarter 2, giving Green the chance to drive the Lions offence down the field. Antoinette Morgan set the tone with a big run and a facemask penalty on the Finnish defence had the Lions at the 29. Green found Walker with a bullet pass setting up Matta for a short run. The cooks on the o line were now serving up pancakes as Matta found the space to dash in for the opening score! The PAT was unsuccessful leaving the score at 6-0 GB.
The O Line sets the stage for some Matta Magic!
The noisy crowd were loving it and the players were feeding off the energy. Kicker Lauren Drewitt sent the ball deep to Kuusinen but she was met with a thudding tackle that echoed around the stadium by Steward! The Lions soon had the ball back. Matta swept left for good yards and on the next play Green lasered the ball between two defenders to find Emma Taylor in full stride, it was a foot race to the endzone and there was only going to be one winner! Touchdown GB, no PAT, so it now stood at 12-0 and things were looking good for the Lions. The Fins worked themselves into positive territory but when Schecter spectacularly tipped a pass away it effectively ended Finland’s hopes of getting any points in the first half. As the head official raised the ball to signify the end of the half GB were in the gold medal position.
GB received the ball to start the second half but couldn’t maintain the drive and had to punt. They would soon get another chance though, as on the Fins first possession Lucy Peaty forced a fumble and Steward was on hand to recover the ball. With the Lions on their own 39 the hand-off went to Matta who read her blocks and took off, 60 yards later she had landed in the endzone and it was now 18-0. Once again, the PAT was missed. Finland knew they needed to get back in the game quickly. A decent return was stopped by Caley Parnell and a series of tough runs by the Fins were met with the usual resolve of Schecter. That being said Finland drove down the field and Hartikainen found a receiver who was tackled at the 5. As the quarter ended Meadows stuffed a run at the 1, but Finland still had downs to spare.
For three quarters the good ship GB had sailed serenely through the Finnish waters, but as the final period began, they were unknowingly heading into a perfect football storm. It started with a bit of misdirection in the Finnish backfield that saw Janina Virtanen sprint up the middle and in for the score! The Fins PAT kick was good and at 18-7 the points difference was clearly 11, meaning the Lions still had a grasp on the gold medals. Green found Taylor for a first down and Morgan churned out another 9 yards, but two false start penalties in a row followed by a tackle in the backfield had GB setting up to punt. The snap was good, but the kick was blocked and recovered by the Fins giving them the ball on the Lions 30. Kuusinen got the carry and was hammered by Schecter. It was now 4th and 1 and the fins chose to go for it. It was deja-vu as Kuusinen headed for the line only to be met by a vicious hit by Schecter that knocked the Fin onto her back.
The GB defence close Kuusinen down
With the crowd cheering expecting the turnover on downs the official on the far side gave a contentious first down signal to keep the drive alive. Kuusinen was helped from the field. Hartikainen decided to go to the air and went deep right towards the endzone. With the ball in the air the receiver and the corner mirrored each other, as it arrived there was incidental contact as the ball fell to one side, seemingly uncatchable, but with a second contentious decision the official signalled defensive pass interference, giving Finland the ball on the five yard line. Despite the defences’ best efforts the Fins got the score and a PAT making the score 18-4 (a four-point win wasn’t enough) and the gold medals had slipped from the Lions hands, or had they. With around four minutes on the clock GB set about rescuing the game. Starting on their own 22 Green found Davies for 45 yards and the crowd roared with excitement! A false start penalty sent them backwards as the two-minute warning was given, but then Green found Walker for another 30 yards. The tension was palpable, but as Green called out the signals at the line disaster struck as the ball was snapped in error and sailed past the quarterback into the Lions backfield. It was 4th down and Green had to go big. She looked to have found Taylor on the right sideline, but as she planted her feet in-bounds and stretched out for the ball, she took a double hander in the back from a Finnish defender and the ball eluded her. Surely it was pass interference! but no, the proximitus official walked away without making a call, and in doing so effectively signaled the end of the Lions dreams of being European Champions. Finland took over and ran-out the clock, securing the gold medals for themselves and curiously, the silver medals for Sweden.
GB MVP for this game was Sydney Green
The crowd still cheered for the players who took the time to salute them for the incredible support they had given. It seemed somewhat incongruous that GB had beaten the eventual winners yet ended up with the bronze medals. They did have their chances to take the title, if they had scored at first and goal against Sweden, if they had converted their touchdowns in the Finland game, they would have been European Champions. Combining the win over Finland with the three contentious calls, I’m saying it was a moral gold for the Lions. Unfortunately, that’s not what the record book will show.
I spoke with some of the players to get their thoughts. Sydney Green was reflective. “Of course. I think the final result is still quite sore for me personally, we aimed for Gold and I still feel like our performance was worthy of it on Saturday night. We asked each other to leave everything on the field and that's what happened on both sides of the ball so I'm beyond proud of everyone involved. I'd describe the experience as a very steep learning curve, we faced adversity and became better together because of it - also showing that the win 2 years ago against Finland wasn't just a one off. There are lots of photos coming out from the tournament, some of my favourites are of us interacting with the next generation after the game, it's surreal to think we're making a difference influencing young girls and how they view sports... Who knows, maybe one day they could be taking our starting spots! it's surreal to think we're making a difference influencing young girls and how they view sports... Who knows, maybe one day they could be taking our starting spots!
Sydney Green with her MVP award
Elizabeth Bush offered her thoughts. “I think the whole team grew together throughout the week. Our defense solidified themselves as the most dominant in Europe, and our offense showed more than a few moments of true brilliance. We’ve come away with a lot to work on as individuals, and as a programme as a whole before our next competition, but I think what we achieved this year is something to be proud of. I’ve come away from basically ‘football island’, and I miss it already. My teammates made it an experience I’ll always remember, and I can’t wait to get on the field with them again. The ending was tough. Everyone knew the format going in, and the league-style was never going to be ideal. Still, how brilliant that there was a points tie between the top three - I think it’s an optimistic sign of the level we’re all at right now, and it will only make for more fierce competition in the future. We can hold our heads high knowing we won the final game against Finland. For the future, the growth of football domestically should be a major focus. We’re competing with teams who play 11-aside football year-round with their respective clubs, so imagine the level we could be at if we were doing the same. Our competition will only get better and levelling up our top-flight teams in the U.K. is one of the best ways to make sure we continue to raise our game”.
Lions rookie Emma Taylor enjoyed the overall experience. “Personally, as a rookie going into the tournament I think there were a lot of nerves due to the unknown but because of that there was also a lot of excitement. The result on Monday I think was a show of our nerves...but by Saturday we knew exactly what we needed to do and how to do it. The atmosphere in the stadium at all games was brilliant but the crowd on Saturday was another level! We had planned and prepped for loud noise in training so that it didn’t affect our game and I think it showed. We all proved how we can adapt, the rookies brought a new buzz and the returners showed exactly what it means to be a GB player. I entered the programme as a nervous rookie with the hopes of being selected and I’ve come out the other side, 3 games under my belt and a whole new football family. We were there for each other through the highs...and most importantly there for each other through the lows, onwards and upwards as we develop the coverage of women’s American football in the UK”.
Fellow stand-out rookie Siobhan Walker. “I thought the tournament was a great experience especially with it being my first time as part of the GB squad. Obviously, it wasn’t the result we were looking for, but I was extremely proud of how hard each player worked on and off the field, and I think everyone played their hearts out. Couldn’t have asked for better teammates or Coach’s and was honored to be surrounded by such talented athletes not only in the GB Squad but the other nations too and hope that the tournament showed the great athleticism that’s around in women’s America Football in Europe. I’m looking forward to see what GB Women do next.
Robyn “Bo” Steward who was a hitting machine at the heart of the Lions defence. “Having the opportunity to play on home ground with our 12th man in full swing has been an experience of a life-time. The final game itself was incredible. Hard hits and big executions from everyone involved. The Finland game as heart breaking of a result in the tournament as it was, was easily the best game of football GB women have ever played. Beating the number 1 ranked team on the day is an experience I shall never forget. Every single person involved in the GB programme has been outstanding. A personal highlight was knowing that we all played our hearts out. A bitter-sweet moment in the end”.
I’ll leave the final words to Team Captain Phoebe Schecter. “The result was not what we hoped for, but our game versus Finland was the best example of teamwork and football that we have yet displayed. A huge thank you to everyone involved in making this happen from the staff, players, to the volunteers and fans. Our opponents were class and we achieved what we wanted... to show the world that women can really play American Football. We now have the Worlds to work towards and a whole slew of players to carry this sport forwards, including those inspired by watching this tournament”.
The Lions acknowledge their supporters