LOUISVILLE, Ky. â€” The Minnesota Twins were eliminated from the playoffs on Saturday, but Minnesota was still playing for a championship this past weekend.
Not in baseball, or probably any other sport youâ€™re thinking of. Unless your guess was Australian football, in which case youâ€™re dead on, mate.
The United States Australian Football League championships took place in Louisville over the weekend, drawing teams from all over the North American continent â€” from Los Angeles in the west to New York in the east, and from Austin in the south to Calgary in the north.
The Minnesota Freeze, the 2007 USAFL Division 2 champions, were looking for another Division 2 title, fielding the strongest team in its six year history.
Standing in the Freezeâ€™s way were teams from San Diego, Philadelphia and Chicago â€” all metro areas much larger than the Twin Cities. The Freeze will need to go a perfect 3-0 to reach the Division 2 Grand Final.
The general rule in the USAFL is the more Australians on your team, the better you are. And of course the bigger the city, the more chance youâ€™ll find a few Aussie ringers for your team. Minnesota? Itâ€™s definitely not a top residence choice for most Australians migrating to the U.S.
So itâ€™s no surprise that in the Freezeâ€™s 20 man roster there were only three Aussies.
However, eight of the players went to St. Johns University together and picked up the game while studying abroad in Australia, bringing a youth movement to the Freeze that has made the team as competitive as any team in the competition.
In all there are 13 players on the roster in their 20s, a high proportion considering most teams have players rostered in their 40s, and some even in their 50s.
The games are shortened versions of the usual four quarters of play, with each contest reduced to two 20 minute halves.
On Saturday, Minnesota slew the San Diego Lions 39-28, a good start, especially after some players drove 12 straight hours the day before.
In the afternoon, the Freeze had an easier time with the Philadelphia Hawks, winning 47-8, shutting out the Hawks in the second half.
Saturday night was designated for recovery â€” ice baths to dissipate lactic acid, searches for restaurants with less than an hour wait to load up on carbohydrates â€” whatever needed to be done to prepare for the early match against undefeated Chicago United on the next day.
Sunday morning brought a change of playing conditions, as the morning dew still glistened on fields that were dusty and dry the previous day.
Chicago had also beaten San Diego and Philadelphia, setting up a win-and-in scenario for both teams to make it to the Grand Final.
The Freeze approached the game as if it already was the Grand Final, laying tackles whenever Chicago ended up with the ball.
Minnesota had a narrow lead at halftime, and was able to even increase its intensity in the second half. The Freeze again stifled its opponentsâ€™ offense in the second half, allowing Chicago only a single point.
A long goal from captain Andrew Werner gave the Freeze a comfortable lead with five minutes left, and two other late goals sealed the 38-13 win.
The Calgary Kangaroos defeated the Dallas Magpies 62-23 on the other side of the bracket to provide the matchup for the Grand Final.
Calgary â€” the reigning Division 2 champions â€” were a side determined to prove to the USAFL that they deserved to be a Division 1 side, which should have been granted to the team after its championship the year before.
Rumors were flying around the venue that the USAFL had denied their request to keep Division 1 filled with U.S. teams rather than Canadian teams â€” a trivial measure when you consider that Division 1 teams heavily rely on having a large number of Australians on their rosters anyway.
Calgary entered the Grand Final with 11 Aussies on its roster; Minnesota still had only its three.
One of those three Aussies, Anthony King, scored the first two goals of the match to put the Freeze out to a quick lead. However, Calgaryâ€™s own motivation was too great and its teamwork too refined for Minnesota to contain, and pretty soon the Kangaroos were kicking goal after goal to lead 35-13 at halftime.
A 22 point lead is not insurmountable by far in Australian football â€” each goal gives you another six points, with minor scores (called â€œbehindsâ€) adding one point â€” but Calgary was in no mood to let up, taking advantage of its first half momentum.
The Freeze had a late comeback, but Calgary came out as victors by a score of 74-31 for its second consecutive Division 2 championship.
Sp the result was second place, but it didnâ€™t feel that way. The Freeze players left it all on the field, and this time the better team won â€” a team that probably could have even beaten the Division 1 champion, New York.
Second place brings a consolation medal to all the players, and Zach Weaver won an additional medal as he was deemed Division 2â€™s most consistent player.
Already the Freeze are anticipating building on its great season â€” not its best in terms of championships won, but definitely its best in countless other ways.
The Freeze only had one regular season loss, on the road at Kansas City (road matches are always tough, especially since each player has to pay their own way) and expanded to its largest ever membership, including the expansion of its womens team.
In Louisville, the womens team combined with Milwaukee and Toronto since none of the three teams had enough players to enter their own team, going under the nickname the â€œFrozen Blue Bombers.â€ They played to a 1-2 record. The hope is that more women get involved in the club so that Minnesota will have enough players to enter an individual team in the future.
The best part of the USAFL championships? Thereâ€™s always another one next year. Austin, Tex., will be the host city next year, but someday perhaps the Freeze can win over enough fans to host the tournament right here in Minnesota.
Because thereâ€™s only one guarantee for Australian football in this country and in Minnesota, and thatâ€™s that it has a very bright future indeed.