The shape-shifting swarm of women moves at high speed across the field at Lakewood’s Washington Heights Park, cutting and dodging and lunging and gouging as they fight for control of an oblong ball. The women are split into two groups by their red and yellow scrimmage jerseys, each tasked with a single mission: to keep the ball away from the other team by kicking it, punching it, or using any other means possible.
The way the ball is passed between players makes it seem as though the women are playing rugby, soccer, basketball and American football all rolled into one. But it is clearly none of those; in fact, the sport is officially called Australian Rules football. And on the field is Denver’s most successful sports team: the Denver Lady Bulldogs.
Since 2010, the Lady Bulldogs have won five consecutive national titles against Australian Rules football teams from other major cities in the United States, which technically makes them Denver’s most nationally competitive sports team.
But even in this sports-crazy city, the team goes largely unnoticed. That’s because Australian Rules football — or footy, for short — is relatively obscure in the United States. Named after its country of origin, the sport is only shown on U.S. television networks with special subscription channels or on late-night ESPN programming. One of the Denver players resorts to describing it to the uninitiated as “a big game of keep-away, with goals on either end.”
And yet, over the past two decades, footy has been building a small but dedicated following on American soil. There’s even a United States Australian Rules Football League — with about forty men’s and women’s teams based in large metro areas, including San Francisco, New York, Baltimore, Boston and Denver. Each year, about a half-dozen teams from both the men’s and women’s leagues compete for a national title.
Now the Bulldogs are going for their sixth consecutive win, vying to remain the sport’s dominant team. The Lady Bulldogs have been so dominant, in fact, that during two years — 2011 and 2012 — they allowed only a single point to be scored against them in the post-season.
And they have no plans to let the streak end this year.
At this early-season practice in August, the women are using the keep-away exercise to practice communication techniques on the field. They’re honing the short, effective verbal commands the players will need to win this year’s national championships, which are set for October 17 and 18 in Austin, Texas.
“Okay, huddle up, ladies!” yells Hallie Adrian.
The play temporarily stops as the women gather around their team captain. At 6’1”, Adrian is a commanding presence, muscular and toned from Olympic weightlifting at a Crossfit gym, a sleeve of tattoos spiraling up the length of her right arm. A former college basketball player, the 29-year-old joined the Lady Bulldogs after moving to Denver in 2009; an acquaintance suggested that the team would be a good way to make friends.
Adrian never guessed that footy would become such an important part of her life. Not only is she now the captain of the Lady Bulldogs, but she also leads the women’s U.S. National Team — USA Freedom — which recruits footy players from around the country and competes in the International Cup, the equivalent of soccer’s World Cup, every four years.
As a “rucking” specialist, Adrian’s task is to use her size and height to secure the ball for her teammates at tip-off. She’s not all intimidation, though. With a nose ring and highlighted short brown hair, Adrian also manages to appear chic on the field, a nod to her day job as a hair stylist at Starling Salon at South Broadway and Louisiana.
Like many of the women who surround her in the huddle, Adrian views footy as much more than an obscure sport. To be a Lady Bulldog means dedicating significant chunks of time and resources, paying out of pocket to fly around the country and play teams from other cities.
It’s not unusual for players to plan their personal or family vacations so that they don’t interfere with footy season. One woman, Sara Rohner, even timed a pregnancy so that she would be in peak physical shape during last season’s finals. She wasn’t the first to do so.
“All right, so I wanna hear chatter out there!” says Adrian, breaking up the huddle.
The women nod and prepare to jog back to their positions. But first they signal to the men’s team, which is using the same field, that they need some of their space back.
Established in 2007, the Lady Bulldogs are actually an offshoot of the men’s Denver Bulldogs team, which was started in 1997 by some bona fide Aussie expats who poached their first American players from Denver’s recreational softball leagues. The men’s players are winners, too, with eight national titles under their belts dating back to 2000. Not all of the wins were consecutive, and the last time the men won was 2011.
When the women resume their practice, a family member watching from the sidelines remarks that the Lady Bulldogs’ playing style is more deliberate — more about precision and intuition — than the men’s play, which is faster and more physical. This is a difference more of degree than kind, however. Even when played by women, Australian Rules football is consistently more macho and dangerous than American football. There are no pads or helmets, and games have almost no time-outs, aside from halftime, making the action close to constant. Significant others routinely worry about players’ safety — with good reason. One player on Denver’s men’s team, Tim Wilson-Humphries, fractured a rib and punctured a lung at finals last year. Bruises are common, and several members of the Lady Bulldogs have suffered severe concussions that put them out of commission for days.
But for all the physical brutality — or perhaps because of it — the women are a remarkably tight group.
Toward the end of this practice, one woman wearing a yellow jersey attempts a tackle on a red-shirt who has the ball. Instead, she’s met with a stiff arm and a palm to the face. With a thud, the yellow player is flattened on the turf like a pancake. Her teammate immediately stops, and with genuine concern asks, “Are you okay?"
A significant part of the Lady Bulldogs’ success is camaraderie. They’ve been through a lot together. And while physical conditioning is always important, the bond between players is the X-factor that has led Denver to win five consecutive championships, and maybe a sixth at the end of this season.
Members of the team don’t just spend time together on the field. After practice, eight of the Lady Bulldogs migrate to the rooftop of the Irish Rover, a local pub owned by the spouse of one of the players. Seated at a long table beneath a mister, the women are starving after running for almost two hours straight. It’s not long before the table is crowded with bloody Marys, mimosas and plates heaped with roasted potatoes and eggs Benedict.
Even off the field, the women’s chatter never moves far from footy. After the food arrives, they joke about a recent spot that ESPN aired on Australian Rules football. It was meant to be a top-ten highlight reel, but the ESPN sportscasters had no idea what they were talking about, and the video clips seemed like a blooper reel. The only part they liked was when one sportscaster remarked, “It looks like a mix between rugby and mugging someone.”
Someone at the table turns the conversation to a night the week before, when the men’s and women’s teams went on an Australian-themed pub crawl together. The Lady Bulldogs got to introduce some of their new teammates to time-honored team traditions, including rookie hazing. The preeminent initiation is the “rookie shot,” a variation of a tequila shot in which a first-year player has to squeeze lime juice into her eye, snort a line of salt, and chase it with a shot of tequila.
“I was so proud of them. They took it like champs!” Adrian says fondly of the rookies.
From what memories can be salvaged, the night got pretty out of hand — which is to say, it went exactly as expected. Adrian recalls at one point correcting a male player about the Lady Bulldogs’ team record: “Nuh-uh! Not our fifth: We’re going for our sixth championship!”
Most of the eggs have already been scarfed when Anna Thexton — the team’s co-captain — arrives late because she accidentally drove to the Irish Snug instead of the Irish Rover. The women gleefully decide that she’s won the “Clanger.” Both the women’s and men’s teams award the Clanger for the dumbass move of the week, which can be an action on or off the field. There have been many notable Clangers in the past; the women used to make the recipient wear a T-shirt to bars that said, “I fuck on the first date.” The men still make their Clanger wear a mug around his neck at bars, where teammates can pour anything in and the Clanger has to drink it.
These quirky rituals extend even into the post-season. Every year that the team wins a national title, the women celebrate “Medals Week,” during which the players are expected to wear their championship medal at all times, including at work. The championship trophy is also constantly on display, and the players switch custody throughout the week. During the evenings, the trophy is filled with alcohol at bars, and all of the teammates present must drink from it.
The first year that the Lady Bulldogs won at nationals, in 2010 against Calgary, they filled their trophy with Maker’s Mark because it was small. Now that the league has upgraded its trophy to a model a few feet tall, the team fills it with Coopers, an Australian beer.
Listening to these stories, it’s apparent that tradition and bonding are half of what being a Lady Bulldog is all about. While some of the antics could be perceived as over the top, the hazing and rituals are all in good fun, the women say, reminiscent of what happens in the locker rooms of Division I and Division II college sports teams — which some of the players, Adrian included, once belonged to.
The other half is about the game itself. It’s tough to find recruits when so few people in the United States know about Australian Rules football, and the veterans on the Lady Bulldogs team are always on the lookout.
One reliable recruiting source has been the wives or girlfriends of guys on the men’s team. Because these women already know about the sport from watching the men’s games, this saves Lady Bulldog recruiters from having to explain what footy is. Thanks to this recruiting tactic, there are quite a few romantic relationships — past and present — between players on the men’s and women’s teams. “Although it sucks when you break up with them,” notes one player at brunch. There are nods of agreement around the table.
Expats aren’t necessarily the answer. The sport is traditionally male-dominated, and Australia doesn’t even have a professional women’s footy league. (One is in development, and could be running by 2020.) There was only one Australian woman in the entire American championship tournament last year, and there are none on the Denver team.
This year, the Lady Bulldogs have managed to find five recruits, including a couple from Adrian’s Crossfit gym, like 23-year-old Monique Fair, now the team’s youngest player. Convincing people to join isn’t always easy; due to the extreme physical nature of the sport, recruiters have to float the topic of tackling early in the conversation. “New players have to be open to [tackling],” says Adrian, who tries to structure her teammates’ positions around their comfort level with making hits.
The main recruitment concern is age. Some players on the Lady Bulldogs are getting into their late thirties and early forties, while younger and more athletic players are joining teams around the country. Some Lady Bulldogs have checked out the Facebook pages of other teams to get a look at their rosters; they’re particularly interested in the New York Lady Magpies, because that team appears to have recruited a number of younger players since last season.
At the Irish Rover, however, the most pertinent concern on players’ minds is next weekend’s match against the Minneapolis Freeze. It will be their first match of the season, and already there’s some tempering of expectations. Only eight players from Denver are able to go, so the Lady Bulldogs are going to have to borrow extra players from Minneapolis to make a full squad. While this is not uncommon in traveling games, the setup is made more awkward by the fact that Denver is mostly playing with rookies to give them experience. This will be the first match for two women, and aside from Adrian, the other players are only in their second or third year. It will be a tough game.
The game does not go well.
On August 23, Adrian sends an e-mail to the team listserv:
We lost our game to them 50-0. Yes. You read that right. MN Women are younger, faster, and developing their structures to a level that is on par with the top teams in USAFL Women’s Division. The 50-0 game was a 40 minute game.
Even though the Lady Bulldogs lacked their full squad, the lopsided loss to Minneapolis comes as a shock. It is a reminder that, after five years of Lady Bulldog dominance, the rest of the league is finally catching up with them. Or maybe, between seasons, they’ve already caught up.
“The field has slowly been coming up to us for some time,” acknowledges Lady Bulldogs coach Bruce Durrell.
The 47-year-old Melbourne native has coached the team since 2009. He grew up with footy in Australian grade school, and even played as a forward in a junior professional league in Australia. This women’s team is among the most motivated he’s ever seen, and he views his main challenge as organizing their zeal into skillful play. “All of them are desperate to learn about the game, so it’s just about giving them the right tools to play [with],” he says.
In his seventh season, Durrell is the wizard behind the curtain, the strategist who says that he has “reinvented this team three times over now.” The women adore him, and they like to poke fun at their coach for his long-winded and philosophical e-mails. Every time they’ve won at nationals, Durrell has broken down crying.
Following the disastrous match against Minneapolis, though, it’s become apparent that the Lady Bulldogs will have to work harder than ever if Denver is to win again this season and remain the envy of footy communities across the United States.
Having a firsthand view of Minneapolis’s coordinated play has only added to concern about New York’s crop of youthful recruits. And then there’s the ever-looming prospect of the San Francisco Iron Maidens, an always-solid squad that the Lady Bulldogs faced off against in tie-breaking matches during the last two national championships. “This will be the most competitive women’s championship ever,” predicts Durrell.
The players are excited but getting nervous. This early in the season, it’s hard to tell how the Lady Bulldogs will perform in a game when all players are on board. That chance will come soon, though, at an August 29 home game against the visiting Sacramento Lady Suns.
On a bright, hot Saturday afternoon, about 200 people are gathered at the far end of Long Lake Ranch Park in Arvada to watch the men’s and women’s footy matches.
All of the park’s other fields are occupied by much more youthful athletes. There are the familiar PVC banners and $2 hot-dog stands and moms with orange slices screaming for their kids’ soccer and football teams. Without a proper stadium, the Denver Lady Bulldogs have to share fields with ten-year-olds — and that’s a humbling reality for the five-time national champions. Some cities in metro Denver, such as Arvada, give youth leagues scheduling priority, and, as Adrian explains, “It doesn’t matter how long in advance we reserve a spot; the city gives it to the kids if they call.”
So one of the Lady Bulldogs’ most formidable opponents is actually the American Youth Soccer Organization. But on this Saturday, the Australian Rules football league has secured a spot, and both the men’s and women’s teams are pleased with Sacramento’s showing. Almost all of the members from California have made the trip, so there won’t be any sharing of players.
The Denver women gather in a huddle before the second of two matches against the Lady Suns. They won the first, but the next one will require all the energy they have left. “Now, let’s go out there and play Bulldog footy!” yells coach Durrell.
One of the players, Jenn Callaway, comes to the sidelines and throws off a wrist brace. “My wrist might break, but I can’t play with this thing,” she says dismissively.
Another, Kate Mascher, takes a last swig of water and gives her wife, Karen, a kiss.
Mascher is particularly motivated to do well this game: She was part of the small squad that was massacred in the Minneapolis match. But more than that, she’s still upset about her performance at last year’s finals. “I kicked a lot of bad kicks,” she remembers, “but in some ways it was good, because I needed that. I needed to fail. Even though the team won, I feel like I let them down. Now I focus on playing the best I’ve ever played.”
Indeed, Mascher is about as dedicated as an Aussie Rules player can be. After all, she says, “Footy saved my life.”
When she joined the team in 2013, Mascher was in poor shape. “The first time I stepped on the field, I was 310 pounds,” she recalls. “I was also smoking hookah every day. And two bowls of hookah is like between twenty to fifty cigarettes a day.”
She found the Lady Bulldogs after a friend introduced her to footy, and Mascher became addicted to watching Australian broadcasts of the sport. She wanted to play herself, so she showed up at a Lady Bulldog practice and was immediately hooked. “It’s the first sports team I’ve been on in my life where there’s no bullshit, there’s no issues, man,” she says. “Every single person is a real athlete.”
Despite struggling with conditioning, she kept with it. Since joining the team, Mascher has lost 110 pounds and transformed herself into one of the fiercest players on the Lady Bulldog front line. She’s even made it onto Team USA’s development squad — Team Liberty — and traveled to Australia to play in the International Cup last year.
Now she jogs onto the field to get in position before the starting whistle. Minutes later, with captain Adrian poised in the rucking position, a whistle is blown and Adrian tips the ball toward her teammates so that the Lady Bulldogs have first possession.
Both teams have eighteen players on the field, which sounds like a lot, but the field is massive, so it’s not too crowded. (In Australia, footy is played on cricket pitches, and so the goals on either end are 180 meters, or 590 feet, apart.) Fans shield their eyes from the blazing sun in order to see to the far side of the field. A woman repositions an umbrella to shade her baby, who is wearing a striped shirt with the red, white and blue Bulldog colors.
Within thirty seconds of play, the Lady Bulldogs have advanced the ball toward Sacramento’s goalposts — four poles and three sets of goals. A ball passing between the center poles is six points. Through the outer poles, it’s one point.
The play is scrappy and intense. Each time the ball is moved between players, by either a lateral punch or a kick, opponents swarm around its recipient within seconds — swatting for the ball or going in for a tackle. Footy is a sport where you don’t worry about bruises; you expect them.
Adrian screams: “C’mon, ladies! Let’s clean up the wall!”
Then, finally, a breakthrough.
The ball comes barreling into the center from a short, direct kick at the edge of the field and Mascher catches it, finding herself in scoring position. With her 6’2” frame, she towers above most of the players and has developed an accurate 45- to 50-meter shot, which makes her particularly formidable on offense. Realizing a score is imminent, a Sacramento Lady Suns player makes a desperate move to tackle her — but Mascher sees her coming. Shifting her weight, Mascher braces against the other player with her body, and the Sacramento player bounces off and falls backward onto the field. Mascher then spins 90 degrees and kicks the ball between the outer posts for one point.
The Lady Bulldog fans cheer. Suddenly, the momentum is with Denver. The ball stays in front of Sacramento’s goalposts for the remainder of the first half.
By halftime, Sacramento has scored only seven points to Denver’s twenty. Denver huddles up. A few players from the men’s team, who act as waterboys for the Lady Bulldogs, slide between players, making sure each is staying hydrated in the summer heat. As with soccer, there are almost no breaks in play, so the running is constant.
“Now, that’s more like Bulldog footy!” exclaims Durrell.
“Yeah! But every one of us is capable of making bigger hits!” Sarah Plummer Taylor chimes in.
Plummer Taylor is another linchpin in the Lady Bulldogs lineup. The 34-year-old former Marine played for five years on the U.S. Military Olympics women’s soccer team. Trim and compact, Plummer Taylor is not afraid to trade pain for clutch tackles against her opponents — and she thinks the team can do more during the rest of the game.
A whistle is blown, signifying that halftime is over. The players return to their positions, on opposite sides of the field this time, since the goals switch at halftime.
Another whistle, and the second half begins. Almost immediately, Sacramento scores with a grounded kick through the Lady Bulldogs’ center goalposts. Six points.
The Bulldogs regroup, but the Suns keep up the attack, looking sprightlier than they did during the first half.
They advance the ball around the edge of the field and pass it to a player who is within kicking distance of the Bulldogs’ goalposts. While still running, the Sacramento player positions the ball for the kick. Just as it is about to be released, Plummer Taylor sprints in for a tackle, but can’t quite grab her opponent. The player stumbles, and Plummer Taylor lunges again to finish the job. The Sacramento player crashes to the ground before the ball is released. No goal.
Finding their energy, the Bulldogs return the ball to the other side of the field in front of Sacramento’s goals. A rookie Bulldogs player nicknamed T2 kicks the ball into the center, where Mascher jumps up and catches it right in front of the goal. This allows a “free kick,” and Mascher easily sinks it in for six points.
Minutes later, Plummer Taylor manages to kick a long ball through a narrow gap between two Sacramento players for her own six-point goal. She gets mauled by celebrating teammates.
The Denver Lady Bulldogs win, 44-12.
After shaking hands with Sacramento’s players, the team huddles midfield for a cheer. Adrian leads:
“Three cheers for the officials.”
“Hip, hip, hooray!”
“Three cheers for Sacramento.”
“Hip, hip, hooray!”
“Three cheers for the motherfucking five-time national champs!”
Spirits are high. The game went well, with the team in strong form. The players decide that Janell Myers had the goal of the game, and that evening, she’ll receive her award at the Three Lions Pub — a team sponsor and de facto watering hole for the players.
Things are definitely looking up compared to just a week earlier, after the Minneapolis loss. Now they just have to keep building upon that momentum.
After the Sacramento game, the women have a month and a half to gear up for the nationals in Austin, where qualifying teams will compete in a group-style playoff over two days until the team with the best win-loss record is crowned champion. With no more trips planned, the main challenge is getting the Denver players to as many biweekly practices and “metro games” — intra-squad scrimmages — as possible. Accumulating in-game experience is critical for success in Austin.
Of course, sometimes other parts of the players’ lives make that difficult.
“We each have our own lives, our own husbands and girlfriends and jobs. I have to work all week [at the gym and hair salon], so I feel like a kid when I get to play,” says Adrian.
Some of her teammates barely have a spare moment. Ex-Marine Plummer Taylor, for example, balances an incredible workload: She is now a full-time graduate student, published author and proprietor of two businesses that offer yoga retreats, veterans’ services, and health and wellness coaching.
Mascher used to be a fracking engineer before the industry downsized, and is now an emergency medical technician for Northglenn Ambulance and Stadium Medical. It’s not uncommon for her to work 24-hour shifts. “Some nights I get eight hours of sleep, some nights I don’t get any,” she says.
Another player, Twania Clark, is the mother of four children.
Because the players are not full-time, paid professional athletes, each brings unique perspectives and personal struggles from other parts of their lives to the team.
Plummer Taylor served two tours in Iraq as an intelligence officer and has had to battle the effects of PTSD and sexual trauma. She tries to use her resiliency and leadership skills for the benefit of the Lady Bulldogs. Mascher has seen grisly stuff as well. Once, her ambulance was called as a first responder to a house in Commerce City, where she found an entire family of six unconscious from a carbon monoxide leak; one person could not be resuscitated.
Players have to support each other emotionally — or at least temporarily push such things out of their minds when they are on the field, so that a team that is an amazingly diverse amalgam of life experiences can come together as a single unit.
Mascher is tired of living a split existence. Her ideal job would benefit the team: She and her wife want to open a commercial brewery named Mascher Brewing that would produce a red IPA called the “Bulldog Bitter”; sales would help support the team. “A portion of each batch of Bulldog Bitter will also be reserved just for the ladies on the footy team,” she says with a grin.
Mascher’s plan highlights a tough truth about the sport’s finances: Money is a big concern for the Lady Bulldogs, and footy teams in general. Without proper stadiums or more travel funds, the sport will have a difficult time growing. Mascher points out that the local rugby team has a sizable following because it has a stadium — Infinity Park in Glendale. “We’d love to have a place to play,” she says, “but there’s no money behind us. That means not as many come to our games.”
For all the team’s success over the past five years, the majority of the Lady Bulldogs’ fans are either family members or friends of the players. Perhaps a thousand people know of the most successful sports team in Denver. “It’s like, what the fuck is Australian Rules football?” admits Adrian. “I would like other people to recognize how big of a deal it is. But I find when I tell people, they say, ‘Oh, so it’s like rugby?’ Um, no, it’s not!”
“I’ve kinda given up talking about it,” Mascher admits, adding that she’s tired of explaining the mechanics of the sport, only to watch people’s eyes glaze over. “My co-workers aren’t really the type, so mostly I try to be on the DL about it.”
Others, like Coach Durrell, maintain that they don’t worry about the sport’s popularity — or lack thereof. Aussie Rules has been steadily growing for years, he points out, and this year’s finals promise to be the best-attended and most competitive yet. He says he’s just focusing on getting his team ready.
During September’s metro games, Durrell has identified some points of weakness, and he’s had the team work on three areas: rebuilding the backline, having center players deliver the ball more efficiently to the front, and teaching forwards to have increased awareness of where and how they move. Another key part of Durrell’s strategy is pairing each of his players to specific opponents. Of course, this depends on which teams the Lady Bulldogs will be playing, and so for weeks he has been calling the AFL board and trying to get a final schedule of the championship matches.
He finally receives the schedule on September 28 and sends an e-mail to the team:
After much discussion and lobbying, the seedings and schedule for Nationals have been decided…We are seeded number one based on previous performances at Nationals, but the draw is favorable to the two seed (San Francisco), so the path to the championship will be that little bit harder.
One of the clear takeaways from the discussions was that San Francisco, Minnesota and New York are all much better than last year, so we have to take another leap forward if we want to be the 2015 Champions.
If you’re not aware of it already…the other teams are sick of seeing us lift the cup. I vote we extend their disappointment for at least one more year.
What do you think?
With the nationals just days away, Mascher thinks the team will definitely get a sixth win. “We’re going to kill them,” she vows. “They’re all screwed, and they know it.”
Others, like Adrian, are more measured. “We’re not going to just go there and run over people this year,” she says. “But whenever the clock buzzes at the end of each game, we’re gonna drop because we’ve given it our all — that I can promise.”
Rather than host the usual send-off potluck party before flying to nationals, Adrian and Durrell have decided to schedule an extra practice. After that, the team will go to Chipotle and have one last chance to talk about nerves and strategy before packing their bags for Austin.
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It’s been a dramatic journey from the Lady Bulldogs’ unlikely first national title in 2010 to the dominance of the past seasons. A sixth win would make a remarkable record even more so, and the women hope to be back in Denver next week wearing their medals.
If you happen to spot the ladies’ Australian Rules football trophy, go ahead and pour some alcohol into it. Tradition says the champs have to drink it.
[UPDATE: The Denver Lady Bulldogs were successful in Austin on October 17 and 18, winning their sixth consecutive national title. Results and videos of the matches can be seen at usafl.com.]