This will be the 4th season the North Star Blue Ox have been in existence after a several Minnesota Freeze women players decided to start their own team in the Minneapolis/St Paul area in 2017.
Recently when we wrote and article and spoke to newest standalone women's team the Centennial Tigers & Sara Rohner, we realized we hadn't finished an article last year about the North Star Blue Ox, the very first single women’s team in the USAFL. So we reached out again to get an update and chatted briefly again with North Star Blue Ox's, Helen Phillips, to bring us up to speed.
The North Star Blue Ox got their name as Minnesota is known as the North Star state, with "L'Etoile du Nord" being the state motto. Blue Ox comes from Paul Bunyan the lumberjack folklore. Minnesota lays claim to being his birthplace, and he was accompanied in his exploits by Babe, the Blue Ox.
In the previous 6 years women’s footy had grown significantly in the area with the Minnesota Freeze women taking full teams and some, to the USAFL Nationals and many players making the USA Freedom and Liberty teams in the previous 5 years.
The growth of the Minnesota Women's team opened up the opportunity to grow the game further, by being able to play more official USAFL games.
The excitement of a new team, The North Star Blue Ox however those years back, allowed a renewed focus for the love of the game and the building of friendships. The first President of the team Marie LaVictorie, had been a USA Freedom representative as far back as the late 2000s. Other Freedom representatives since have been Emily Smuder and Brianne Theisen, the latter is now the Blue Ox's coach. It's also worth noting that one of the 2019 Rookies, Hannah Alexander was awarded the Cooper's Medal at the 2019 Nationals.
The club remains small and last year at the Sarasota FL Nationals only 4 players attended. Playing with the Columbus Cats & Nashville Kangaroos combined team however in Div 2, they finished with a win on Sunday for their efforts. In 2018 6 players played in the Racine Wisconsin USAFL National Championships.
However, the focus of the team is often more about fun, playing with new people and making new friends than achieving lofty goals. And also it is worth mentioning many teams assess their success or failure, wrongly we believe at times, by how well they attend and perform at the USAFL National Championships each October.
For any new club in the US there are many challenges and we are sure for a standalone women’s team this would be even more exaggerated. The Blue Ox started with zero, no funding, no structure to build on, but plenty of ambition. You hear teams are built on passion right? Well this might be the perfect example.
In 2019 the Blue Ox were able to play relatively close to their home base in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St Paul, playing with the Chicago Swans team and playing against their cross town rivals the Freeze. So the 2019 year was the most successful year in terms of playing local games and having fun playing.
The Blue Ox were able to secure a sponsor in their first year but have had little luck finding partners since. This puts some financial strain on the club, with small memberships and limited support externally, growth can only be slow. But that is ok for this team Helen Phillips told USFootyNews. "We are having fun."
Helen, who has been with the club all 4 years, "temporarily retired" from playing with the Freeze, but was lured back by the Blue Ox. Chatting with USFootyNews, Helen let us know, "Since the split with the Minnesota Freeze a friendly relationship has developed and there are opportunities for Blue Ox players to play with both teams more often."
"The team practices are out in the Golden Valley area, just west of Minneapolis, and the goal in 2020 is as in any year for the Blue Ox, it is have a good time, get our rookies exposed to Nationals and other Championships events and get them hooked on a great sport for women." "Also to find some younger players to join the sport would be nice". Helen added.
Younger players in fact is the challenge for all teams across the USA where the average age of an American recruit to the game is often in the late 20s or even higher.
So the first standalone women's only team The North Star Blue Ox, is alive in well, well maybe a bit chilly right now. But come the full spring and summer, they will be back at it, playing women's Aussie Rules footy in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
As the 2020 International Cup in Queensland, Australia looms on the horizon in late July, this year the women's USA Freedom team Head Coach, Christina Licata's unfinished story is remarkable already. From the humble beginnings of finding the sport whilst attending her last year of College at Arizona State University, to establishing the first women's team in New York, to being the only Level 2 AFL coach in the USA, to now leading the USA team herself into battle at the 2020 IC. It is a story of hard work, perseverance and passion for Aussie Rules Football.
Christina originally played with one of the only three women's teams at the time in the USA the Arizona Hawks and attended the first National Championships for women in the USA, which was played in Milwaukee Wisconsin in 2005. Though the Hawks were not successful that weekend that taste of competitive contact sport was enough to fuel a passion for Aussie Rules Football that is still as evident today as it was 16 years ago. Unfortunately Christina suffered from two ACL knee injuries, the second in 2013 after moving to New York in 2008. Christina hung up her playing boots after the second one, but that did not stop her from continuing on in the sport she now loves, helping establish and later becoming the Head Coach of the New York Magpies women's team. With the help of her best friend to this day she met in college in Arizona, Andrea Murphillas (Casillas), they have been pioneers of women's footy in New York and across the USA.
With a drive beyond all in the USA so far, Christina became the only USA Level 2 AFL coach in the country, either men's or women's. It was inevitable perhaps or destiny maybe that she would be appointed in 2018 as the USA Freedom Head Coach and lead the team to Australia on tour. It is not a place unfamiliar to Christina being a part of the very first tour to Australia in 2009, at a time well before International women's AFL football was a thing.
For our soon to be released episode of Outside 50 podcast show, Christina mentions some of the people that have helped and guided her along the way. New York men's coach Rob Oliver especially and another notable was Chyloe Kurdas who made a significant contribution to the organization and therefore success of the 2009 Freedom tour but also to women's sport in general when working for AFL Victoria. Chyloe was also an attendee at USAFL National Championships and ran clinics in New York and other places around the USA, as a true leader of international women's footy development she remains a great friend of Christina's and many USA women players around the country, to this day.
Also in our interview, Christina elaborated on the plans this year for the final Freedom camp weekend to be held in Sacramento, taking place from May 28th to the 31st. There the 28 selected players and 6 emergencies will undergo testing, advanced coaching seminars and certainly full scale match practice sessions, prepping them all for not only the 2020 IC tour, but the future of the sport in the USA.
As Head Coach of USA, Christina was clear that the goal at the 2020 International Cup was, "Win it all", but still pleased to say like maybe a typical well educated coach, "we will take it one game at a time, when the time comes."
There is no doubt regardless of the results on the Sunshine Coast later this year, women's USA footy at the highest level is in good hands, through Christina Licata's, vision, drive and passion for the sport there is no looking back, only forward.
We are proud to know her and to have seen part of her unfinished story.
Pretty much under the radar a new Women's team has emerged just outside of Denver in Colorado, the Centennial Tigers. They have been established largely on the growth of their now neighbors the women's team in the Denver Bulldogs, and are looking to establish themselves as a competitive outfit very quickly in women's footy in the USA. The team formed way back in October 2019, lead by Denver player and board member Sara Rohner. They are the 46th member club of the USAFL.
To give you a roadmap perspective maybe, Centennial is about a 20-30 minute drive south of Denver, so not that far, and home to about 100,000 people. The Denver area has a population of around 2.8 million, which makes it the 28th most populous city in the USA. (Only 28th? I can hear some Aussie saying ;)
Recently they announced their first Head Coach, Destry Gillette. Destry played all of his footy career with the Denver Bulldogs up the road, debuting in 2000, and was a member of the Bulldogs when they strung together several Div 1 Premiership wins in the early 2000s. The appointment as Head Coach however will herald his first active return to the sport after a several knee surgeries.
This week Sara Rohner told USFootNews though the decision to break away from the Denver Bulldogs wasn't easy, the time and effort to continue with the club when you have to drive multiple hours in peak hour traffic just to practice, had some to do with it. Sara also reminded us this isn't the first time a club has split off to start a team and in fact in the early 2000s there was a split off from the Denver Bulldog men’s team in Colorado Springs, called the Rocky Mountain Saints. That split didn't last long but others have followed in recent years, the Minnesota Freeze women's team split off to form the North Star Blue Ox, also a standalone women's team, and on the men's teams two more recent splits were the Arizona Hawks to Arizona Outlaws and the DC Eagles amicable split to form the Baltimore Dockers to become their own team.
From their website, the Centennial Tigers have a clear message to their purpose.
The Centennial Tigers were established on a foundation of core values: Tenacity, Integrity, Grit, Empowerment, Respect and Sportsmanship (TIGERS). While winning is always fun, our main desire is to empower women of all ages through sport. We’ve witnessed transformations in countless women by helping improve fitness, building self confidence, and encouraging each woman to be herself.
Just recently the Centennial Tigers were recognized at the Colorado Women’s Sports Fund Association (CWSFA) grant banquet in Fort Collins. The Tigers received a $500 grant from the organization for their "dedication to growing women’s participation in Colorado sports".
Already numbering a solid group of players up to 30 in all Sara Rohner told us, from the areas of Centennial, Greenwood Village, Englewood, Littleton, Highlands Ranch, Lone Tree, Parker, Castle Rock and Elizabeth cities/towns, the Tigers look to stamp their mark on the USAFL's women's footy soon. There is a chance many will see them in action first at the Central Regionals in Dallas and then most definitely at the USAFL Western Regionals, which is across town virtually in the opposite direction from Denver, in Westminster CO.
You can read more about the Tigers and follow them on social media by visiting their website at https://centennialtigers.com