Australian football making inroads in region SanTan Sun News

Australian football making inroads in region

Australian football making inroads in region
Sports and Recreation
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By  Corey Kirk
Cronkite News

On the field, they compete against teams from all over America. Off the field, they are educators, healthcare professionals and even the guy who scoops your ice cream.

What brings them together is a passion for a game called “footy.”

Twice a week a group of athletes come together at parks across the Valley to practice Australian Rules Football, a sport unfamiliar to many. Those who play it often walk away bruised and bloody. They then raise a brew to celebrate.

“It is more than just playing a sport,” said Peter Abernathy, a data analyst from Scottsdale and member of the Arizona Outlaws,  Australian Rules football club. “There is more of a social atmosphere to it compared to the other sports I play.”

Played without padding or helmets, Australian football demands physicality. It combines elements of American football, soccer, rugby and even basketball into one sport.

“It combines all that you got in your arsenal and you apply it to one sport. It’s great,” said Robert Lutostanski, a water-chemical specialist from Tempe and president of the Outlaws.

Played on an oval field much larger than American football or a soccer fields, the game matches teams of 18, with up to four reserves. Games consist of four 20-minute quarters, with extra time added for time-outs much as in soccer.

The object is to move a rugby-like ball, which is about twice the size of a football, by running, bouncing, kicking, or holding it in one hand down the field and punching it with the other – something called a handball.

The rules allow tackling and certain types of blocking.

To score, a player must kick the ball through a pair of primary goalposts for six points. Kicking the ball outside those posts but inside a secondary set of posts is good for one point.

At the start of games and after a team scores, official bounces the ball off the ground, high into the air, while two opposing players try to tip it to a teammate, much like a basketball center jump.

“It is definitely a touch of every single product, highlighting every American sport,” said Andrea Placencio, a Medicare manager from Mesa and one of only a handful of women on the Outlaws team.

Despite the physical nature of the sport, which often leaves players with sprained ankles, numerous scrapes, cuts and abrasions, the players stress safety and do their best to prevent serious injury.

“There’s no slide tackles or anything above the shoulder,” Lutostanski said. “So a lot of people don’t know there are fewer injuries in our sport (than the American version).”

Since its inception in the mid-1800s, Australian Rules Football has been played globally and now has piqued the interest of some in the Valley looking to remain active and try something new.

Footy gained a foothold in Arizona about 20 years ago and has had teams in Tucson, Chandler, Scottsdale and others.

Anthony Starks, who now lives in Phoenix, founded the now-defunct Tucson Javelinas after falling in love with the game in 2001.

“We ended up practicing all summer long before entering the league,” Starks said.

After a falling out with the United States Australian Football League, a non-profit dedicated to growing the development and growth of the sport, members in the local footy community were able to mend the relationship and now the Outlaws and Arizona Hawks are among 45 teams in the USAFL.

The Hawks, who began play in 1999, were that state’s first team but folded as some players stepped away from the game.

“Things change and people move away,” Starks said. “Careers, wives, kids, injuries, you know life.”

For the next decade, organized footy remained inconsistent in Arizona until the Hawks began to practice again in 2015. The Arizona Outlaws began to take shape in 2017. Their players also compete in the four-team Arizona Footy League, a Valley league they compete with nine-player teams.

One of the biggest problems footy players face is recruiting new athletes to clubs. As numbers fluctuate, members are focused on attracting a younger generation of players into the fold to keep the game growing.

“You want to play a great sport and apply all of those skills (from other sports),” Lutostanski said. “(If) you’ve got great hand coordination and eye coordination, you name it, you’re wanted.”

The sport is also growing among women and the USAFL has begun to build an all-female league. Organizers hope to recruit some of the best athletes in the area to play on an Arizona team.

After more than a decade in the sport, Placencio sees the difficulty of recruiting other women but remains hopeful.

As a veteran presence on the Outlaws, Matthew Lambert, a maintenance supervisor from Gilbert, is determined to build the women’s team.

Seven women regularly workout with the club, and the goal is to build a team of 30.

“I want us to have the best women in the competition,” Lambert said. “We want a diverse team, and we want to work together to build this.”

One woman from the Outlaws that is making waves is Amanda Mora, an occupational therapist from Phoenix. After having a successful career in college soccer in Maine, Mora was introduced to footy by recreational soccer players she was playing with and quickly adapted to the new sport.

She believes that increasing the number of women in the sport in Arizona should be a priority and wants to show that footy is safer than many other sports.

“It is really not anything dangerous,” Mora said. “I’ve had more injuries playing soccer than I have footy.”

What the Arizona footy community doesn’t have is its own field. A regulation field, according to the USAFL.com, is between 135 and 185 meters in length and 110 to 155 meters in width.

The only fields Arizona clubs can to reserve are soccer fields, which are 120 meters long and 90 meters wide.

Forced to adapt their rules to smaller fields, the Outlaws hope to build relationships with cities and work to make adjustments at a public park that can accommodate a full footy field.

With no permanent field, the local clubs must set up their field from scratch whenever they play. Having their own field would not only give the club’s permanent home but would make setting up for competition quicker.

“Hopefully in the future, the cities will help us and kind of help encourage the sport to make it more of a user-friendly field,” Lutostanski said.

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