Lions shine bright like a Diamond
Heading into the competition the Lions were being their usual modest selves. The word from the team was that they were looking forward to the chance to play some 11 a side Football, but were respectful of their opposition’s experience. You would have thought that the other teams must have scouted the British Champions, if they had, when it came to game time it didn’t really show. The Lions were dominant in all phases of the game. With talented athletes throughout the roster, Birmingham set about the task in hand with relish, and come Sunday evening in Helsinki they had established themselves as one of (if not the) best club sides in Europe, clinching the Diamond Bowl title with four wins out of four, racking up 106 points and conceding only 26. As they flew off into the sunset, they could certainly say, “mission accomplished” and reflect on a job well done. Let’s have a look at how they did it game by game.
Game One – Lions 22 v St Petersburg Valkyries 0
The format for this competition was that there would be no kick-offs (until the final), with teams in possession starting the game on their thirty yard line. The Valkyries had the ball first and tried to establish the run, but in a scenario that would become very familiar, Afia Law found herself deep in the backfield making the tackle. Not getting much joy on the ground, the Valks went to the air, but that didn’t work out well, as Lions defensive back Caley Parnell picked off the pass! The Lions offence took over on their thirty-two yard line. The ball was fumbled on the first play (but thankfully recovered). On the second play lighting struck in the shape of Ruth Matta! A seventy two yard run for a touchdown put the Lions ahead early, and they never looked back. Matta tacked on a two-point conversion and it was 8-0 Lions. The Valkyries went to the air again, but with their quarterback under constant pressure a pick always looked likely, and this time it was made by Nancy Stone who returned the ball to the thirty-seven yard line. Lions quarterback Jo Kilby orchestrated a good drive featuring catches by Kim Tsiga and Hannah Pye, and two key runs by Matta. With the ball now at the six, Kilby took it in on a keeper to edge the score to 14-0. The shell shocked Valkyries continued to try to get a foothold in the game, but another interception, this time by Phoebe Schecter who almost returned it all the way, effectively closed off the half.
The Lions started the second period of the game with more strong running by Matta, aided by some good downfield blocking by the receivers, however, both teams turned the ball over on downs. The “Lightning” of Matta was now being complimented by the “Thunder” of fellow running back, Antoinette Morgan, who rumbled over would be tacklers to keep the chains moving. Completions to Jodie Harris and Hannah Pye had the Lions knocking on the door at the five, and on the next play Morgan strode in for the score. Kilby found Pye for the two-point conversion making the score 22-0 Birmingham. With less than two minutes left in the contest the Valkyries broke off a big run for sixty yards, but a tackle from Stone followed by a tasty linebacker sandwich courtesy of Law and Schecter closed out the game. It was a great start for the Lions, who’s next match up would be against the Tampere Saints. After the game Jo Kilby offered the following “Today was a great day in the Lions history.To not only play club 11s but to compete and win, was almost beyond our wildest dreams. The team, from rookie to the medical staff and everyone in between has been fantastic and I can’t wait to see what this team can now go on to deliver”.
Game Two – Lions 30 v Tampere Saints 0
The first quarter of this game was a little frustrating for the Lions, and in particular, for linebacker Phoebe Schecter. With the offense unable to make any sustained progress, Schecter caused two turnovers, or so she thought but the officials said otherwise. Kim Tsiga made some good yards on a jet sweep, and Nancy Stone broke up a dangerous pass, but Schecter stamped her mark on the game when she recovered a fumble by the Saints quarterback and returned it all the way to the house to open the scoring, this time the officials had nothing to say! and at the half it was 8-0 Lions.
At the start of the second half Tampere attempted to get their running game going, but big hits by Laura Moore and Schecter kept them in check. The Lions took over and Kilby put together a successful drive, alternating runs between Matta and Morgan, along with a clutch reception by Pye, they found themselves on the Saints one-yard line. The hand-off went to Matta who darted in for the score, and then added a two point conversion, edging the Lions to a 16-0 advantage. The day got worse for the Saints when attempting to punt, the snap flew over the kickers head and Schecter corralled the Punter on the one yard line. At this point Natalie Parker came in at quarterback and handed off to Sophia Wee, touchdown! The PAT was no good, so the score was now 22-0. To their credit Tampere weren’t ready to accept defeat and continued to chance their arm through the air, but a pair of incomplete passes saw them turn the ball over on downs. Enter Parker and the offence with 90 seconds left in the game. With the O line providing excellent blocking Parker found Pye in centre field, who brushed aside a would be tackler and outpaced two more before striding in for the score! Parker took the two point in herself to ice the game at 30-0 Lions.
Game Three – Lions 28 v Helsinki Roosters 8
The host team and potentially the toughest test. the Roosters were looking to make a statement having only edged the Saints by a single score in overtime. The Lions had the first possession and went to work. Matta ripped off a big run up the middle, and Pye bagged another reception to keep the chains moving. Matta thought she had scored on a trademark dash to the outside, but it was called back, never mind, on the next play she repeated the feat, and this time it stood. Pye caught the two pointer to give the Lions an 8-0 lead. Helsinki were unable to make much progress and turned the ball over on downs. Starting at the thirty seven yard line the “Thunder and Lighting” combination of Morgan and Matta worked the ball downfield all the way to the Roosters two yard line from where Kilby walked in for the score. This time Jodie Harris snagged the two pointer, 16-0 Birmingham. Helsinki needed to establish some momentum but with the Lions defensive line led tirelessly by Aimee Cottingham putting their quarterback under constant pressure, they found themselves giving the ball up again. Kilby rolled out right and launched the ball downfield, but a good read by a Roosters linebacker saw the ball picked off. Not to be outdone Lions linebackers Ciara Pinnington and the ever present Schecter laid some big hits on the Roosters ball carriers. Back on offence, Kilby went to Tsiga on a jet sweep that ended on the Roosters fifteen yard line. Pye then made a grab and advanced the ball to the seven yard line. With time running out in the first half, an errant snap flew over Kilby’s head, but she reacted quickly and recovered the ball whilst keeping her feet, she extended the play and targeted receiver Celine Bisson, Touchdown! The conversion wasn’t successful so half time arrived with the Lions leading 22-0.
The Roosters had the ball first for the second period and started with a big run up the middle before Pinnington made the tackle. Another run and a personal foul penalty against the Lions placed Helsinki in the red zone at the Birmingham fifteen-yard line. Another run got them to the one yard line, and then a dive up the middle saw the Lions concede their first points of the game and the tournament (it had taken over two and a half games for anyone to break down the fierce Birmingham defence). The two point was added making the score 22-8. With 7.41 left in the game Natalie Parker took over at quarterback. She found Pye for a first down, but the drive ended with the ball being turned over to the Roosters on downs. Another fierce hit saw the Helsinki quarterback fumble the ball and the Lions offence re-entered the field. Antoinette Morgan ran around and through several defenders before being stopped at the Roosters fifteen-yard line. With little time left Parker looked for a target in the endzone, her pass was picked off, but the defender had committed pass interference to make the grab, giving the Lions the ball on the one-yard line. This time Parker scrambled in for the score, moving the lead to 28-8. The conversion attempt failed, but there was no time left for Helsinki to come back. The Lions were undefeated in three games and would move on to the gold medal tie, their opposition would be the side they beat in their opening encounter, The Valkyries.
Game Four – The Final – Lions 26 v St Petersburg Valkyries 18
Given their performances to this point, Birmingham were heavy favourites to take the title, however, the Valkyries were a physical team and knew what to expect following that opening tie, they made some key adjustments, so what we witnessed was a far closer game than some had expected.
For the final we would see kick offs introduced and the game would be played over four quarters. Curiously, the Valkyries started the game with an attempted on-side kick, however the ball went straight out of bounds, and the Lions had the ball on the St Petersburg twenty-seven. Look out Valkyries, lightning is about to strike! Matta, twenty seven yard run, score! The conversion attempt failed, so inside twenty seconds it was 6-0 Birmingham. Amazingly, after twenty six seconds it was 6-6 as the Valkyries ran the kick-off all the way back! They couldn’t convert the score either. Birmingham couldn’t make any progress and turned it over on downs. St Petersburg had their tales up and went for a deep pass, enter Schecter with another pick to add to her collection! taking the ball to the nineteen. Two more runs from Matta led to another touchdown and a two-point conversion, edging the score to 14-6 Lions. Matta was in the groove and ripped off a forty-yard run, setting Birmingham up on the Valkyries five-yard line. Behind some excellent blocking Matta had a clear passage to paydirt. As the first quarter ended, the Lions led 20-6 and looked like they could run away the game.
The second quarter saw the Russians execute their ground game with previously unseen precision, grinding out the gains and breaking the odd big one. A breakaway run was halted at the Lions two by a touchdown saving tackle from Schecter, but Birmingham were unable to stop the Valkyries next play, and the deficit was reduced to 20-12. Despite a couple of offensive flashes by Birmingham, St Petersburg now had the momentum, and despite some big hits by Parnell and Schecter they scored again on another run heavy drive. Going in at half-time the lead was down to just two points at 20-18.
As the game got back underway the Lions knew they would have to dig deep, and the third quarter was punctuated by both defences getting the upper hand. Cottingham was dominant on the line and the linebacker group continued their battle with the determined Valkyries running attack. Despite both teams best efforts there were no further scores in the quarter.
The game was on a knife-edge as the final quarter got underway. Kilby scrambled for a first down, and Matta swept left, but the gains weren’t consistent and St Petersburg took the ball back, only to cough it up following a gang tackle, luckily for them they recovered it. The Valkyries completed a pass, but a trio of hits by Stone, Moore and Cottingham stopped the drive. With 1.42 left in the game the Lions were looking to get a first down to enable them to run out the clock, what they got via another Matta run was a touchdown! The conversion failed but it was now 26-18 with less than a minute to go. The Valkyries kick return was halted by Schecter, and Michelle Gwynne effectively ended the game with a sack. With seconds left Kilby led the offence back onto the field, they adopted the victory formation, she took a knee, and at that moment they became the Diamond Bowl Champions!
It sounds like a cliché, but it truly was a “team” performance, personified by the players in the trenches that played both ways, namely, Aimee Cottingham, Michelle Gwynne and Laura Moore. In my preview article I’d suggested the competition could be won in the trenches, and they certainly played a big part. The Lions run of success continues and right now you would be hard pressed to find a better “team” in Europe. As the Lions celebrated their win, I took the opportunity to speak to some of the “Pride”.
Defensive captain Afia Law was excited. “It was a really great experience for the Lions to play 11s against some of the best teams in Europe. The final was a really intense game. The Valkyries gave us a tough game and made us work hard for the win. It was challenging for the team physically and mentally, and was a tough battle that in the end came down to who wanted it more”.
Tournament MVP Ruth Matta was elated. “So many great plays from across the tournament to mention but the best one just has to be scoring the last touchdown in the final against the Valkyries. We were just holding onto the lead with the Valkyries mounting a comeback and with momentum shifting to the Valkyries the pressure to hold on was rising. We were 4th and 2, and my main aim was to just get the 1st down so we could wind down the clock and keep possession. I never expected to break through to score and it was just the best feeling ever! Crossing the line and turning round to celebrate to see my frenzied and ecstatic teammates was just incredible. Despite what the final scoreline may suggest we found the Tampere Saints difficult to break down. Offensively we struggled and we relied on our ever strong defense to keep things even (and to even get us off the mark in the 1st half). We had to go back to the drawing board and make various adjustments at halftime, which enabled us to progress the ball more but they really made each play a real battle for yards. I think our unity as a team gives us the edge. We all get behind each other and fight for each other. The final really tested our nerve as a team and things could have easily spiralled downhill with the change in momentum. We all got behind each other and stuck to our task despite decisions not going our way and we pulled through as a team. The Lions spirit is something very rare and special and I think you’d be hard pushed to find that anywhere else. The Birmingham Lions always continue to throw down challenges to keep us on our toes so I’m sure they’ve got another one lined up for the future. Hopefully more 11 aside international adventures are on the cards but we’ll just have to wait and see”.
I’ll leave the last word to Head Coach Jamie Kilby. “A land mark event in women’s American football, the Diamond Bowl has hopefully paved the way for more inclusive international club football. For the Lions this has been yet another exciting chapter in the team’s history. When we left for Finland we didn’t know what to expect, we had high hopes after the Wolverines game last year, but still didn’t know how it was going to pan out. Considering, we had never played an 11s game together before, it was nothing short of a miracle that we came out on top. I’m so proud of the Lions and the way they played. They never stopped believing in themselves and neither did I. I could see it in their faces deep into the second half of that final match, that they were just not prepared to lose, at any cost. That Ruth Matta touchdown and the sack by Michelle Gwynne is exactly what I’m talking about. A truly amazing bunch of people on and off the field, and it’s an honour and a privilege to share the field with them. However, none of this would have been possible without the dedication of the coaching staff who tirelessly worked into the night, and the medical staff preparing the players for each game. So as we all return back to our lives, the question is now, what next for the Birmingham Lions? For that you will have to wait and see”.
[Review courtesy of Dave Tidswell with thanks]