Sapphire start a success

Sapphire start a success

It is with much #pride that the Lions were able to field two teams for the opening round of British American Football’s Women’s Tackle Sapphire Series on Saturday.

Birmingham’s outfit are the first side to have managed such a feat and whilst this is yet another feather in this progressive team’s cap, it’s not one they’re sitting back on. “Having two teams is great and always where we wanted to get to this season” commented Lions Head Coach Jamie Kilby, “but this isn’t about generating ‘firsts’ it’s about maximising the opportunity and exposure our players get to real game-time so we can ensure their development continues.”

With the two teams largely divided between returners (North) and rookies (South) the split allows the Lions to focus on attempting to defend its national crown whilst providing an environment for the squad’s newest players to stand up and be noticed, something they’re firmly going about doing with much enthusiasm…

South report courtesy of Celine Bisson (#84):

After having a great 9-aside experience in France two weeks earlier, for most of the Birmingham South players the Sapphire Series was their first real go at 5-aside football. “I went in with the hope that we could win both games but I knew 1-1 would be a respectable result for a team that was mostly rookies playing in their first tournament” offered South Head Coach Carl Lewis, and whilst a bad start (due to some serious traffic incidents encountered on the way) delayed the teams arrival at Royal Holloway’s tidy facility, the first game against Solent-Iceni started in the best possible fashion.

Indeed the game was only a few minutes old when Lions’ Sophie Etheridge (#89) intercepted Solent QB Angelie De La Cruz’s lofted pass for a speedy pick-six and a subsequent lead that would never be threatened – significant contributions from Running Back Caren Goodman (#29) on the ground and Laura Thompson-Stevens (#19) directing traffic from QB shaped the team’s momentum and with further dominant displays from the defense, with notable reference to (#76) Nose Tackle Katie Davenport’s efforts the Lions’ ran up a confidence boosting score-line (54-8) and with it their first ever win. “It was an outstanding first ever performance” added on-field captain Alice-Mary Smith, “Solent battled brilliantly and bravely with just 5 players, but in the end we were just a little bit too strong when it mattered.”

After a short break the South side were rushed back into action, this time against last’s year’s runners-up, Hertfordshire Tornadoes, right from the start the team were up against it. “Their no-huddle offense put us on the ropes early and we struggled to recover” commented Coach Lewis. Strong play pressured both offensive and defensive units but the Lions’ resilience was plain to see – a defensive score, courtesy of captain and Linebacker (#50) Smith’s turnover and Running Back (#22) Emelie Taylor’s touchdown, just reward for the team’s continued endeavour.

With the final score realised at 58-6 it’s fair to say the value of the score-line was substantially less significant in comparison to the experience the players were able to gain: “We saw the Lions’ true team spirit come out against tougher opposition” commented Smith, “…the lessons we will learn from these games are massive for us – you can’t manufacture the sort of pressure we were exposed to and we’ll come back stronger for the experience.”

North report courtesy of Laura Moore (#17):

A short drive North and up to Derby University saw the Lions face Manchester Titans’ large squad for a solitary fixture (after Sandwell Steelers had unfortunately forfeited their Sapphire debut).

From the off the Lions looked to dominate, their first drive proving successful courtesy of Running Back (#10) Ruth Matta’s 20yd scamper. With no respite coming for the Titans’ rookie squad big hits reined in from Linebacker Afia Law (#53) and Nose Tackle Aimee Cottingham (#78) to road-block their momentum and as such the ball was routinely returned to Lions’ clinical offense – 34 points were notched up prior to the half-time break courtesy of damaging carries from Fullbacks’ Steph De-Haven and Antoinette Morgan, whilst Receiver Hannah Pye pulled in everything within range to keep ground and aerial threats ever-present.

The second half started with further ferocity as the Lions defense moved from ‘contain’ to ‘impose’ – enforcers (Linebacker #56) Phoebe Schecter and (Cornerback) Laura Moore leading by example whilst Cottingham continued her one-woman demolition job up front. With Titans QB (#10) Sian Perry valiantly attempting to mix things up efforts to go long were attempted but thwarted, Safety Nena Killick and rookie Cornerback Chloe Spalding (#39 – growing in stature with each play) mopping up at the back before (left Corner) Nancy Stone (#28) took one too many hail mary’s and returned it for six.

With Quarterback Jo Kilby (#12) marshalling her offense thanks to great protection from rotating Centres Michelle Gwynne (#96) and rookie, Elisha Huxtable (#60), productive down-field blocking turned good plays into big plays for Matta, Morgan and Pye to all benefit. Gwynne later picked up her own smart score to rubber-stamp a ‘good day had at the office’ by the Lions, the final result confirmed as 73-0.

“It was great to be back on the pitch after a relatively quick turnaround [from playing 9s in France]” offered Moore, “…we’re all already looking forward to the next tournament, joining up with our Teesside-friends in the North for their home tournament and meeting new teams too like Edinburgh Wolves, who we’re hearing very good things about.”

May we wish both teams all the best ahead of their preparations for February 28th game-day’s where our North team will travel to Stockton-on-Tees and our South side, to Hertfordshire for round 2; may we also take this opportunity to wish Titans’ #66 Kelly Strickland our well wishes and a speedy recovery after taking a knock in the first half of the teams’ northern fixture.

Image courtesy of, and with thanks to, Niko R. Womens’ Sport Gallery.

Birmingham Lions Laura Thompson-Stevens gets ready for BAFA's Sapphire Series