BThe Birmingham Lions headed to Finland this past weekend, as they continue to drive forwards the British Women’s game – becoming the first Britball women’s team to head to an international 11-a-side tournament…
And they only went and won it!
Despite it being only the Lions’ third international trip, and first EVER attempt at playing 11-a-side fixtures, the Birmingham roster was stacked with GB talent, buoyed by the National Team’s impressive fourth-place finish in the World Championships in summer of 2017.
The Lions travelled Thursday, and kicked off the Diamond Bowl tournament Friday in the impressive Helsinki Roosters home stadium against the visiting Russian side, the St Petersburg Valkyries.
The Valkyries took the ball for the first drive of the tournament – starting from their 30 going out, there being no kick-off/returns in play for the majority of the tournament’s fixtures.
The Russian side got off to a quick start, punching an option run through for a first down, beginning to get a good drive going before the Lions’ D cranked up the pressure – Afia Law and the linebacker corps beginning to penetrate and disrupt the Valkyries offence.
St Petersburg looked long for the first time, but Caley Parnell picked off the Valkyries QB, giving the Lions ever-impressive offence their first run out on the field.
With their veteran tandem in the backfield, the Lions looked to get things going on the ground, Jo Kilby handing off to Ruth Matta on the first play – only for the defensive end to have come clean through, enveloping Matta right after receiving the handoff, forcing her to cough up the ball – hardly an auspicious start to the tournament for the Lions’ offence!
Of course, this is Ruth Matta we’re talking about.
And the Lions came right back to her on the next play, a stretch to the left where the diminutive speedster turned on the after-burners and outpaced the entire Valkyries D the length of the field!
The score re-set the tone for the Lions, Matta dodging through for the conversion, and the Valkyries second drive ended similarly to the first – Nancy Stone plucking the Valkyries attempt to go long out of the air once again, and carrying it back into St Petersburg territory.
Big plays once more from Kilby, Matta, and receiver Hannah Pye saw the Lions capitalise with a second score, Kilby taking a scramble to find paydirt, giving the Lions an early 14-0 lead.
By now it seemed the Lions D was getting into its groove, Britball’s busiest lady and GB Lions Captain Phoebe Schecter getting in on the action, intercepting the Valkyries and returning it to just outside the redzone, but the Lions weren’t quite able to extend their lead before ‘half’ (Friday and Saturday games were played with two 12 minute quarters, the finals with a full four.)
The second half saw some early Matta magic push the Lions into Russian territory on a big rush, but unable to turn it into points, while the Lions D continued its fine form, shutting down the Valkyries quickly and getting the ball back in Russian territory. The Kilby-Matta connection kept the second Lions drive alive. Jodie Harris made a clutch grab just outside the endzone, before Antoinette Morgan blasted through the line for a score a couple of plays later, Kilby evading pressure to connect with Pye to make the final scoreline 22-0 to the Lions.
And it was much of a muchness for the Lions through their following two matchups – the vast experience of international veterans, combined with the intuitive connections between their key playmakers on both sides of the ball – allowed the Lions to dominate against both the Tampere Saints, as well as tournament hosts, the Helsinki Roosters.
It was a slow start for Lions offence versus the Tampere Saints – forced to punt for the first time in the tournament in each of their first three drives of the game – however, Phoebe Schecter was playing absolutely lights out football.
The newest addition to the UK Dukes stripped the ball away from the Saints to kill a promising-looking first drive from the Saints, the second Saints drive went backwards, and then Phoebe appeared to strip the ball out once again to kill the third drive, only for the reffing crew to decide it was still the Saints’ ball. Still, not to be denied, when the Tampere snap was fumbled, Phoebe scooped it up off the floor, returning it all the way for the Lions’ first score of the day, with a minute or so to go to the half.
From there, it was all Lions. While they still couldn’t find paydirt with their opening drive of the second half, the Lions defence was roaring. Matta finally punched in a score from the 1yd line, and followed it up with the 2PAT.
The Saints drive was immediately snuffed out, before the punt snap went over the punter’s head and was downed at the 1. With under three on the clock, the Lions backups came in to clean up the game, QB2 Natalie Parker handing off to Sophia Wee to take the score to 22-0.
With the Tampere offence running on fumes, Parker led the Lions out once again with around a minute on the clock, the southpaw Quarterback connecting with Hannah Pye over the middle to hammer the final nail in the Saints coffin and all-but guarantee the Lions place in the Gold Medal game, with a game in hand, Parker converting the score to bring up the final 30-0 scoreline.
Birmingham carried this momentum into their second game of the day, taking on the host the Helsinki Roosters that same afternoon.
The game started in a much more convincing fashion than the last, with the offence driving the field – Matta scoring off a long darting run to the right… only to find the play waived off with offsetting penalties.
But lest we forget… this is Ruth Matta we’re talking about.
The very next play, a toss to the right and Matta dodges defenders while tiptoeing the sideline to take it right back into the endzone on a 35 yard score!
A quick stop from the Lions D saw Kilby and the crew rack up a second score – Kilby going in untouched on a sneak, before connecting with Jodie Harris for 2.
The Roosters responded with their first first-down of the day, but couldn’t quite make it into Lions territory.
The dynamic duo of Matta and Morgan quickly traversed the field, but a rare mistake from Kilby saw the Roosters pick off the pigskin just as the Lions were knocking on their door. However, with the Roosters offence still stalling, Brum swiftly got the ball back with a few seconds still to go til the half, and Kilby somehow turned a snap that went right over her head into points, connecting with #TeamDC Sapphire Series Correspondent, Céline Bisson, in the back of the endzone!
With the Lions D repping some depth in the second half, the Roosters offence finally showed some teeth, turning a strong first drive of the second half into the first points scored against the Lions all tournament so far! Lions 22-8 Roosters.
Once more, Natalie Parker led out the Birmingham second-string backfield, connecting repeatedly with her favourite target, Hannah Pye, to drive down field and burn off of a whole bunch of clock. When the drive finally stalled in Roosters territory, the Helsinki drive lasted all of a play before a botched handoff was recovered by Aimee Cottingham, putting Parker and co right back out on the field!
Unconventionally looking to air the ball out, despite only a few minutes on the clock, a PI call set the Lions up on the Roosters 1yd line – Parker taking it in for the score on what appeared to be a broken play from the Lions’ heavy set, and wrapping up the game with a 28-8 win for the Lions.
This brought the Lions to the Gold Final on Sunday, against a familiar foe from back in Game One – the St Petersburg Valkyries.
The Valkyries had followed up their loss to the Lions with a couple of strong performances of their own, a single-score win over the host Roosters on Saturday morning, was followed with a convincing 18-0 win over the Saints in the afternoon – the Valkyries aerial attack finding its feet to give them an early lead. They built upon this in the second half, taking advantage of great field position given by their D to extend their lead, before a long bomb pass connected with offensive playmaker, #89, for an impressive passing TD.
Though the Lions could feel confident of their chances, having already bested the Russian side only a couple of a days previously, the Valkyries were also now far more familiar with the key challenges posed by the Brits… And it showed as the two teams clashed for a second time in a much more closely-fought final fixture!
Playing a full four quarters in this second meeting, now including Kick-offs, the Valkyries looked to mix things up early with an onside kick that certainly took the Lions by surprise… as it actually ended up going backwards! Bringing the Lions offence out on the Valkyries own 27 yd line (Oops!).
Birmingham pulled no punches, with a handoff to Matta on the very first play – busting moves through the middle to open with a 6-0 lead on the very first snap!
However, the Valkyries were not to be outdone and answered right back with their own big playmaker, #89 Daria —- (?), returning the ensuing kick off right through the heart of the Lions special teams for a score!
With neither side able to convert, this set up an early 6-6 tie, and a great competitive start to the fixture.
More special teams shenanigans saw the Valkyries kick go out of bounds near halfway, but Kilby and the crew were unable to turn it into points. Still, Schecter continued her incredible form with a pick on the following drive, returned inside the Russian 20 – only for the Lions to be driven backwards by multiple penalties.
However, a little Matta Magic got them back in the groove, the pocket rocket running back catching an outside screen to grab a 1st and goal, before threading what seemed to be the entire Valkyries defence for the TD, and punching in the 2PAT to boot! Lions 14-6 Valkyries.
#89 Daria —-, nearly repeated her impressive feat for a second time, taking the kick return into Lions territory, and seeing they were onto a good thing the St Pete’s offence began to lean heavily on their playmaker coming out of the backfield.
However, seeking to build some balance and make use of the aerial attack that was so successful against the Roosters, a long shot pass was picked off by Nancy Stone.
Ruth Matta did what Ruth Matta does, and drove the Lions down the field with some shifty runs, finally turning it into some points on a fourth and goal. With a 20-6 lead, still in the first quarter, it looked like it was going to be all Lions – the Valkyries fumbling the kick return, to be pounced on by turnover machine, Phoebe Schecter.
Still, the Valkyries D began showing some steel, stopping the Lions next drive, and answering with some big plays from #89 to punch in a score. Valkyries 12-20 Lions.
More of the same followed, with the Birmingham offence suddenly struggling to move the ball, while the Valkyries ground attack began to drive up the field, #89 leading the way with some bruising runs – a sweet jump cut allowing her to find paydirt from 10 yards out to bring the Valkyries within 2 pts of the Lions at the half.
A creative half-time show followed, before an incredibly tense second half got underway!
An initially promising first drive for the Valkyries was scuppered by Cottingham, but the Lions own O was also experiencing difficulties – Matta being swarmed as soon as she got a sniff of the football, and so with both teams’ Ds looking dominant after the halftime adjustments, the third quarter went entirely scoreless.
Trading possessions throughout the fourth, indeed the stalemate was only finally broken when, of course, Matta seemingly broke through the tackles of every defender on the field to scamper in for six, with less than two on the clock.
The 2PAT was dropped, giving the Valkyries 90 seconds to catch up the 8 point gap and take the game into overtime… and it appeared Schecter might have stolen even that slim chance away when she came away from the kick returner with the football – only to be denied by the zebras once more!
A quick pass took the Russians into Lions territory, but then Michelle Gwynne swallowed up the Valkyrie QB, a huge strip-sack recovered by the Lions, and allowing the Lions to kneel out the inaugural Diamond Bowl Tournament as undefeated Champions!
Congratulations to the Birmingham Lions players, staff and fans on an amazing first foray into 11-a-side football and on the international scene no less!