A rare European Championship medal in team sport was captured this week by Israel when the women's national flag football team took bronze at the European Federation of American Football championships held in Belfast, northern Ireland.
The Israeli women had won major European club tournaments in the past, but had never before reached the top three against premier international competition, coming in with a previous-best 5th-place finish at last year's worlds in Canada.
The impressive display in Belfast was good enough to earn the first team sport medal for Israel in any European championship since the 1970s, and was the culmination of months of hard preparation by the dedicated athletes.
"This medal is extremely rewarding on a number of fronts," exclaimed Coach Yonah Mishaan. "The past few months of practice have not been easy for our players, from intense physical sessions with out trainer Abby Stone, to the bone-tiring practices run by assistant coach Jessica Sagoskin, not to mention the endless work put in by the staff of Irgun Ayelet to help us get ready for the Euros. This feeling validates all the hard work."
Mishaan has his club fired up from the start as they trounced Sweden 27-2 in its opening game before falling 40-20 to defending-European champions France. A solid victory over Germany was followed by a character-building 28-27 triumph over pre-tournament favorite Finland and its MVP quarterback Jenni Wahlberg to qualify for the semifinals.
A Final Four rematch against the Finns proved to be a letdown for Israel, with Wahlbergh leading a nearly flawless performance to avenge the earlier loss to the upstart Israelis with a convincing 34-14 win. In a surprise result from the other semi, Austria knocked out France to set up a Finland-Austria final and Israel-France bronze-medal game.
Israel started strong against the French and led most of the way, but
France managed to stage a late comeback and tie the score in the closing
minutes to send the contest into overtime. Israel received first possession in
the extra frame and wasted no time, with quarterback Shana Sprung
hooking up with Ayelet Wartelsky for the game-winning touchdown. The bronze was sealed and the on-field celebrations began when defensive captain Elissa Sagoskin knocked away a desparation last attempt by the French.
In the final, Austria continued its strip of upsets as they captured the gold by defeating Finland 35-33.
Israel's balanced attack was led by Sprung, with leading receivers Yael Freedman, Gefen Stein and Ayelet Hecht. Defensive stalwarts included Sarit Bailey, Adena Brickman, Estie Bernstein and Rachel Shmidman.
The Israeli men's team finished 7th in the championships. Italy grabbed gold in the men's draw, followed by Italy and Austria.
Israeli QB Kenny Zwiebel's offense was outstanding, averaging nearly 29 points per game. But defensive lapses in two close loses proved to be the difference between the disappointing 7th-place finish and a shot at the top three.
Israel's delegation to Belfast was sponsored by the Myra Kraft, wife of New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, Hart Hasten and Betar and Hapoel Jerusalem saviour Guma Aguiar.