flag football 298.88.
(photo credit: Jay L. Abramoff/ AFI)
With the summer fast approaching and the international flag football scene heating up, the Israeli men and women's national teams will be among 35 clubs traveling to Walldorf, Germany, this week for the third annual Big Bowl.
The trip marks the first foray onto foreign soil in 2009 for the senior teams from the Holy Land, and women's captain and quarterback Shana Sprung is more than excited to get back on the road.
"We have been practicing extremely hard over the past few months to prepare for this tournament," exclaimed the 23-year-old Sprung, who will be participating in her 9th trip abroad with the team.
"We have integrated a number of new players who add a different dimension on both sides of the ball, and I am thrilled with the results. Now, we just have to put it all together on the field at game time."
The Israeli women - led by Coach Yonah Mishaan and new assistant Jessica Sagoskin, and sponsored by the Kraft Family of New England Patriots fame - have to be considered the tournament favorites coming in.
They claimed the title at the inaugural edition of the Big Bowl two years ago, overcoming the Austrian national team in a thrilling overtime final. They also took a pair of first-place finishes at the Flag Ocean championship in Le Havre, France, in 2005 and 2008, and were runners-up at the same event in 2006.
At last summer's world championships in Quebec - the team's most recent international competition - Israel finished in a respectable fifth place, but the result clearly left the players in blue-and-white hungry to improve before September's European championships in Belfast, Ireland.
"This is a crucial tournament for us," said veteran defensive back Sarit Bailey, "and not just in the football sense, as much as we want to win for ourselves and our country. Being in Germany representing Israel has much wider implications than the sports field alone, and each member of our team feels honored to take part in this experience."
The women's offense will, as usual, be piloted by Sprung, who is also director of WAFI (Women's American Football in Israel), an organization which boasts a 14-team league and a full youth-development program. Joining her is Yael Freedman, who is always a dangerous weapon used either as backup QB or star receiver.
Deep threat Gefen Stein and possession specialist Ayelet Hecht will line up on the outside, while the always-tenacious Ayelet Wartelsky will anchor the unit from the center position.
Adi Taylor and Adina Tabak, both making their first appearance on the national team, provide a needed boost on the attacking front and give Mishaan a different wrinkle to throw at opposing defenses.
On the other side of the ball, the fleet-footed Bailey will have plenty of experienced company to help keep the football out of Israel's end zone. Elissa Sagoskin and newcomer Rachel Shmidman as shut-down corners, along with stalwart Adena Brickman at safety, give the defense the option of rushing the other team's quarterback without worrying about being burned long.
Meanwhile, linebacker Estie "Baseball" Bernstein patrols the middle of the field like a policeman, just daring opponents to throw the ball anywhere in her direction.
Israel's poise and position as a European women's powerhouse in flag football is sure to be tested in a Big Bowl draw featuring seven teams from Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Denmark.
Regardless of what happens this weekend, however, it will be a great barometer for the team before crunch-time preparation for the upcoming Euros.
The Israeli men's national team, marshaled by grizzled quarterback Kenneth Zwiebel, is facing a 23-team draw in Walldorf this weekend, with clubs from Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Croatia taking part in the tournament.
Israel finished seventh out of 13 nations in the Worlds last summer, but were forced to take a severely-depleted roster to Canada and had to deal with further injuries to key personnel once there.
Since then, with the aim of placing well at the September's championships in Ireland, the men's program has fast-tracked their youth movement, promoting a new crop of talent to the senior club to combine with a good mix of reliable veterans.
In what should be a tremendous impact move, as well, defensive coordinator Yossi Fuchs was brought on board to take charge of a unit that has had its share of problems in the past.
From both a pre-game preparation and in-game management standpoint, this coaching addition will serve the men's team very well. Fuchs brings a vast wealth of football knowledge and intelligence to the table, and his ability to see the field and come up with formations and schemes for the defense that suit his players' strengths will be invaluable in tournament play - and could wind up making the difference between a close victory and crushing loss.
A major emphasis of Zwiebel's slightly-revamped offense is speed, and the choices of Natan Schwartz, Jonathan Halberstadt and Ariel Gilor underline that strategy. Bear-pawed Akiva Rindenow will be another crucial member of the receiving corps for the still golden-armed QB, while youngsters Sammy Tover and Yedidya Rothner will try to find ways to contribute with their ability to break away from defenders and find open seams on the field.
On defense, Joey Cohen takes charge of the unit on the field, flanked by Arnon Ullman and Binyamin Schultz as well as some carry-overs from the offense. The Israeli men, sponsored by Hart Hasten, are hoping to better their sixth-place finish at the 2007 Big Bowl, when they lost in OT to an Italian club in the quarterfinals.
"We are a much more disciplined team than we have ever been," pronounced Zwiebel. "In the past, we made way too many mental mistakes. We have tightened up on both sides and are confident of our chances.
"While I'm sure the competition will be fierce, I feel secure our performance will do Israel proud."
The 27-person Israeli delegation is headed by AFI President Steve Leibowitz, and includes former national team player Aryeh Bauman who will be refereeing at the tournament.