All-star free agent class brings determined expertise to Omaha Heart

At the beginning of the 2015 Omaha Heart season, there was an ominous feeling as only three members from the 2014 roster had returned. The result was a disastrous first half of the season, suffering the worst loss in Legends Football League history, a 79-0 whitewash at the hands of the Atlanta Steam.

Despite such heartbreak and disappointment, there was a feeling of encouragement when some familiar faces were welcomed back into the fold; running-back SarahJane Thompson and center Sarah Robinson. Adding to this momentum was the announcement that three former league All-Stars were joining the Heart as free agent acquisitions.

Among them were two-way player Heather Hudson, whose contributions helped transform the Baltimore Charm into an Eastern Conference contender. Joining her were quarterback Anonka Dixon, whose last team was the Orlando Fantasy, and former Minnesota Valkyrie competitor Leekplay Paye.

While Robinson and Paye helped anchor a defensive line that never truly recovered from the loss of Jacqueline “Wolverine” Smyth (among the league’s top five tacklers in the last two seasons), Hudson was found in the defensive backfield with the likes of Amanda Hogan and Jenna Holt. In their debut together, which resulted in a 40-0 loss against the Chicago Bliss, the unit managed the highlight of the game as they were able to stop Heather Furr five yards short on a fourth down possession.

It certainly resulted in a roar of approval from the loyal fans at the Ralston Arena. Despite some other signs of improvement on defense, it was the offense that struggled.

Considering that there was little time to learn the offense, Anonka Dixon struggled miserably. Compounded by the fact that the league’s defenses have evolved into a much tougher and faster unit, raising the level of brutal efficiency, Dixon’s three-year absence showed. With due deference to the Heart, the acquisition of a second quarterback such as Angela Rypien or Arika Lynne, who both played in starting roles last season may have alleviated the woes.

Unfortunately, the Bliss defense stymied Dixon, who only managed to complete one of six passes on the night. Turnovers continued to be the story on offense as Dixon was intercepted by Alli Alberts on their second possession. As a side note, Alberts would also intercept her in the second half. Hudson provided some heroics on offense, providing a valiant performance on both sides of the ball. Following the interception, she managed a fourth and goal rushing attempt that placed the Heart just two yards short of the end zone, which would have been their first touchdown all season. Hudson also accounted for Dixon’s only successful completion in the game, an eight-yard passing play.

On the opposite end of the field, the Bliss used the opportunity to experiment with their passing game, a direct rebuttal to the critics who claimed the Bliss were too dependent on the running game. Going to the air 71 percent of the time, quarterback Heather Furr completed 15 of 25 passes, while successfully connecting on four touchdown passes. In a superlative second half, she tossed touchdown passes to Chabria Survillion, Alli Alberts, and rookie Stephanie Murry.

Another benefit of the Bliss opting for the passing game was the discovery of rising star Alli Alberts showing versatility with a strong receiving performance. Logging six receptions for 60 yards, she has established herself as a reliable receiver should the Bliss require such an option in the postseason as their victory clinched the Eastern Conference title.

In the aftermath of a fourth consecutive loss, the one positive to be gained is the fact that the Heart attempted to salvage their season with the acquisition of star talent. Not only did it display a commitment to improve their roster, but it was a show of gratitude towards a fan base that is loyal to the core. With close to a month to prepare for the next match, there is a sense of optimism that better performances are ahead. Although the postseason is officially out of reach, the Heart may be at their most dangerous. Possibly employing a “nothing left to lose” mentality, it shall provide the opportunity for younger players to obtain more experience while obtaining valuable insight from the acquired all-stars. Of note, the Heart’s next match shall take place on July 10th against the Atlanta Steam, while a rematch with the Bliss takes place on August 8th.

Leanne Hardin the field general of Atlanta Steam’s dominant defense

While the field general is a term usually reserved in football for the quarterback, Leanne Hardin’s military service makes her every bit a field general on the defensive side of the ball. Proudly serving in the United States Air Force, Hardin holds the rank of Staff Sergeant E-5.

Ranking below Technical Sergeant E-6, staff sergeants in the Air Force function as first-line supervisors and fulfill the leadership skills criteria needed to execute such requirements. Fulfilling duties as a Special operations logistics manager in the Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron, the values of teamwork were instilled in Hardin long before she enlisted with the Atlanta Steam.

One of the most admirable aspects of her military service occurred in 2013. Of note, she was recognized among 40 empowering women as a nominee for the 4th annual Military Woman of the Year award.

Leanne Hardin does pushups dressed in a bomb suit during an open house at an air base in Southwest Asia. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Lakisha A. Croley/Released)

Leanne Hardin does pushups dressed in a bomb suit during an open house at an air base in Southwest Asia. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Lakisha A. Croley/Released)

Having grown up in Western New York, there is no question that the Buffalo Bills played a prominent role in her love of the gridiron game. A gifted athlete who also excelled in softball, her path would eventually lead her to southern regions such as Georgia and South Carolina (where she has been stationed during her military career). For Hardin, there was one pleasant fact heading into the 2015 Atlanta Steam season as wide receiver Heather Urbank, who also grew up in Western New York, suited up for the squad.

As a charter member of the Steam, Hardin has seen the club develop into a powerhouse. Considering that in its earliest incarnation, many cynics thought the expansion club competing for a championship was an impossible mountain to climb. With superior talents such as Hardin, it suddenly became a goal within reach as the squad reached the league championship game in its sophomore season.

Photo credit by: Luna Francesca Stefanelli

Photo credit by: Luna Francesca Stefanelli

Showing the skill and talent that made her an Eastern Conference All-Star selection in 2014, Hardin provides a performance on the field that is resonant. Adorning her visage in makeup, paying homage to the wrestling superstars of the 1980s and 1990s, it serves as an essential element that transforms the momentum of the locker room into one composed of pure adrenaline. As a side note, teammate Jenny Mac, who also engages in the same pregame ritual, is known affectionately as the Skull Kid. Such creative aspects fuses the feelings of intimidation and admiration, a unique amalgam likely felt by fans and foes alike, synchronously capturing their imaginations.

Having anchored the Steam defensive unit in a milestone victory a few weeks ago, it is part of a team milestone that shall remain preserved in the memories of their devoted fans. Setting a Legends Football League record for the largest margin of victory (a 79-0 whitewash against the Omaha Heart), she returned an interception for a touchdown. She would also record a game-high 8.5 tackles and gain recognition as the Steam’s Defensive Player of the Game.

In practice with Steam rookie Jessie G. Locklear (Image obtained from Facebook)

In practice with Steam rookie Jessie G. Locklear (Image obtained from Facebook)

Equally admirable is her strong sense of friendship and compassion. When Steam teammate Tiana Lopez suffered a horrible accident, nearly costing her life, it was Hardin who went to social media showing her support and providing information to other concerned parties. Along with teammates Dakota Hughes (the recipient of the league’s 2014 Rookie of the Year Award) and Coco Montgomery, this titanic trio participated in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, showing an inspiring side as sporting humanitarians.

While the reality of the sport, with its obligatory aches and pains, is far different from the perception of glamour and sex appeal in female sport, it only adds to the value of the heroic dreams. For Hardin, such dreams consist of a league championship, which would certainly add punctuation to the pregame streaks of sweat, dirt and smeared makeup that result in the game’s epilogue.

A quiet superstar, whose accomplished glories are those shared with her Steam sisters, her sense of life is truly based in success. Juggling family, military and athletic obligations, her efforts in sporting equality are destined to elevate the Steam to a loftier place in league lore.

In the spirit of Memorial Day, Hardin is a true American hero. While her contributions to the Air Force do not have the same emotional impact as her gridiron game, the hard work, discipline and team first approach runs simultaneous in both aspects of her remarkable life.

Atlanta Steam heartbreakers in record setting 79-0 win over Omaha

Considering that the defending two-time champion Chicago Bliss have moved into the same conference as the Atlanta Steam, a significant statement was made by the club in a convincing win. Going on the road against the Omaha Heart, the Steam not only dominated, but they managed to make history.

In a league record 79-0 win, a very talented Steam lineup dismantled a Heart franchise still looking for their first win of the 2015 indoor women’s football season. As a side note, the original score was 85-0, but a touchdown was revoked by the league office two days later.

Taking into account that the Heart have only three returning players from their 2014 season (which saw them qualify for the postseason), a winless season appears ominously possible. The vast majority of their offensive plays resulted in negative yardage.

Leanne Hardin, one of the team captains, anchored the Steam defensive unit, returning an interception for a touchdown. She would also record a game-high 8.5 tackles and gain recognition as the Steam’s Defensive Player of the Game. Of note, the defense would also record a safety, contributing eight points. In addition, a fumble was recovered a fumble on a night filled with forgettable turnovers for the Heart.

On offense, the Steam benefitted greatly from prized free agent acquisition Dina Wojowski. Equally proficient at the linebacker position, she is the crown jewel for the Steam’s offensive line, enabling sophomore Dakota Hughes to build on the momentum of her impressive 2014 season, which saw her gain 2014 Rookie of the Year honors.

Head coach Dane Robinson recognized Wojowski as the Steam’s Relentless Player of the Game. The other game honor went to Lauran Ziegler, who earned the nod as the Offensive Player of the Game. She would accumulate 59 combined yards from scrimmage (16 yards rushing, 43 yards receiving) while scoring four touchdowns (1 rushing, 3 receiving).

Running back Nas Johnson pounded the Heart defense with a 51-yard effort, including a game-high four rushing touchdowns. Rookie Jessie Locklear would contribute 19 points on the night, via a pair of touchdown returns and successfully converting on seven extra-point attempts.

While the Chicago Bliss currently sit at first overall in the conference (they would beat Omaha by a 49-0 score one week after Atlanta’s record breaking win), the Steam have shown that they are not a team to be taken lightly. As both clubs look towards a championship run, a postseason collision between the two will likely result.

References: Mike Del Rio