Finland’s Maple League set to start

The Finnish Maple League (Vaahteraliiga) kicks off its 39th season this year with six teams vying for the title that the Helsinki Roosters, Europe #3,  have won for the past six seasons.

The league has pared down to six teams from seven with both the Hämeenlinna Huskies and Turku Trojans dropping out but the Kuopio Steelers moving up from Division 1.

Helsinki Roosters (2017: 11-1)

Helsinki enters the season the a new/old head coach as Juha Hakala, who guided the Roosters to five straight Finnish titles (2012-2016), has returned after spending one year coaching the Lazio Marines in Italy. The Roosters won Maple Bowl XXXVIII without him but expect another title run with Hakala back on the sideline.

However he will have to do it without the services of running back Jaycen Taylor, MVP of the 2017 Maple Bowl. Taylor has moved with his family to Belgium. Nevertheless, quarterback Brandon Connette has returned along with his brother, wide receiver Adam Connette. The Roosters passed their first big test of the season in a preseason game by beating one of the top teams in Europe, the Dacia Vienna Vikings in Vienna, 41-37. 

In that game, Connette rushed for three touchdowns and threw for another one while wide receiver Kiki Linnainmaa scored on two receptions. Running back Karri Pajarinen added a rushing touchdown. In other words, the Roosters offense looks potent.

On defense, defensive back Curtis Slater has returned and with the addition of William Davis from Great Britain and Swedish defensive back Markus Persson could be even better than last year.

Look for the Roosters to win their seventh straight title in Finland.

Wasa Royals (2017: 9-3)

The Wasa Royals, runner ups in their second year in the Maple League, have returned with a “new” team. New head coach Dan Grass has signed Isaac Fisher at quarterback. Fisher from McKendree University (NCAA Div. II) will have running back Justin Williams (Eastern Kentucky) in the backfield who also possesses excellent hands. Receivers Jerrah Young and Denny John (Team Sweden) are two key additions on offense along with French WR Jerome Valbon.

Defensively, Kurtis Ovesen (Marshall) and veteran Stacy Thomas will lead a tough secondary. Linebackers Walter Vasanoja and Steeven Tresfeld lead a front seven that needs to return to their performance of a year ago when they were the second leading defense in the league.

Porvoo Butchers (2017: 6-6)

Head coach Jimi Roiko will rely on the only Finnish quarterback in the Maple League this season as he will have Janne Lehtinen behind center. The Butchers, who reached the semifinals last year and were eliminated by the Roosters, will be looking to return,. They have signed RB Marvin Elam (University of Charleston, NCAA Div. II) but also have British RB Isaak Marshall returning.

On defense, the Butchers have brought in defensive back Mitch Dalley (Southern Utah) as well as veteran Roman Runner  (Idaho)Niko Pennanen and Ari Päivärinta, who moved from the Helsinki Wolverines, will also be counted on.

Tampere Saints (2017: 3-9)

Head coach Teemu Majander is looking to improve on his team’s 3-9 record in 2017 and 4-8 the year before. He has signed 6’6″, 235 lb Kyle Nolan, a native of Branford, Connecticut who played with the Georgetown University Hoyas (NCAA Div. I) for four seasons. Nolan just finished a season with Portugal’s Lisboa Devils who reached the Portuguese semifinals. RB Juzz Tiny has returned to the Saints after also playing for the Devils. Majander also received a major boost on offense by signing WR Micky Kyei who had spent that last three seasons in Germany with the Dresden Monarchs.

On defense, All American linebacker Tony Ballon has re-signed with Tampere. Ballon finished the 2017 season as the fourth leading tackler in Finland. He is joined by Oklahoma State University defensive back Elliot Jeffcoat, who is also back for his second year.

Seinäjoki Crocodiles (2017: 2-10)

Head coach Michael Mattingly has signed Ben Wilkerson as his quarterback for 2018. Wilkerson played 10 games with the Munich Cowboys in 2017 throwing for 1,258 yards and seven touchdowns. In the backfield the Crocodiles will rely on RB Christian Powell (University of Colorado) who spent training camp with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2016.  Add British WR  Anthony Brooks who was the Crocodiles leading receiver in 2017 and also led the team in interceptions and the offense is beginning to look respectable.

On defense, French national team LB Maxime De Falcis is part of a front seven which will be improved this year.  Mattingly has also signed Team Sweden safety Lamin Saho. Young corners Mikko Havulehto and Joonas Kaleva will have the experience to make a difference this season.

Kuopio Steelers (new this year)

Head coach Pekka Utriainen will be in tough with the Steelers as the new team in the Maple League. Nevertheless, he has re-signed QB Seth Peters from Division III Hendrix College. He owns all of the significant passing records at Hendrix. Peters threw for almost 10,000 yards, 85 touchdowns and just 20 interceptions during his college career. He will be throwing to Tino Ndongo, Johannes Jauhiainen, Juho Väisänen and Petteri Vilpponen.

On defense, DB Justin Bell (Ohio Dominican ,Div. II) returns. Bell is a veteran of Europe. He also spent the 2015 season in Italy helping the Milano Seamen win Italian Bowl XXXV. Athleticism runs in Justin’s family, because his cousin is Pittsburgh Steelers star running back Le’Veon Bell, who was voted to the Pro Bowl and made First Team All-Pro in 2014. Bell will have Texas native Charles Wort returning in the secondary. LB Donavan Hayden will anchor the front seven along with defensive lineman Felix N’Twa from Austria.

Source: Mika Laurila

 

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