Midseason Already? The Hellfish Bonanza
College ultimate’s calendar year is packed with emotion and mid-February tournaments have a habit of getting lost in the blur. In the fall, the freshness of a new team mixes with pent up energy from a summer away from school to incite ferocious excitement. January tournaments are a microcosm of the same: teams simply tolerating the bitter cold because of the electricity they all feel when the captains talk about how now that it’s the spring, games really matter. And by March, the Series is mere weeks away and with the chance to engrave your team’s final standing for this year visible right beyond that next round of tests, expectations and resolve beget a final push.
But mid-February? These are the dog days. A surprisingly large chunk of the season has passed (need evidence? Ultiworld is four weeks into its Power Rankings) but it’s still cold enough that if there weren’t discs to throw and teammates to chase them, staying inside would be an awfully nice option. While Sectionals is closer to happening than Christmas is to having happened, playing ultimate in February can be an awful lot like going through the motions.
That the Hellfish Bonanza falls during this blown over time in the season is exactly why it is an important tournament: the good teams find a way to dig in and make it count. Tournaments this time of year are among the final tests after which teams can evaluate their performances and make big changes if they are needed. In two weeks, three at the most, there won’t be enough time to implement new offensive principles or zone looks.
Each team at the Bonanza has the opportunity to size itself up against both its perceived peers as well as teams above and below it. For top seeds North Carolina-Wilmington, Penn State, James Madison, and Carnegie-Mellon, the Bonanza will show whether 2013’s brand of play works against more than just the well-known regional opponents that regularly spur its development.
UNC-Wilmington is the Bonanza field’s most recent College Championships qualifier (2010), and the respect that teams will pay the Seamen before the first pull even goes up is a huge part of the dynamic of winning games in college ultimate. Wilmington recently played Atlantic Coast regional frontrunner North Carolina close in a set of two non-sanctioned scrimmages, and much of their strength can be attributed to the return of a large crop of seniors and graduate students– most notably among them Alan Gruntz and NexGen’s Tommy Lamar– that sat the fall out. Add in Australian grad student standout Mark Evans and it’s safe to say that Wilmington will simply overpower many of its early Bonanza opponents.
That said, the Seamen that I saw at Fall Easterns showed an aptitude for errantly hucking and lazily defending their way out of big leads, and they’ll be without coaches Greg Vassar and Tully Beatty in Harrisonburg (B team coach and Wilmington alum Brian Casey will be running the show). Wilmington’s players will need to keep their heads on straight in order to achieve the efficiency and effectiveness it takes to win a tournament.
Penn State has been at the last two Fall Easterns that I’ve covered, and while I don’t remember any faces I do remember a team of fast, defensive-minded players that are gritty enough to hang in any tough game while steamrolling opponents who aren’t in the mood to do the same. I arrived on the sideline of Spank’s Fall Easterns semifinal against North Carolina where they trailed 10-12, and while they lost 13-15 it was telling that they did not allow UNC to pull away.
At Queen City Tune-Up two weeks ago, Penn State made semis on the strength of wins over Connecticut, North Carolina State, Ohio State, and Cincinnati but fell short against Michigan, Ohio, and Harvard. A Bonanza win over Wilmington or perhaps Carnegie-Mellon would be the season’s marquee victory to date.
James Madison is a team that I’m very familiar with because of my time as a Blue Ridge Section player and, most recently, a two-day Truck Stop clinic that they participated in two weeks ago. My take on JMU is this: they’re well-rounded in their ability to gain big yards and move the disc and they have a rookie class that, while it hasn’t yet produced a consistent impact college player, is very strong and eager to improve. The Hellfish are about average size, and if they hit a rhythm they have the skill to execute at a high level. As far as weaknesses go, I’m not sure if they have a go-to playmaker or process for filling one’s absence if things go wrong, which leaves them susceptible for team-wide frustration that doesn’t have a solution.
JMU would do well to face Wilmington at some point in the tournament since the Seamen are a team they’ll need to surpass in order to contend at Regionals. It’s worth noting that JMU’s best-ever finish at the Bonanza was semifinals in 2011 and that every other year, they have reached the quarters.
Carnegie-Mellon has my attention this weekend. Mr. Yuk has been on my radar since a successful 2011 Fall Easterns (before that I wrote them off as a cupcake team that I mostly remembered from a session or two at High Tide), and after Missouri Loves Company Wisconsin coach Hector Valdivia lavished praise on captain Nipunn Koorapati that has me curious to spend some time on their sideline.
Carnegie-Mellon’s more recent results are impressive. They were among the final four teams standing at 2012 Ohio Valley Regionals, took down Michigan at said MLC, and outdid themselves by beating Pittsburgh at Steel City Showdown. A strong Regionals and wins over Nationals teams– regardless of the tournament, and especially against the National Champion– are good places to start for any team looking to make moves.
Pools rarely go to seed across the board in college ultimate, and last year was the only Bonanza wherein every one seed won its pool. For that reason I’m avoiding the strong temptation to say that each of these top four are too deep and organized for anyone to beat them; one gut feeling trumping another, so to speak. I think Wilmington, Penn State, and Carnegie Mellon will win their pools, but that JMU will be upset by Millersville (more to come on this later), leaving the home team with a semis match up against Wilmington that will bring them face to face with a chance at their best Bonanza ever (along with a leg up should the teams meet again at Regionals).
For Delaware, NYU, Georgetown, and Pennsylvania, the Bonanza will be an indicator of whether or not they have the tools to bridge the gap when their opponent has more raw firepower as well as the fortitude not to play down to those that they themselves outmatch.
Delaware has a strong recent history, having made the College Championships in 2004, ‘06, ‘07, ‘08, regional semis in 2011, and Conferences in 2011 and 2012. Sideshow is also returning ten seniors from last year’s team and has added two grad students, meaning they have the veteran presence that is usually required of a successful team. But on the downside, Delaware looked mediocre at Fall Easterns: they struggled to get open on the dump, failed to use the break side of the field, and rarely had seven guys that were all close on defense at the same time. Sideshow’s stated goal is to win the Bonanza, but doing so will require more speed and better disc movement than they displayed in the fall.
I know very little about NYU. Purple Haze made the semis of last year’s Bonanza, won Metro NY Conferences, and finished in the top half of Metro East Regionals. Husayn Carnegie, who graduated in 2011 and has since played for the Connecticut Constitution, has put NYU on the map recently but since he isn’t there anymore I don’t know what to expect or how to even take a gander at their potential.
Georgetown made waves with a run to the semis of Atlantic Coast Regionals last year, which made clear the impact of former Stanford player Ryan Thompson as a coach. Catholic Justice has only ten returners from last year and finished 13th at Queen City, where their wins over Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Appalachian State don’t reveal much but their victory against Michigan State, coming late on Sunday, is an indicator that they won’t relent and that they could pull off an upset.
Pennsylvania is another team that I know little about. Void returned to Ohio Valley Regionals last year after a year of not making it and bowed out on Saturday after nearly upset Penn State in the backdoor bracket. Captain Xiran Wang tells me “while finishing in the top half of the [Hellfish] bracket would be excellent, [but] we are primarily focused on implementing the concepts and skills developed this year. We trust that our work and our system will pay off with results later in the season.”
The bottom half of the Bonanza bracket is rounded out by Towson, George Mason, Millersville, George Washington, Wake Forest, Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth, and Mary Washington. Fighting from the bottom both here and most likely at Regionals, these teams will learn just how realistic the goals that they have set for this season and which areas of development most deserve their time and energy in March.
Among these teams, I’m interested to get a look at George Mason and George Washington because they are local DC area teams and because GW features Chris Kocher, the other NexGen team member at the Bonanza. I’ll also have an eye on Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth because I’m from the area. In Richmond’s case, I remember a Spidermonkey team that was a real Atlantic Coast contender and respect the program a lot, and with VCU I’m glad to have seen a heretofore non-factor make strides over the past few seasons.
I also want to take a look at Millersville because I have a couple of vivid early college memories of losing to teams who, like Moose, played an extreme version of a huck and hope offense. Against a run, gun, and huck team, fundamentals only go so far: unless you can step up and make some contested plays or put a stop to theirs, knowing how to dump and swing won’t always do the job. There’s a certain threshold of playmaking that every team needs to compliment discipline and game planning, and teams like Millersville shake things up by exposing those that don’t meet it.
The rest of the field is certainly not out of it. Like I said, this is college ultimate: there are too many throws, cuts, and momentum swings and not enough masters of catching, defending, and understanding the flow of a game for every team to play exactly as expected. And while this isn’t Easterns or Stanford, where the quality of teams from top to bottom makes upsets more likely, someone could surprise us.
The Hellfish Bonanza is going to show what each team is made of now that an entire fall and almost half of a spring season has passed. Whatever it is that we know this time Monday will have big implications for how teams one through 16 are doing this time in April.