Pre-Series Record: 19-5 Series Record: 19-1
End of Season Standing: Won USA Ultimate College Championship, defeated Carleton 15-12
Coaches: Kurt Dahlenberg, Cyle Van Auken
2010 Tournaments: 1st at Warm-Up, Trouble in Vegas, 7th at Stanford Invite, 17th at Centex, 1st at Florida Sectionals, 1st at Atlantic Coast Regionals, 1st at Nationals
After riding the play of Tim Gehret and Kurt Gibson to a Finals win in 2006, the Gators just missed in the following two years, finishing with a Semis loss to Colorado in 2007 and a Finals defeat at the hands of Wisconsin in 2008. Despite an impressive regular season that included wins at Vegas and Stanford, Florida missed Nationals altogether in 2009, first losing in the Atlantic Coast Regional Semifinals to eventual winner Virginia and then being eliminated in the backdoor bracket by North Carolina State.
Florida made its way back to the top in 2010, defeating 2009 champions Carleton 15-12 as Brodie Smith capped off a dominant performance at the tournament. While the Gators dropped a game at Nationals to UC- Santa Barbara (10-15), it was after they had wrapped up Pool D, and they did not play their top players.
Roster Turnover and Offseason Club Experience:
The Gators’ most important losses from 2010’s squad are Brodie Smith and Chris Gibson. Not only were both players integral parts of Florida’s success last year, but their departure also signals a changing of the guard in Gainesville, as they were the last two remaining members of Florida’s 2006 championship team. Smith started logging big minutes from the start of his freshman year, and Gibson began to make an impact as a sophomore. Since 2007, both Smith and Gibson were on the field for virtually every meaningful point that Florida played.
Brodie’s height, speed, and agility always made him a deep and defensive weapon, but after the elder Gibson graduated in 2008, Smith developed into the total package., In 2009, Smith could be seen using his length to break the mark with regularity, and sharpening his ability to huck the disc with any throw. This made Smith an immediate threat from anywhere in the field regardless of where the disc was, which in turn made life much easier for the rest of the team. Because of his abilities both deep and as a handler, Smith was the most difficult match-up in college ultimate last season. In both 2009 and ’10, Florida’s attack was designed completely around Brodie.
Chris was the ideal complement to Smith. He had not only the speed to threaten as both a deep and underneath cutter, but also five years’ worth of chemistry with Brodie. On top of that, Gibson was willing and able to take on difficult downfield assignments on defense. This had obvious first-hand effects, as Gibson was a quality defender, but it also allowed for Smith to either poach or guard less important players keeping him fresh to play offense once Florida created a turnover.
Key returners for Florida are Cole Sullivan, Miguel Palaviccini, Nathan Sage, Alex Hill, and Alton Gaines. Sullivan was the third of Florida’s “big three” last season, and if Brodie was not anchored behind the disc, it was likely because Cole was hucking it to him. Palaviccini is the team’s designated endzone striker, Sage was a Second Team All-Region pick at Azusa Pacific in 2009, Hill is now a senior handler with a powerful flick, and Gaines has been an effective role player for the Gators for a few seasons now. Also returning are Alan Baird and Glen Lenberger, two big bodies that Florida believes are ready to come out of their shells and start impacting big games.
For club, all of the returners mentioned above played with Vicious Cycle, a Gainesville Open team that took 4th place in the South Region in 2010. Many joined for the express purpose of strengthening their skills for the college season, and the team was an opportunity to mix Florida’s tradition of playing club together with the benefits of learning from older players in the area.
The Florida coaches are familiar faces to anyone who has paid attention to the team over the past few years. Dahlenberg has two decades of experience coaching at the college and club level, and he is the mastermind of the zone defense that brought Florida to prominence. Cyle Van Auken is a 2008 graduate whom many credit for the Gators’ shift from a party crew to a serious ultimate team. Neither lives in Gainesville, but each has remained very involved from his respective location, usually travelling to spring tournaments with the team. One issue is that Brodie Smith and Chris Gibson’s graduations are a natural break from the 2006 championship era, which leaves the question of just how involved Dahlenberg and Van Auken will remain.
On the surface, it is clear what Florida does well: they huck the disc and play physical defense. They also feature a number of zone or hybrid defenses that do a good job of recognizing dangerous spots on the field and cutting them off while minimizing energy exertion. Florida runs both a horizontal and vertical stack, and each is extremely disciplined because players that are not involved in the play still do a great job of positioning, a byproduct of fact that the Gators use set isolation plays more than anyone in the country, giving all of the team’s players a solid understanding of field spacing. Finally, when players are as committed to throwing the dump and the cutter has as much space as Florida’s system allows, it is very difficult to deny resets.
Many teams focus on raising the skills of each of their players in hopes that being well-rounded will make them harder to beat, but Florida has now won Nationals twice in five years with a different formula. The Gators believed that they would be more dominant by focusing on the skills of a few top players and filling in around them. This is evidenced by Tim Gehret in 2006, Kurt Gibson in 2007, Gibson and Smith in 2008, and Smith in 2009 and 2010.
Another important aspect of Florida’s style is the way in which the team paces itself depending on the game situation. While lesser teams frequently put up double digit scores against the Gators, it is rarely because Florida is getting broken. Instead, Florida fully trusts that its offense will hold, leaving it less concerned about always playing hard on defense. If you are familiar with the Mike D’Antoni-coached Phoenix Suns, think of Florida as a parallel.
Also, Florida does a good job of balancing risk and reward. While many may be quick to write off Florida’s love for the huck as one that does not value possession, they are wrong. Typically, Florida’s only risks are low ones that come with high rewards, such as hucks from Smith to Gibson. The team stresses match-ups and consistency, and its only risks are taken by those that understand those concepts best. If you watch the Gators, they are great at doing the things that possession-oriented teams are heralded for: dumping, swinging, and avoiding risky attempts at breaking the mark.
Florida won Classic City Classic this fall. More than in past pre-seasons, it was important that Florida put its best foot forward in this one with regard to getting new players up to speed.
Florida Warm-Up, Easterns, possibly another before the Series
It is no secret that Florida 2011 has big shoes to fill, but it would be silly to discount a program whose formula has yielded so many wins. Rather than re-vamp their style or strategy, look for Florida to bring the same top heavy, offensively dominant approach that they have since 2006. Sullivan will now play the main handler position with Alex Hill providing support, and Florida will still rely on discipline and spacing to isolate its athleticism.
The question is how effective this year’s Florida team will be in its execution. Without Smith and Gibson to worry about, defenses will now focus on Sullivan, something that he has not had to deal with in previous years. Also, while marks were not very effective against Brodie because he was so good at throwing hammers, Sullivan has yet to showcase that kind of throwing ability. Finally, while the team did not have a season’s worth of practice without him at the time, some may see last year’s Centex results as an indicator of how Florida will perform without a player of Smith’s caliber. It was extremely windy in Texas, and without Smith’s throws, Florida dropped games to Illinois and UCLA because they could not throw upwind.
Regionally, Florida’s challenge is the same as always: perennial Nationals qualifier Georgia. Regardless of how they fair against other teams, these two always play each other tight, and that is unlikely to change at Southeast Regionals.
Because their style is so different from other top teams, Florida’s attempt at a championship repeat is going to be very interesting to watch. Look for them to return to Nationals, keep in mind that once they get there, few teams will have more experience being at that tournament than the Gators.