This weekend in Burlington, Washington, teams from the strongest region in the country will battle for just two bids. Among those teams are defending world and national champion Revolver, Seattle’s Sockeye, Canadian national champion Furious George, and Portland’s Rhino, four teams ranked in the top 6 of Skyd’s Power Rankings. Throw in a few hungry, young, athletic teams like Voodoo and Boost Mobile, mix in some Washington rain, and we’ve got ourselves a real battleground. Let’s look at some of the top storylines going into the weekend:
Can Rhino Repeat?
At Labor Day, Rhino surprised everyone by coming back from a 1-4 deficit to beat Sockeye 10-9 and claim the pool. This team has consistently improved over the course of the season, from Solstice to ECC, and peaking at Labor Day. “We’ve always known what Rhino was capable of,” says Sockeye captain Tyler Kinley. “It was only a matter of time before they put together a game that really represented what they could do.” Rhino’s evolution this season has a lot to do with how the roster developed.
Captain Matt Mastrantuono explains, “The biggest impact on our improvement over the season has been personnel, whether it be picking up incredible new talent or players coming back from injuries.” So far this season, Rhino teams at Solstice and Emerald City Classic were held back by injuries and the NexGen tour. “At Labor Day we were the closest to full strength we have been all year, and we still have significant players sidelined because of health.”
One of the biggest additions to the team this year has been Seth Wiggins, who brings former Sockeye, Revolver and Worlds experience to the team. His contribution as main handler has been a significant factor on Rhino’s offense, as has NexGen player Dylan Freechild. Matt Mastrantuono plays down the importance of any individual player. “Whether we win the region or come in last, our entire 27-man roster will be responsible. Seth’s a big name, and draws a lot of attention to those with a passive interest. But those who have been around Ultimate know that a big name, or even a few, won’t win games or tournaments.” Fair enough, but anyone who watched Rhino at Labor Day, especially against Doublewide and Sockeye, saw Seth touching the disc nearly every other pass. He is definitely a calming force for Rhino’s offense, an offense that, in the past, has been known to be a bit frenetic (See: Rhino’s loss to Furious in last year’s Regionals).
So what can we expect from Rhino this year? This team is a definite contender for the second bid to Nationals. Ben Wiggins, former Sockeye veteran and current coach of Voodoo, believes Rhino will have to play it right if they are going to be in a good position to compete come Sunday. “This team has serious talent. They are not as deep as Sockeye or Revolver, and probably not as deep as Furious. They need to “team ride” like a cycling unit: crush weaker teams quickly and get their 10-12 best players into the later dogfights as fresh as possible. For them, more than for the other top teams, a single unexpectedly long and difficult game against a lower-seeded team could start a downward spiral.” Sunday’s championship bracket is sure to be a bloodbath, and Rhino is going to have to make short work of teams like Voodoo or Furious George if they hope to challenge Sockeye.
When asked if he was worried about staying fresh through Sunday, Mastrantuono responded, “Worried? No. Will we be intentional about effectively using our depth to carry us through the tournament? Yes.” When asked about his team’s goals for the weekend, he had one word. “Nationals.”
Last Year of the Monkey?
By beating GOAT 14-13 to win Canadian Nationals, Furious George has already clinched their bid to Worlds next year. There is no pressure for Furious to try winning the USA series. But they don’t care; they want to win it all. “This season we accomplished the 2nd most important step in the process [to defend our world title] which was winning Canadian Nationals and winning the right to represent Team Canada,” explains Furious veteran Morgan Hibbert. “Before taking on the world, we want to defeat the best that North America has to offer. Winning NW Regionals and qualifying for Florida is the next on the list.”
After skipping ECC to win Canadian Nationals, Furious came into Labor Day looking dominant. With wins over Chain Lightning and Great Britain on Saturday, they were jobbed out of the championship bracket on point differential and settled with beating Doublewide for 5th place. Compared to watching them at Solstice early in the season, this Furious team looked like it was in peak shape.
Hibbert has been skying anyone in his way this year, but he points to other players who have made an impact this season. “The players that have really stood out this year are all graduates from the U23 Canadian team that won gold last summer. That experience proved massive for those kids and now they lead primary roles on Furious George.” There are so many players it is hard to list them all. There are veterans like Gabe Saunkeah and Oscar Pottinger, as well as young stud Kevin Underhill. “Furious is strong, and the bottom of their roster looks much more composed this year than in others, probably because they are already battle-tested,” says Ben Wiggins. “Any team with Andy Collins is likely to play offense well in the clutch, and any team with Jon Hayduk has a major advantage in any windy conditions.”
Another interesting storyline for this year is the chance this may be Furious’s last time playing in the USA series. Rumors have been going around that USA Ultimate may remove eligibility for Canadian teams. In doing so, they could end one of the greatest rivalries in the sport. Sockeye captain Tyler Kinley says, “The Furious v. Sockeye rivalry is one of the great club ultimate rivalries, and I will miss it if it does in fact come to an end. I love the fact that our sectionals has two of the top teams in the nation.” What does this mean for Furious? “That rumour has zero impact on us,” says Hibbert. “I don’t even think about it. I realize that in a worlds qualification year having us compete could cause some problems, but teams competing in the USAU series take pride in knowing that it is the most competitive series in the world.”
So how does the monkey plan to face the fish this year? “Sockeye definitely gives us more trouble than any other team. The breakneck pace at which their team operates is mind blowing,” says Hibbert. “In order for us to beat them we are going to have to level the playing field. We either need to bring them down to our pace, or we are going to have to increase the pace at which we play in order to match them. Both will be challenging and finding the right mix is the key.” Sockeye has beaten Furious three times so far this year, most recently a 15-7 finish in the finals at sectionals. If the monkey wants to beat them on Sunday at Regionals, they may have to go through Rhino or Voodoo to do it. While they dominated Voodoo at Labor Day, they haven’t seen Rhino since June, where they traded wins at Solstice. If Furious and Rhino meet on Sunday, it will likely be the most exciting game of the tournament. Furious George is sure to have some tough games this weekend. But few teams have the toughness and experience that this Furious team has. These guys are winners, and they plan to win.
How Vulnerable is Sockeye?
There is no reason to think Sockeye won’t take one of the two bids in the region. They have a 21-4 record, have beaten both Furious and Rhino this season, and are ranked 4th in the country in Skyd’s Power Rankings. But that doesn’t mean they are safe at all. This year’s Furious and Rhino teams are better than last year, and have progressed immensely over the season. At Labor Day, we saw Sockeye marred with injuries, including 3 of the 4 captains. Sunday ended with tough losses to Rhino and Chain Lightning.
While Sockeye’s season so far has shown a few disappointing losses and not as many dominant performances as we’ve come to expect, this team continues to rebuild. With nearly a third of the team being in their first or second year with the team, it’s incredible to think they’ve maintained as one of the top teams. They’ve done this be effectively adapting their strategy while the personnel changes around them. A perfect example of this evolution is Sockeye’s 4-Man cup. Putting their tallest players up front, like Alex Nord and Eric “The Kraken” Doesberg, Sockeye’s zone D has been suffocating teams this year. “Sockeye’s absolute best defense this year has been their 4-person cup,” explains former fish Ben Wiggins. “As anyone that is paying attention in the last 5 years knows, this defense is incredibly difficult to beat when defenders are really pushing the line on double-teaming or fouling.” At ECC, teams like Truckstop complained of Sockeye’s zone pushing the envelope on violations like double-teaming. Speaking with Mike Stephen of Truckstop after their loss to Sockeye at ECC, it was clear that Sockeye’s zone was getting away with several violations that would never fly if an observer was present. Morgan Hibbert of Furious isn’t worried. “Their four-man cup doesn’t concern me. It relies on a frantic and overly aggressive pace to intimidate other players into rushing throws and turning them over. As long as you remain calm and don’t let their constant double-teams dictate how you play, then you’ll be fine.” This type of calmness Morgan talks about was evident when Sockeye faced Rhino at Labor Day. Choosing the simple dump and swing time and time again, Rhino calmly worked it down the field and took good shots deep when they were open.
Another issue for Sockeye this season has been injuries. At Labor Day, rookies Eric Doesberg and Danny Karlinsky were both still recovering from injuries. Then throughout the weekend, 3 out of 4 captains had to quit playing after collisions on the field. “The injuries at Labor Day were minor and short-lived,” explains captain Tyler Kinley. “However, there are some other injuries that are more long-lasting that have forced some movement between O/D line for some players. And therein lies the beauty of a talented, deep team– these changes have actually been a positive overall, and we’re seeing guys blossom in positions we hadn’t foreseen.”
Kinley is content with how the year has gone so far. “This season’s been about finding the balance at practice, in the gym, and at tourneys between fun and pushing beyond our limits, between setting a high bar of expectations without sacrificing the joy of playing. With both highs and lows, we’re at a very good place right now.”
Morgan Hibbert of Furious also has respect for this year’s team. “They have gone through a similar roster overhaul to us since 2008 and have managed to re-invent themselves incredibly successfully. It is very impressive.”
So what to expect come Regionals? There are few teams as clutch as Sockeye, and they have a great history of playing big when it matters most. Making it to the finals at Worlds and the semis at Nationals last year, despite having a very young team, shows that Sockeye’s strength isn’t just its players but its program as well. Ben Wiggins says, “In general, this is as strong of a Sockeye team as their has been since 2007, at the least. I think they are significantly better than the 2010 team already. Injuries and chemistry will decide their fate, and both of those things will be tested at Regionals.”
Here are a couple of predictions for the weekend. First, I think teams will request observers for games against Sockeye. While typically at Northwest Regionals, teams request observers against Furious for their physical play and assertive attitude, this year captains will look to observers to hold Sockeye’s zone defense in check. Ben Wiggins sees the value in having observers against Sockeye’s zone. “When the D is held to a higher standard, either by observer TMFs or by their own conscience, it is still a very difficult defense to play against, but it is at least mortal. It’s really easy to break these rules for large gain, little risk, and without obvious intent on the part of the defender.”
Another prediction for Sunday is that Sockeye will have to make a tough decision on whether or not to go all out against Revolver in the game for first place. If they lose, they’ll have to play either Furious or Rhino for the second place bid. While I’ve never seen a Sockeye team that was tired, these captains know that whichever team they face will be fighting tooth and nail to take that bid from them. When asked about the likely finals against Revolver and how important winning the region is to Sockeye, Kinley answered, “Regional championships are worthless. Seeding at nationals is notoriously crazy, with upsets you can’t expect and under-seeded teams getting placed in any pool. In fact, a regional championship can not only give you a false sense of security, but only puts the bullseye on your back that much more. If we win, awesome. If not, and we’re still going to the show, also awesome. As for Revolver- they’re good. We’ll prepare for them by finding good matchups and working on our D and O sets.” He has a point. In years past, Sockeye has actually lost in the finals at Regionals only to go on and win the national championship in Sarasota.
Going into the weekend, Tyler looks forward to the best Regionals competition in the country. He has high hopes for Sockeye. “Our biggest challenge will be not beating ourselves. We are one of the top teams in the nation, as long as we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot. If we play smart, humble, and hard, while keeping loud and positive on the sidelines, you can expect a lot from us.”
Can Someone Find a Chink in Revolver’s Armor?
Anything less than taking the region would be a shock for this Revolver team. They cruised through Cal States, outplayed Ring in ECC finals, and won Labor Day. Ben Wiggins thinks their dominance in Santa Cruz may have been enough to secure that top spot at Regionals. “Given the nature of Regionals, where every team’s goal is to go into their final game as rested as possible against a beatable opponent, you might well see teams tanking against Revolver in several of the rounds. Sockeye will try to beat them head-to-head, but Rhino and/or Furious, or any lower-seeded team, may tank games to save legs. This gives Revolver a huge advantage in Sunday rounds, regardless of where they end up.”
After Chain beat Revolver 14-11 on Saturday at Labor Day, they were thoroughly punished the next day in the finals, losing 15-6. I think we can expect similar dominance from Revolver at Regionals. They have gone undefeated against their northwest rivals this season, most recently beating Furious George 15-11 and Rhino 15-8 at Labor Day. Interestingly enough, Revolver has yet to play Sockeye this season. Expect a great game on Sunday.
Sucker Punch From Voodoo
While most of the fanfare has been on the other four teams in the region, Seattle’s Voodoo has done an impressive job reinventing itself this year. “Voodoo is, in a sense, a brand new team,” says captain Wes Simons. “Many of the players had played together before, but most of us had never played together in an elite competitive setting. We’ve gotten better at every tournament that we’ve played at, and are on track to peak at Regionals.” Coached by former Sockeye veteran Ben Wiggins, this team has improved immensely throughout the season. At ECC, Voodoo had close losses to Truckstop (13-15) and Buzz Bullets (14-16), as well as a 15-11 win over Colombia’s Urutau. At Labor Day, they challenged teams like Great Britain and Johnny Bravo, and beat Southpaw, the Philadelphia team that made quarterfinals at nationals last year, on universe point. Coach Wiggins says, “This season has been 99% focused on improving our own game, unlike some of the top teams, who might be putting large percentages of time and energy into their plans and tools against specific opponents.”
Despite being the second team in Seattle, Voodoo brings plenty of elite experience. Defensive handler Xtehn Titcomb is coming off a gold finish at Beach Worlds this year, and captain Nevin Root was a national champion with Mental Toss Flycoons. Looking at other leaders on the team, Captain Simons says, “Tom Rossatto, Ted Werbel, and Todd Sliva are anchors on the offensive line, along with a host of hard cutters who are more than happy to run defenders into the ground.” Voodoo’s handlers show off hard cuts and great deep throws that keep their offense aggressive. “We strive to keep the disc, and our cutters, moving on offense. This gives us a chance to take advantage of speed and quickness match-ups. Our defensive line is faceless, with no big stars but plenty of hard workers. Look for Sean Sears and Bren Byerly to be matched up against our opponents’ best cutters.”
This year’s Voodoo team has shown that it can challenge all but the top teams in the country. In another region, they would definitely have a shot at a bid to nationals. Unfortunately, they are in the most loaded region in the nation. “Playing against teams in the NW region is always a struggle, especially since many of those teams have long histories of success,” explains Wes. “That and a proven program make them very tough to beat.”
But don’t sleep on this year’s team. Ben Wiggins may be the best ultimate coach on the planet, and this team has bought into his system. While Rhino and Furious have had Voodoo’s number so far this year, Voodoo can ruin one of their seasons by turning an early Sunday game into an exhausting grudge match. Strangely though, Voodoo has played very well against Sockeye this year. After going down 8-4 in the semis at Solstice, Voodoo rallied after half and broke off several breaks in a row, with Sockeye squeaking out a 14-13 win on hard cap. At sectionals, Voodoo actually took half 8-5 before Sockeye found their rhythm and put them away. “One of the biggest challenges of playing teams that have a history is making sure that you don’t put them on a pedestal,” says Simons. “While teams like Sockeye, Furious and Rhino deserve respect, there is no reason to come into a game expecting a loss. Ultimate, much like any sport, presents a chance for any team to win at any time. We let a victory against Sockeye slip away at Sectionals, and I don’t think we’ll make the same mistake twice.”
Despite playing in the toughest region in the country, Voodoo wouldn’t want it any other way. Early on this year, the team decided that instead of beating up on lesser teams at smaller tournaments, they wanted to give their best shot at taking on the top teams at ECC and Labor Day. When asked about goals for Regionals, Wes said, “There is a fine line between setting goals that are too lofty, and shooting too low. With the athleticism and grit that Voodoo has show throughout the season, I think it is very possible that we could steal a bid to nationals. However, even for established teams, the road to the finals and the 2/3 game is going to be an enormous uphill battle. We are going into every game fully expecting to win. Keys to victory for us will involve playing at the highest level throughout an entire game. We’ve shown that we can hang with top level teams in half a game, but have yet to put together a full game performance.”
Coach Wiggins has a practical approach to the series. “We’ve improved massively. Will that come together to knock out one of the top 4? We’d need to improve in the last few weeks significantly and come up big at the right time. We took half 8-5 on Sockeye, which means we can do it. We got thumped in the second half, which means we can’t expect it to come without huge effort. Finishing 5th would mean beating out Boost, Wolf, Blackfish, and all but the very top teams and would be a success.”
Let the Series Begin!
As usual, this year’s Northwest Regionals will show off the top teams in the country and the most heated rivalries in the sport. “I am expecting the most exciting battles of the entire USAU series,’ says Morgan Hibbert. “Two championship potential teams are going to fail to qualify for The Show. It doesn’t get more exciting than that!”
Tyler Kinley agrees. “It’s truly a shame we don’t have 4 bids this year– all four of Rhino, Revolver, Furious, and us can do some real damage at nationals this year.”
Photos by Ben Beehner