The Road to Boulder: Cornell Buds

by | May 24, 2012, 8:04am 0

This preview and the 2012 College Tour are presented by Spin Ultimate

This year was supposed to be different. Connecticut finished the regular season ranked 14th, easily among the top 20 and justifying the Metro East’s automatic bid to Nationals. Connecticut was tall, athletic, unintimidated by their lack of history, and fearless in the wind. A team that could win games at Nationals.

Last year, Cornell finished the regular season ranked 40th, tops in the Metro East, won the region for the third year in row, and fell backwards into the 20th seed at Nationals. Winning a meaningless final game of pool play against Harvard and a consolation game on universe against Colorado College allowed Cornell to finish 15th, but the consensus was that the skilled and athletic semifinal-caliber Cornell team of the previous two years was no more. Connecticut was the new team to beat, and Cornell would slip back into mediocrity. And for the entire fall, and for most of the spring, that’s how it seemed it would play out.

Of course, the real story is much more complicated than that. There are only five teams to qualify for all of the last four College Championships. Only two have won their region each year to do so (Colorado and Cornell; Carleton, Wisconsin, and Pittsburgh also qualified each year). And when every member of a team has only known success at Regionals, the older players know what has to be done, and the younger players don’t know enough to be scared.

Cornell was written off after their 15-9 loss in the finals of Western New York Conferences to SUNY-Buffalo, a historic win for one team and a sobering loss for the other. Just a week before they’d also lost by large margins to Connecticut, Vermont, and Maryland. For a team that went undefeated in April in 2010 and 2011, four losses in two weeks was a wakeup call.

“I think the loss actually helped us, because it made our team realize that if we don’t play well, we are nothing. It completely destroyed any expectations that we had,” said captain Adam Salwen. Sophomore Jake Stevelman agreed. “The loss served as a reminder that the past 3 years didn’t happen by accident, and in order to go back to Nationals we were going to have to work harder than we had all year.” With a renewed commitment to their teammates, the Buds combined hard work at practice with many players returning from injury and emerged a different team at Regionals.

Despite the windy conditions at Metro East Regionals, Cornell was able to play deep lines, navigate zone defenses, and punch their ticket to Nationals in a close game against Princeton, the other surprise team of the Metro East, who had knocked off Connecticut in the semifinals. The zone defense Cornell used to surge to the championship was initially just a set the Buds learned in order to confuse their offense. Nathan Salwen, Adam’s father, taught it to the team in one day on spring break, and he was on the sidelines at Regionals guiding them through it, all the way to Nationals.

Cornell’s approach to the season was a pragmatic one. Everything builds towards Regionals, and in turn towards Nationals. The Buds pride themselves on being a deep team that is solid from top to bottom, and with a guaranteed bid to Nationals for the region, playing time was spread out and development was stressed throughout the season. “We think it is silly to play 8 or 9 man rotations in preseason tournaments when depth has been a key to our success both this year and last year.  This would be our strategy no matter what teams we would be facing at Regionals,” said Salwen. “I think it showcases the differences in mentality that we have compare to the rest of college ultimate.  I really consider our regular season the series, and I referred to BootyCall – a tournament the week before Conferences – as the preseason.”

Injuries also forced their hand, with captains Nick Thompson, Bo Li, and Adam Salwen, all O-line players, never playing together until Conferences. Li added, “We had more injuries this year than any of the other 4 years I’ve been here. Just to name a few, my co-captain Adam Salwen had a life threatening illness earlier this semester and was out for 2 months. Even before we could get him back, our other captain Nick Thompson came down with Mono and was out until Conferences. Our D-Line leader Neil Butler has also been injured throughout the season and did not play at PhillaU, BootyCall, or the second day of Conferences.”

Cornell lets Li, Thompson, and Salwen control the offense, while former captain and second-team All-Region stud athlete Neil Butler commands the D-line. Butler, who was 4th at Nationals with 10 D’s last year, is helped by Sean Lee, a grad student from Georgia Tech, Adam Goldberg, and sophomore handler Jake Stevelman. Li and Thompson were lauded for their handling at Metro East Regionals, breaking zones going upwind and downwind, with Li launching hucks to Matt Chun, a developing deep threat looking to catch some teams unawares.

Cornell also recognizes that, despite coming in as the 19th seed, anything can happen at Nationals, and they fully embrace the underdog mentality. Just as Stanford and Luther squared off as the 18th and 19th seeds in prequarters last year, they hope to break into the A-bracket like the teams of 2009 and 2010. “I’m sure a lot of teams will think that our game will be a walk in the park due to our regular season results. Teams have always underestimated us, but we love being the underdogs. It’s when we thrive and play our best. Just look at 2009 and 2010 when we took down Pitt at Regionals and then shocked everyone again at Nationals. We peak at the right times and will be looking to beat some unsuspecting teams at Nationals,” Li said. Likewise, Salwen is shooting for the championship bracket. “With only 20 teams, every team’s goal should be to win it all. I think we are in a great position to make some upsets this year.”

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