The USAU’s College Championships are a great event and they get better every year. It’s often easier to notice, write about, and discuss the things that could be better but I want to start by acknowledging the ever improving work of USAU and their partners.
The most noticeable change over the past few years has been the increasingly clean play of the College Championships. After the 2010 championships many bemoaned how easy it was for teams to take advantage of the rules – resulting in slower games and a feeling of unfairness. Games were nearing unwatchable and, as some teams gained competitive advantages, other teams felt that they needed to also take advantage of the rules in order to achieve their goals. This cycle of escalation was showing no signs of abating.
But starting last year things began to change. I talked to the USAU’s Will Deaver and he cited two major factors. First, USAU began tracking TMF’s and contacted the teams with the most aggregate TMF violations. Not surprisingly, these were teams at the top of the Open division: Florida, Colorado, Carleton, Pitt, and Wisconsin. They discussed with the team’s leaders the challenges that this style of play was presenting to the sport – the negative impact to both player and spectator experience and implored the teams to change their behavior. Second, USAU began to deliver TMF’s more liberally; by implementing hard boundaries on language use, excessive travel calls, intentional fouls early in the mark, certain types of spikes, and sideline violations USAU quickly reduced the incentives to violate the rules in ways that disrupted game play, led to acrimonious games, and reduced professionalism.
This two-pronged approach, communication and expectation setting with teams combined with creating disadvantages for teams that do not comply with the expectations, has had a significant impact on both the playability and the watchability of games. USAU and their observers should be commended for their efforts in this area.
The other area where the tournament has continued to improve is the “event” feeling of the championships. Increasing numbers of vendors and sponsors both endemic (Five, VC, Savage, Discraft, local groups) and non-endemic (CORT) have begun to realize the value of the participants and attendees in the event and are working hard to make the event a pleasure to be at. From Savage and Discraft throwing out schwag to CORT’s halftime competition to win a leather couch, there is an increasing feeling of both legitimacy as well as spectator engagement beyond just game play. Beyond that, the increasing coverage from groups like Skyd, NGN and CBS Sports Networkhas been exceptional. Not only does this allow a greater number of people from all over the world to take part in the event remotely, but it increases that value of those previously mentioned sponsors and ensures that they’ll be back again for more. USAU has received criticism for not being a good partner with some in the sport, but this trend is a clear sign that USAU is not only managing their relationships with some partners well but attracting and building those relationships.
CBS Sport Network
Over the weekend I also got the opportunity to get a closer look at one specific relationship, the one with CBS Sports Network. Over the past few years I’ve worked with them to provide commentary for the Semifinals and finals. I’ll be doing that again this year as I fly down to LA to voice over for four games.
At some point during the end of the second open semifinal game between Oregon and Wisco as the wind was beginning to pick up, a seasoned and in-the-know observer mentioned that the CBS contract ends this year. Given the winds over the past couple of years and the resulting ugliness of those games, CBS was likely to not renew the contract she said. This was both interesting and concerning to me and at some point during the open final I asked Billy Stone, the Executive Producer for the Alt Games, if that was indeed true. Billy is great partner, he’s got great energy and I believe that he genuinely believes in the sport. In my talks with him he’s also very open, honest and forthright. Without hesitation Billy responded, “We’ll be back if USAU will have us back.” CBS Sports Network is clearly committed to the sport. In a later discussion Stone mentioned that the cost to produce the games is somewhere in the ballpark of $100K. USAU pays some money to offset this and, while I don’t have a figure here, it is certainly only a fraction of the total cost.
Stone also spent some time with the NexGen producers, Kevin Minderhout and Josh Wardle, giving them advice on set-up and potential opportunities for them. He kept praising them for their ingenuity, problem solving, professionalism, and what they were doing with a small budget. I should add, these guys are great for the sport, and this type of collaboration can only help them and the sport.
I mentioned that Billy Stone is honest and he’s also honest about what he doesn’t like about the sport. The number one thing for him (and he mentioned this last year as well) is the time cap. He thinks it’s a hard to understand concept and doesn’t like that the application of the hard cap can result in meaningless points (as in the Michigan/Oregon Women’s semi).
There’s not much to say here that hasn’t been said elsewhere. Boulder is an ideal location for the College Championships. Among other amenities it has a beautiful and large site, well-maintained fields, a showcase field on the main field site, a great Local Organizing Committee, lots of potential volunteers and spectators, is in the center of the country, and is near the organization’s headquarters. But, none of that matters during the rounds when the winds are consistently 15+ MPH and gust to over 30. Last year’s open final, the second half of this year’s pre-quarters, and this year’s women’s semi between Michigan and Oregon were incredibly frustrating to watch. It’s also disappointing that teams that practice for 100s of hours and commit most of their free time and money to this sport have their season determined by application of a much smaller set of skills than they practice and a healthy dose of luck. To be clear, I’m not saying that the teams that won those games don’t deserve it. They played better and smarter given the conditions and deserved the victory. But I don’t think it’s how we want to determine champions in our sport or showcase. General consensus is that we can’t host in Boulder again for that reason alone despite how great the rest of the event is. Will Deaver stated that it will not be in Boulder again.
I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge some ridiculous mistakes I made while commentating the women’s finals and take an opportunity to correct them.
- UW was last in finals in 2009 (not 2005 as I had stated)
- Leah Fury (and UW) had played Tufts in the semifinals and she played exceptional handler defense on Tuft’s Claudia Tajima (I blanked and said they played Michigan and then started naming random Michigan handlers)
- NGN is a network (not multiple “networks”. Although I did suggest to Kevin after I said that that he could make me correct by making “NexGen Club,” “NexGen College,” and “NexGen International” separate networks under the NexGen umbrella)
- I kept mixing up a couple of UW players (Gruver and Stern)
Well, I was wrong about UW. I had underrated them based on watching them play at conferences where they were without coach Danny Karlinsky.
I think they were also missing Sarah Davis and Lucy Williams there as well Editor’s Note: Davis and Williams were at conferences. If so, that would at least give me an excuse. In the semis and finals they looked deep and balanced. While they didn’t have one stand out player, they had the deepest bench of skilled throwers with Amanda Kostic, Williams, Davis, Cailey Marsh, and Fury. They also had a whole host of good receivers with solid skills with Kirstin Gruver, Sarah Edwards, Jillian Goodreau, Sarah Benditt and Alysia Letourneau among others. Of those players, the difference maker for both their semis and finals games was Leah Fury due to her lock-down handler defense on Tajima (Tufts) and Sophie Darch (Oregon). I cannot stress enough how impactful good handler defense can be. Fury effectively denied resets kept the disc out of the hands of those teams best throwers during their big runs. The result is that less skilled throwers were forced make more difficult high stall-count throws. And once a team recognizes how difficult it is to get the disc in the hands of their best thrower on the reset, they then settle for worse options early in the count. It disrupts the whole offense. UW’s runs in both games hinged on Fury playing top notch handler defense.
Oregon was done in by the number of points that they played over the course of the weekend. Close games against Sonoma State, Texas, Ohio State, and Iowa resulted in both tired legs, and perhaps more importantly, were likely critical in the injuries to Bailey Zahniser and Bethany Kaylor. In the finals, without those two key pieces, Oregon had a lot of players having to step up and fill roles. Sophie “Donuts” Darch and freshman Jesse Shofner both expanded their roles but UW was able to key on them. Early in the game Oregon really struggled to connect to Shofner who was initiating their offense. The first five passes to her were turnovers. Both Kaylor and Zahniser had been doing a lot of cutting for Oregon and Zahniser had also been putting it a bunch. The other area Oregon struggled with was in their transition offense. Oregon’s gameplan all season was to pick it up and move it quickly. But between the wind and the fewer number of skilled players on the field, Oregon had several unforced turnovers within one or two passes of a UW turn. Slowing down the transitions may have been a difficult adjustment for Oregon to make but, given their lack of depth and decreased skills in the finals, I think taking more time to set-up their offense would have benefited them. Before I move on, I’ll add that Anna Almy played exceptionally well in both the semis and finals, pulling down several important catches as well as getting a bunch of blocks to keep Oregon alive. Kaylor was also fantastic in every game that I saw her play in, particularly at the end of the Iowa quarters where she got two huge lay-out blocks. Finally, Sophie Darch set an apparent record for most turnovers in a nationals game with 35 turnovers in the semis vs. Michigan. But they won. We all have a role to play and Darch’s in that situation was to keep shooting. According to coach Lou Burrus, former Fugue player, Julia Sherwood remarked upon hearing Donut’s turnover numbers “I wish I was able to set that record.”
Michigan has got to be disappointed with the way their season ended. I’ve written a good deal about Michigan this weekend so I won’t dwell on the too much here. I’m very proud of Paula Seville for her leadership on that team over the past few years, their success, and the acknowledgement that she received by winning the Callahan. What I’m most impressed with from Michigan is how much they built their depth from last year to this year. They played an entirely different style of play – quick movement, lots of confident, skilled throwers, and great spacing and angles. I doubted the “play normal Ultimate” game plan in the windy semifinals, but they worked it to perfection on their first upwind point and in several others. Throughout the tournament I thought that Fisher, Chang, Mead, Seville, and Lemberger all played great. Mead (“Jolie”) is a huge impact player – fast, great pulls and throws, and good in the air. I felt Vicky Chang was underutilized in the finals. I would have had her in the very first point and then focused more on getting her power position with the disc where she could have used her zippy throws with momentum and no mark. And while Jolie did a great job behind the disc getting it out of Michigan’s territory with her upwind forehand, I think I would have tried to put her downfield more where she could use her leaping ability to catch it and then put it downfield further. Defensively, Jolie struggled on a couple of reads that resulted in easy Oregon catches.
The nail in the coffin of the game was Darch’s blind block on the upwind goal line at 8-6 on Paula’s throw. Paula had just made a great catch on the upwind goal line. Hard cap was approaching and the score narrowed the gap wo one with Michigan going downwind. Seville saw Darch with her back to her, not looking and put the short backhand to the endzone. Darch swatted with her left hand instinctively and got the block. Oregon was then able to go on to score to make it 9-6, effectively the game clincher. The rest of the points felt like a formality. That was definitely the moment for a time-out.
Tufts was a team that grew throughout the tournament. I watched them play in their first game of the weekend against Virginia. In that loss I saw a team that was shallow – with only 4-5 players stepping up to make plays and making inconsistent decisions. I wrote them off. I watched them play Iowa State later that day and was surprised to see them winning. They had a couple more players contributing and the decision making was improved but I chalked the result of that game up to Iowa State being overrated; At best I expected Tufts would make it to pre-quarters and lose. By the last round of pool play I saw them playing against Cal and began to be impressed. Their defensive strategy appeared strong – soft marking Cal to prevent big throws and their offense was looking efficient. There were a number of players making plays including Mia Greenwald, Emily Shields, and Michaela Fallon, who I don’t remember seeing do anything in the loss to Virginia, while Hailey Alm, Claudia Tajima, and Qxhna Titcomb looked increasingly solid. This continued in the few points that I watched in Quarters and then in semis Hannah Garfield stepped up tremendously and Olivia Rowse and Leah Stashke made big contributions. They were 6 inches away from a spot in the finals and I think they were the real story of the tournament. A team not only peaking but seemingly transforming from being the best team from a bad region the first game of nationals to being a legitimate national contender. Given Oregon’s injuries, those 6 inches were possibly all that separated Tufts from a National Championship. Notably, Tufts is returning almost all of their top players and adding US U-20 team member Jojo Emerson. This will be a team to keep an eye on next Spring.
I’ve said it before, but the depth at this tournament was terrific and I’m sure given different conditions or different match-ups a number of other teams could have advanced to the semis, finals or possibly won it all. I don’t mean to take away from Washington’s incredible achievement; winning in a tournament this deep and talented speaks to great coaching, consistent play, good conditioning and making plays when it counts. But, I felt that Iowa, UNC, Ohio State, Viriginia, Iowa State, UBC, and Cal could all had the core pieces to be playing on late Sunday. For one reason or another, these teams were unable to put it together. Particularly heartbreaking to me was Iowa’s double game point loss to Oregon (which Oregon gritted out), Iowa’s only meaningful loss on the weekend. Iowa was the best looking non-semifinal team on the weekend – another consistent team showing distributed play and depth, good movement, and good athleticism.
I’m patting myself on the back for deciding not to watch open Ultimate until the Pitt-Carleton semifinals. Yes, there were some exciting games (Tufts-Wisco quarters, Carleton-Colorado pool play – maybe a couple others). But the main excitement was in the women’s division until that Carleton-Pitt game when the true storylines came out: Could Pitt and Oregon capitalize on talent and continue to ride their regular season success through the perennial contenders Carleton and Wisco? In both cases I’d called the North Central juggernauts to continue their juggernauting ways. And at 8-3 with Carleton leading Pitt I was feeling awfully proud of myself. But Pitt looked at their fading chances and they made a decision that would make them champions. I don’t know what that decision was. They probably don’t know what that decision was. If you could figure that out, you’d be a very wealthy person with a lot of championship rings. But the result of that decision was that they played focused, present Ultimate and played an almost flawless second half. They didn’t dwell on their quarters collapse last year against Colorado. Or the fact that they’d never beaten Carleton at nationals. Or the atrocious first half they played. They just played elite Ultimate and capitalized on every Carleton mistake. In that game, they became champions. And because they won that game, and did it in the fashion that they did, they convincingly shed the chocking/underperforming/overrated/insert derisive sports language of your choice here label that they had carried for the better part of the last decade. They made the last five years a story of building to greatness. A story about joining the elite ranks of a sport where upward mobility is challenging and breaking in to the top is rare. Pittsburgh became the first team not named Carleton, Wisconsin, or Florida to win since 2005. Throw in Brown, Stanford, and Colorado and they are the first new team to win a championship since 1999. And they are young – returning many of their key pieces including the Thorne brothers and Tyler Degirolamo.
I was incredibly impressed with Alex Thorne in the finals. If you were watching on the webcast, it would have been hard to understand now difficult many of his throws were given the wind. At the beginning of the game I expected that the wind would hurt Thorne and Pitt; I figured that Thorne would struggle with his edges in the high and gusty winds. Instead he repeatedly dropped beautiful outside-in, downwind forehands. The first one he threw in a zone forced a tough catch from brother, Max. I commented then that Wisconsin should be okay with that because it was low percentage. He then threw that throw (downwind, outside-in) at least three more times all against man defense, with close defenders and two of them for 50+ yards. Wisconsin tried that same throw once and missed by at least 15 yards as the wind manhandled it. His final stat line for the tourney was 11 Goals, 25 Assists, 2 Ds and 10 turns. Throw out the first half of the Carleton game and it looks much better. It will be interesting to see him play if he plays top level club. How would his game fit in an established club level system? In many ways he doesn’t fit the mold for recent club players – perhaps the most similar players of the last decade would be Ironside’s Josh “Cricket” Markette or JAM’s Idris Nolan (although Alex has more speed and less height than Nolan).
Oregon was the opposite of Pitt: unable to use their immense talent to its fullest. They failed the gut check test presented by the Hodags. Sources say that sophomore phenom, Dylan Freechild, was arguing with coach Jay Janin about the strategy they should employ in that semifinal game and did not implement it in the game. Freechild opted to try and work it instead of taking more shots deep as his coach advised. Early in the tournament Maya Ziv had commented about Oregon’s “swagger,” how confident they were and how much fun they seemed to be having (at the time they were throwing trashcans over their goal scorer). That energy is well and good when you are hammering teams but it becomes noticeably absent when you have fallen behind. All of a sudden you have to decide down 9-4 when you score to make it 9-5 do you act confident? Do you throw a trashcan over the goal scorers head? Do you do something different? That uncertainty about who you are as a team can be killer. That’s why taking an even approach to games can help when you are in difficult situations – you know who you are as a team. For the best teams confidence is an inward thing and doesn’t need to be displayed outward.
This concept is what Wisconsin knows and showed. Despite losing to Pitt in the finals, I believe that Wisconsin played a great tournament, outperforming their natural talents. Their semifinal performance was nothing short of awesome – the best game put together by one team all weekend in my opinion – with a number of highlight reel plays. Great stuff.
There’s not much to say about Carleton except that I was surprised that they let that semifinal game slip away. That seemed uncharacteristic. And as much as that could have a positive lasting impact on Pitt’s confidence and attitude, it could also negatively impact Carleton’s. It was the second most significant collapse I’ve witnessed in Ultimate behind only the 2008 Riot final loss to Fury where they were up 10-1. That one was championship 2 for Fury in a string of 6 (and counting). I look forward to seeing Carleton and Pitt play next year as it has become my favorite new rivalry in college Ultimate (interesting to note, all my favorite college rivalries to watch involve Carleton – Colorado, Wisco and now Pitt). It will be interesting to see how Carleton responds to that loss after 8 months of stewing on it.
Again, this is a great tournament to be at and I encourage everyone to attend if you have the means to. Congratulations to Nick Lance and Paula Seville for winning the Callahan. And, of course, congratulations to University of Washington and Pitt for taking the Championships. The best thing about winning it all, in my opinion, is that you get to see clearly that winning it all is not what was important all along.
Feature photo of Tyler Degirolamo celebrating a point in the finals. (Photo by Kevin Leclaire – UltiPhotos.com)