Can a re-tooled PoNY fight its way back to the Championships?

by | July 15, 2012, 10:16pm 0

Kevin Riley looks upfield - Photo by Joanna Albert

New York City has a rich history in Open Ultimate, stemming from the dominant play of NYNY and its six National Titles, one second place finish and five top four finishes. But those results came in the 80’s and 90’s, when number 44 was running around in short shorts. Since Ken Dobyns’ retirement, NYC has fallen on hard times.

The Pride of New York, or PoNY, was formed in 2005, and despite a recognizable name the team has actually only qualified for Club Nationals twice — finishing in the bottom eight each time.

In the highly competitive Northeast region, they’ve largely been stuck behind Boston/Ironside, GOAT, and a rotating cast of second tier Boston teams like Twisted Metal and Bohdi. In 2011 PoNY lost to GOAT all five times the teams met, including the game to go to Nationals.

However, with the new USA Ultimate Club wildcard format giving eight bids to regional champions and doling out the eight remaining bids to the Regions of the highest ranked teams from regular season sanctioned games, PoNY has a little more influence on its future.

Still, the question remains: can the largest city in the U.S. once again field a team capable of quarterfinals or beyond?

This year’s PoNY squad is led by two first year captains in Jack Marsh (Harvard ‘06/Wisconsin ’07) and Michael Hennessy (Middlebury ‘05). Marsh is in his fourth season with PoNY, after three seasons with Sub Zero.  Hennessy has been with the squad since it formed in ’05 and was the defensive coordinator last year.  Marsh said they completed the tryout process earlier this year in order to bring a full squad to Boston Invite for sanctioned games.

In order to compete with top talent, PoNY has built its 2012 roster with play-making depth in mind.  Marsh says this year’s squad is younger and faster than the PoNY teams of the past few years.

Truck Stop veteran Ryan Morgan will be cutting for PoNY’s offense. Morgan reunites with second year PoNY players Tim MacGougan and Luke Wolckenhauer, all alums of 2004’s VAult squad out of the Mid-Atlantic region. The team also adds District 5 and AUDL Connecticut Constitution handler Chris Mazur to its D-line. Kamil Skwarek, also of the Constitution, joins PoNY after captaining Connecticut – so far to strong success.

MacGougan enjoys the opportunity to play the spoiler to teams like Ironside and GOAT, saying “We’ve got nothing to lose, we don’t have a target on our back.” MacGougan calls this year’s squad a ‘faceless army’ that can keep teams off balance with difficult matchups in players one through 25.

The decision to take AUDL players is a little tricky for captains, since players aren’t available until the end of the AUDL season in August. “We didn’t have a ‘No AUDL’ policy, but we did recognize that, as is always the case between two guys who are otherwise equal in terms of talent, we’d be more likely to take the guy that can be the most committed to our team’s development,” said Marsh.

“Mazur and Kamil both played with us for our first two games at Cazenovia, drove to Buffalo for their AUDL game (3 hours one-way), then got back for our Sunday Caz games, at which they played themselves onto the team.”

A big loss for PoNY will be one of last year’s captains, Joe “Smash” Anderson, who committed exclusively to the AUDL. However, with a host of talented cutters like Wisconsin Callahan winner Dan Heijmen, Morgan, MacGougan, Ben Van Huevelen, Robbie Gilles and Marsh, the Pride hopes Smash’s absence won’t be too glaring.

PoNY has the athletes to run with an extremely athletic region, but it will be their handlers that will make or break this season. Boston and GOAT feature superstar handlers on both sides of the disc, meaning New York will have to take care of the disc. Wisconsin stud Kevin Riley, in his third year on PoNY, is foremost among the offensive handlers. On defense Seth Crockford, Mazur and Milo Snyder will have to balance risk and reward to hang breaks on the top teams.

Early season results are mixed, with PoNY still waiting on a big win. At Cazenovia, traditionally a NE region tryout tournament, they lost to both GOAT and Ironside by two. At a watered-down Boston Invite, PoNY stomped all comers before losing to Ironside in the finals 17-16. GOAT did not attend.

“That finals game was a mixed bag for us. Our O showed some early season poise, but we couldn’t quite muster the defensive run in the second half,” Marsh said.  “If our O gives up only three breaks in a game, the D team expects that they’ll win it for us no matter who the opponent is.”

“Glimpses of our potential that weekend will help to motivate us through some of these brutal early season workouts.  We’re looking forward to the next time we face Boston.”

From here the team will travel to Emerald City Classic, the Chesapeake Invite and host the NY Invite before the series, all tournaments that should provide the opportunity to notch a few quality wins against top tier competition.

Still, PoNY’s likely path to nationals runs through Ironside or GOAT, unless their regular season play can earn the NE region a third bid. For its part, Ironside shows no signs of slowing down.

“Over the course of any game they play, they will do more little things right, than any other team in the country,” said Wolckenhauer. “So even if you play perfect, they will be more perfect than you. That means that to beat them, you have to be more perfect and better. It doesn’t get more challenging than that.”

Still, there’s a noticeable edge to this year’s PoNY team.

“There are a crop of younger, enthusiastic, big play makers to round out a very deep roster,” said Mazur.“I would expect us to be playing tight, winnable games against the best teams in the country all summer long. Expect this team to not only have their eyes set on Sarasota, but playing very meaningful games on Friday and even Saturday at the end of October.”

If that turns out to be the case, PoNY will find itself in a place that New York Ultimate has not been for a very long time: in the top eight teams at Nationals.

Featured photo by Joanna Albert


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