I have spent the last couple days struggling to find an angle for covering Fall Easterns. At the end of the day, it’s just plain difficult to communicate the importance of a tournament that happens during the dead time between the end of Club Nationals (yes, nitpickers, I’m calling it that. Sorry.) and the start of the meaningful college season.
What I have come to realize is that College Easterns is, like the rest of college ultimate, about Nationals. Making Nationals is the dream for most college players: the possibility of a spot amongst the country’s top 20 teams is what pushes them to wait patiently as tryout season drags on, to lace up their Aasics in January, and to show up at practice when they are buried in school work and aren’t all that worried about getting past Sectionals anyway. The hope of getting to Nationals is enchanting.
Fall Easterns is a crucial stretch along that hopeful path. All but three of the tournament’s attendees made it to Sunday at their respective regionals in 2012, a benchmark for any team on the verge of taking the next step. This weekend, all of those teams get a chance to measure their fall efforts and evaluate what success will demand in the spring. In the Atlantic Coast, home to 10 of Fall Easterns’ 16 teams, the question is whether or not a team can match the strength of North Carolina. In the Metro East, Princeton, UConn, and Buffalo are among the teams that might be talented enough but have yet to find the edge that has propelled Cornell to four straight regional crowns. And for Ohio State and Penn State, the Ohio Valley’s representatives, it’s about sizing up the chances of a strength bid because, well, chances of beating Pittsburgh in April are slim.
Most of the teams at Fall Easterns aren’t quite there yet. Nine teams at the tournament have 10 or more new faces on their roster, and only North Carolina (2012), UNC-Wilmington (’10), North Carolina State (’09), and Delaware (’08) have been to Nationals in the past five years; Ohio State (’07), William and Mary (’04), George Washington (’04), and Penn State (’03) are the only others to have attended in the past decade. Unlike at Missouri Loves Company and Classic City Classic, where national powerhouses will insert auxiliary parts into established machines, teams at Fall Easterns will work to win games with the skills and methods that emerge as this moment’s best. For established Nationals teams, winning is a matter of habit and repetition. For the Fall Easterns teams trying to get there, it’s all about finding out which habits are worth repeating.
Here’s a look at the field, tiered by 2012 finish:
Regional Winner: North Carolina
North Carolina is Fall Easterns’ clear frontrunner. Darkside won Wolfpack last weekend, is returning 17 players from last year’s regional winning team, and has added Matthew Scallet, a former Wisconsin Hodag, as an assistant coach. While Scallet could be a flop, it’s probably not a bad idea to bring someone with Wisconsin-level experience into the mix if you’re already a strong team.
Regional finalists: North Carolina State, Princeton
While NC State’s captains insist that they are more than the Brandon Jones-led team I saw at regionals, I think it’s on them to prove it. Jones’ throws and consistently open dump cuts were the Wolfpack’s difference makers last year (and as a side note, his omission from the All-Region team was a joke). Princeton reports that it is without four members of its universe line and will be listed on Score Reporter as “PU” because of school travel restrictions.
Regional semifinalists: Maryland, Georgetown, Ohio State, Connecticut
Note that three of these four were eliminated by teams that are in attendance (Maryland, Georgetown, and UConn lost to NC State, North Carolina, and Princeton, respectively), which is also common throughout the field. If number of returners is a predictor of finish, look for Maryland and UConn to do well (16 and 17 returners, respectively) and for Georgetown and Ohio State to fall among the middle of the pack (nine and ten).
Regional quarterfinalists: Buffalo, Towson, UNC-Wilmington
Buffalo is half the reason why I’m covering Fall Easterns, as Bryan Jones is coaching the team. Towson won their regional pre-quarter against James Madison on a universe point finish that most of the tournament’s other teams were able to watch. UNC-Wilmington is experimenting this fall: only eight of last year’s A-teamers have played and the team has had only one captain. In the spring, six more, including NexGen’s Tommy Lamar, will join. The Seamen also recently added six rookies to the team.
Not quite sure: Penn State
Penn State finished second in its Ohio Valley Region pool and won its first two second-place bracket game against Pennsylvania and Shippensburg, but was eliminated by Ohio State in either the backdoor quarter or semifinals, whichever is actually proper (because I can’t decide…).
Regional pre-quarterfinalists: Delaware, James Madison
Delaware is bringing 30 guys to Fall Easterns, all of them aware that the team won’t make its final cuts until spring tryouts. That motivation, the team’s 20 returners, and its strong showing a year ago make me think that Delaware will reach the finals. James Madison is also bringing a big roster (34!), but captain Jordan Albro reports that the team has a lot of injuries. JMU graduated a big talent in Kyle Fredericks, which is all the more reason to think that their YHB and Woodside-heavy rookie class will be a good indicator of the strength of high school ultimate in Virginia.
Did not make bracket play: George Washington, William and Mary
G-Dub finished at the bottom of its regional pool in both 2012 and 2011, and while they made it to quarterfinals in 2011, William and Mary did the same this year. Each team is led by juniors, and while that kind of youth can struggle as it gains experience, it can also be motivated by the chance to shape the team’s identity into something other than cellar dwellers. While George Washington is without their coaches and NexGen’s Chris Kocher, William and Mary is bringing a full squad that includes 17 returners and two grad students.
Photo by Kevin LeClaire – Ultiphotos.com