On the first point of the Hellfish Bonanza final, James Madison received from UNC-Wilmington but gave up possession when a handler got open upline but looked to the continuation before securing the disc. Wilmington quickly gave it back on a misfired flick that standout Mark Evans wanted to turn into a pump fake but couldn’t recoil in time. The pressure from each team stayed high and the two traded turns once more before JMU converted its third chance to hold, 1-0. Throughout the game, Wilmington held the upper hand but the Hellfish never backed down.
That said, this game was all Wilmington when it came to the score. After holding to tie it at 1-1, the Seamen broke twice to go up 3-1 and eventually ran the score up to 6-3. While the Hellfish then mounted a three-point run to tie the game at 6-6, Wilmington held again and broke to take half, 8-6. The Seamen held the first point thereafter and then broke three times in a row to go up 12-6. A break on the final point gave Wilmington a 14-7 victory.
Wilmington was dialed in all weekend. On the field, the Seamen broke the mark consistently, denied easy cuts back to the disc, and showcased a depth that many may not expect of them. More importantly, it was clear that everyone on this team buys in: leaders like Tommy Lamar, Truemann Nottingham, and Evans were vocal and encouraging while rookies spread the sidelines and made sure the infamous “Wiiiiiiiiilmingtennnnnnnnnn!” cheer was audible throughout the field site. Carnegie-Mellon was the first and only team to take half on the Seamen (7-6) all weekend. My doubts about UNC-Wilmington’s status as a contender for the Atlantic Coast title, induced by their early exit in quarters to Georgetown at last year’s Regionals, have now been laid conclusively to rest.
Wilmington’s only real stumbles, which gave way to JMU’s late first half run, came against the Hellfish’s four-man cup; Wilmington also struggled against Carnegie-Mellon’s zone and junk looks. The overall problem was that throughout the weekend the Seamen grew accustomed to wide open throwing and cutting lanes that skilled handlers and speedy down fielders could exploit. A change in pace and available angles to attack caused the Wilmington offense to hiccup.
James Madison showed off more than just an effective zone. The Hellfish successfully ran their practiced cutting sets against Wilmington’s various defensive looks, and they not only took Wilmington’s physical play in stride but also dished out some of their own. Particularly impressive were Ben Fleming, a senior who was as fast and powerful as any player on the field all weekend, and captain Chris “Darkness” Olsen, another senior who threw a number of very stable flick hucks in the wind and also hustled to make two point-saving deep blocks amidst a crowd. The Hellfish also featured a number of role players and freshmen that handled their match-ups well.
Many of James Madison’s issues were small execution errors that came after stretches of successful play: an errant upfield throw after ten successful ones against the Wilmington zone or a loss of position on a cutter’s third move after successfully blocking the first two. Mistakes like these usually stem from fatigue or big game jitters, and either way James Madison is likely to gain polish as the season progresses.
The Hellfish did, however, suffer from some systematic failures to convert endzone scoring chances and move the disc off of the sideline. In fact, it was their lack of effectiveness in these areas that allowed Wilmington to pull away. At 9-6, a crucial time to hang in the game, there was a marathon point wherein James Madison had multiple chances to score from 20 yards out and did not. The same thing happened at 11-6. While both teams turned the disc a lot– it was not terribly windy but the breeze did pick up in the finals– it was Wilmington that converted the long points. Over the next month, the Hellfish would do well to focus on endzone and sideline reps.
Wilmington delivered the final blow when, going upwind, they kept Lamar back to handle with Evans after a Hellfish turnover. The Seamen pushed their stack back and allowed the two to play small ball, and three throws later Lamar bombed a backhand to Robert Goode that led to an easy 12-6 score. The play exemplifies Lamar’s understated game: he is rarely the Seamen’s focal point but is often the team’s most important playmaker. He was consistently open late in stall counts, had no trouble hucking the disc, and, by my count, got beat deep only once all weekend. Lamar also has some of the surest hands that I have ever seen. His performance earned him the red Spin Ultimate MVP jersey.
The Hellfish Bonanza final was a treat to watch. Wilmington was on a higher level than all opponents but Carnegie-Mellon coming in, it was fun to see them go full-throttle and seal the deal. James Madison, whose appearance was their best-ever home tournament showing, exemplified the dynamic of a team looking to step up: they were gritty and confident, some localized weaknesses were exposed, and they’ll improve with repetition. Adding to the experience were James Madison’s sidelines full of alumni and women’s team members, a beautiful field site, and sunny, warm weather to match. Finally, it was personally rewarding to see five Yorktown-HB Woodlawn alumni (a program that I coached last year and am involved with this year and who recently split into two separate entities) take the field: Hellfish Jordan Albro, Sam Fenstermacher, and Bjorn Johnson along with Seamen Nottingham and Xavier Maxstadt.
Looking forward, the Seamen will play in next weekend’s Easterns Qualifier and will get its first true test at the Stanford Invite in two weeks while the Hellfish do not play again until Southerns at the end of March. Wilmington will surprise some teams out west and is likely to earn a second Championships bid for the Atlantic Coast. If James Madison tightens up an X here and smoothes out an O there, they’ll have every reason to believe they’ll be the team to take it.
Photo: Hellfish Bonanza MVP Tommy Lamar and Tournament Director Justin Kaplon enjoy the scenery after the finals.