When you storm through the competition at Regionals by a combined score of 100-26, break seed at the College Championships by 12 places, and become the first non-youth Ohio team to ever make quarterfinals at any Championship-level tournament, what’s next for a team? For Ohio State Fever, the answer is likely more of the same. With 21 returners from their 2012 Cinderella season, Fever are poised to break through to the semifinals in 2013.
It’s impossible to disassociate Ohio State’s rise to national prominence from Cassie Swafford’s tenure on the team. Swafford played on the 2010 Junior Worlds team, was the 2010 Great Lakes FOTY and 2nd team All-Region, and in 2011 and 2012 she both captained Fever and was named 1st team All-Region. She returns for her senior season in 2013, and while she has had her struggles with injury, she has helped build a program that no longer succeeds or fails based on the health of one player.
Helping run Ohio State with Swafford are coaches DeAnna Ball, Brent Reeb, and Nick Hamilton, and her co-captain of two years, Paige Soper (2012 1st team All-Region). Ball has been coaching Ohio State since 2006 and shepherded Fever’s transformation into the region’s prohibitive favorite. Soper began playing as a sophomore in 2011, but her athleticism translated easily to ultimate and she was a dominating presence in Boulder in 2012.
After capping an injury-riddled season in 2012 with a magical run at the Championships, this team has big expectations for 2013 and depth for days. Swafford and Soper are joined by 2011 FOTY Caitlin Harley, Kelly Wild, Janine Walker, and double Junior Worlds freshman Nina Finley (2010 and 2012). Ohio State is also picking up Jenny Perry, a grad student who started the team at D-III contender Drake. Nine players played club ultimate this past summer. Despite their depth and success, Ohio State hasn’t been able to develop a B-team yet, but that can’t be far off for Fever.
Soper credits the difficult 2012 regular season with building up Fever’s role players and bringing the team closer together. When injuries, bad weather, and frustrating losses threaten to impact morale, Swafford points to the team’s closeness as keeping them focused. “When I’m dying of exhaustion on Sunday afternoon, I know I’m going to play a lot harder if the other six girls on the field and 17 girls on the sidelines are my best friends, and not just people I’ve spent the year practicing with.” If Ohio State can fulfill their potential, they’re going to be playing on a lot more Sunday afternoons this year.
Ohio State is not the only Ohio Valley team to make it to the College Championships in the last few years. Pittsburgh Danger qualified in 2010 out of the old Metro East region and fell to Ohio State in the 2012 regional final. Despite losing 11 players from the 2012 team, Danger looked sharp in the fall, winning two fall tournaments – Friz Fest and Flickadelphia. It’s no surprise given that Danger had 5 rostered players and 4 practice players on 2012 Club Championships qualifier Hot Metal.
Led by captains Sydney Huerbin and Katelyn Loughery and coach Jake Christian, Pitt is picking up grad student Kelsey Delave from Michigan, a player who has made plays on the biggest stage. They’ve also added Lucy Bender from Allegheny (Hot Metal) and three freshmen who played juniors ultimate. Danger prides themselves on an aggressive defense led by Huerbin, while preferring to play disciplined on offense. Pittsburgh has their sights set on earning a strength bid for the Ohio Valley region and making the trip to Wisconsin in 2013.
Also hoping to be in the conversation in 2013 is Penn State Isis. Despite losing their All-Region players to graduation, Penn State is captained by the 2011 and 2012 FOTYs, Chelsea Allen and Regina Wilkinson. Penn State is looking longterm – the team has no graduating seniors this year – but they’re not counting themselves out in 2013. Isis’s goal is to earn a second (or third) bid for the region and test their mettle against the top teams in the country in May.
With the departure of star handler Katie Erikson, younger players have been thrust into larger roles on the team, but according to Wilkinson the freshmen and sophomores are more than capable of filling the void. Despite experienced cutter Beata Szekeres studying abroad in the spring, Wilkinson, Allen, Alex Fons, Lyudmila Likhonina, and coach Herschel Tubbs hope to have Isis firing on all cylinders this season.
UPenn Venus has the potential to play spoiler in the region this year, particularly if the region earns a strength bid or two. As one of the few teams in the region with a B-team, Venus had a tremendous recruiting season, bringing in 25 new players and will not make cuts until the end of January. Coach Marc “Doc” Stachowski has a lot of raw talent to work with, including players who spent the club season on Ambiguously Grey, AMP, and 7 Express. Venus is used to being overlooked since they graduated Opi Payne and Raha Mozaffari, but the team they are at Regionals will be a far cry from the team they are in January. Overlook Venus at your own peril.
The Case Western Reserve Lady Gobies have been on the outside looking in for several years. In 2010 Case lost in two games to go at Great Lakes Regionals, finishing ahead of Ohio State. Since then Case has finished 3rd and 5th at Ohio Valley Regionals, despite having several All-Region players each year. With Noel Hanzel finally graduated, it’s up to Libby Lehman to attempt to bring the Lady Gobies back to relevance. Several rival teams have pegged Case Western Reserve as a team with the capability to make another run at Regionals this year – while it’s unlikely that they’ll wind up at the Championships at the end of the season, they can definitely knock off several other hopefuls.
Both Pittsburgh and Penn State have set out to earn the region a strength bid in 2013. With Pitt traveling to Queen City Tuneup and Centex, they’ll get their shot to prove that the Ohio Valley region is deep enough to earn a strength bid. Penn State had an early setback at Winta Binta Vinta Fest, but they may have an opportunity to claw their way back into the wildcard picture at several Without Limits tournaments. Ohio State should be able to hold on to a top-20 spot throughout the entire season.
Ohio State d. Pittsburgh in the finals of Regionals to take the only bid to the College Championships.