The 2013 Pres Day Invite saw not only beautiful weather but also some amazing ultimate. From the strength of the Northwest to some surprise results, here’s the breakdown of what went down this past weekend in La Jolla.
Fear the Northwest
Though they didn’t make it to the finals and ended up forfeiting their semis game due to injuries, Washington played fantastically over the weekend. For a team that just won gold but graduated many of their players, UW is recovering strongly. I especially noticed one of the handlers, Shira Stern, taking a commanding role in the offense. Not only can this girl put up great hucks, but she was able to get open at will on dump cuts and lays out consistently to grab less than ideal throws from her opponents. With the backing of handlers Lucy Williams and Amanda Kostic, Stern needs to be encouraged to continue taking over games for Element, especially when they are feeling their most tired. Barbara Hoover and Sarah Davis also served important roles for Element, seeming to play every point with just as much energy as the last. Hoover will clearly be a go-to deep cutter for them over the season, and Davis helps pump up her team with spectacular grabs and strong sideline presence. Element did seem to struggle with staying focused during some games – they had a surprising amount of unforced drops and throwaways that they’ll have to figure out how to reel in before the series. It’s important to note that they were suffering many injured players this weekend, and after their sixth player had to take an injury, they forfeited their last game against Santa Barbara (Note: they had fought back from being down 5-2 to be up 6-5 when they called the game). Coach Kyle Weisbrod stated, “at this point, we are hurting ourselves more than helping;” hopefully their players will recover and Element can go on to fight another day.
With the strength of Oregon and British Columbia, Washington rounds out the Northwest presence at Pres Day. All three teams were in the semifinals, two in the finals (more on that game below). Both Oregon and UBC won their pools on Saturday. Most importantly, they all won close games against out of region opponents, setting them up for a strong position in the rankings and more strength bids. With programs this strong this early in the season, they will command our attention over the coming months.
The Southwest falters
For having a home field advantage, the Southwest teams (save Santa Barbara, but we’ll get to them in a second) didn’t perform as well as expected. Perennial Nationals contenders UCLA were exceptionally disappointing, losing all four games in pool play on Saturday and finishing 10th overall. Though BLU was without coaches this weekend, their difficulties seemed to extend beyond lack of leadership. Most importantly, they are missing strong handlers to replace the strength of Sabrina “Kodiak” Fong. They’ve got athletic receivers who can burn the defense to any spot on the fields, but without a thrower to step up and take charge, BLU is going to struggle throughout the season. They have a few players that can fill that role, and it’ll be their prime challenge to make that transformation successfully over the season. BLU does have two more tournaments to go, with plans to attend Stanford Invitational and Women’s Centex, and they’ll need to perform strongly against out of region opponents to recover from their losses this weekend.
Sonoma State finds themselves in a similar position, currently lacking the depth to compete with some of the other teams they faced this weekend. While the captains of D’Vine each bring their own strengths to the table, collectively it isn’t enough to fight through multiple hard games in a row. Their main goal should be to get their young players more time with the disc to minimize unforced turnovers and get their top players in slightly better shape so they can keep up on defense.
Cal managed to make it in to the quarters after going 2-2 on Saturday. Their ride to the championship bracket arguably should have been a little easier, as it seemed like Pool D ended up being ridiculously stacked with a surprisingly strong Colorado team. Their Saturday results forced Cal into the lower pools on Sunday, making them play an extra two games to get into the quarterfinals compared to the teams in the power pools. In addition, Cal had to fend off a tough Texas team as well as UCSD to then match up against UBC, the second place finishers. Had they not played those extra games, it’s possible the Pie Queens would have played a better game against UBC, but it’s still unlikely they would have moved on to the semi finals. They also benefitted by playing a lot of out of region opponents, hopefully improving their rankings and helping earn the Southwest a strength bid.
Arizona State had some surprise wins this weekend. For a team that hadn’t previously been on our radar, they played some intense games. Many of the players felt comfortable laying out, even if they barely had a shot at the disc. Those few times they did come up with the D or the grab made it all worth it. While it was fun to watch them play they seem to lack the depth to make a difference in the overall bid allocation.
I think it’s interesting to look at some intraregion results here. Of all the Southwest teams, let’s see who beat who.
[spreadsheet 0AuZxyEbQl4hgdHVKMDdCMkxKNjNDZTM0VVJ3bzZzVUE 580 250]
It’s obvious that Santa Barbara is the team to beat right now. Alicia Thompson is unstoppable on offense, getting open at will downfield. Don’t be fooled by her giant knee brace, she is very athletic and will lay out on both offense and defense to make surprising plays. Lisa Pitcaithley is showing her experience with amazing grabs and some of the best break throws in the college game. UCSB made a great decision keeping her as a handler. At first glance, one might assume with her height and athleticism that she should be downfield, yet where she supported the Skirts the most was with her convincing double dump cuts and well executed deep shots. Between her and Kaila Pollart, the Skirts seem able to put the disc anywhere they please. However, Pitcaithley is still transitioning to the women’s game. There were a couple times she simply dropped the disc or overthrew her teammates but honestly, she is as impressive as I had thought she would be at this point. The great thing about the Skirts’ roster this year is that their strong core of downfield cutters means that they can use players like Pitcaithley as handlers. Many of the young players are being encouraged to simply go out and play hard, and they all feel comfortable laying out and bodying out opponents on both offense and defense. Noelle Neason had an exceptionally strong showing this weekend; this year she has transformed into more of an initiating cutter who feels confident advancing the disc downfield instead of just looking to dump immediately. Katie Hawn is also a player to keep an eye on: she is incredibly agile and though she has the occasional misthrow, she is very difficult to catch up to once she’s burned an opponent deep. Overall, if the Burning Skirts are this good at this point in the season it’s hard to believe another team could challenge them for the Southwest title.
UC Davis and San Diego State, who were both fairly close to qualifying for Nationals last year, seem a far ways away from having a shot this year. Cal and Sonoma State still boast fairly strong programs but we’ll see if it’ll maintain later in the year. Both of the teams seem to still be hurting from losing many of their top players, but if they are able to rack up some wins against out of region opponents they could have a great shot at Madison. Except for the one win for ASU over UCLA, it’s pretty clear how the Southwest teams at Pres Day rank up at this point.
Colorado is definitely on our radar now
Watching Colorado was pleasantly surprising. For a team that had a tricky regional switch just a couple years ago from the strong but bid-heavy Southwest to a weaker South Central but always struggling to get to Nationals over Texas, they look incredibly strong this year. Coach Jack McShane (of Club Open team Johnny Bravo) expressed excitement at how the Kali players are developing and their performance on the weekend. He is definitely bringing some of the intensity from playing on one of the top Open Club teams to the ladies, as they all played aggressively, never giving up on discs and bodying out defenders on both offense and defense. I was most impressed with their risk-taking. They would put up huck after huck and trust their teammates to come down with them, never giving the defense a break. Practicing in the high Boulder air clearly is paying off in fitness as the receivers streaked deep time after time. From the couple games of theirs I saw, Kali’s struggles lay in focusing on offense. Their defense would be so intense that sometimes they were slow on the transition, and wouldn’t be able to watch discs all the way to their hands or throw passes just a little bit too short. However, they have all the elements necessary to be very intimidating come the Series, and they are doing the right things by figuring out all their kinks now and pushing through them until it all clicks. Finishing the weekend with an 11-10 win over regional rival Texas is a fine way to cap a weekend that should be considered a success for Kali.
The finals of Pres Day Invite had some of the best and worst points of women’s ultimate I have seen since the College Championships last year. Some points were so fast and beautifully run that I barely had time to tweet what had happened. Others took ten minutes, with teams fighting hard on defense only to drop the disc after a throw or two. What made the difference in the end seemed to be that Oregon cleaned up their game, taking less risks downwind and staying patient with the disc.
Both the TBirds and Fugue started off the game hucking downwind, taking more risks knowing it would be very difficult for the opponent to fight against the rising wind. UBC’s dump defense made Fugue make some tricky throws that the wind would throw into the ground. Catherine Hui and Crystal Koo felt comfortable taking over on fast break opportunities, especially with Mira Donaldson and Rena Kawabata downfield. Donaldson especially proved a fantastic pickup for UBC this year, as she seemed to have her hand in a vast majority of the points. I would like to see UBC get more comfortable with her disc skills she has picked up with years of experience in high level play, specifically on the Canadian Junior Worlds team; she repeatedly put up unconventional throws that her receivers seemed unprepared to catch. For example, she has one of the best hammers I have seen in the college game and was using it very well to break the Oregon zone defense. However, her teammates dropped a few that were thrown perfectly, as if they got nervous because it looked like a more difficult throw to catch. It would be a shame for UBC to not take advantage of these kinds of skills in the future, though I’m sure it’s more likely these drops were due to early season kinks that will be worked out.
At 5-4, UBC scored an important break upwind, and Oregon started to get a little nervous. They had been in this situation the day before when they had lost 12-8 to UBC, and knew they had to stay fired up. In past games I’ve seen Oregon hang their head after getting down a couple points and struggle to recover, but this time they successfully shook off the break and kept their heads in the game. The teams would trade out points until halftime with UBC up by two.
Whatever the Fugue players said in their halftime huddle worked like magic, as they came out fired up and went on a 9-2 run to eventually win 15-10. They began to display more patience and used short throws instead of hucks going upwind. They seemed to realize that they had to suck it up and outrun UBC on both offense and defense instead of put up floaty throws. That extra bit of intensity downfield made UBC struggle to connect with their receivers, and the long tournament finally looked like it was taking a toll as they missed a couple opportunities to lay out for scores. It didn’t help that they suffered from a few injuries during long points, adding a layer of distraction to their mental game. Overall, Oregon definitely played more impressively, but I can’t help but believe that during a less intensive tournament (read: Nationals), UBC would have struggled less than they did in the second half of the finals.
Sophie Darch, our tournament MVP, took over for Oregon, putting up hucks consistently and working well with teammate Bailey Zahniser to score crucial upwinders. Also important for Fugue in this game were Alex Ode and Anna Almy, two tall and athletic receivers who never seemed to tire running down disc after disc and getting deep D’s. Their defense became especially important as UBC sports a very athletic roster of agile players who found themselves in the endzone unguarded repeatedly. The wind definitely played a role in this game, and as the UBC hucks became more floaty going upwind, the Oregon players were able to get in position to make plays on the disc. On offense, Kimber Coles tirelessly juked to get open under and set up power positions for the handlers. Ashley Young also supported with consistent throws downwind and layouts for her team.
A few things to note about Oregon: to me, their most impressive quality is that each player feels comfortable picking up the disc after a turnover and initiating movement. This allows for many fast break opportunities and their cutters to quickly orient with the play that is developing. Secondly, they have one of the best zone defenses in the game. Players seemingly appeared out of nowhere to D throws and caused so much confusion that they forced risky throws directly into the hands of the waiting deep defenders. Additionally, they are one of a few teams I have seen that successfully (for the most part) run a force middle defense. They have fantastic communication and the sidelines help a lot with echoing calls from the mark. However, both of these defenses were beaten a few times this weekend when teams were able to swing the disc quickly to get some breaks down the sideline and set up opportunities for deep shots through the middle of the field. Still, we can definitely expect Oregon to tighten up those holes as the season progresses and it would not be surprising if we saw even more creative defenses from Fugue in the future.
Overall, the final game was very exciting to watch and a great end to the tournament.