For the fifth consecutive year, the top women’s ultimate teams in the country will make the trek to sunny Austin, Texas for a weekend where they’ll take center-stage, participating in the most competitive, most grueling, and most anticipated tournament of the regular season.
Michelle Ng has built Centex into the premier regular season event, a capstone for teams’ seasons, and a last chance to earn a strength bid, develop rookies, or practice playing a universe line against championship caliber teams. The tournament’s position in the season and strong field mean that different teams will come to Centex with different goals.
For some, a successful Centex will be one where the team takes home the crown, or at least challenges for it. For others, a strength bid is the prize they seek, and every point of every pool play, bracket play, and consolation game could be the difference between being featured on ESPN in May, or watching from home. And for the last group of teams, a successful Centex may mean figuring out that a rival can’t handle a zone defense, finding that perfect combination of 7 players for an O line, or getting your athletic sophomore experience playing defense against Callahan favorites like Claudia Tajima or Paige Soper.
With 30 of the top 40 teams in the country in attendance (by USA Ultimate ranking), teams may come from any pool, any seed, or any division to break into the quarterfinals or semifinals. In 2011, Tufts rose from a second seed in a Division-II pool to make the semifinals, where they lost to UNC-Wilmington, a third seed in a Division-I pool. This year, Tufts is a second seed in a Division-I pool, fresh off a semifinals appearance at the 2012 College Championships.
Who will burst onto the national scene and be this year’s Tufts? Western Washington and Whitman, second-tier teams from the deeply competitive Northwest? Central Florida or Florida State, rising teams from the Southeast? Or will this year resemble last year, when 4th seed overall Iowa State defeated 5th seed overall Santa Barbara in finals? The surprise of Centex 2012 didn’t appear until Southwest Regionals – when Santa Barbara failed to qualify out of the five-bid region.
With Centex’s historic unpredictability in mind, let’s group the teams by what their goals for this weekend should be and see how they might accomplish them.
There are five teams that are legitimately capable of challenging for the 2013 Centex title, and unsurprisingly, four of them have appeared in the Centex semifinals in the last two years, and two have been winners. Santa Barbara was second in 2012 and first in 2011, and while they may not have the deepest team, they have a proven ability to a) win games at Centex and b) ride their star players to victory. Lisa Pitcaithley and Alicia Thompson do the lion’s share of the work for the Burning Skirts, but so did Carolyn Finney and Marie Madaras, and so did Kaela Jorgensen and Katie Barry.
Iowa State was last year’s winner, 15-8 over UCSB, and they were Queen City Tune-Up champions in February. Led by superstar Becca Miller, Woman Scorned needs to treat this tournament like Regionals or the College Championships – thanks to their loss to Northwestern at Midwest Throwdown, Iowa State is currently ranked #22 by USA Ultimate. Why not kill two birds with one stone by earning a strength bid and winning Centex?
Iowa comes in as the number one seed overall, and the Midwest Throwdown winners are strong at the top and strong in the wind, two attributes that can deliver a Centex championship. The only blemish on their record is a lopsided 9-15 loss to Carleton at Queen City Tune-Up, but they haven’t faced many high-caliber teams late in the season. If Iowa wants to break through to the semifinals or finals of the College Championships, they should treat Centex as a must-win.
Tufts made the semifinals in 2011 and skipped 2012 for Stanford Invite. Ewo is back in 2013 and looking to improve on their results at Queen City, where they took 5th. While they might be a little rusty having not played a tournament in six weeks, they should also be champing at the bit and raring to go. For Tufts to repeat their Cinderella performance from 2012, Callahan contender Claudia Tajima will need to be at the top of her game, both in Madison in May and in Austin this weekend. Qualifying for Madison is not the concern – being able to go on a deep run is, and Centex is the perfect proving ground for this team loaded with juniors and club talent.
And rounding out the top five contenders is Carleton, the surprise runner-up at Queen City Tune-Up. Behind all-star Anna Reed, Syzygy dispatched teams with ease until falling to Iowa State on universe point in the finals. But at Stanford Invite, both Reed and her partner in crime Julia Snyder fell ill to food poisoning, but Carleton still managed victories over Southwest contenders Sonoma State, Stanford, and Cal. With Reed and Snyder back in action at Centex, Carleton should be able to finally fire on all cylinders (Snyder also sat out Sunday of Queen City). They have a fairly easy route to the semifinals if they win their pool, with their toughest game coming against in-state rival Minnesota. Don’t be surprised to see Carleton playing in the finals.
Despite finishing second at Stanford Invite, Wisconsin is unlikely to repeat that performance at Centex. Coach Alex Snyder has her eyes on the College Championships, not a Centex victory, and it’s likely that she will continue with her fairly open line-calling this weekend. With a strength bid already secured and a need to improve various aspects of their game, such as playing in the wind, don’t be surprised to see Wisconsin trying new things and falling to second, or even third in their pool on Saturday.
The big surprise of Midwest Throwdown was Minnesota, with the Ninjas taking home second place after upsetting Iowa and Wisconsin in pool play and Iowa State in the semifinals. But they lost big to Iowa in the finals, and this is their first big elite tournament. A semifinals appearance isn’t out of the question, but having secured a strength bid for the North Central, placement at Centex should take a back seat to developing the middle of the roster and gaining experience that could serve them well at Regionals and the College Championships. Let’s see if other teams can figure out the DePalma sisters and Sarah Meckstroth this weekend – if not, this could be a top-8 team in Madison.
Ohio State and Virginia both come in as second seeds in their pool, but both have had inconsistent and somewhat disappointing seasons so far, faltering at Queen City but winning the Music City Mash-Up and Easterns, respectively. Coming off tournament victories against lesser competition, these teams need to get the experience of playing an elite team in every game at a tournament, and with bids to the College Championships not really in question, experience and experimentation should be the focus, not wins and losses. Callahan contender Paige Soper leads Ohio State, while Virginia is driven by captain Mary Kelly and sophomore Alika Johnston.
Strength Bid Warriors
Stanford has the ability to make the biggest strides for any region this weekend, as wins against Central Florida and Minnesota in pool play would likely elevate Sonoma State, not in attendance, up into a strength bid-earning position while knocking down UCF and protecting their own ranking. Stanford hasn’t had it all click for them yet this year as they integrate six grad student rookies, but very close losses to UCSB, UBC, and Wisconsin at Stanford Invite prove that they’re still competitive. A distinct lack of cutter-to-cutter throws seemed to hurt them at Stanford Invite, and their pool play games will test how much Superfly has improved these past two weeks.
The Central Florida Sirens are in the same position – pool play wins over Minnesota and Stanford would solidify their position in the top-20 and help keep the Southeast a bid. Sunny Harris leads this team with strong throws, but it might not be enough against the deep teams in Division-I at Centex. A strong Sunday consolation showing is a must for the Sirens – every point counts.
For California and North Carolina, jumping several spots to earn a bid is not out of the question. Both are placed in pools where they can conceivably come second, and a 2-1 Saturday record will help them. But it’s not good enough to just make quarterfinals – they’ll need to beat everyone but the top teams to jump up in the rankings. Their regional rivals will be hoping they can do it – both teams are capable of winning a game to go, even if they don’t earn a bid of their own. Cal is scrappy and UNC is top-heavy, but both are effective strategies to make it to Madison – although neither team would be expected to go far.
For Florida State, Colorado College, and Northeastern, it would take a great weekend of upsets to break through to the prequarters or quarterfinals, since all teams start in the lower pools. Florida State, however, is best poised to earn a strength bid. Already at #16, with a 3-0 record in their Division-II pool, even a loss in their play-in game could allow them to hold on if they win out on Sunday in the lower bracket. Colorado College and Northeastern don’t have much hope to qualify for the College Championships without an extra bid, but they will need to be focused on every point of every game to make it count. Both teams face uphill battles to win their pool, which is almost a necessity for them to earn a strength bid.
All-In for Regionals
Below the teams that need to earn strength bids to qualify, there is another tier of teams that hopes to use Centex to strengthen themselves in preparation for a battle to steal a bid to the College Championships from teams that have earned them during the regular season. Whether it’s a one-bid region, an early season tournament dragging them down in the rankings, or just a lot of bids up for grabs, these teams should be focusing on using Centex as preparation for a do-or-die Regionals tournament.
In the Northwest, Whitman and Western Washington seem well prepared to earn strength bids for their region. In reality, neither team is as strong as the rankings have them, but Victoria’s presence in the top-10 means that the Northwest might earn a fourth bid, and that is one that these teams might poach from the UVixens. Whitman may go D-III, but if they do, that just means the path for Western is that much clearer.
For Pittsburgh, big losses to Central Florida, Carleton, and Wisconsin mean that they are incapable of earning a strength bid, but some quality wins over teams like Texas, Michigan, and UNC-Wilmington means that Ohio State should not take them for granted. It’s possible that Danger can pull off the big upset at Ohio Valley Regionals – and they should be using Centex to prepare for that big game to go.
Texas and Michigan look to be fighting to get out of one-bid regions after finishing 5th and 3rd at the College Championships last year, but Colorado and Northwestern look to be the favorites in their respective regions. Poor regular season performance from Melee and Flywheel could just be growing pains after graduating strong classes, or it could be indicative of true strength. Centex results may not be a good indicator, but both teams should be watched closely come Regionals. For Colorado and Northwestern, the experience and confidence they gain this weekend will help them maintain their status as favorites – but improvement should be the benchmark, not wins and losses. Kali, led by U-23 players Amanda Good and Megan Cousins, had a strong Pres Day, but questions remain about whether or not those results were indicative of real strength. While Colorado currently sits at #13 in the rankings, they’re currently an autobid region – so dropping out of the rankings is not a disaster.
For UCLA and UNC-Wilmington, their hope lies in a multi-bid region. If the Southwest can get three or even four bids this year, a young UCLA team may be able to grow enough in the next month to knock off Sonoma State or Cal – UCLA lost to Cal by one in hard cap at Stanford Invite. UNC-Wilmington relies heavily on Claire Chastain, the Phoenix star, to overwhelm less experienced teams and keep Seaweed level with better teams. If UNC can earn a second bid for the Atlantic Coast, expect the region to be wide open, with Virginia, UNC, UNC-W, and James Madison all jockeying for the two tickets to Madison.
I’ll be tweeting live from the Division-I games and crossovers on Saturday and providing a live audio stream of the finals. Let me know which games you’d like me to cover by posting in the comments or tweeting @ultimatepulse.