I used to think that the concept of team identities was a bit of a joke. While I respected that players could develop chemistry by playing alongside each other for an extended period of time and learning each other’s habits, I thought the notion of an entire team being “gritty” (or “flashy” or what have you) was just a convenient metaphor that could easily be applied to a collective performance in hindsight. There were too many facets of team performance to possibly characterize an entire team. There was not enough consistency between performances for a sweeping characterization to be accurate.
There was something unique about Easterns 2013: something that highlighted the existence, value, and development of team identity. I saw teams repeatedly rise and fall to occasions. I saw teams mount comebacks, collapse under pressure, and blow leads. Here’s what I learned about identities in Wilmington.
UCF – A First Half Team
Coach Andrew Roca has done a phenomenal job in transitioning from player to coach and bringing UCF onto the national stage. He’s recognized the potential in this year’s returners and been unafraid to mix up line combinations and player responsibilities.
At Easterns, Roca’s game planning and line calling led his team to hot starts against Carleton (8-2), Oregon (5-1), and others. Mike Hickson snagged Callahans, and Mike Ogren rarely had to lead the O-line onto the field. But something prevented the Dogs from sustaining their energy, focus, and pressure for a full game. Carleton won the second half against UCF 9-7, and Oregon surged back from a deficit to force the drenched quarterfinal matchup to double-game point. UCF could not even find the energy and focus it showed in other games when it squared off against Ohio.
Roca admitted to Ultiworld that his team ran out of gas in it the finals against Minnesota (a game in which the Dogs blew a lead). I’d argue that UCF ran out of gas in nearly every game it played this weekend. UCF was incapable of sustaining pressure against Oregon, Carleton, Minnesota, and even North Carolina—it let opponents creep back, and in turn, made its life harder.
Inside Breaks editor Jonathan Neeley asked me if I thought this assertion was all rendered wrong by the Dogs’ finals berth and showing. I definitely think there’s value in UCF’s exceptional record at Easterns—but I bet the team leadership is more concerned and possibly puzzled by its inability to put together a complete performance. It’s the team’s most glaring weakness right now. UCF may have learned how to hang on, and ugly wins can certainly build character—but I don’t think that’s what this team wanted from this weekend. I think it knows it can do more, and I’m excited to see how Roca approaches this challenge.
UNC – The Comeback Kids
When Darkside traveled to Stanford, the team endured a double-game-point loss to defending champion Pittsburgh En Sabah Nur (more on them later). Drained from the loss, Darkside appeared to put up a less than stellar effort in a 13-8 pre-quarterfinal loss to Colorado Mamabird that knocked Darkside out of championship bracket contention.
UNC found itself in a very similar situation at Easterns. The Wisconsin Hodags had just handed Darkside another double-game-point loss (for the country to view on NexGen, no less), and Darkside was forced to battle through a pre-quarterfinal matchup against a dangerous Florida squad (dangerous in the sense of possibly being overlooked or underestimated, not unlike Colorado has been since its 2011 semifinals run).
Florida took half 8-5 on Darkside, and it looked as though recent history would repeat itself. But inspired defensive play from Jon Nethercutt and, without question, some strategic adjustments from Coach Mike DeNardis helped UNC grind in the second half. UNC completed a rousing 10-4 comeback run, toppling Florida 15-12.
Having cemented its place in the championship bracket at a major for the first time in 2013, UNC earned the opportunity to avenge its Stanford loss in a quarters matchup against En Sabah Nur. Down 6-2 in abysmal conditions (gusty winds, pouring rain, standing water), UNC implemented and perfected some zone defense play that stifled Pitt’s loose offense. A 6-0 break train propelled UNC into half and subsequently a 15-11 victory.
If UNC plays Pitt in Saturday’s conditions, is its zone just as effective, and does UNC still win? Who knows? What was important for UNC was the discovery and nurturing of its ability to roll with the punches (universe loss), to muster up the courage and energy to keep battling, and to make effective adjustments. Going forward, Darkside knows that it can find those second half legs and smarts in crunch time. Those comeback tests did more for Darkside than skating into semis could ever have.
UNCW – Classic, In Your Face, Carolina Ultimate
If you know anything about the fabric of Carolina ultimate, you know that it isn’t pretty. Offense has very few free-flowing elements. Defense is handsy, physical, and psychologically taxing on offensive players. Your opponents gameplan and exert effort to get into your head and knock you out of your mental comfort zone. Emotions, the fuel to the Carolina fire, seem to run higher than normal, as there’s less camaraderie between the players on the field.
UNCW’s O-line, with a few exceptional flashes of brilliance, relies on certain players (Tommy Lamar, Robert Good) to constantly churn downfield and certain players to continually come back to the disc. It pained me to watch Truemann Nottingham and Luke Hancock make simple, turn around handler isolation cuts that continually clogged throwing lanes. But, heck, it was what worked (that, and lots of hammer breaks).
Mark Evans and Xavier Maxstadt were bright spots on the defense, with their expansive throws on the turn. But the rest of the defense was Carolina and UNCW to a T. Alan Gruntz racked up TMFs for being overly physical on multiple occasions. Cory Mills wasn’t afraid to throw his body around either. Sometimes they got blocks, but the cumulative agitation and pressure got to their offensive assignments. UNCW rattled its opponents and made them uncomfortable. CUT players were yelling at spectators on the sidelines in the pre-quarterfinals, Minnesota players went out of their way to ask observers for further regulation and TMFs…these are not normal occurrences.
I’m not condoning overly physical play or passing judgment on anyone’s actions—I just think it’s evident that this year’s version of the Seamen is as Wilmington and Carolina as ever. They’ve embraced the hard-nosed Carolina/Wilmington identity, and it has produced results that defied observers’ expectations (mine included). That being said, would you want to be depending on such an emotionally-driven approach, which has the potential to sway negatively, on Sunday of Regionals?
There are numerous outside factors that can change or disprove any one of these claims about identity, be it missing players or working off spring break hangovers. And there are plenty of other trends and developments from the tournament that I haven’t commented on. Of the three examples, UCF has the greatest challenge going forward in attempting to modify its identity and use its Easterns experience to build a stronger foundation. The team leadership is so conscious of the task at hand, but learning how to keep your foot on the pedal is easier said than done. I don’t see UNC having to draw upon its comeback capability until later on Sunday of Regionals (or maybe even not until Nationals). And I’d say Wilmington’s identity stands the best chance of enduring throughout the rest of the season. Though I’m sure Wilmington would tell you it has enough to take one AC bid, its in-your-face approach looks capable of winning a backdoor game at Regionals, should the AC earn a second bid.