I grew up in an athletically minded family where ‘toughness’ was served alongside morning toast. Whenever I would complain about the miserable weather accompanying a soccer game or track meet, my dad would always break out one of his favorite quotes: “There is no such thing as bad weather, just soft people.” Every year Midwest Throwdown makes me seriously question the truth of that statement—as well as the mental stability of my father—and this year was no exception. Saturday morning presented staff, players, and fans with flurries, a firm wind, and bitterly cold temperatures. Teeth were chattering, lips were a lovely shade of blue, and bodies were hunched and contorted as they sought warmth. I’ve been exposed to worse weather conditions via ultimate, but Saturday still evoked that special feeling of outright agony, and I found myself asking time and again: “Why the heck do we do this?”
As you can imagine, play was somewhat affected by such weather conditions, and perhaps the impact is best captured by the image of a player pancaking a disc between her two massive gloves—gloves a Sherpa would gladly wear on his/her ascent of Mt. Everest—and using her mouth to rip one off before throwing a flick huck. Needless to say, Saturday’s weather was a factor—albeit a predictable one.
But the weather was about the only thing that was predictable on Day 1 of Midwest Throwdown, as Saturday was saturated with surprises.
Pool A: Iowa State, Northwestern, WashU, Emory
As expected, Pool A came down to a battle between Northwestern and Iowa State, and what a battle it was. The game was tight throughout—the difference in score never exceeding two points—with teams trading points and breaks. On defense, both teams did a good job of containing the other team’s handlers, whether by poaching in the lanes (Gung Ho) or throwing a junk zone (Iowa State). Overall though, it was a straightforward game with hard man D on both sides. On offense, Lien Hoffmann, Carol Li, and Angel Li led a calm, patient attack for Northwestern. For Iowa State, the offense was characterized by lefty breaks from Sarah Pesch, multiple bids and flick hucks from Cami Nelson, and beautiful backhands from Magon Liu, who had to leave the game for a few points after tweaking her shoulder. It’s worth mentioning that Iowa State was missing star cutter Becca Miller, who was on a grad school visit. Eventually, the score was all tied up at 10-10 and, after a very long point during which hard cap went off, Northwestern was finally able to get their downwind point on a sweet layout grab by Alex Chudler, to take the game 11-10 and win the pool.
Pool B: Iowa Wisconsin, Texas A&M, Minnesota
We all suspected that the teams of the North Central would occupy the top spots at the tournament, but I never imagined that Minnesota would be one of those teams. When Coach Pat Niles wrote to me about Minnesota’s prospects for the season, saying “…we believe we have a chance to make Nationals this year,” my initial thought was honestly, “Yeah, right.” I mean, despite having a healthy club scene, Minnesota has not been anywhere near the discussion in recent years. Plus, they are in the highly competitive North Central region, and although they put up respectable—and sometimes competitive—scores at last year’s Regionals, they did nothing to disrupt the warpath of Wisconsin, Carleton, Iowa, and Iowa State. “Believe all you want, Coach,” I thought to myself, “but can you really expect to overthrow one of the North Central powerhouses? Probably not.” Then, a week before Midwest Throwdown, Minnesota only lost to Iowa by one point (9-10) in the finals of the Indoor ICe-xhibition in Iowa City, and I started to wonder, “Hmmm…can it be? Can they really be a legitimate contender?” Answer: again, probably not. Indoor ultimate is a far cry from outdoor, and they still have one big problem: the North Central Region.
But alas, true to their name, the Ninjas have, with great stealth, snuck unnoticed onto the ultimate scene and stolen the show. Frankly, I cannot say enough about their playing. It was nothing flashy, nothing revolutionary; there was no brilliant stroke of strategy, and while there were certainly standout players, there was no single superstar that carried the team for the weekend. It was simply pure, fundamental, team-oriented ultimate that allowed the seventh-seeded team to win their pool, defeat Iowa State in the semifinals, and make their way into the tournament championship.
Everything Minnesota did was done with sound technique and conviction. Their marks were steady, their man defense was intense yet trusting, resisting the temptation to poach, and their throws—which almost every player had—were consistent. Particularly worth noting is the spacing of their vert stack, which showcased a variety of cuts that always gave handlers the right balance of short and deep looks. Also impressive was their sense of solidarity and team love—which seemed to translate from their huddles onto the field. Put many talented players in that type of system and it’s golden. Minnesota has those players. The DePalma sisters showed that they could put the disc almost anywhere on the field, which worked out well for Sarah Meckstroth, who was an absolute monster in the deep game, snagging discs from the air even in coverage. She was joined by Brenna Kruse, freshman Mindi DePaolo, who caught many hucks for scores, and Emily Regan, a cutter who was everywhere on the field. Captain Andrea Crumrine was also solid in every aspect of the game—from throws to defense to on-field leadership—and rookie Greta Regan was poised and effective in her handler position. Ladies and gentlemen, Minnesota is for real, and I’m sorry I ever doubted them.
All of these elements helped Minnesota to trounce Wisconsin 14-7 in the opening round of pool play and beat Iowa on universe in the second round 11-10. The whipping Wisconsin received was just the beginning of their Saturday woes. They looked physically and emotionally cold for most of the day—cold on the sidelines, cold on the line, cold in their cutting, and cold in their energy level. As for Iowa, they made a few more mistakes than usual, but the Minnesota/Iowa game was really two solid teams playing good solid ultimate in not so solid weather.
Both Iowa and Wisconsin picked up their play in their head-to-head, and the game lived up to expectation, ending with a score of 13-11 in favor of Iowa. However, the match had lost most of its significance since Minnesota had already beaten both teams.
Crossovers: South Central Surprises and the Day of Division II
Saturday’s surprises did not stop with pool play. In fact, the day belonged to Division II teams. Five division two teams—yes, five—won their crossover games and broke into the championship bracket, and even the ones that didn’t, like Purdue and Wisconsin Eau-Claire, had strong showings.
The two biggest surprises, however, came from two South Central teams, with Kansas defeating Wisconsin 10-6 and Colorado State defeating Northwestern 12-7. Kansas is a program that gets more serious and more skilled every year. Now, with coach Loren Schieber and a focused group of athletic girls, the Bettys are starting to compete with quality competition. And when they had the chance to beat Bella Donna, they did. Captain Kat Songer tore apart the defense with her skinny breaks and deep puts to Kate Eshelman and Clare Frantz, two versatile players who play all positions on the field. And while Kansas was hucking deep, they were working to make sure Wisconsin didn’t do the same, playing aggressive on the primary handlers and instituting a dynamic force that kept it out of their hands. As a team, the Bettys were excited and energized, chasing down discs, running hard, and making plays. Wisconsin, on the other hand, continued to look defeated and worn down.
The Colorado State/Northwestern game followed a similar trajectory. Northwestern actually took the first 3 points of the game, and I walked away thinking it was over. Colorado State then took two 4-point runs, interrupted by halftime at 4-7. Gung Ho got breaks, but Hell’s Belles always got them back, and the final score was lopsided at 7-12. Defensively, Hell’s Belles rarely ran the same defense back to back, often throwing a poach zone that gave Gung Ho a hard time going upwind. And on offense, Paige Applegate was dominant, cutting in and immediately hucking deep to receivers who knew to head for the endzone when she got the disc. As for Northwestern, they too fell victim to their own mental game. They struggled to keep their energy up, which caused mistakes on the field, which in turn, translated into tentative ultimate.
The other three upsets consisted of Notre Dame beating Emory (15-4), SLU beating Texas A&M (11-10), and Valparaiso beating WashU (11-10). None of these upsets were particularly shocking, however, given the way the teams performed in their respective pools.
The number of Division I teams who lost the crossover does raise questions, however, and I heard many propose weather as an equalizer or, more often, reference fatigue levels. After all, the top Division II teams played shorter games and lower caliber teams prior to the crossover. To some extent, I’m sure there’s a degree of truth in such speculation. Many of the Division I teams did look extremely tired going into their crossover games. But, we all know that great teams are the ones that win in the face of fatigue, and as a spectator on the sideline, it seemed to be a matter of Division I teams grappling with their own mentalities, while Division II teams took advantage of opportunities that they aren’t often given, playing with fire and a keen sense of community. As the Colorado State captains said, “The whole team understood what was on the line with the game… The opportunity to break into the championship bracket was one that our team hadn’t really had before in a big tournament like Midwest Throwdown.”
Sunday: A Day of Redemption and North Central Domination
Sunday’s weather started out beautiful, and though it didn’t always stay that way, conditions were much better than they were on Saturday, and it was reflected in the level of play.
For the sake of space and brevity, I’m going to skim over the Quarters. The only game that was remotely close was the game between two Division II teams from the South Central: Colorado State and SLU (10-7). The two teams had similar styles, running most of their offense through one primary handler and one primary cutter. However, the low score was the result of many turns caused by imprecise throws and the game had a sloppy feel. In the other games, the Division I teams asserted themselves. Notre Dame and Kansas played hard, scrappy ultimate, but they were clearly outmatched by deeper, more technical teams. And while Valparaiso inconvenienced Iowa with a junk zone, they too ended up soundly beaten (15-9).
Colorado State vs. Iowa
The Colorado State/Iowa game was over quickly. As one Colorado State dad noted, Saucy looked “so crisp,” and I cannot think of a better description. They scored with easy no turn O, destroying the junk zone of Colorado State with quick, short yardage throws that utilized all parts of the field. Essentially, they were a deeper, more experienced team, and it didn’t help that they were also much fresher. Before I knew it, the score was already 8-2—at which point I stopped watching—and the final score ended up at 15-3.
Minnesota vs. Iowa State
In contrast, the Minnesota/Iowa State game was the best game of the weekend. The first half was all Minnesota, despite being without Emily DePalma, who injured her wrist in the Quarters. Natalie DePalma, however, picked up the slack, and put on a show, and the long-distance connection between DePalma and Meckstroth was unstoppable for most of the game. Even when the disc was hotly contested, Meckstroth somehow came down with it, and she was involved in the vast majority of Minnesota’s points, either scoring or throwing for the score. Still, Minnesota was far from a one or two woman show. DePaolo added a few deep scores of her own, and Regan, Crumrine, and Kruse all made significant contributions.
Although Minnesota took half 8-5, Woman Scorned was not about to go away without a fight. They came roaring back in the second half thanks to their impressive and almost unstoppable use of the break side. Whether in H or Vert, Iowa State almost always initiated their offense with a lefty break from Sarah Pesch, who can release from nearly any height. And once Woman Scorned got it to the break side, the disc never stopped moving. With their utilization of the break side, some turns generated by their junk zone, and the superb playing of Liu, Pesch, Nelson, and Miller (back from her grad school visit), Iowa State was gradually able to close the gap, tying the game up at 12s and then again at 14s. Becca Miller was especially valuable late in the game with great deep runs and crucial d’s. In fact, she had two deep d’s when Iowa State was down 14-13, and then caught a huck from Pesch for the bookends to tie things up at 14-14. On universe, Minnesota decided to stick with what was working, and off what appeared to be a pull play, DePalma picked up and put it deep to Meckstroth who was well-guarded by Nelson. But positioning favored Meckstroth, who came down with the disc and punched Minnesota’s ticket to the final.
Finals: Iowa vs. Minnesota
The finals saw another matchup between Iowa and Minnesota, the third of the spring season and second of the tournament. In their first two Sunday games, Saucy Nancy was clicking on all cylinders, but they had yet to play a high caliber team like Minnesota. Unfortunately for the Ninjas, Saucy Nancy didn’t let up when they stepped on the field for the championship, taking half 8-2 and the game 15-8. From the start, Saucy showed just how versatile and relentless they can be, attacking on both offense and defense. Their O points were absolutely effortless, often characterized by no turns, easy flow, and outstanding play by Chelsea Twohig and Liza Minor. Both distributed the disc with ease—Chelsea from the handles and Liza from the cutters—and the connection between the two was deadly. Between Twohig’s hammers, Minor’s continues, the break side throws of Bekah Hickernell, and the variety of cuts that allowed those throws, Saucy’s offense displayed a precision that few teams have this early in the spring season. Iowa also handed Minnesota some of their own medicine with Twohig and Minor hucking to receivers who almost always came down with it—sometimes two at a time. Anna Pritchard, Jen Nowak, and Dana Demmert were especially effective cutters, both in the finals and throughout the tournament.
Moreover, Iowa was completely ready for Minnesota’s deep game. Saucy switched up their defensive looks, making use of their zones, but most impressive was their man D, which stayed tight and kept Minnesota’s heavy hitters under control. When DePalma had the disc, Saucy made sure to shade into the lanes to prevent the big throws, and Meckstroth was always well-covered deep. Minnesota had a hard time adjusting. They continued to try deep shots that were no longer there, and many of their turns came on ill-advised hucks into good coverage. They would have been much better served had they utilized more of their in-cuts, but the Ninjas looked tight and tired against Saucy. In the end, however, you have to credit Iowa with taking the game. After witnessing their versatility on both offense and defense, I walked away from the field with the words “scary good” echoing in my mind.
9th Place Bracket
I want to mention the 9th place bracket, since it ended up being extremely competitive with five Division-I teams. So whatever happened to third-seeded Wisconsin? Don’t worry; they were back in form on Sunday—in a big way. The game between Northwestern and Wisconsin in the semifinals of the 9th place bracket looked and felt like a championship semifinal, and for both teams, this game seemed to represent redemption. Wisconsin started out hot, taking half 8-2 by way of superb movement, spacing, variety, communication, and energy—elements that had all been missing the day before. Their shouts of “24 strong”—a reference to their roster number—were uttered with renewed vigor and conviction. They finally looked like they were having fun, and it translated into D’s, fluid offense, and easy scores.
Although they didn’t end up winning the game, Northwestern was also able to secure a much-needed mental victory. After being down 2-8 at half, Northwestern managed to come together, refocus, and claw their way back into the game—something they failed to do against Colorado State in the crossover. The second half saw them play aggressive defense, and behind the leadership of Carol Li, Lien Hoffmann, and Angel Li, Gung Ho demonstrated their ability to play as a team.
After their tough game against Northwestern, Wisconsin went on to destroy Texas A&M in the final of the 9th place bracket, showing that Saturday really was just a bad day for Bella Donna. Thus, teams of the North Central region did take the top three spots with Iowa State easily defeating Colorado State in the third place game (13-7). And though Wisconsin lost, they looked spectacular on Sunday. Pack your bags for North Central Regionals, people; they are going to be fierce.
So, Why the Heck Do We Do This?
As I write this, I am lying in bed beneath a layer of blankets, a cup of tea and kleenex stand at the ready, and my students are at school enduring the torments of a substitute (or perhaps the substitute is enduring the torments of my students?). My faithful lab Toby is curled up on my floor, nursing me with sympathetic eyes, for, as the saying goes, I am “as sick as a dog,” and he knows it. I can only imagine that the little sleep and bad weather that came with Midwest Throwndown have contributed to my current state, and I’m sure that almost every player, coach, and volunteer is experiencing his/her own hardships following the tournament weekend. Whether they struggle to climb the stairs because their muscles burn with all the fires of hell, whether they are hopelessly stressed out over the homework that they didn’t complete, or whether they still can’t get warm, tournament weekends always take their toll. So for the sixth year in a row, I ask myself: Why the heck do we do this? Why do we continue to put on Midwest Throwdown when we know the weather will induce tears that freeze to our faces? Why do we play ultimate when we know that it so often crushes our bodies, our souls, and our grades?
If I learned anything this weekend, it’s part of the never-ending answer to that question. As one ultimate sage observed on the sideline of the Wisconsin/Northwestern game, it’s not really about the tournament standings. It’s about becoming a better team, about struggling, about overcoming. Certainly, for the “top teams,” the weekend was about finding themselves. It was about battling adversity and harnessing mental fortitude in the face of tough playing conditions. It was about overcoming bad losses and seeking redemption. It was about Northwestern coming back from being down 2-8 to give Wisconsin a game. It was about Wisconsin living a nightmare on Saturday and unleashing fury on Sunday. It was about Minnesota building for years and then coming out of nowhere to put on a clinic. It was about Iowa struggling against the Ninjas in pool play and then playing a nearly flawless championship game.
And perhaps more importantly, the tournament was about lesser-known teams taking advantage of the opportunities given them. It was about Colorado State finishing FOURTH, about the Kansas Bettys taking down Bella Donna, about playing with fire and passion even when everyone expects you to get your rear kicked. It was about teams, stronger and weaker, coming together and finding success.
No matter how cold I may have been at times, I was blessed to be a spectator at Midwest Throwdown this weekend. It has inspired me to elevate my own game, to continue to cultivate relationships with the special people who play our sport, to follow more closely the exciting and ever-evolving college scene, and to buy some additional cold-weather gear for the next edition.