We all know the feeling of an on again, off again relationship to which we bid farewell, only to have the other party unexpectedly show up back in our lives months later. That’s kind of the case with Pool A, a pool that is full of familiarity. Not only did we see the opening round Pool A matchup of Wisconsin and Oregon one year ago in Boulder (Oregon won 15-7), but these two teams have already tangled once this season in the finals of Stanford Invite, where Oregon eked out the 17-15 win. And Oregon isn’t the only team with which Wisconsin has recent “history.” They’ve rendezvoused with both Stanford and Minnesota twice this season, and each series is split at one game apiece.
Stanford and Minnesota, too, had a tryst at Centex, where Stanford won 15-5. Northeastern is the only team who remains unknown to any of the teams in Pool A. If we assume that the #2, #3, and #4 seeds in the pool will be the ones battling it out for spots in the championship bracket, the rematches of Wisconsin, Stanford, Minnesota become particularly relevant. Previous interactions matter. If we know what a person (or opponent) might do, we behave differently. It will be interesting to see who wins the breakup in what are sure to be competitive rematches filled with adjustments.
Oregon Fugue (#1)
Last year, Fugue fell only one game short of another National Championship, losing in the finals to Regional rival Washington by a lopsided score of 15-7. Now Fugue is back and just as good as ever. Having only lost one game this season—to UBC at Pres Day, a loss they immediately redeemed in the finals of that same tournament—they will be looking to defend their #1 seed, get back into the finals, and win it all. Pool play is where the quest starts.
Honestly, it’s difficult to say anything fresh about Fugue. They are athletic. They utilize the special strengths of their players. They have great hands, phenomenal throws, and a keen sense of how to use space. They are a team that buys into an effective system. They are coached by one of the game’s greatest minds. Obviously.
Their key players, too, are no secret. Skyd 5 Callahan nominee Bailey Zahniser is pretty much a household name in the women’s ultimate community. This girl simply oozes athleticism. As the leader of the D-line, she dictates. Her bids for discs will be sure to elicit shrieks and drops from her opponents—if the disc even gets to them—and ooh’s and ah’s from the crowd. And whenever there is a turn generated by her D-line, watch as Zahniser initiates a transition that will happen faster than you can yell “up!” Zahniser is joined by fellow superstar Sophie Darch, another pure athlete with throws to supplement her explosiveness. From her usual position as Oregon’s primary handler, her quickness allows her to get open with ease. Once the disc is in her hands, she can put up beautiful hucks, punishing breaks, or flawless hammers.
Zahniser and Darch are certainly the biggest names on Fugue, but they are certainly not alone. Fugue is, by far, the deepest team at the tournament, and that should be a terrifying truth for their opponents. Kimber Coles is a fast cutter that knows how to find the endzone. Just count the number of times Darch hits Coles for the score because it will happen frequently for Oregon’s O line. And look no further than Stanford Invite to see the impact that Bethany Kaylor can have upon a game. Against Wisconsin, Kaylor was a maniac in the middle, hitting all the holes with her cuts, and then sending the disc around the field to her teammates.
Overall, look for Oregon’s offense to play wild and free. They are never afraid to push the pace when they have possession, pinging the disc around the field and hucking frequently. As for defense, they play their famous junk zone almost exclusively. However, it’s not invincible, as Wisconsin was able to demonstrate at Stanford Invite. By staying out of the middle of the field, Wisconsin forced Zahniser to choose a side or settle for guarding space. Instead of using the middle space, Bella Donna kept breaking it up the sides of the field before pushing it back to the middle behind the defense. Their recent thriller with Wisconsin at Stanford will make their opening pool play rematch a fun one to follow.
So we know everything about Fugue, but we still can’t figure them out. Well, that’s because the key to Oregon is in the intangibles. They are explosive, elusive, and seasoned. But most importantly, Coach of the Year Lou Burruss always has their perspective in the right place. They won’t be gunning for another title; they’ll be focusing on playing the best ultimate they can produce as a unit. They certainly have the talent; they certainly have the depth; they certainly have the will and preparation to earn another college championship. Now it all comes down to execution.
Players To Watch: Sophie Darch, Bailey Zahniser, Bethany Kaylor, Kimber Coles
What To Watch For: Defense against Wisconsin, possession of the disc, transition opportunities, athleticism we can all envy
Wisconsin Bella Donna (#8)
With this year’s Wisconsin Bella Donna, you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get. Their best and worst performances of the season are polar opposites, and it’s safe to say that they sometimes struggle with consistency and mental fortitude. Nonetheless, when they are at their best, Wisconsin can play stunning ultimate. Just ask Oregon, UBC, and Washington. Now that it’s time for Nationals, we can hope to see Wisconsin bringing their most energized ultimate of the season.
Their energy starts with their man defense, which, when correctly calibrated, looks fierce and unrelenting. With huge layouts, Sara Scott is electrifying, and breaks aren’t easy to come by when 6’0” Rebecca Enders and 5’10” Biz Cook are on the mark. Enders and Cook are equally effective on offense. In addition to her stifling mark, Enders seems to tower over the competition when she has the disc, easily breaking her mark and assisting on many scores. She will take lots of touches for Bella Donna, often following her throw, receiving a quick dump, and quickly throwing again. Alongside Enders, keep track of Anna Shanedling—a fellow left-handed thrower who seems to get better and better with every performance—and Al Ellis, whose play is as fiery as her red hair. Biz Cook, along with fellow cutters Sara Scott and Amelia Cuarenta, will be making the majority of key receptions for Bella Donna, working both the middle and wing space with assertive cuts and expert field vision.
But far more than a group of talented individuals, Bella Donna’s focus is on their team game. As a unit, Wisconsin’s cutting corps is especially good at working the disc amongst themselves, leaving their handlers plenty of time to either position themselves for a dump or trot towards the endzone. Moreover, the team as a whole is terrific at spreading the field horizontally with big swings and well-timed cuts from the wing position. If Bella Donna can attain the fluidity that often marks their offense, and keep it going for a full game, they will wreck some teams.
Perhaps most important for their team game, however, is how they handle adversity. Because they open pool play against Oregon, Wisconsin needs to stay focused on the big picture—no matter how their game with Oregon goes. If they win against Oregon, they can’t let up; if they lose against Oregon, they must keep their heads up. Luckily, they have mechanisms in place to stay unified and grounded. Whenever they are scored on, you will see them walk back to the line with both arms raised in the air and the whole team shouting “24 strong”—a reference to their roster number. Not only does this gesture signify team unity and promote active sidelines, but it also serves as a mechanism to help combat any impending mental lapses.
It’s likely that having played Oregon will be more to Fugue’s advantage than to Wisconsin’s, but only time will tell whether such familiarity with Stanford and Minnesota will work for Bella Donna or against them. It’s also worth noting that this time last season, Wisconsin was in the same pool, with the same seed, and the same opponent (Oregon) ranked above them. In last year’s opening round of pool play, they fell to Fugue and then went on to finish fourth in Pool A. Will the same be true this year, or will Bella Donna break into the championship bracket?
Players To Watch: Rebecca Enders, Biz Cook, Sara Scott
What To Watch For: Scott’s layouts, fast and fluid disc movement, spreading the field
Stanford Superfly (#12)
Stanford Superfly is coming off an inspired Regionals performance. Having lost once to Cal and twice to UCSB (10-13; 5-10) during the regular season, they certainly weren’t picked to win their Region. Nevertheless, they found their way to the final. Down 3-8 to the Burning Skirts, it looked like they would have to take the second bid. But that wasn’t good enough for Superfly, who demonstrated their ability to stage a massive run, storming back to take the game 12-11.
Now, behind experienced coaches Robin Davis and Jamie Nuwer and first-year coach Jenny Wang, Superfly hopes to recreate that Regionals magic at Nationals. If there is one player that can make that happen, it’s captain and two-time All-American Michela Meister. An incredibly fit, athletic, and versatile player, Meister possesses an unstoppable low-release flick, solid hucks, and lots of competitive fire. She knows when to step up for her team, and her versatility allows her to do damage from any position on the field.
Around Meister, Superfly has a number of players with valuable skill sets, most of them juniors and graduate students (three of whom currently attend medical school). Grad students Ellen Rim and Allison Fink have been particularly potent for Superfly this season. Ellen Rim hails from Harvard, and with fast cutters Hilary Vance and Jennie Lummis plagued by injuries for much of the season, Rim has become a force in Stanford’s ho-stack. She will make sweet snags and key assists for Superfly. As for Fink, not only does she contribute veteran leadership skills, but, as a tall cutter who can throw, she will be extremely active in Stanford’s offense. Freshman Monisha White has also been lighting it up this season on both sides of the disc, and fellow handler Jennifer Thompson will destroy any cup that comes her way. In fact, you can count on the athletic handler set of Meister, Monisha White, and Steph Lim to always win their matchups as they go upline, cut for the dump, or layout for the grab.
As for Stanford’s style of play, they do some interesting things. On offense, if they’re ever going upwind, expect them to huck and hope their teammates come down with it. If they don’t, no problem – they’ll settle for playing defense. Sometimes, the punt and play D can be extremely effective, but other times they can become too huck-happy and get themselves into trouble. Look for both sides of the coin to appear at Nationals. On defense, Superfly prefers their zone defense, which led them to victory at Regionals. They will likely apply the zone whenever they get the chance, and it might prove especially disconcerting for teams like Minnesota, who rely heavily on the deep game and struggled against it at Centex. However, when Stanford must go to their man defense, they tend to have some difficulty—especially with containing handlers.
Still, if Stanford can fortify their weaknesses, they can make some moves in the pool. They have already proven that they are a team with a system that works for them. They have already proven that they can go on magnificent runs when it counts. They have already proven that they can beat both Wisconsin and Minnesota. Now they have the chance to prove that they can make it back to the championship bracket.
Players To Watch: Michela Meister
What To Watch For: Punting and playing D, effectiveness of their zone defense, Jennifer Thompson vs. cup
Minnesota Ninjas (#13)
Minnesota is a program that has built for years, behind everybody’s back, for this moment. This season the Ninjas stopped tiptoeing around and crashed onto the college ultimate scene, finally contending in the competitive North Central region. A fresh face at Nationals, they will show up with tons of heart, ready to be the surprise story of the tournament.
Of all the teams I have seen play this season, Minnesota is the one that most embodies the concept of “team.” They have a slew of talented players, but their greatest strength is in a balanced attack that utilizes a variety of options. The biggest option is the deep game, a realm owned and operated by All-American Sarah Meckstroth. Even when covered, Meckstroth has the ability to come down with long puts through positioning, expert reads, and good old-fashioned air. She will be key to any offensive attack orchestrated by the Ninjas. The deep game and the offense at large are enabled by the superb throwing ability of Natalie and Emily DePalma. These two sisters can break and huck at will and aren’t afraid to do so, even with a mark.
They are joined by Greta Regan, who, as a freshman, is an extremely calm, collected, and reliable third handler, and occasionally by captain Andrea Crumrine. Crumrine isn’t a flashy player, and it might be easy to miss her sometimes subtle contributions, but in my opinion, she’s the heart of this Minnesota squad. Crumrine will do all the little things for the Ninjas. She leads by example: playing intense defense, making assertive cuts and precise throws, and maintaining effort and consistency in every aspect of her play. Finally, Minnesota is stocked with a solid group of cutters who work well together and step up at various times. Emily Regan is an experienced cutter who has great field sense and excellent reads on the disc; she will make many catches both under and deep. Brenna Kruse will also be an active cutter for Minnesota, and Mindi DePaolo is a freshman who will be busting deep frequently for the Ninjas’ O line.
Besides the fireworks occasionally accompanying a Meckstroth grab, Minnesota is typically free of flash. They are not going to beat anyone on sheer athleticism. Rather, the key to their game lies in the fundamentals. Perhaps their greatest strength is their collective energy, which is modeled by their coaches and trickles out to the entire team. If they hope to stir the pot at Nationals, they need to stick to their team-based fundamentals. They cannot get trapped into athletic battles with teams, and they cannot become too dependent on the heroics of Meckstroth in the deep game. Unfortunately, I believe they will suffer from having seen Wisconsin and Stanford before. These teams now know Minnesota’s game and can make adjustments to contain Meckstroth and force Minnesota to work it up the field. Nevertheless, if they stick to their fundamentals, if they keep their stack spread and active, and if they provide their handles with a variety of deep and under cuts, Minnesota has the opportunity to pull the upsets they need.
Players To Watch: Natalie DePalma, Emily DePalma, Sarah Meckstroth
What To Watch For: Meckstroth deep, spacing of the vert stack, variety of offensive options
Northeastern Valkyries (#17)
Taking the second bid out of the New England Region, Northeastern Valkyries are making their return to Nationals. The last time they were here was 2009, where they came in ranked #18, lost all of their pool play games, and finished in a tie for last place. They will be looking to improve on that performance by winning some games at Nationals. Pool play is a great place to start.
If you take a look at their results, Northeastern has had an impressive season. They have won games against solid teams like Florida State, Michigan, and Northwestern, and despite getting slaughtered in the Regional final against Tufts (4-15), they have played some good teams very close. At Queen City, they only lost to Carleton by three (6-9), and at Centex they almost beat UNCW Seaweed until Claire Chastain put her team on her back and carried them to victory. Needless to say, Northeastern is not a team to overlook.
And if you watch them play, you will immediately sense the scope of their effort and athleticism. They are a scrappy bunch. They may not always put up the most accurate, smooth throws, but their receivers—some of whom have some helpful height—have a way of locating the disc and coming down with it. Look for them to pick up more than their fair share of trash as they huck it deep or work it down the field. On defense, Northeastern is full of guts, sacrificing their bodies in pursuit of the disc.
They are led on the field by the play and leadership of captains Judy Arnobit and Becca Ginsburg. Arnobit has massive throws that she uses freely. Look for her to control much of the offense and make big hucks deep. Becca Ginsburg is a complete player who will be a crucial component of both the offense and the defense. A graduate of Andover High School, she now has years of experience under her belt. She can dominate from anywhere on the field with her athleticism and throws. Especially watch her on defense as she plays tight man D and keeps active in any zone looks.
Behind these two players and many more, Northeastern will look to pull an upset in the pool. It will certainly be a struggle as Northeastern as a whole does not possess the throws, athleticism, or depth as the other teams in the pool. However, under the right conditions and with the right energy, Northeastern could very well surprise.
Players To Watch: Judy Arnobit, Becca Ginsburg
What To Watch For: Receivers coming down with discs they have no business catching, aggression, lots of effort
- Oregon stays atop the pool. They’re not invincible, but they are dang good.
- Wisconsin either shines like a star or crashes and burns. Playing Oregon in the first round and an amped Minnesota team in the second is a tough draw. In my opinion, they are the team with the littlest room for error. If they have a breakdown, their opponent will take advantage.
- Minnesota pulls an upset. So balanced and such a strong mental game, I think their enthusiasm for being at Nationals will fuel them to a victory.
Because Pool A is filled with rematches from the season, it’s difficult to tell which team will get left out of prequarters. Your guess is as good as mine.
Games To Watch
Oregon vs. Wisconsin: Friday, 10:30 am, Field #4—Rematch of Stanford Invite Final which Fugue won 17-15.
Wisconsin vs. Minnesota: Friday, 2:30pm, Field #8—North Central Rematch; series tied 1-1.
Stanford vs. Wisconsin: Saturday, 12:30pm, Field #8—Rematch; series tied 1-1.
Stanford vs. Minnesota: Friday, 10:30 am, Field #2— #12 vs. #13. By the numbers, this is the best chance for a #4 seed to break into the championship bracket.
Feature photo of Alex Ode (Oregon) getting a D at Stanford Invite by Scott Roeder (Ultiphotos)