Hold on to your hats! Pool C is full of star players, deep rosters, and teams with a statement to make. For Iowa State, pool play is a chance to prove that they belong in the conversation about potential champions after faltering in a similar position last year. Ohio State eliminated Iowa State in prequarters last year, bested them in Centex pool play, and then fell 13-14 in the finals in a break-less game – Fever has to love the spot they’re in on Friday morning. For Virginia, Mary Kelly is healthy again and they can break through to the next level simply by making prequarters and start solidifying their position as a consistent top-10 team. For Central Florida and Whitman, programs making their first appearances at Nationals, an upset will prove that they belong. Every new team arrives at the fields with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove – and as last year’s exciting finishes showed, that makes for some great ultimate.
Iowa State Woman Scorned (#3)
Hailing from Ames, Iowa, Woman Scorned is a fun-loving team that’s risen to the top of the women’s college game in the last three years and is poised to finally make their breakthrough to the late games on Saturday. Electric, athletic, and well-coached by Kevin and Lana Seiler, Iowa State manages to eke every last bit of depth out of their roster, balancing four superstar U-23 players with some very capable role players and a large defensive line full of quick scrappers and heady players able to manufacture a D.
Iowa State’s impressive offensive line gets most of the recognition – at Centex, in swirling winds, Iowa State’s offensive line was only broken twice in the semifinals against Tufts and never in the finals against Pool C second seed Ohio State. Led by their four studs on the USA U-23 teams, Iowa State forces opponents to make compromises in their matchups and their approach to defense – compromises which Iowa State readily exploits. Sarah Pesch is a left-handed star handler with deft breaks and smooth hucks on both sides, and her job is always made easier by the effortless ways her three main cutters always find the open space.
Magon Liu, top-five Callahan finisher Becca Miller, and All-American Cami Nelson are the primary targets for Pesch – a troika that is unmatched by any team in the country. All three are incredibly strong deep receivers and can make a play on any disc hanging in the air or tailing away in the endzone, which defenders quickly figure out. So it’s inevitable that they’ll all find themselves backed by their marks, in which case they’re all equally capable of finding the open space underneath, turning around, and firing a huck or sitting a soft break throw out into space. It’s a joy to watch Woman Scorned toy with the defense, first opening them up with the deep game, then abusing tight defenders with break throws, and finally watching them move the disc against soft defenses trying to stop the huck by backing and stop the breaks by backing off the mark, and ultimately doing neither as the disc effortlessly flows down the field in a beautiful rhythm from Pesch to Liu to Nelson to Miller to Pesch to Liu for the goal.
Pesch, Liu, Miller, and Nelson are typically joined on the offensive line by handler Cassie Sakai, a transfer student from UC-Davis and an experienced player capable of punishing teams that attempt to stop the four stars by poaching off other players. Freshman Brittnee Grimshaw was the fourth cutter at Centex, scoring goal after goal as defenders were caught star-gazing at the “Big Four.” Unfortunately, she’s not on the roster Iowa State has provided for Nationals – but hopefully another player will step up in her absence.
On defense, Iowa State is comfortable playing lines of rookies and younger players in various man and clam defenses, trusting that their defense will snag some breaks while their offense carries on unbowed and unbroken. Every few points Pesch will rotate in, sometimes with one of the main cutters, and Woman Scorned will push a little harder for the break. Defense is definitely a weak point for Iowa State – sometimes their D lines look like it would take a miracle for them to score, and sometimes their O line looks so unused to playing defense that they give up a break after a turnover. And it’s that weakness that teams like Ohio State and Central Florida will look to exploit.
But despite their troubles with defense and their willingness to play close games, Iowa State is a very disciplined team that knows their game and knows it well, and much credit is due to their coaches. In this pool they’ll face familiar foe Ohio State in a game that will decide the pool, they’ll face grinding teams like Virginia, and they’ll face a fun and gun fast break team like Central Florida. But teams like Central Florida and Virginia can’t execute their game plans if they can’t get stops on Woman Scorned, and that’s what their offense is predicated on. Some of the best teams in the country have tried to stop them and failed – and I pity the team that’s playing Iowa State when they finally take their defense up to the next level.
Ohio State Fever (#6)
At Centex on Sunday, Ohio State played the exact opposite strategy of every other team in the championship bracket. In an incredibly strong upwind-downwind wind, instead of stacking their downwind line and trying to steal a break on the occasional upwind point, Fever stacked their upwind points and played stud against stud, forcing opponents to really work for each downwind point. In addition to suiting their personnel extremely well, this strategy was also a great mental edge for them – downwind points are supposed to be easy, and you can always punt if things get tough; upwind points are the struggle with your D line. But Ohio State flipped it – they made opponents’ downwind points difficult, and just as importantly, they didn’t struggle to work it upwind. As a result, Ohio State had the most breaks, by far, of any team on Sunday at Centex.
Just who are the personnel that made this strategy successful? Well, Skyd 5 Callahan candidate and All-American Paige Soper, for one. And her oft-injured but finally healthy teammate, Cassie Swafford. And Freshman of the Year Nina Finley, veteran of two USA U-20 teams. Each of these three players are sharp cutters, dominant throwers, and can really control the pace of the game. Soper has the hucks, breaks, and quick give and go moves that give all of her teammates an open throw. Swafford can play the tall handler who throws around breaks with ease as well as the initiating cutter who boosts it. Finley alternates between handling and cutting as needed, and she’s especially devastating as a cutter in endzone offense with her lightning quick first step.
But what made their Centex strategy so eminently viable was not just that Soper, Swafford, and Finley played tons of upwind points. It was that they had seven other players capable of playing downwind points and converting just as easily as every other team’s offensive line (and more easily than whoever Ohio State was currently playing!). Players like junior handler Caitlin Harley marched the disc downfield, hitting grad student cutter Jenny Perry, formerly of Drake, Janine Walker – a tall, strong grad student cutter, or Sarah Craycraft, a 5’11 senior cutter. Ohio State was able to run with a cutter-dominated downwind line and a handler-dominated upwind line – a great recipe for breaks.
Ohio State is a deeper team than most, and they’re very good at getting real contributions from 14+ players. Unlike Iowa State, which gives meaningful playing time to their whole roster, Ohio State gives that playing time and the players pay it back by getting on the scoreboard. Lesser-known players like Janine Walker, Jenny Perry, Elizabeth Gates, and Caitlin Harley keep the team running smooth – experience gained when Soper and Swafford have missed so much time due to injury and illness.
All that said, Ohio State is a very versatile and capable team that runs good man and zone offense and defense – but they are still sometimes just plain outmatched. They lack the level of elite defenders to contain top-level cutters and handlers, and while their record is incredibly impressive after Swafford and Soper returned to action, they very much rely on minimizing their own turnovers rather than creating large numbers. Turnovers happen, and Ohio State makes the most of them on defense, but it’s worth noting that after creating so many breaks on Sunday of Centex, after beating Iowa State in pool play, they were unable to get a single break against Woman Scorned in the finals – the closest they came was two dropped discs 10-15 yards from the upwind endzone. And that is why their rematch is going to be so fun to watch in Madison.
Virginia Hydra (#10)
In the fall, when I was asking Atlantic Coast teams about who they thought the team to beat in the region was, one captain said that Virginia was definitely the frontrunner. Yes, she said, Virginia lost players – important players. But it would be addition by subtraction, and UVA’s younger players would shine in a starring role this year. While the loss of All-American honorable mention Mary Kelly in the fall to an ACL tear was not the type of subtraction the regional rival was talking about, she did have a point about Hydra players stepping up. With Kelly out, Theresa Hackett blossomed into a great #1 receiver – her speed burned defenders, and her strength in the air got her on the highlight reel.
Similarly, Alika Johnston (2012 AC FoTY) was a second handler last year and got great club experience with Scandal – playing meaningful points even into the semifinals of the Club Championships. With Devon Ericksen moving from #1 handler to coach, the team is now Johnston’s. She’s a quick and agile handler with great range and explosiveness, and her quick pivots often leave her with no mark for her breaks and hucks. Johnston has help from the capable Michele DeRieux, a hucker in her own right, and Hackett is joined downfield by the speedy sophomore Sarah Hansen.
But the hallmark of this Virginia team is defense. Grinding, pressuring every pass, tough marking defense. Virginia loves to slow the game down on defense behind players like senior captain Katrien Hinderdael, forcing their opponents to throw dozens of throws and turning up the pressure until they force a turnover. It works especially well against impatient teams, or teams that aren’t deep enough with throwers to break out of the pressure. Unfortunately for Virginia, neither Ohio State or Iowa State can really be characterized as impatient or having cutters with poor throws.
But this side of their game received another boost just in time for the Series – the return of Mary Kelly, star defender. At the College Championships last year, Kelly was a defensive force, cleaning up with 16 D’s, including an unforgettable layout D on 2012 All-American Claire Desmond of Cal (and Fury). It remains to be seen whether or not she can have the same defensive impact this soon in her recovery, but she adds fire and passion to Virginia’s defense and she plays a huge role on offense as well – she ended up with double digit scores and assists at Regionals as Hydra knocked out North Carolina to claim the only bid from the Atlantic Coast.
Virginia has been seeded high before – last year, they were seeded in the top 9 and even beat eventual semifinalists Tufts – but has consistently underperformed when it counts. This year, with Kelly’s return as the boost they need and Central Florida and Whitman as beatable teams that should play into the hands of their defense, they have a favorable road to the prequarters. All they need to do is execute – and ride their defensive intensity all the way to the bracket.
Central Florida Sirens (#15)
Just like last year, Central Florida lost big to Georgia at Regionals. But unlike last year, Central Florida had a second chance – they earned a second bid to the College Championships, and they stamped their ticket to Madison with a 13-5 victory over Florida in the game to go. Traveling to Queen City Tune-Up and Music City Mash-Up, the Sirens put together a series of solid performances before really sealing their strength bid at Centex with a dominant second-half performance against Stanford to win 15-10 and a resilient 9-10 loss to Tufts in prequarters.
Central Florida is a team that knows how to play to their strengths – they’re not a deep team, they’re top-heavy, they run a very well-practiced zone defense to conserve their energy, and they love to attack on the fast break. They’re only able to play this way because of the playmakers they’ve developed over the last few years. Sunny Harris loves to boost it, initiating the offense and striking quickly on a turnover. Think of her as the Southeast’s answer to Bailey Zahniser. Samantha Young is an exciting player whose explosive layouts on offense and defense can turn the tide of a point in a heartbeat. And Mariel Hammond is the defensive anchor and one of the most experienced players on the field.
They run a good zone defense, with Harris owning the deep space and able to jump-start the fast break whenever she has to make a play. She’s got a strong array of power moves to get the disc into her hands, shielding the disc from defenders with her body and sealing open spaces for her throwers to put it to her. Some teams will struggle against it – Stanford ran out of gas and patience at Centex, but Carleton shredded the zone and Central Florida just had no answer. They don’t have the legs or the discipline to beat the teams above them playing a standard man defense. In another pool, against other top-12 seeds, an upset might be more likely.
But Central Florida will give it their all against whomever they face, and they’ll entertain while doing it. Their fast-break offense and high-flying playmakers is great at catching teams when they’re down after a turnover, and they have the athletes to make some plays and surprise a team like Iowa State that isn’t used to turning the disc over on offense. While a berth in the prequarters may be wishful thinking, the Sirens will hope to prove they can play at an elite level and be more than a flash in the pan.
Whitman Sweets (#19)
At the start of the season, the Lady Sweets were a popular pick for the D-III Championships after several years of high finishes at D-I Regionals and decent regular season rankings. But almost nobody thought they’d be in Madison for the D-I Championships after wresting the fourth bid away from Victoria and Western Washington. The bid itself is a bitter pill for the Southwest Region – while UCSB and Stanford were missing their top players for U-23 tryouts, Canadian squad Victoria walloped both teams at the Santa Barbara Invite, went 4-1 at Stanford Open, and then sat still at 10 sanctioned games and rose through the rankings as Stanford and UCSB desperately fought their way back into the top-20. But in the end, it was Whitman that benefitted, beating Victoria 15-10 to take their place at the College Championships!
Watching Julia Bladin play for Whitman is eerily similar to watching Elle Burstein, Whitman alum and current Riot player. She’s a handler whose languid motions around the backfield make everything look easy for her. Her main targets are seniors Rachel Reiter and Lillian Bailey, players who might find their motion restricted this weekend by some of the elite defenders on display in Pool C. Playing at Nationals is a far cry from Division II at Centex and Northwest Regionals, something I’m sure their coach Jeremy Norden has learned from experience and will undoubtedly impart to them.
For Whitman, any win this weekend is a bonus. They finished #25 in the USA Ultimate regular season rankings, and top-20 is in their sights for next year if their returning players get a taste of the championship atmosphere and don’t want to let it go. For some teams, “happy to be there” turns in to building a program and a steep rise up the ranks once they know they can hang with the teams in Madison. Just ask Tufts. The Lady Sweets are going to be dangerous precisely because they have no expectations and no pressure. But this is a pool full of teams that have made a season of not losing to teams they shouldn’t lose to.
1. This pool finishes roughly to seed, with the possible exception of the top two teams. Ohio State should be good enough to pull out the win, although if Iowa State can do it, it may mean they’ve turned a corner and are a legitimate threat to win it all.
2. Mary Kelly is back – and gets a D on at least two of Iowa State’s top cutters.
3. Central Florida gets an early lead on one of the top three teams but can’t quite hold on.
4. At least two of Virginia’s games don’t get to 15 points for the winner.
Games to Watch
Friday, 10:30 – Ohio State vs Central Florida – Field 5: Central Florida’s best shot at an upset may be in their first game – Ohio State dropped a game to UNCW in the first round at Centex.
Friday, 2:30 – Iowa State vs Ohio State – Field 4: Their third game this year, and the battle for dominance in Pool C. Don’t miss it.
Saturday, 10:30 – Iowa State vs Virginia – Field 3: This is a fun rematch of a game from pool play last year. Can Virginia slow down Iowa State’s dominant offense?
Feature photo of Iowa State by Kevin Leclaire (Ultiphotos)