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At 8pm Central Time, at the Mansfield Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin, Carleton CUT and the Central Florida Dogs of War will take the field to decide who goes to the finals in the Open division. The two teams have met before, at Easterns, but this is different. This is Nationals. Both teams will be leaving everything on the field, hoping more celebration will come before heartbreak hits. Part of the reason each team is here is because of lessons learned this season, past battles that they’ve now improved upon in hopes of winning the war.
The two teams so far have only one loss this tournament between them – UCF to Ohio late yesterday – and both won their respective pools. In getting to this point, both have taken down teams that had hoped to be in this very situation; that includes the hometown team Wisconsin Hodags, North Carolina Darkside, Dartmouth Pain Train and UNC-Wilmington Seamen. That sets up a matchup under the lights that can’t be missed. But we’ve seen these two teams before, and it wasn’t as close as we hope tonight’s matchup will be.
Meeting before at Easterns, way back in March, and the Dogs of War took the game 15-11. It was during the Carleton spring break, but regardless it did not turn out well for them. The Dogs dominated the entire game, and even though Carleton worked to come back, they were stifled by the opposing defense time and time again. Central Florida is hoping a similar result this time, but Carleton isn’t that same team. All weekend long, and especially in big games against Wisconsin and Harvard, Carleton has fired on all cylinders. Their defense has made the stops, and gotten the breaks they need while the offense has held steady.
Talking to Captain Simon Montague about that game back in March, he told me that Carleton was simply not prepared. Partly because it was during their spring break, but they just didn’t take the necessary steps the day of to make sure they were in the best position to win the game. To fix that, before their game later tonight, the focus since that tournament back in March has been for a good warm-up, and that the team enters each game well prepared.
Another focus of Carleton’s since that game has been offense. Montague said that they had problems that game, and in others during the spring, that stemmed from their offense proving ineffective against junk and poachy defenses; the mere presence of a man in the lane that Carleton wanted to work in could stifle their entire movement. Now, Montague says, the focus is “on just moving the disc” even if that means that they’re simply taking the easy resets over and over again. With that, Carleton’s offense has improved greatly since those early games – shifting the entire the Carleton huddle to “focus on us” Montague told me. That mental shift he believes, along with the two adjustments, will be key in this game and hopefully the finals.
Meanwhile for Central Florida Coach Andrew Roca feels like this is now an even better Dog squad that will be taking the field than it was back in March. Coming off a very close game against Dartmouth, where they were down going into half, the Dogs of War were able to come from behind and win. Roca credited part of that to their positive sideline, which remained upbeat even as the team was losing. After their Stanford Invite, in which the Dogs lost 3 games, Roca told me that their focus shifted to mental toughness, and how they could work upon improving theirs. That game against Dartmouth, in which they won 14-12, saw UCF down 7-3 before half, but a resurgence like no other we’ve seen this weekend in the second. That, Roca said, was his team “shedding their last coat of skin” of mental toughness, and this team now he feels has rid themselves of that problem. What a time to do it too, as they’ll certainly need it to get past Carleton and eventually win the Championship game.
The focus for Roca, and the rest of the team, is now on CUT. Above all he said, that means working on stopping the Carleton offense. He seemed a little frustrated about how to do just that, but had some ideas they were going to work on. He did tell me that what UNC-Wilmington was doing – intentionally rolling the pull out of bounds, giving CUT a shorter field but less set play options – was most likely not going to be in his bag of tricks. But he felt strongly that should they be able to stop the pull plays, the Central Florida defense would be able to get the breaks they need.
With roughly 10 hours in between the games, I’m sure teams are having dinner, reviewing past game film, and attempting to work out all of the kinks in their game. That much time could mean Coach Andrew Roca can better develop his strategy against the CUT. But it also means Carleton can do the same right back to him. What follows this game is what each team wants to reach, and win. First they have to wage one more battle between each other, and the lessons they’ve learned this season will be tested – each to their limits.