This recap and the 2014 College Tour is Presented by Spin Ultimate
This year’s invite included a trip to Stevinson, California where the games were played at a polo club, surrounded by flat land full of cows and farm fields with mountains filled with more cows and farm fields in the distance. On the other side of those mountains, and a two hour drive away? San Francisco. I didn’t get a chance to see the Golden Gate Bridge, or anything else the city has to offer. Still, there was plenty of ultimate; just not where I or anyone else was expecting it.
As much as I had hoped for better weather on Sunday, it wasn’t to be. It was noticeably colder most of the day at the field site, and with it came the heavy winds that were consistently present the day before. In the distance for most of the day loomed storm clouds; you could literally see the rain falling on the mountains and hills surrounding the fields. They wouldn’t rear their ugly heads until a few points into the championship game, where it poured steadily for around a half hour, and it was coupled with a few strikes of lightning in the distance that delayed play. Afterwards, though, it was a complete turn of events. The wind was basically nonexistent, and while still cool, it didn’t seem as cold as it did before.
#5 Wisconsin v. #12 Pittsburgh
Yesterday, I questioned the strategy decision by Texas TUFF to receive the pull at the start of the game, while going up into the strong winds of the tournament. It didn’t make sense to bank on getting a break when gusts had to be in the 20-30 mph range at times. Pittsburgh En Sabah Nur though choice this exact strategy to start against the Wisconsin Hodags, and it paid off big time. I was told on the sidelines by a few players that this was their strategy of choice for the entire weekend, that the thought was they would score up-wind, but then put all of the pressure on their opponents to not be broken as Pittsburgh pulled forcing them to go up-wind. I still question the decision by Texas Saturday, and maybe if the gusts on Sunday were as strong as Saturday, the outcome of this game would’ve been different, but it wasn’t.
Pittsburgh did win this game, but that isn’t to say that Wisconsin didn’t put up a fight. The Hodags may not seem as strong as they did in years past, but they made a claim as the best team in the North Central, and if they’re able to work out a few kinks in their game, will be a force at Nationals. The most glaring defect of Wisconsin’s play was their offense. At times, I wondered what they were doing as the cutters would be stuck in place, or even worse when lanes would clog. Credit part of that to the defense of Pittsburgh, which was phenomenal this game, especially with strong marks. In the end, it was the strategy off of the opening toss that proved to the difference. When Pittsburgh was able to start rattling off breaks, the floodgates opened up for En Sabh Nur. They would move onto play UC-Davis in the semi-finals.
UC-Davis v. Stanford
In the quarterfinal matchup between UC-Davis Dogs and Stanford Bloodthirsty, two Southwestern region opponents squared off, in what is sure to be a matchup we all see again at regionals. Even with Stanford playing a few men short due to injuries, it was still a hotly contested game. Stanford was a team that had been steadily improving their play throughout the entire weekend, and to make it this far after finishing third in a tough pool A was a testament to that. The play of both Peter Maraccini and Jordan Marcy on both sides of the disc had helped them to this point, and Bloodthirsty would need to rely on them to get further. For UC-Davis, if you had been following along with me on Twitter through the weekend, you would’ve heard me say how great Eli Kerns was playing this weekend. The likely Callahan nominee made a lot of very impressive plays throughout the entire weekend; including a few full-stretch layout defensive plays and his ability to command the field was hard to contain for every team the Davis Dogs faced this weekend. Joining him in performing well this weekend Nathan White, a first year Revolver player that I mostly saw handling but also excelled as a cutter. His somewhat lanky frame doesn’t put him as the speediest player on the field, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t effective.
It was UC-Davis who would come out on top this game, with a final score somewhat closer than it should’ve been. Give all the credit to Stanford for staying in the game during the closing points, but from the very beginning UC-Davis was in control. After rattling off breaks in the opening points of the game, including a key upwind break, the Dogs were at a heavy advantage over Bloodthirsty. It wasn’t just that their offense was playing better than Stanford’s was, it was that their defense was using the right combination of strategy – a lot of strong, man defense with heavy emphasis on the marks it seemed – to stifle Stanford both up and down-wind. At one point, Stanford was able to break the Dogs to bring themselves closer in the game, but that notion was quickly put to rest and it would be Davis that would advance to see Pittsburgh in the semi-finals.
#13 Florida State v. #15 UC-San Diego
From the very beginning of the game, something that has come to define Florida State DUF – their aggressive defensive sets – would prove to be the difference maker against the UC-San Diego Air Squids. The Air Squids had definitely improved upon their early Saturday play to reach this point of the tournament, and were continuing that level of play in this game, but it wasn’t enough to take down Florida State. FSU was coming off of a Saturday that saw them win Pool D over Oregon with that same style of play, hallmarked by the Florida four-man zone look, and contesting the disc on almost every throw from their opponents.
By being able to slow down the UCSD offense, FSU should’ve had a very easy path to victory in this game. But through the first half and then again late in the second half, the DUF break opportunities were often squandered or took much longer to score than need be. This gave the Air Squids hope, and during part of the second half, the ability to swim back into the game. That was a pattern from DUF that we would see again in their semi-final matchup against UNC. But in this game it didn’t affect who moved onto the next round, as Florida State proved victorious to advance and play UNC.
#1 North Carolina v. #2 Colorado
Where did the Colorado Mamabird of Saturday go? That’s the question we’re all left wondering after their game with North Carolina Darkside in quarterfinals. On Saturday, it was UNC who was underperforming, it was UNC who was unable to win games on the backs of their most talented players. But on Sunday, this is where Mamabird found themselves, as the preview of what could be a prime Nationals matchup took place early in the morning. Meanwhile for UNC, this game was the first on their path to a tournament victory at Stanford Invite, and erased any lingering doubts from Saturday.
In the first half of this game, both sides of the disc for Mamabird seemed to be the issue. On offense, the cutting from Jimmy Mickle, Tim Morrissy and Hidde Snieder was shut down by the UNC defenders, forcing Bird to look elsewhere. That caused some early turns in the game and led to some early breaks for Darkside. When it got to the second half, the offense seemed to wake up, but one part of their game seemed distant the entire game – their defense. I’m not sure if it was laziness out of the Colorado defenders, or if the UNC cutters were just that much better than they were, but there were a lot of uncontested looks for Darkside’s offensive sets. The Colorado offensive line players, who had spent a lot of time out on the field due to the UNC breaks, also seemed to be tired on the field, while their opponents could play depth players on the big name players and receive similar results. All credit goes to UNC this game, they played perhaps their second best game of the tournament, but this was not the best showing from Mamabird by far. Yes this loss hurts Colorado’s standing as the top team in the nation, but shouldn’t dissuade anyone from thinking they’re still not one of the best in the nation. North Carolina meanwhile completely set aside any notion that they would be underperforming at this tournament right then and there, and moved onto play Florida State in the next round.
#13 Florida State v. #1 North Carolina
What a game this was, as Florida State DUF took on North Carolina Darkside. It would be the consistent strain of constantly putting themselves behind that would ultimately cost DUF this game, which at some points they seemed to be in control of. But they fell behind in this game at the most inopportune time, as the score climbed towards the point cap and time towards hard cap. UNC didn’t seemed phased with DUF’s physical play at all. I was told before the game that having seen them at Classic City Classic in the finals late in the fall, in what was practically a spring game, Darkside was now prepared for that style and it showed. Their offense didn’t run seamlessly the entire game, and was slowed down a lot by the zone defense FSU employed, but in the end it was the UNC defense that became their biggest asset. Strong play in the final points, forcing Florida State turnovers was the reason Darkside came out on top.
For Florida State though, they showed that they might be the new top dog out of the Southeast region. Taking down Oregon in pool play, and making it to the semi-finals of one of the spring’s biggest tournaments is nothing to take lightly, and they did so with strong play on defense from some of their more well known and unknown players. Captain Chris LaRocque pointed out players like Connor Holcomb, Clark Cofer, Andrew Roney and Drew LaRocque at the tournament as being instrumental in going so far. He also acknowledged that DUF would often be caught down in games, and letting other teams back into games, throughout the entire tournament. While Florida State may now be the top team from the Southeast, this style of play will not be conducive to strong results at Nationals in late May.
UC-Davis v. #12 Pittsburgh
After how well both of these two teams played in the quarterfinals, I was expecting a big game between the two teams. But from the get-go, Pittsburgh En Sabah Nur established themselves as the more dominant team both on offense and defense, and the UC-Davis Dogs could not come up with a response. After the game, I was told that the Dogs knew Pittsburgh liked to stretch the field, and use their deep game as a bail out opportunity when the stall count got high, especially in the winds. Unable to come up with an adequate solution to that though, Pittsburgh would remain in control of the game. Davis didn’t play poorly, and showed themselves to at least be a challenge for Pittsburgh but not enough to affect the results of the game.
#1 North Carolina v. #12 Pittsburgh
In the finals of the 2014 Stanford Invite, Pittsburgh En Sabah Nur met North Carolina Darkside, in a matchup of the pool play game from the day before. That first game, North Carolina fell to Pittsburgh because they didn’t play nearly as well as the opposition on both sides of the disc, but especially because their decision making was off; because of that, their game plan wasn’t able to be executed, and they lost the game and dropped the pool. This game however, it seemed to be the complete opposite. It was Pittsburgh who didn’t play as well, and who weren’t able to execute their game plan. And as the game went on, as much as it happened against Mamabird earlier in the day for Darkside, the main players of En Sabah Nur seemed tired on the field from playing so much. It’s also important to note again that this game featured different weather conditions than had been present for the majority of the weekend; instead of a strong wind dictating play, after it finished raining, the wind was basically a non-factor.
During the course of the game, Darkside seemed in complete control. Much as they had against Mamabird and to an extent, Florida State, the depth players of North Carolina really came through. I don’t know how many times I heard Pitt players on the sideline questioning who was on Trent Dillon that point, or Pat Earles or anyone else on the field for their team, and when no one could name the player, the look of pure surprise on the players. But it speaks to the depth of Darkside, and how well their defense performed. Due to the strong defense, and with the help of Pitt’s top players receiving little rest that game, the offense of Pitt became very stagnant – especially with the disc just outside of the end zone. Here, on more than several occasions, Pitt would have the disc maybe 15 yards at most from the scoring on both up and down-wind opportunities (but it was much more noticeable going up-wind), and movement from the vertical stack would come to a halt, and instead primarily the disc would be worked through handler movement. And when a window into the endzone from either a cutter or handler opened up, the disc seemed forced a lot. Darkside was able to shut this down more often than not, and combined with the play of their depth I think was the difference this game.
For Pittsburgh, Coach Nick Kaczmarek had a lot to say about what the change in weather meant for his team, and how well North Carolina played against them in the finals. He told me that the team was looking forward to playing “in clearer conditions in which the wind wouldn’t cover up for our [Pitt’s] mistakes anymore.” Those mistakes he said included poor defensive positioning and lack of offensive discipline. Part of that was acknowledging that the offense got stagnant a lot downfield, and attributed it all to the play of Darkside.
“UNC made some smart adjustments that denied our original attack” he said, “but we’re confident we’ll adapt to take advantage of those types of looks in the future.”
Meanwhile, for North Carolina Darkside, they played perhaps their best game of the tournament against Pitt in the finals. Talking with Coach Mike DeNardis after the game, he chalked it up to the team “playing to [their] strengths”. Unlike the game from Saturday against Pitt, where they were never really able to set their game plan properly, in the finals they were. Part of that meant adjusting to man defense in the low wind that came out after the delay. Another contribution were the good matchups that North Carolina was able to get against Pittsburgh. That included mid-game adjustments, and a rotation on defense. The rotation I think was key. While the stars of Pitt continuously marched back to the line after Darkside points, they were able to sub out players to give them rest, and present En Sabah Nur with new challenges.
With both teams attending Easterns in a few weeks, perhaps we’ll see a rematch.
Weather & Results
How much should weight should we put into the results of the 2014 Stanford Invite? Due to the wind that was present for basically the entire weekend, teams were brought to almost an equal playing field. So, when taking into account power rankings and other opinions on these teams, should the results from the tournament count the same as results from better-weather tournaments? I asked Zack Smith about this during Sunday’s play, and here’s what he had to say:
“Playing in the heavy wind conditions is not a great indicator of the strength of current teams, or the parity of the division. This is one of the reasons I don’t like Missouri Loves Company as an early season indicator of what teams are strong or not. Just because a team like Las Positas beat UCF, Harvard and Texas on Sunday in very windy conditions, doesn’t mean that they can do it again when it’s not that bad. Did you see the LPC vs Ego game from President’s Day? For example, Texas had just won Warm Up. Do we now honestly think that they aren’t good enough to make it to at least quarters of this tournament, or Nationals? The only result that I think you can really walk away with is the finals, where the wind died down significantly after that lightning delay. Most of the time when you play, it isn’t at 20 mph+ winds. At Nationals it (hopefully) won’t be.”
Forgot to mention these names on Saturday, who I all saw play very well for their teams: Kohji Sugioka of California UGMO; Brian Penner of Oregon Ego; Austin Mercadante of Central Florida Dogs of War; someone that was wearing Will Driscoll’s #21 all weekend for Texas TUFF, but wasn’t actually Will Driscoll.
Some interesting results in the consolation bracket of the tournament. Stanford would win the 5th place bracket, taking down first Colorado and then Wisconsin. Losses for Central Florida, Oregon and Texas in the consolation brackets to surprising teams were also reported. It will be interesting to see how this affects teams going into the closing weeks of the season, and bid-watch begins.
While watching the UC-San Diego versus Florida State game, two parents from the Air Squids showed me an interesting application called Score Board Tap. This app was basically an easy way for those attending the games of a specific team to keep followers around the nation, from parents to alumni and girlfriends they said, up to date with the team in a more in depth manner than tweeting can do. It provides the constant scoreboard, along with showing who has possession of the disc, D’s from each team, and other big plays. There’s also a chat function for those at the game to relay information about specific players or plays to those on the other end. It was really interesting to see a demonstration of the app, and definitely seems useful to those that can’t be at the game. Both parents said they hope to improve the features of the app soon.
On Saturday, I ran into the AUDL’s San Jose Spiders Owner Andrew Zill. He was openly at the tournament to recruit players, not just for the present he said but for the future. There were a couple of teams in particular he singled out as looking towards supplying some talent for the AUDL team. Most of his talk though was on the future of his team, saying that while the success they’ve had as an organization so far this year (in signings of players and sponsors), the goal has always been towards looking at the future. I’m sure he saw a few players he’d love to have suit up for his team in the coming seasons.
After the finals, both Pittsburgh and UC-Davis would stay to scrimmage each other. While it looked like most of Pitt’s offensive line rested this game, Davis went with their full roster, and each played a hard fought game. For two out of region opponents, this sort of practice is a great bonus to the weekend for the two of them.
Again, on behalf of all of Skyd Magazine, I’d like to express our deepest sympathies to the players of Carleton CUT and the entire ultimate community there for the tragedy that occurred on Friday afternoon. As I wrote for Saturday, you could feel this hanging over the tournament, and even on Sunday it was still there. I was asked a few times how I would be covering the event going forward and how that affects Carleton CUT and their path to Nationals, and was taken aback at how quickly the conversation shifted. Please let this time be about grieving and remembrance and not some forced, ultimate-based narrative of their game.
Stanford Invite Spin Ultimate MVP – Jimmy Zuraw from UNC
Watching UNC, I noticed a player on their defensive line who throughout pool play, and into bracket play on Saturday evening, who was a rock for Darkside. That’s Jimmy Zuraw. I saw him matchup against the big stars of other teams, and help to contain them; names like Jimmy Mickle, Dylan Freechild and Trent Dillon. I saw him line up as a handler, and as a cutter, and prove effective as both. When I say he was a rock, I mean he could be counted on at all times for UNC. Counted on to play hard man to man defense when his team needed it, or take shots with the disc on break opportunities.
Those opportunities didn’t always work though, as UNC Coach Mike DeNardis was first to point out to me.
“Jimmy played well in quarters” he said, “and he really came back from the errors he made against Colorado in a big way.”
With Zuraw coming back from those errors, UNC was able to retain their hold over Mamabird, and win that game to advance to the next round. He isn’t always the flashiest player on the field, and for many is probably second thought to others on UNC’s roster like Christian Johnson or Jon Nethercut. But I noticed how well UNC’s defense flowed with him on the field; both on offense and defense. He wasn’t always the catalyst when it came to converting a break, but more often than not he had a heavy hand in doing so. To me, that signifies a player that UNC needs in order to make a run like did here this weekend, from pre-quarters to tournament champions. Zuraw is the sort of player that without, we might all be questioning more than just UNC’s depth, but ability to stay with the other top teams.
As Coach DeNardis said, “at the end of the day, he performed well.”