This recap is part of the 2014 College Tour, presented by Spin Ultimate.
This year’s Stanford Invite welcomed four teams from the Northwest, this season’s strongest region, six teams from the host Southwest Region, and travelers Wisconsin (North Central) and Central Florida (Southeast). Like the 2013 edition of the tournament, an unlikely finalist emerged from the field to challenge #1 seed Oregon – Wisconsin last year, and Western Washington this year. In the end, the result was the same, with Fugue walking away with the crown after a few close calls but never truly looking troubled.
Same Old Fugue
Anyone who has paid even cursory attention to the college women’s division over the last few years should be familiar with Oregon’s strategy. Be incredibly confusing and disruptive on defense, force opponents to throw into the teeth of the defense, mix double teams and designed poaches with strong marks and tight dump defense. And on offense, push the pace to frenetic levels, move the disc quickly, strike for the endzone relentlessly, and always be willing to play more defense. It’s the way Oregon won the title last year, wearing teams down physically and mentally by increasing the pressure as the game goes on. While teams can frequently stay with Oregon early on, eventually the pressure of not being able to make any mistakes gets to teams, and turnovers are increasingly turned into breaks behind Jesse Shofner and Sophie Darch’s quick disc movement and aggressive strikes downfield.
Notably, Darch played a lot of defensive points for Fugue at Stanford Invite, after being an O line mainstay last year. With the offense in the capable hands of Alex Ode and Bethany Kaylor, Darch and Shofner have been leading the D line to break after break, converting at an extremely high rate when they get a turnover. Oregon did not graduate many players from last year’s championship team, and they definitely have the talent to win a second consecutive title. Fugue simply makes fewer mistakes than their opponents, and they generally make sure their turnovers wind up in the endzone, forcing teams to go another 70 yards against a stifling and bewildering defense. They are susceptible against teams that can possess the disc, which almost led to a shocking upset early on when Davis Rogue went up 6-4 on Oregon behind patient, turnover-free offense. Stanford and Central Florida also challenged Fugue by possessing the disc and not giving up short field turnovers – until Central Florida threw a heartbreaking Callahan on universe point to lose in the semifinals.
From Qualifier to Finalist, Western Is For Real
This was my first chance to see Western Washington Chaos play since the old Alyssa Weatherford days, and Western is a legitimate contender this year. Weatherford is back on the sidelines as a coach, and Callie Mah (Riot) and Abbie Abramovich lead a scrappy squad that has loaded up on juniors talent in the last several years. While Stanford was hampered by injuries in their semifinal, a completely healthy roster may not have made much of difference as Western dominated the deep space on offense and defense as they rushed out to a 5-0 lead that put Stanford away. Freshman Jessie Thoreson and Abramovich unleashed big hucks, sometimes to each other, and Western outmuscled Stanford in the endzone to come down with almost all of them. On the other end, Stanford continued to loft up questionable hucks as Western fronted Stanford’s less experienced cutters (with seniors Halsey Hoster and Hilary Vance out from the beginning of the game, and fellow senior Jennie Lummis leaving at 0-5) and cleaned up in the defensive deep space as well.
Western Washington struggled in both of their early games on Saturday and Sunday – the beginning of their game against UBC on Saturday morning was marred by numerous redzone turnovers and questionable decisions. With Callie Mah usually wide open as a dump, handlers forced the disc into tight break windows and upline spaces instead of taking a cautious swing to Mah, leading to a much closer game than necessary. Western’s junk defense was flustering the Thunderbirds and forcing plenty of turnovers, but Western’s endzone inefficiencies kept UBC in the game. Over the course of the weekend, it seemed that Chaos could have put the disc in Mah’s hands more often, but instead was content to leave her as a seldom-utilized sideline dump. But even without Mah dominating games this weekend, Western made the finals and went 5-2 on the weekend. Developing the younger supporting class should pay dividends down the road as Western hopes to not just make Nationals, but make some noise.
Central Florida Holds Their Own
After all of the talk about Sunny Harris potentially not playing this weekend, Harris cleated up both days after getting her sprained ankle taped by the trainers on site. With every other east coast and midwest team underperforming on their west coast trips to Presidents Day and Stanford Invite, Central Florida carried the water for the east coast and put up an impressive showing despite their low numbers. Behind impressive performances from Harris and Mariel Hammond, as well as a breakout performance from receiver Jodi Dearing, Central Florida stood strong against all of the west coast teams they played, going 4-3 but with all three losses coming on universe point.
It may have been Central Florida’s inability to make adjustments that let UCSB back into the game – after building a large lead, Central Florida struggled against Santa Barbara’s tight zone defense and had difficulty getting the disc back after turnovers. The Sirens have had difficulty switching the field at times, and the better teams they’ve played have punished their tendencies to force the disc to their stars up the force sideline and on every dump set. Lisa Pitcaithley (UCSB) played great dump defense on Sunny Harris (although she was carrying that ankle injury) and caused a lot of difficulty for Central Florida’s offense, which relies on being able to have free resets to their best players.
Central Florida should get their rematch with Santa Barbara at Centex in two weeks, and on paper they have the depth and the talent to win. But on the field it was a different story at Stanford, and we’ll see if they’ve learned from their close losses on the west coast.
Vert Stack Superfly Back on Track
After several years of exclusively playing horizontal stack offense, and two disappointing bottom-half of Nationals finishes in the last two years, Stanford Superfly has returned to the vertical stack offense that brought them so many championships in the late 90’s through the 2000’s. The offense plays to the strengths of their starting handlers – senior Steph Lim (Nightlock), sophomore Monisha White, and freshman Caitlin Go, all of whom are quick to get open on resets and quick to attack the breakside with their throws. Their veteran cutters, seniors Halsey Hoster, Jennie Lummis, Hilary Vance, and Annë Rempel, along with grad student Maya White, are fast, experienced, and have the throws to continue the offense on their own. In Superfly’s games against the last two college champions, Oregon and Washington, their offense was poised and calm, able to work the disc in the wind with their handlers’ break throws and their cutters’ hucks.
Stanford should have given Western Washington a better game in the semifinals, but with Hoster, Lummis, and Vance out, their offense sputtered and defense was unable to contain Western’s deep game. And if Superfly can increase their completion percentage on their hucks and aggressive break throws, they will be a very difficult team to beat – those plays are their bread and butter to move the disc downfield, but their completion percentages are slightly below where they need to be to be a top team at Nationals. Their most reliable scoring plays are still handlers attacking up the line or goal line breaks – and they’re very good at them. On defense, Stanford mixes regular man defense with a few tricky zone looks, which helped them earn a win over Harris and Central Florida despite missing their top three cutters.
After Stanford Invite and the first set of USAU Rankings, the bid allotment stands at 5 for the NW, 3 for the SW, 3 for the SC, and two each for the AC and NE. With Centex and Northwest Challenge still to be contested, the bid picture is far from settled. The Northwest will look to pick up a 6th bid if Whitman can earn wins against strong out of region competition. With Colorado, Texas, Kansas, and even Colorado College and Colorado State in the mix, it looks like the South Central will be a dogfight for a likely two bids to Nationals – unless Colorado can distance themselves from the pack at Northwest Challenge. After sending five teams to Nationals last year, the North Central will likely only send one team this year, with Carleton and Iowa the two favorites to win the region. The Southwest currently has 3 bids thanks to a surprisingly high-ranked UCLA team, but that could vanish in the blink of an eye with a poor performance at NW Challenge.
Oregon’s Jesse Shofner dominated for Fugue all weekend, wreaking havoc on defense and putting fear in the hearts of opponents with her quick strike offense. The junior from Nashville, TN has a fantastic first step for dump and endzone cutting, big throws, a huge motor, and great field sense. She’s a complete player for Fugue, and a potential Callahan nominee in 2015.
- Washington was really missing Amanda Kostic and Lucy Williams after the Stanford game. That’s two of their main handlers missing the Oregon game (4-13) and various other games later in the weekend. We should see a more full-strength Element at their home tournament … maybe even with Barbara Hoover returning. Still Element looked a little too content to turn over the disc on offense and a little too disinterested in getting it back on defense to be in the semifinal conversation at Stanford Invite.
- British Columbia is pretty young this year, and their inconsistency is to be expected at this point. But with the experienced coaching of Tasia Balding and Jen Kwok, plus the incredible juniors depth of their incoming classes, the Thunderbirds will be a tough out all year and a legitimate contender for a quarters spot in Cincinnati this year.
- UCLA was wearing gloves all weekend in preparation for a rainy Northwest Challenge. BLU has a large roster but lacks star power and depth of fundamentals across the roster to make much noise this year – holding on to the third bid for the Southwest would be a big accomplishment, but qualifying over Davis will be the true test.
- Oregon got huge defense contributions from rookies and second year players – Hershey, Aufderheide, and Wahlroos all played phenomenally and took big matchups on defense.
- UC-Davis Rogue was a late addition to the tournament and played fantastically, nearly upsetting Oregon, playing Washington tight, and beating Wisconsin and Cal.
- Teams honored Carleton in various ways, whether it was during the tournament-wide moment of silence on Saturday morning, Oregon’s calf tattoos of the CUT symbol, or pre-finals huddles in support of CUT and Syzygy.