The word “Michigan” appears zero times in Skyd Magazine’s preview of Centex. This was not an oversight, or an intentional slight, and no strength bids are in play for the Great Lakes. Their season results before today were solidly middle of the road, with nothing from their performance last year or in 2014 thus far indicating that a serious contender was lurking in a Flywheel jersey. But the team that took the field today in Austin was one that could legitimately play late into the tournament at Nationals. Let’s not read too much into their decisive victory over a lethargic Santa Barbara squad, but they were independently impressive. They played smooth, confident offense, and tight, physical defense. Across the divisions at Centex there were only a handful of teams that consistently displayed good throwing form, a full line of competent, athletic defenders, and good offensive spacing and decision-making. Michigan was one of those teams – along with Central Florida and Northeastern.
In today’s mostly calm conditions, Michigan’s offense was expertly steered by Meeri Chang, who displayed the necessary drive and conviction to get the disc back into her hands when required that many potentially dominant college handlers never quite achieve. Chang was able to break the mark effectively, use her legs to create separation and create opportunities in the power position and easy resets for her teammates, and launch great hucks to her athletic receivers. Her downfield targets are primarily Jacqueline Jarik, Becky Moore, and Theresa Zettner, all experienced and athletic receivers with good hands and good field sense. Sophomore Hannah Henkin also deserves mention for her excellent disc movement and break throws, primarily getting the D line offense going and converting breaks. Michigan’s offense moves smoothly, at low stall counts, and with confidence.
Perhaps more impressive is their defense, which put some of the most pressure on teams today of anyone. Moore, Carolyn Vlach, and Zettner are all excellent defenders, and Michigan doesn’t give an inch when contesting unders or deeps. Against top-30 teams, Michigan stood tall and put tons of pressure on teams to make plays and generate space with their cuts. First Kansas, then Santa Barbara and Iowa and Florida all failed at that task. It’s not rocket science, it’s just a roster full of experienced athletes who are happy to bump and grind their opponents (is it any wonder that they also won the dance-off?). Michigan was ecstatic after their win over Santa Barbara, and it was their defense that really stood out. Lisa Pitcaithley, Noelle Neason, and Joy Kang couldn’t find any room as cutters, leading to turnover after turnover.
Tomorrow is another day, with another weather forecast – colder and rainier. Three of today’s other impressive teams, Central Florida, Northeastern, and Virginia, all have very good zone defenses that could easily throw a wrench into Flywheel’s Sunday plans. Northeastern is one of only a few teams with a size advantage over Michigan, and they were not shy about using it today during their 11-1 run against UCSD to come back from an early deficit. Players like Melissa Ellis and Jenni Ladutko are capable of winning matchups against any players in the country, and Northeastern ran off an impressive string of at least four points in a row without a single turnover at the end of the first half of the UCSD game as they were just starting their comeback.
Central Florida did what they were expected to do today, and they looked good doing it. Sunny Harris and Mariel Hammond often look like they’re playing a different game on the field than their opponents, and their confidence, athleticism, and decision-making easily makes them the favorites at this tournament. Northeastern and Michigan look like they could be challengers, and while it’s possible that Virginia makes it out of the top half of the bracket to the finals, it’s unlikely that Hydra can string together the three flawless games in a row that they’d need to win the tournament. Alika Johnston was not taking over today, preferring to allow her teammates to make the majority of first handler cuts, and as a result she was often on the field for turnovers, but not directly involved.
Santa Barbara faltered, losing to Michigan in a game where Lisa Pitcaithley could never really get involved in the offense, Kelly Gross missed on almost all of her hucks, and the entire team seemed to be playing a gear or two lower than Michigan. They followed that up with a lackluster performance against in-region UCSD, literally walking down the field on offense at times, but eking out the win 15-13 when Noelle Neason finally turned on the jets in the final two points. That carried through to their prequarters game against Iowa State, where they traded points for a long time until Pitcaithley and Neason started powering past their defenders and scoring at will.
Host team Texas came back to win games against Maryland and Virginia this morning, and was only up by one against Iowa State at halftime in their crossover. But late surges have come on the back of Brady Stoll and Diana Charrier, who seems comfortable temporarily stepping into a handler role when the Texas offense stagnates. Stoll directs the offense and can launch hucks better than anyone else on Melee, but Charrier can offer explosive speed and free resets, which allows the disc to get into Stoll’s hands much more frequently. The sloppy starts are concerning for Melee, but the potential is clearly there. They’ve drawn a tough matchup against Santa Barbara in the bottom half of the bracket in what should be one of the games of the round.
And last but not least, Maryland deserves some recognition for making quarterfinals at Centex. They nearly knocked off Texas in their first game, taking a 10-8 lead into the final points of the game before falling 10-12. They drew a favorable prequarter matchup in UCSD, and Jessie O’Connor (Scandal) went to work, mercilessly attacking up the line to get the disc in a power position and launch beautiful hucks (frequently to the breakside). Maryland won’t get far in their rematch with UCF, but the 5th place bracket will be an exciting spot for them to battle more strong teams.