Lou Burruss: For this week’s Win the Fields, I’ve invited Skyd women’s editor Ryan Thompson over for a little back and forth. We’ll start with the Northwest Challenge and move to whatever comes up. Ryan, I’d like to start with the schedule. What do you make of this crazy thing?
Ryan Thompson: Well, I helped Kyle Weisbrod come up with it, so I think I have to say that I like it! But really, one of the tournament’s goals was to be flexible with teams’ spring break schedules, which includes Carleton driving back to Minnesota on Sunday, which meant playing four games on Friday and three on Saturday. Aside from that, the schedule isn’t that nuts — of the 12 teams, there are six Northwest teams and six teams from other regions, and there are six top-half teams and six bottom-half teams, conveniently with three NW teams in each group. And each team will play four teams from their strength group (three outside) and three teams from their region group (and four outside). It’s about as balanced as it could be, but it does look like kind of a mess on Score Reporter.
In the end, teams will get a chance to play teams from outside their region of a similar strength, and with teams like Tufts, Whitman, and Colorado chasing strength bids, I think they’ll all appreciate the chance to win it on the fields. Lou, who do you see with the most to gain and most to lose this weekend? Did anyone make a mistake by skipping out on Centex?
LB: There is a point I want to make about the schedule. The teams that are playing the three-day format are basically getting Nationals pool play practice: two or three games a day, set schedule, lots of rest. The teams that are playing the two-day schedule are getting the Centex/Stanford Invite experience: lots of games back-to-back-to-back-to-back. There is definitely a competitive imbalance there, but also some weirdness that has two different tournament formats mashed together. Our prep will look totally different from Carleton’s. Anyway, on to your questions.
We made a mistake not going to Centex. What says Oregon ultimate better than huck-and-play-d in a hurricane? Joking aside, I don’t think it really matters which tournament you went to. I think wins will be harder to come by at NWC, but worth more when you get them. Just like Centex, success here will assure you a bid spot; struggle and you’ll be crossing your fingers the first week of April. Clearly, this is a big tournament for the three bubble teams you mentioned, but I would add UCLA to this mix. The Southwest had a bad go at Centex and will find their stock falling across the board. Oddly, this tournament doesn’t matter at all for another bubble team: Carleton. After the disastrous spring the North Central has had there is no way that region will be able to secure two bids. Carleton is in a position to play for Regionals instead of bids. We play them our first game of the tournament; it’ll be their third.
We’ve got a big match up our final game of the weekend against Ohio State – there is a potential #1 overall seed at Nationals on the line. We haven’t seen them since Nationals pool play in 2012 and both teams have come a long, long way since then. They’ve gone toe-to-toe this season with UCF, so I’m expecting some real quality. My early read on this game is that it will come down to the depth of Fever’s bench. This will be their sixth game in two days; we’ll have spread ours out across three. I’ll send it back to you Ryan. Can your alma mater replicate their success from Stanford Invite? How about Western? Can Washington live up to their preseason billing?
RT: This is going to be an interesting weekend for Stanford – they’re still nursing injuries to important cutters sustained at Stanford Invite, and they’re pretty secure in a 2+ bid region. This is a tournament where they can work on their depth and improve. That isn’t to say that they won’t do well – their roster this weekend is essentially the same one that beat UCF in the 3rd place game at Stanford Invite. But with main cutters on the sidelines, Superfly’s performance will rest in the capable hands of senior Callahan nominee Steph Lim and sophomore Monisha White.
As for the two local teams, I think Western Washington has way less pressure to perform this weekend. Western exceeded expectations at Stanford Invite with their second place finish, and they’ve secured a strength bid for their region. If I were coaching Western, this weekend would be all about getting better for Regionals and Nationals. As for UW, they haven’t really put it all together in the last two years after winning Nationals in 2012. Getting Barbara Hoover back should help them on the offensive end, and it’s time for them to make a statement. I don’t think anyone on Element is satisfied with their consecutive blowout losses to Oregon (only scoring four points in each one), and I haven’t seen UW really shut a good team down with their defense since Nationals in 2012. Top-heavy teams like UCF and Santa Barbara have developed strong zone defenses that allow their top players to have as much influence on games as possible, but Washington has preferred to trust its depth. In the short term, it hasn’t worked out for them, but maybe the focus on player development will pay dividends this weekend, at Regionals, or at Nationals. I’m still not sleeping on Element.
I think that there are a few teams at this tournament who are essentially guaranteed to be at Nationals, barring catastrophe: Oregon, Western, Washington, Ohio State, and Stanford. How many others do you think will join them? Will the Northwest secure six bids this weekend?
LB: I’m not sure I’d write any of the NW teams as guarantees. If there are only five bids, a bad weekend or unlucky injury could spell doom. I think that is the difficulty of the NW trying to get six bids – so much has to go right for teams that are pretty thin at the top of their rosters. I wouldn’t guarantee Stanford either. If the SW goes two bids, Superfly could lose to UCLA, Davis or San Diego – it only takes one bad game at the wrong time. While we’re on the SW, can we rewind a week and talk Centex? What happened to UCSB?
RT: At the core of it, Santa Barbara is not a deep team. They have probably the biggest talent gap between their top player(s) and the rest of their roster, and if even one of Lisa Pitcaithley, Noelle Neason, or Kelly Gross is not playing at the top of her game, the whole team comes crumbling down. Their performances have gotten worse as the season has gone on, which I think is due to their carefree attitude on both sides of the disc. As other teams have improved their retention and increased their defensive pressure, UCSB’s turnovers and casual defense have not afforded them as many chances in the late season as they did in the early season. Of course, the other explanation is a two-hour time difference, a final exam hangover, and just an off weekend from their best players with little incentive for winning. But if any Southwest team is in danger in a two-bid region, I think it’s Santa Barbara. Remember, Stanford knocked out UCSB two years ago when they were defending champs, and they upset them last year to win the region.
I’m going to shift gears a little bit to the Callahan award. Forty teams at Centex saw Sunny Harris and Shellie Cohen dominate, while Lisa Pitcaithley’s Burning Skirts stumbled. That has to have a huge impact on voting. I recognize that you’re biased here, and I want your biased opinion. Do you think that teams outside of the small west coast elite will recognize Sophie Darch or Callie Mah? West coast teams have won the last 12 College Championships, but only Chelsea Putnam, Anna Nazarov, and Shannon O’Malley have won the Callahan. Could Cassie Swafford win over the west coast vote if Ohio State runs the table and steals the #1 seed at Nationals?
LB: Winning the Callahan is mostly about visibility, which is why there are more East Coast players with the award – more people see you play. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a Westie can’t win. Dylan Freechild won for the men last year, but like Dylan they must have a lot of exposure. Callie has a modern media Twitter campaign rolling (@Calliehan) and you can hardly turn around without seeing a picture of Sophie on Ultiworld or USAU. Swafford’s lack of visibility hurts her. How those three perform in the Ultiworld broadcast games will have a big impact. (Quick aside: as a proponent of women’s ultimate I am psyched about the filming; as a coach, not so much.)
I’ve always been pretty ambivalent about the Callahan. It’s an individual award in a team sport, but beyond that I think it often fails its own criteria. One of the supposed attributes of a Callahan winner is quality leadership. I know Sophie’s a great leader, but y’all don’t know that. I’ve got no idea about Sunny or Shellie. Particularly in this age of coaches, there’s no real way to judge leadership unless you are playing with or against someone regularly. There’s a couple things I’d like to see. I’d love it if there was a service project component to the Callahan award. I’d also like to see more intelligent and honest discussion of the candidates. You could get this through two waves of voting. An initial round that narrows the field to seven, then some serious analysis of the candidates, then a second round of voting just on the seven.
Last question: There’s a panel discussion happening Saturday night to discuss college women’s ultimate. What are you expecting or hoping to hear out of that?
RT: I think that this is a great addition to the tournament that Kyle Weisbrod and Gwen Ambler have set up. There’s going to be at least one representative from the UW athletic department to talk about the NCAA and if women’s ultimate fits in there. I hope that all of the teams take advantage of this opportunity and attend the meeting and have an open discussion – I offered to film or cover the discussion for Skyd, but the organizers want to foster an open environment without the media, so that people feel that they can speak more honestly. Issues of fundraising, travel, and recruiting are all broadly-based and applicable to all of the teams in attendance. Nobody wants to see a great team drop off the face of the earth because they have trouble recruiting or paying for tournaments.
With respect to NCAA recognition, this is something that’s been talked about for decades. It was officially studied by the UPA in 1998 and has been floating around for a while. It’s pretty clear to everyone that if ultimate ever gets into the NCAA, women’s ultimate will be the trailblazer. Lou, your former player Kimber Coles wrote a paper on this in high school that you may or may not have read. I think it’s smart to continue to consider NCAA involvement and what it might mean for the sport in the long run, and whether or not the time is right to consider it. The regulations and compliance factors would be huge. Teams would need to drastically clean up their act, and coaches would be restricted from contacting their players. Players might not be able to play in club ultimate tournaments with prize money (Triple Crown Tour!). There wouldn’t be much monetary support, especially at first. But you could have full-time coaches (not that this doesn’t happen at the club sport level – Stanford has at least one full-time rugby employee), recruit players with scholarship offers (or at least sway admissions – although again this can happen at the club sport level), and perhaps most importantly, pay for travel, get medical and facility support, and raise the profile of women’s ultimate on the national scale. Lou, can you take us home with your brief thoughts on NCAA women’s ultimate?
LB: This fits perfectly with the big community-wide argument about the semi-pro leagues and USAU. On the surface, the things that the NCAA has to offer – more money, more recognition, more legitimacy – all seem great. These are the same things the semi-pro leagues are offering and these things won’t come free. You touch on some of the logistical implications; I am more concerned about the cultural ones. Right now, Fugue is not my team – it belongs to the players. As an NCAA sport, Fugue would cease to exist and the Ducks would belong to the university and the head coach – the players would be participants, not owners. For women who want that experience, there is already a home for them in soccer, basketball or any of the other mainstream sports. There aren’t many places that offer the experience that ultimate does and I’d hate to see it disappear.