There’s plenty of season left at Centex this year. Whereas Centex in years past has been a capstone on the regular season, for many teams in attendance it’s actually their first or second tournament. With snow and rain pummeling the majority of the country all winter and spring, we should not expect to see polished ultimate across the board. Teams who have played three tournaments and 22 games (UCSD) will take on teams who have played only four games in a single day of ultimate (Iowa). With strength bids on the line and a more forgiving format than in years past, Centex will once again play host to a dramatic weekend of college women’s ultimate.
Cream of the Crop
The top two seeds at the tournament, UCSB Burning Skirts and Central Florida Sirens, are a cut above the rest of the teams in attendance, even their Division-I counterparts. Both teams are top-heavy, with Skyd 5 Callahan contender stars in Lisa Pitcaithley (UCSB) and Sunny Harris (UCF) dominating the touches, the playing time, and the stat sheets. Neither team should be challenged before the finals unless the conditions or fatigue take their toll disproportionately on these teams. Both teams play tricky zones with their stars patrolling the deep space, allowing quick counterattacks.
In their fantastic Stanford Invite matchup, Central Florida roared out to an early lead and dominated Santa Barbara’s thin roster with their relative depth. But Santa Barbara, coached by Carolyn Finney and Tyler Bacon, was more adept at making strategic changes, and their trapping zone and force middle defenses confused the Sirens and allowed Santa Barbara back into the game. A finals rematch would be another barnburner, in which Central Florida should, on paper, be the stronger team. But you can never count out these Skirts, as their win against #1 Oregon (Fugue’s only defeat this season) would attest.
Santa Barbara has shown a propensity to run out of gas, which led directly to their blowout loss to Western Washington at Stanford Invite. The team is not deep enough to win four tough games in a row – but the Centex field this year is not quite strong enough to pose that threat to the Skirts. Where they struggle against Central Florida is in the tier of players directly below their stars. Lisa Pitcaithley can take Sunny Harris out of her element, but can Noelle Neason and Kelly Gross contain Mariel Hammond, Erin Goding, Alexa Wood, and Jodi Dearing? Not in man-to-man defense, which is where Central Florida burned UCSB at Stanford Invite. UCF has enough athletic, experienced players to put out a strong line. Santa Barbara is really only four players deep, which really makes their record that much more impressive. At the end of the weekend, in their seventh game, will Santa Barbara have the legs to stick with Central Florida? History says yes, but this is a very impressive Sirens squad.
Strength Bid Battle
All weekend, the undercurrent of the strength bid battle will take precedence for several teams on the bubble. North Carolina is currently in slim possession of a second bid for the Atlantic Coast, and the Pleiades will go as far as Skyd 5 Callahan contender Shellie Cohen will take them. The team is well-coached, and Cohen has a reliable supporting cast, but they’ll need to do well to stay ahead of teams like Whitman, Carleton, and Tufts, who are playing in next weekend’s Northwest Challenge tournament instead of Centex.
Iowa is actually in a good position to make up ground for the North Central region, which is in danger of being a one-bid region only a year after sending five teams to Nationals and placing all five in the prequarters or higher. With Carleton just outside the top 20 and playing at the Northwest Challenge next weekend, and Iowa only having played four games this year, a big Centex showing and strong wins over Northeastern (#11 in USAU rankings) and UCSD (#19 in USAU rankings) could vault them up into the top 18 where they would hope Carleton joins them in a week. Liza Minor is still a fantastic player for Saucy Nancy, and let’s not forget that this is a team that made the semifinals of Nationals last year.
In a similar vein, UCSD has a lot to gain with a strong performance this weekend, but the Southwest squad is an underdog in both pool play games despite being the second seed. A jump into the wildcard spots is unlikely, and UCLA (playing at Northwest Challenge as well) could drop out of the wildcards if UCSD has a poor weekend and UCLA follows it up with a poor weekend in Seattle. The Southwest has two incredibly strong teams in UCSB and Stanford, but UCLA is a really bubble team benefiting in the rankings from a strong west coast performance at Pres Day. It’s not surprising if the Southwest only finishes with two bids.
Northeastern (#11), Virginia (#13), and Texas (#9) should all do well enough to maintain their spots in the top 18, but a catastrophic tournament for any of the teams will have them anxiously refreshing Twitter in a week as the Northwest Challenge results come in. Virginia ranks much higher in the Skyd Magazine Power Rankings than Texas, but comes into Centex as the second seed in their pool behind Melee. Their game at 1:30 on Saturday should be one of the best of the round, and we’ll see if Alika Johnston (a dark-horse Callahan contender) and Hydra are truly a threat to break into the upper echelon of the women’s college division this year.
Focus on Regionals
Kansas Betty has been knocking at the door in the South Central last year and this year, but they haven’t quite made the leap into the national conversation. Realistically, a strength bid is probably out of reach, and they’ll rely on Texas and Colorado to earn the region’s bids. But if the region gets two bids, Betty could easily steal one of them at Regionals, and Centex is a great way for Kansas to get experience against some of the best teams in the country and prepare for Sunday at Regionals. Their game against UCSB will be the best competition they’ve faced in some time, and whether they can compete in that game will probably be indicative of their ability to perform in the game to go at Regionals.
For Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa State, 2014 has been a disappointing season. All three squads made prequarters of Nationals last year, but are floundering this year. Their season objectives have to focus on Regionals at this point, hoping that Iowa and Carleton miraculously manage to pull out two bids for the region and building to peak at North Central Regionals to win an unlikely trip back to Nationals. Centex results and strength bids are secondary to building up their rosters and improving as a team.
And while Ottawa is not in the strength bid picture, they merit a mention. The Canadian squad is playing their first tournament this weekend, and they could play spoiler for any number of teams. There are plenty of players with Capitals experience on the roster, and they could easily end up winning their pool and making their way into the championship bracket. Centex is our first chance to see what the Lady Gee Gees are really made of, and we should be able to tell if they can actually make some noise at Nationals this year.
Strong Division-III Field
This year’s Division-III at Centex contains several teams that will comfortably play up to the 17th place bracket this year. Rice has dominated at D-III Warmup, Colorado State could theoretically earn a third bid for the South Central region with a strong tournament, and Arizona State and MIT are both solid teams that could eke out wins over weaker teams in Division-II. All four teams are top seeds in their Division-III pools and contenders to earn a win in the 17th place bracket prequarters. Colorado State in particular has a strong path to the quarterfinals, playing the loser of a 3rd place crossover. With big margin wins over weaker competition and a competitive Sunday, they might be able to gain that third bid for at least a week, however unlikely it may seem.
It just isn’t Centex if there isn’t something worrisome in the forecast. Last year it was consistent 25 mph winds – and this year it might be thunderstorms. As the conditions get worse, games might get closer among the second tier of teams, pulling teams tighter together in the rankings and leaving them susceptible to being leapfrogged by teams playing at Northwest Challenge next weekend. But poor conditions play into the hands of teams like Santa Barbara and Central Florida, who are comfortable taking big shots, running tons of zone defense, and winning in any conditions. But how often do tournaments go to chalk?