In a thrilling and unpredictable Southwest Regional tournament that lived up to its billing as the capstone to a topsy-turvy regular season, it was only fitting that the spoils went to the most consistent team in the region.
UCSD steamrolled its way to a 15-10 championship over two-time defending regional champions UC Davis behind a dominant, aggressive defensive line, and a senior-heavy offense that was rarely broken all weekend.
The Squids entered the tournament as the overall #1 seed behind a SoCal Conference Championship and an impressive regular season that only saw losses to Nationals contenders Oregon, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Florida State.
The team was barely tested in the early stages of the tournament, working their way through Chico State, Northern Arizona, and Arizona, before knocking out gritty UCSB Black Tide 15-8 in the Quarterfinals.
But with eight teams in the top 40 of USA Ultimate’s final regular season rankings and only one bid, UCSD knew it would have to survive multiple battles to take the top spot.
That team would be semifinals opponent UC-Berkeley, a squad that relied on top-to-bottom sideline energy and impressive comebacks all season long. Cal lost its final pool play game to arch-rivals Stanford, but emerged as victors in a three-way tie in Pool D based on a point differential of one.
After hanging around all game, Cal strung together a series of breaks to send the game to universe point. UCSD Captain Nick “Alamo” Smith proceeded to drop the pull, and defeat seemed certain with Ugmo star Chuck Cao tapping the disc in on the goal line.
In what would be the story of the tournament, UCSD’s opponent could not punch the disc in for a break. Cao threw a desperation stall nine high-release push pass that was easily gobbled up by a Squid defender. Smith exploded deep for for a 65-yard huck and threw the easy pass for a heart attack 14-13 capped victory.
“I got caught halfway between trying to catch the disc and letting it hit the ground,” Smith said. “My teammates bailed me out. I was just relieved to look up and see the disc in my teammate’s hand after I dropped it.”
UC Davis had its own tense moments on the way to the finals. The Dogs faced down their upstart quarterfinals opponent UC Santa Cruz in another wacky, wild universe point finish.
All-around star Nathan White earned a clutch handblock on the goal line after pulling to UCSC, then was immediately handblocked by his opponent on the ensuing pass. A fortuitous upheld foul call gave the disc back to White. His dump to teammate Eli Kerns led to a break throw that was tipped by a laying out defender, only to be snagged by a lying-down teammate with a one-handed stab.
Davis, however, never looked comfortable in the finals.
UCSD used a loose cup and 1-3-3 transition zone to eliminate Davis’s pull plays from White to Kerns, and the Dogs gave the disc to UCSD over and over again with drops, miscues, and errant hucks.
Aggressive, blady hucks in mild Long Beach wind and superior athleticism and conditioning propelled the Squids to four breaks in the first half and six overall in the game. Jesse Cohen paced the Squid offense with four goals and one assist, showing his versatility with a wide array of break throws to keep UCSD’s horizontal stack moving efficiently.
“Jesse is multifaceted,” said Squid coach Matt Parisi. “You can’t guard him in one place. He’s a deep threat and he’ll also be throwing the disc deep. That’s what we thrive on. We only really have four guys downfield so we rely on those guys being able to make all the throws and all the cuts… These guys have been playing together for a long time. The biggest thing we have going for us is discipline and the work the guys have put in at the track. It really is a coach’s dream.”
When the Squids offensive line did turn the disc over – eight times in six points in the second half – Davis could only manage to convert one into a break (after breaking once on the first point of the game). Davis had multiple chances to bring the game within two, but the defense’s offense simply looked tired after a long weekend in the sun.
Former NexGen star Kerns almost singlehandedly kept Davis in the game, putting up a monster stat line of six goals, two assists, and five D’s and saving numerous errant passes from almost sure turnovers. His all-around dominance couldn’t keep Davis close however, as co-star White had a quiet two goals and one assist and his other teammates never looked comfortable with UCSD’s suffocating defense.
Asked about his team’s heart-attack moments, Parisi put it in no uncertain terms. “I have a lot of faith in them,” he said. “They’re a remarkably resilient bunch. These guys have all the faith in the world in themselves and in the system. If any team was going to pull it out I thought they would. UCSD has had some collapses in the past and this team is going the opposite direction: they’re making other people collapse.”
For the Squids, this is their fifth trip to Nationals in the last ten years and the first since 2010.