Easterns 2013: Tournament Recap

WILMINGTON — Many of the country’s best college open teams concluded their regular season this weekend at Easterns. What is normally a tournament that clarifies the national landscape and solidifies which teams are in a position to win the National Championship raised more questions than answers this year.

There were three “majors” this year in the Open Division — Warm Up, Stanford Invite, and Easterns. Each had a different pair of finalists and a different winner (Wisconsin, Oregon, and Minnesota, respectively.) At the “mid-majors” (Santa Barbara Invite, Queen City Tune Up, Eastern’s Qualifier, President’s Day Invite, Centex, and the upcoming New England Open), only Arizona repeated as a champion.

What we are left with is a wide-open field and more parity than ever heading into the Series. Teams have looked dominant and then fallen off (Wisconsin, Arizona, Tufts), played poorly and rallied back (Central Florida, Colorado), and been consistently good but not great (Pittsburgh).

Because of the rain and wind at Easterns on Sunday, a lot of the results (particularly quarterfinals, where half the teams were playing in an inch of standing water) have to be taken lightly. But Minnesota’s impressive undefeated performance was no fluke. They beat #1 Oregon in the first round on Saturday in excellent conditions, a game they called their best performance of the season.

With the Easterns title and a double game point finals loss to Arizona at the President’s Day Invite, Minnesota is now on the short list of teams in contention for the national title. That story and more below.

MINNESOTA GOES UNDEFEATED TO TAKE EASTERNS TITLE

With just one loss on the season (to Arizona at the President’s Day Invite), Minnesota (UW #9, USAU #9), adding an Easterns title to their resume, has vaulted themselves into the conversation as a potential National Champion. Led by impressive play from Greg Arenson, Grey Duck thrived in both the rainy and pleasant weather, staving off late comebacks with patient offense.

They played very well in the finals against easily the second hottest team at the tournament, Central Florida. Despite trailing 10-8, Minnesota never lost their focus and scored five straight to take a lead that would not relinquish. Arenson, Josh Klane, and Dave Eddy all had big games and filled up the stats sheet for the team.

“Everyone helps, there’s no one strategy for us that allowed us to win,” said Arenson after the finals, calling that the difference this year. “Everyone has bought in,” he added.

Klane said, “A lot of teams have two or three guys that they highly depend on. We have five or six.”

Although this team wouldn’t be the same without Arenson, they do have depth at the top of their roster. Different players stepped up in different games. Jason Tschida was a huge contributor this weekend, despite making less of an impact in the finals than others.

Eddy, who Klane called “one of the most underrated players in the nation,” stepped up in crunch time, notching two scores and an assist in the second half comeback in the finals.

Despite going undefeated, Minnesota didn’t expect to win coming into the weekend. And they know that it doesn’t mean much at Nationals.

“This year there is incredible competition even with teams that haven’t been to Nationals before,” said Arenson.

But they do feel that they have a shot. “We just proved to ourselves that we can go out and win Nationals,” said Klane.

One knock on Minnesota: they had a long time to rest between their semifinal against Colorado and the finals against Central Florida, due to the unusual structure to allow NexGen to film both semis. That may very well have contributed to their win against UCF, who looked gassed in the second half.

CENTRAL FLORIDA BOUNCES BACK FROM STANFORD DISAPPOINTMENT

In sports, often what defines success is how well you can withstand adversity and respond accordingly. If that’s true, Central Florida may well be a national champion this season.

Coming off of what coach Andrew Roca called the worst performance he’s ever seen from his team at the Stanford Invite, Central Florida came roaring back at Easterns with a determined attitude and sharp focus.

Wearing eyeblack with their greatest on-field fear written into it for their opponents to see, UCF’s players were much more determined than they were in California.

“We knew we could compete with the top teams in the nation,” said MIscha Freystaetter, their 6′ 7″ star receiver. “And I think we proved that this weekend.”

UCF used excellent resets to keep the disc moving and strong dump defense to slow other teams down.

“The thing I think they do the best is the around backhand break,” said UNC coach Mike DeNardis.

Central Florida was, behind Minnesota, easily the most impressive team on Saturday, despite a loss to Ohio in the last round of pool play after they had locked up a spot in quarterfinals.

But Sunday would give them a big challenge — a game against Oregon in the wind and rain.

Roca had a plan — huck and hope. Before the game, he said that he asked himself, “Do I think Oregon is cocky enough not to play the conditions?” He decided that the answer was yes. UCF jumped out to what proved to be insurmountable lead by picking up the disc, hucking it every time, and letting their big bodies go up to pull it down.

But the physicality of that game — and the tenacity of the UNC team they played in semis — may have contributed to their finals loss. “We ran out of gas,” said Roca. “And when you run out of gas, you make poor decisions.”

They also lost 6′ 5″ Michael Hickson part way through the finals, one of the biggest playmakers of the weekend. He has battled injuries all season, a common theme for the UCF Dogs. This season, their numbers have dwindled from 27 players down to 20 due to injury.

Despite the finals loss, this was still a successful weekend for Central Florida. What was the difference maker? Intensity and mental focus come to mind. The team was running sprints at halftime of their Tufts game, when they led 8-3. Roca noted that, in the wake of the Stanford Invite, they “had multiple meetings on mental toughness.”

But they want more. “Two years in a row, second place [at Easterns],” said Roca. “I hate being the bridesmaid.”

NORTH CAROLINA TEAMS STEP UP WHERE THEY DIDN’T AT STANFORD

Out at Stanford, both UNC and UNC-Wilmington had great starts to their weekend, going 2-1 in their pools and earning a spot in prequarters as the favorite. But both teams came into their games having just lost to the pool winner. Each lost badly and missed the Sunday bracket.

With the experience of a “zap” (as UNC coach Mike DeNardis called it) behind them, they were better prepared for adversity at Easterns.

Yet again, both teams lost in the pool play round directly before heading into prequarters. The situation looked ripe for a repeat of Stanford. Particularly, North Carolina must have been devastated after a 15-14 loss to #4 Wisconsin, a game in which they had the chances to win.

UNC-W got blown out by Colorado, 15-9, to finish third in the pool.

But this time was different. North Carolina went down early against Florida a handful of breaks and trailed at half 8-5. But they made critical adjustments by amping up their defensive intensity and tightening down on Florida’s resets. Florida didn’t have an answer as UNC outscored them 10-4 in the second half to win it 15-12.

Then, in quarters, they handled the weather much better than Pittsburgh and avenged their loss at the Stanford Invite before losing in semis to UCF.

“These are building blocks for Nationals,” said coach Mike DeNardis.

He was pleased with the team’s effort and perseverance throughout the weekend, but knows they have to get better. “I think our defensive offense has room to grow.” They were one-dimensional in that regard, hucking early and often. Sometimes it worked, often it didn’t.

Wilmington showed up to their prequarters game against Carleton fired up. They had played them previously in the weekend in the Friday night showcase game, so the teams knew each other. The game was chippy; Carleton would lead most of the way, but two straight breaks late would put UNC-W up 12-11 and they would hold on offense to win on double game point, 13-12.

UNC-Wilmington coach (and Easterns Tournament Director) Greg Vassar called the Carleton matchup “the most important big game of the tournament and the season.” He said his team was “gritty” and showed the critical ability to come back late in a game. Captain Tommy Lamar was not only playing great, but also leading his teammates throughout the weekend.

“We are about a month or a month and a half behind other teams because of when we did our A/B split,” said Vassar. “So this isn’t the best UNC-W team you’ve seen yet.”

They would fall to Minnesota 12-10 on Sunday morning on the turf in a very chippy game. UNC-Wilmington tried furiously to mount another comeback, but Minnesota was more patient on offense in the ugly conditions, which paid off.

Chippy games are a theme for UNC-Wilmington, which has long been known as one of the less spirited teams at the elite college level. They haven’t lost that stigma. Carleton captain Simon Montague specifically called out Wilmington’s captain Alan Gruntz after the game for poor spirit. “He doesn’t know the rules,” he said.

Vassar declined to comment.

All in all, this was a strong weekend for the Carolina teams. With both teams in the bracket, and both teams with wins against top five opponents, they have to each be looking for a deep Nationals run.

COLORADO STARTING TO COME INTO FORM

“I feel like we came into this tournament feeling like we were crawling and we needed to walk.” — Colorado coach Jim Schoettler

Has Colorado finally broken past their plateau? For many teams, a sixth place finish at the Stanford Invite and a semifinals appearance at Easterns would be the story of an incredible season. But for Colorado, one of the iconic programs in college ultimate, it’s not enough.

They came into this weekend with some huge personnel changes designed to mix things up and add some firepower to the defensive line. Among other alterations, they moved captain and Callahan nominee Jimmy Mickle to the D line and took their best defensive player, Tim Morrissy, and put him on offense. It seems like they’re on to something.

Things didn’t click right away. They opened the weekend with a loss to Dartmouth in the Friday night showcase and then lost their first game of pool play to Pittsburgh. Then they fell way behind Florida State and the weekend looked like it could be a disaster. FSU was out in front throughout, and took the game to 14-11, needing just one point to close it out. But Colorado’s defense stepped up and got a break, which rattled the FSU O line. FSU again found themselves on the losing end of a double game point finish.

“That Florida State game was definitely a turning point,” said Mickle.

They went on to beat UNC-Wilmington to take second in the pool, and played excellent all-around ultimate against Tufts in the prequarters game to win it 15-11. That set them up for a quarters matchup against Wisconsin, a long time rival.

Both teams are also fired up for that matchup, but the ugly conditions put a damper on what would normally be a great game to watch. Wisconsin had trouble taking care of the disc and Colorado 12-8 in their biggest win of the season.

Excited about the win, Colorado came into their semis matchup against Minnesota possibly a bit overamped. Minnesota jumped out to a 4-1 lead after a lot of poor drops by Colorado. Mamabird never really looked in the game after that point and they went on to lose 15-8.

Schoetter said he felt OK about the weekend but that the team “only put together four halves of good ultimate.” He thinks they have a lot of work to do yet.

And considering that the South Central may well end up with just two bids, is he nervous about #20 Texas A&M?

“More worried than ever because we’re trying to build a season in a very short amount of time,” he said.

WISCONSIN STILL NOT BACK IN TOP FORM

It’s been a bit of a strange season for the Wisconsin Hodags. After jumping out to a very impressive start at Warm Up, going undefeated and looking like easily the best team in the country, they haven’t been able to string together solid results since.

They’re now 0-2 in bracket play since Warm Up. They got blown out by Oregon 15-8 at Stanford and couldn’t handle the conditions at Easterns in a 12-8 loss to Colorado.

“For us, it’s still really early in the season,” said captain Dayu Liu, noting that they are still stuck inside thanks to a long winter in Madison. “We’re building to peak in May.”

That doesn’t seem to explain the discrepancy between the way they played at Warm Up — sharp, focused, consistent — and they way they’ve played since — streaky, offensively weak at times.

Every coach we spoke to gave credit to Wisconsin’s excellent, smothering man defense. It’s the best there is in the college game. But the offense has not been clicking.

“The effort is there, but our disc skills are not great,” said Liu. He called throwing and catching the team’s biggest weakness.

But there is a lot of potential here. Liu said, “The team’s ceiling is higher than it’s been in years.”

They’ll need to refind that magic from Warm Up if they want to shine in front of a home crowd in late May.

PITTSBURGH STILL MISSING SOMETHING

What to say about Pittsburgh? Their season record is 15-5. They’re the defending champions. On paper, they are the country’s team to beat.

But they can’t seem to win when it counts. This weekend they went 3-0 in pool play before falling to UNC 15-11 in the quarterfinals. In that game, they never adjusted to the weather, trying to work the disc through the UNC zone instead of  taking deep shots to 6′ 3″ Callahan nominee Tyler Degirolamo, one of the country’s very best receivers. They had a 6-3 lead but gave up five straight scores after UNC switched to zone to trail 8-6 at halftime.

Certainly Pitt could have used Alex Thorne, who was out with a lingering hamstring injury that flared up in their first game against Colorado on Saturday. He did not play again.

But you can’t count Pitt out after lackluster season results. Assuming Thorne gets healthy by May, they will no doubt be ready to compete. But they seem to still lack the identity coach Nick Kaczmarek was looking for at Stanford. Will they find it before they get to Madison?

OREGON SWITCHES FOCUS

When Ultiworld spoke to Oregon captain Dylan Freechild after their Stanford Invite victory, he said that they never thought they’d win Stanford, but were instead focusing their efforts on Easterns.

But after they surprised even themselves, they brought a different focus into Easterns: development.

“We were really looking to get young guys better and work on things we didn’t do well at Stanford,” said Freechild. He also noted that they struggled with a short roster (they had just 18 guys) and were fatigued by the end of the weekend.

They lost both in pool play (to Minnesota) and quarterfinals (to Central Florida).

Freechild sat out a fair number of points, including on the offensive end, something he didn’t do at Stanford where he often played multiple points in a row.

They were clearly missing some playmakers this weekend, and still have to be considered one of the country’s best teams.

CARLETON CONTINUES THEIR ROLLER COASTER SEASON

Let’s take a quick look at Carleton’s season:

Warm Up: 5-4, miss the bracket.
Stanford Invite: 5-1, lose in the finals to Oregon.
Easterns: 4-2, miss the bracket.

It’s unclear what’s causing this team to have such crazy inconsistency. Their playmakers — Simon Montague, Nick Stuart, and Justin Norden, to name a few — are as good as ever, but their weak defense can’t pick them up when they get behind in games.

Perhaps that explains this sentiment from Montague. “Above all we’re beginning to come to the conclusion that we need to start early,” he said. “We are all about games to three.”

At their best, this team is nearly unbeatable. When their offensive line is clicking, it is very difficult to stop. But they just don’t seem to find that level in every game.

Against UNC-Wilmington, they didn’t have the problem of falling behind early; they lead throughout. But late in the contest they let the Seamen back in, and it cost them the game.

“It felt like we had to do things with our throws rather than our legs,” said Montague.

Conditioning, therefore, will be a key for this team heading towards the Series. When they show up in great shape to Madison, they will be very dangerous.

TAKEAWAYS

I think the parity of the season — Minnesota is this year’s fourth #1 in our Power Rankings — is summed up nicely by a quote from Andrew Roca:

“I think everybody is going to approach Nationals the exact same way: they’re going to expect the unexpected.”

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld. You can reach him by email (charlie@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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