Florida Winter Classic: Divisions II & III Preview

FWC LogoOur recent Full Field Hammer article on the Southeast schedule paid particular attention to the opener of the Southeast season. Florida Winter Classic, hosted in Gainesville, FL by Without Limits and Florida FUEL, means more to the region than just what goes on in Division-I. With two additional divisions, a skills & leadership clinic, and rankings on the line, there’s plenty of action taking place.

Division-II features regional teams looking to come up — out of region guests Wisconsin- Eau Claire and Charleston have signed on — such as Georgia Tech and Alabama. Division-II is composed of developmental teams, such as University of Miami and Florida-B. There will be divisional crossover among adjacent divisions come Sunday.

Wisconsin-Eau Claire Sol Seeking New Challenges

The top seed in Gainesville is also the team traveling the longest distance to be there: Wisconsin- Eau Claire. After finishing last season in close proximity to nationals — not only geographically, but falling in the game to go at North Central Regionals — Eau Claire heads to Gainesville to continue their growth.

“Florida Winter Classic [is] a much earlier than usual priority in our season,” said captain Caty Ferris. “We are looking at this tournament as an exciting opportunity as well as a challenge to prepare our team for the upcoming season.”

Last season, they took to one big out of region tournament, landing in Division-II at Women’s Centex, where they struggled to a 2-4 record. That includes a pair of losses to Florida State, one of the two Southeast teams they matched up with last season. The other was Emory, who they bested 14-9 at Midwest Throwdown.

The exposure to new teams, earlier in the season than they are used to, should serve to challenge Sol, potentially accelerating their growth. In a region filled with teams that seem to be taking a step backwards, Eau Claire may be presented a rare opportunity to rise up the North Central ranks.

They’ll need some strong play in Gainesville to take home W’s. Brit Gartner won’t be donning her cleats, the team’s All-Region star and backbone over the past few seasons. Instead, she’ll be manning the sidelines, still filling the leadership role the team counts on her for. They’ll also be without the services of Ferris, who is recovering from ankle surgery, but will making her presence known in huddles.

Instead, Sol will rely on others to step up and carry the load. Eva Popp is a developing playmaker, consistently delivering when Sol needs to her to; she’ll be taking on tough matchups game in and game out this season.

Alabama With a Chance to Prove They Are For Real

Alabama Ramma Jamma may be a surprising two seed, striding atop their pool, as a team that failed to qualify for Regionals and doesn’t have a major roster addition to power the hype. What they do have is an impressive fall and increasing level of talent, and an opportunity to show the region that Bama ultimate has arrived.

Ramma Jamma really made a name themselves at Classic City Classic. Not only did they beat solid regional competition, like Georgia Tech and Emory, but they gave good games to top tier teams. Both Virginia and Florida State managed five point wins over Bama, a good showing for the developing program.

What was most impressive about that performance was the level of consistency from the team and across the roster. Prior iterations of this squad seemed star driven, relying on the playmaking of the few to make up for the general lack of competitive experience. While there is still a heavy load bared by the team’s three top players – captain Megan Wojick, Ahsha McQuain, and in particular, Caroline Marsh – other faces on their roster have been delivering for them.

This season is a year to prove themselves. There’s a different sense of expectation and confidence coming from the Bama women. It all starts with Florida Winter Classic.

Division-II Race is Tough to Handicap

While Eau Claire and Alabama are the top two seeds, they are not the only contenders. Seeding for an early spring tournament is always iffy and teams will be shifting gears as they take the line to start the spring. Georgia Tech, Emory, South Florida, and Charleston are each perhaps just as likely to take their pool as the top seeds.

These programs will be hoping their stars can carry big loads and that their role players can execute. Georgia Tech handler Cate Woodhurst has been breaking out this fall and captain Lily Ponitz is a consistent and well-rounded threat. Emory will be without Caroline Pearson, but will have Abbey Hewitt and Kira Lou, who the Southeast will likely know well by season’s end. South Florida’s combination of Teal Dabney and Morgan Brazel provide unique skillsets that can prove nightmare matchups for the unprepared.

Charleston, coming from out of region, is a bit of a mystery. They do have a reputation for being scrappy and aggressive. They’ll open the spring in the hopes of improving on a tough season last year.

Meaningful, Early Season Games on the Menu for Tennessee and Kennesaw

Tennessee Screw and Kennesaw State Strix are both highly inexperienced, but actually both have quite a bit on the line. While each will be looking to improve, the two SAPP teams are possible bubble teams for Regionals bids. Almost any wins they get in Gainesville will be potentially helpful in procuring bids for their Conference.

Tennessee will turn to their Rachels – Smith and Sproles – to hold down the fort. KSU will need handlers Chelsea Hall and to deliver consistently and cutter Annamarie Lonas to take on difficult assignments to find success. They’ll be missing some key players, like Anna Shelton, creating a void someone on the roster will need to fill.

Division-III’s Slate of Young Squads Offer Great Competition

One of the most exciting elements of Florida Winter Classic this year isn’t just the national relevance of the tournament, nor the beginnings of the Regional #bidwatch, but the presence of new or reviving teams and their opportunity to clash with one another. Miami Southern Tropical Depressions and Southern Miss Golden Wings add a little something extra to the weekend’s festivities.

Miami has been an inconsistent program in the Southeast over the years, but the presence of former Callahan winner Jody Dozono as a coach has injected new life into the team. They’ll be bringing almost a full roster up to Gainesville, including a slew of new recruits in their first tournament. With the all around play of Rie Takano and the guidance of Dozono to propel them, UM has the potential to really surprise people by the end of the year.

“This is our first year with a coach and she has helped us tremendously,” explained captain Jacqueline Nye. “We’re very excited to see what we can do on the field.”

Southern Miss is a brand new team and FWC will be there first tournament action ever. Every point is a learning experience for the team. Captain Kaitlyn Richards will be taking on primary handling duties, and her wealth of experience could prove very helpful in preparing for the role. While they’ll be without Katie Evans, a key cog for Golden Wings, young athletes like Nan Buti and Jenny Baker can be expected to come up with some big grabs.

Richards describes Golden Wings as “a team full of determined girls that are ready to make a name for themselves.”

Florida State-B enters with a hard earned one seed. They’ve come a long way from the team that didn’t win any games at last year’s FWC. Their wins against rival Florida-B at the Florida Conference Championships last year set the stage for this year’s matchup. Handlers Kelsey Brooker – formerly A team – and Amber Skelly power their offense, while Megan Teague has potential to develop into a monster in the upfield lanes.

Florida’s second team, Diesel, has high expectations for themselves as the two seed, and for good reason. Handler Rachael Silverburg, a former FUEL player, will be joined by Melanie Conn, Lauren Quiroga, and Sirene Dagher, giving them a good stable of weapons. They’ll want revenge against Florida State-B, who beat them twice at the Conference Championships last year.

Central Florida-B is the three seed of the division. They’re another new team that will be looking to make a statement. With all of the success their A team has had, it would not be surprising to see UCF immediately impacting their Conference.

Without Limits and Florida Winter Classic Focused on Growth

While the tournament has long been a Southeast staple, the new partnership with Without Limits is focused on growing Southeast women’s Ultimate. For the top level teams, that means bringing in elite out of region competition to push them. For the other divisions, that means creating matchups with similar competition and chances to compete with higher level opponents.

“[Without Limits’ Michelle Ng] worked tirelessly with us to make FWC bigger and better that ever before, and help promote the growth of Women’s ultimate in the Southeast,” said Emily Witt, captain of host team Florida. “This is just the beginning of a very special partnership, and we just love her.”

Ng has also tapped into her resources to build a skills & leadership clinic. The tournament was moved to a three day weekend so teams could potentially stay Sunday, socialize, and attend the clinic Monday. Coaches from Raleigh Phoenix, Atlanta Ozone, Florida Tabby Rosa will be heading up offerings like Defensive Positioning, Laying Out, and Creating Buy-In and a Positive Team Environment.

Dozono, a Pufahl Award winner and former Stanford Superly Coach, will be leading two sections.

What these sorts of events represent is not just an opportunity to learn, but receive the nurturing and attentiveness growing programs need but often cannot find. Without Limits is empowering the women of the Southeast region to help grow from within, a valuable tool that could pay huge dividends for the region as an entity, and will undoubtedly benefit the players as individuals.

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