2014 Easterns: Tournament Recap (Men’s)

Michigan's Matt Orr at 2013 Great Lakes Regionals.Easterns 2014 had it all: beautiful weather, a nearby beach, great college ultimate, and unpredictable results. Michigan comes away with all the headlines after a huge Sunday performance to grab the title, but many other teams — including the ones more likely to contend for a National Championship — had important weekends.

Here are the biggest stories from the weekend.

Gritty, Energetic Michigan Makes Improbable Title Run, But Can They Do It Again?

You’ve heard by now: Michigan rallied back from an 11-6 deficit against Minnesota in the semifinals to reach the finals of Easterns, where everyone thought they would be thoroughly beaten by Pittsburgh, the two-time defending National Champions.

Michigan rewrote that script with an exciting performance highlighted by nearly flawless play from the defensive line’s offense. Read the finals recap for more on that matchup.

As we walk away from the weekend, what should we take forward about Michigan? No doubt the team has burst onto the national radar, but are they a team that can truly compete with the best playing at their best?

On Saturday, they narrowly beat a rusty Carleton team in their first game back from their terrible tragedy. They got pounded by Massachusetts, a team that finished dead last after the tournament was all said and done (to be fair, UMass lost a lot of key players to injury by late Saturday). And they lost handily to North Carolina.

Obviously they played better on Sunday. And the team continues to be defined by what we saw glimpses of at Queen City Tune Up: gritty defense, athleticism, superior conditioning (notice how sharp they were in the finals despite just mounting an exhausting comeback against Grey Duck), and a fiery attitude.

They brought energy into every game, and, at least on Sunday, played to their strengths. 6’9″ Jesse Buchsbaum could not be stopped and pulled down a number of 50/50s; he has rounded into a very solid player that uses his size well. Eli Leonard was fearless as a handler, regardless of the conditions. Standout cutter Sam Greenwood came up with some huge plays down the stretch. Yoni Rafael always seemed to find some breathing room on under cuts in high stall situations.

So what’s the problem? Why wouldn’t this team be semifinals material? UNC coach Mike Denardis put it well: “They lay out for everything, they’re aggressive. They just don’t have the disc skills that the top programs have.”

You could hear Pitt’s sideline screaming at their defenders to force Rafael to throw his flick, a throw he is obviously less comfortable with than his backhand. Their most skilled thrower, Matt Orr, appears to be out for the season after a knee injury in the semifinals against Minnesota. They seem to thrive more on stoppages and grinding offensive points than any team in the high level college game.

When a team like that is hot, like they were on Sunday, they can be a scary matchup. Their bigs were pulling down everything (Ryan Schechtman had some unbelievable sky scores) and they seemed to catch all the lucky breaks. When that same team is not “on,” things can crumble quickly. How else do you explain a 15-8 loss to Massachusetts?

And, frankly, Minnesota lost that semifinal more than Michigan won it. All credit to MagnUM for taking advantage of Grey Duck’s mistakes, but it was almost a comedy of errors for Minnesota after going up by five late in the second half.

Pitt found their defensive intensity too late and never showed up like they did in their semi against North Carolina.

That said, Michigan’s run was still a thrill to watch. And clearly any team that can walk into a major tournament on Sunday and come away with wins against Harvard, Minnesota, and Pittsburgh is no pushover. They are legitimately deserving of a top 25 ranking, and have to be seen as the favorite in the Great Lakes. But they have some serious holes, especially on the offensive side of the disc, that will have to be plugged before Nationals. Regionals won’t be a cake walk either.

A Tale Of Two Finalists

Pitt and Central Florida's paths through the Ultiworld Power Rankings this season.

Consider the regular season paths of last year’s finalists at the College Championships. Central Florida returned almost all of their top weapons (Mike Ogren, John Best, Jeremy Langdon, etc.) this season, save for their two trees: Michael Hickson and Mischa Freystaetter, both 6’6″. No doubt losing that kind of height will hurt a team, but it’s worse than that: they just have not figured it out this year. They have some good wins, to be sure, but they continue to lose in the big moments. At Stanford and Easterns, they got bounced in the prequarters before heading into lackluster Sundays.

Now consider Pittsburgh, a team that graduated easily its biggest playmakers in Tyler Degirolamo and Alex Thorne, as well as a significant portion of its skilled offensive line (particularly at the handler position). Yet here comes Pittsburgh, roaring back into the College Championship finals conversation after beating UNC (the only team to do so) for the second time this season and again reaching the finals of a major.

Pitt has gained huge ground since the early Spring, and even looks like a different team than we saw at Stanford. The offense is rounding into form, and they are getting big contributions from a number of their younger players, including Jonah Wisch, Christian Pitts, and Carl Morgenstern.

Marcus Ranii-Dropcho, the team’s Callahan candidate, played like he deserved the award this weekend, absolutely dominating his matchups and pulling the offense down the field alongside him.

Max Thorne’s return is a welcome one for the Pitt O line, who benefited a lot from his poise and precision in the semis against UNC (he did not play in the final). He is still clearly not at 100%, but played some very smart defense, notching a pair of layout blocks in the semis that helped Pitt roll to a convincing 15-10 win.

What happened in the finals? It looked like the combination of extreme focus on beating UNC and a long bye before the game contributed to a bit of a lackluster defensive effort from the team against Michigan.

“Pitt has to be careful not to focus to much on us and Colorado,” said UNC coach Mike DeNardis. “They could still take a loss to a top six or seven team that they don’t match up with well physically.”

The team is also still not as polished offensively as they will need to be to beat a full strength UNC or Colorado at Nationals. While their quick attack offense worked very well for much of the weekend, they were still error prone when looking down the field or taking trickier throws over the top. Those turnovers turned into points consistently for Michigan in the finals.

“I don’t think it was thought of as easy, but I think players may have not expected [Michigan] to demand the level of consistency and intensity that they did,” said Pitt coach Nick Kaczmarek.

He added that the team learned a valuable lesson about bringing high level focus to every game. Despite their rise to the #2 position in the Ultiworld Power Rankings and some big regular season wins, Kaczmarek said simply, “We’re nowhere near done yet.”

UNC Loses Its First Tournament Of The Season And Rekindles Drive

Anyone who watched #1 North Carolina play during their livestreamed games against Carleton in pool play and Pittsburgh in the semifinals saw a team that looked, for the first time, like they were running through the motions.

The team lacked energy on defense, made far more mistakes on offense than they have all season, and generally didn’t play like the team that they have the capability to be.

UNC coach Mike DeNardis was clear about what happened against Pitt. “We played poorly. They played a very good game,” he said. “They’re getting better. And we lost because of that.”

It did not help that the team lost both of its star handlers — Jon Nethercutt and Ben Snell — during the contest. Nethercutt was not running at 100% at any point during the weekend with a tweaked hamstring. Worse, Ben Snell went down screaming in pain and holding his knee. It was a scary moment, but it doesn’t appear to be a season-ending injury. He dislocated his patella; the general recovery time is three to eight weeks.

“It looks better than we thought, but I don’t know [if he will play again this year],” said DeNardis. “I think we’ll probably play it as conservatively as we can. This kid has a long life ahead of him. I don’t want to put him in danger because we’re trying to win an ultimate game.”

Losing Snell for the year would be a big blow to UNC, who has relied heavily on him to run the defensive line’s offense after the turn and frequently asked him to cross over onto offense.

Regardless of his and Nethercutt’s injuries, UNC was never going to win the game against Pitt. They were being outplayed all over the field. DeNardis said that Pitt just came into the game with their eyes on the prize: an upset win and revenge for the Stanford finals.

“That used to be our job,” said DeNardis. “Now the target’s on our back.”

Whether the letdown in the semis was due to the rigors of a long season or the team taking two weeks off of on-field practice after Stanford, only the team knows. Either way, they are ready for the final push to the College Championships.

“I think that game was the kick we needed for the rest of the season,” said DeNardis. “It’s already starting to pay dividends.”

Minnesota Shaping Up For Big Return To Nationals

You can never write off a collapse like Minnesota suffered in the semifinals at the hands of Michigan. It could be a sign of mental fortitude issues, or perhaps that the team needs more practice against junk zones. But the loss shouldn’t be what defines their weekend.

Coming into that game, Minnesota had been playing excellent ultimate. 3-0 in pool play including a 13-9 win over Florida. Then a 15-7 dismantling of Florida State in the quarters.

Jason Tschida was strong with the disc and as quick as ever. Vinny Vik played very good defense, frequently taking some of the toughest matchups. And Josh Klane, playing limited minutes as he returns from a recent back surgery, looked agile and like he’s on the right path to a full recovery.

They know better than anyone that North Central Regionals will be no cake walk, but they — once again — look prepared to make it to Nationals, and possibly make a deep run.

“We’ve just got to go execute,” said coach Tallis Boyd. “We’ve been working on the same stuff since October.”

Southeast Stumbles

The four Southeast teams at Easterns — Florida, Florida State, Central Florida, and Georgia — went a combined 10-15 this weekend; they were 8-13 against out of region competition.

While Central Florida did just enough to keep themselves in the top 20 and land a third bid for the Southeast, it was a poor showing for the Region.

Florida and Florida State had been riding high thanks to big performances at Warm Up, but neither team accomplished what they hoped to this weekend. FSU stumbled out of the gate with a loss to Luther and never recovered. Florida was a score away from a spot in the semifinals, but lost to Pitt after the defending champs broke to win on double game point. They followed that up by getting demolished 15-6 by UNC Wilmington.

Both teams have some excellent top end players: Bobby Ley and Jason Silverman for Florida; Chris LaRocque and Andrew Roney for Florida State. But their lack of depth is becoming a problem. Early in the season, having a weaker bench isn’t as much of an issue, because every team is dealing with developing rookies. Now, other teams are stronger from players 7-15 and Florida and FSU are starting to lag behind.

This didn’t matter for Florida when they had the best players in the college game: Brodie Smith, Kurt Gibson, et. al. They could run a super tight rotation and still dominate. Bobby Ley is good, but he’s no Brodie. Florida is still a relatively young team, and one that will likely be scary next season. But it’s not clear running nine deep will be a winning strategy for Florida against the country’s elite this season.

Stanford Makes A Bid Push, But Falls Short

You’ve got to give it to Stanford: they tried their best to make a run at an additional bid for the Southwest, but they came up short. And it’s too bad: if you ignore Stanford’s performance all the way back in January, there’s no question they deserve a bid. They have reached #13 in the Ultiworld Power Rankings and looked like perhaps the best Southwest team over the past month. They went a combined 9-5 at Stanford Invite and Easterns, including wins over Colorado, Wisconsin, Florida, and Central Florida.

That’s little consolation when Southwest Regionals is again destined to be a bloodbath. There are currently four Southwest teams in the Ultiworld Top 25 — UC San Diego, Stanford, UC Davis, and Las Positas. Arizona State reached #17 until slipping out of the rankings after a subpar Centex performance. Yet, one bid.

No Southwest team can feel comfortable, but Stanford has to be confident heading towards the Series. Cody Mills, their best player, has hardly played the last month, and still they are winning. Kellen Asercion and others have been steady hands.

“Jordan Marcy is playing really, really well,” said coach Jordan Jeffery.

Will it be enough to send Stanford back to the College Championships after missing out last season? With a brutal Regionals ahead, it may take more than talent — they may need a little luck.

UNC Wilmington Rising Back To Elite Level

The home team UNCW Seamen proved they deserved an Atlantic Coast strength bid this weekend, finishing 5-3 with quality wins over Minnesota and Harvard and blowouts of Florida and Stanford. But they also struggled at times, losing big to regional rival UNC and stumbling twice in pool play.

Inconsistency may be expected of this young UNCW team that is still finding its way this season. They have the athletes to cause matchup problems — particularly because of Robert Goode, who strikes fear into defenses and creates opportunities for his teammates — but are still missing the high level disc skills to beat teams that match up well. There’s a reason UNC has blown them out twice this season.

That said, the ceiling is surprisingly high for this team. Xavier Maxstadt and Trueman Nottingham are playing great ultimate and their younger players are starting to figure out their roles. Coach Greg Vassar is one of the sharpest minds in the college game, particularly on the defensive side of the disc. He gives opposing offenses fits by taking them out of their comfort zone — remember how the team stifled Colorado last season at the College Championships with rolling, out-of-bounds pulls to stop Mamabird’s offensive flow?

Wilmington looks like a team that will once again be a dangerous matchup at the College Championships. As they showed this weekend, they can beat any team in a single game. Are they semis material? Unlikely. But that won’t stop them from bringing their trademark physical defense and high effort to every game.

NOTES

…Massachusetts was off to a great start to the weekend, going 2-1 in pool play and losing only to UNC before watching most of their top players get hurt. They lost every game from prequarters on. Don’t think that means they are a bad team; if healthy, they will give New England teams a lot of trouble at Regionals…Luther had an up and down weekend, perhaps to be expected for a team that’s hardly played outdoors. This says it all: they said the mid-60s weather was “a little hot” for them. They’ll be a very tough out at Regionals…The Easterns facilities were really outstanding: a brand new field complex (opened March 1st), helpful park staff on hand, two trainers, and a hotel with ocean views…

  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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