2014 Northwest Challenge: Tournament Recap

Ohio State celebrates a victory at the 2014 Queen City Tune Up.
Photo by Kevin Leclaire — UltiPhotos.com

The Northwest Challenge was the final stage setter for the college series, featuring a bevy of teams expected to make the trip to Cincinnati and important games for deciding the tenor of regionals across the country.

What we may have finally seen is the striation of the division into tiers. At the top are the elite teams contending for a national championship, like Ohio State, Oregon, and Central Florida. From there, we can drift down the list of the power rankings. The teams at the fringes of each tier still have the potential to move around, but for the most part, expectations for final team performances are becoming more clear.

As one of the season’s final tournaments, teams attending the Northwest Challenge played with some sense of urgency — although that also may have been muted by the bracket-less format — and displayed a variety of their strengths.

Ohio State Captures the #1 Spot

The only team to emerge from the weekend undefeated was Ohio State, but their strong performance goes beyond that. A high level of execution, athleticism, depth, and a strong mental game make this team one of the favorites to bring a title home. They have a number of players toiling away from the limelight, like Caitlin Harley, Stephanie Miller, and Katie Backus, that you’ll want to know come nationals.

Find out more about their weekend in our feature piece.


Coach Lou Burruss was predicting an Oregon loss all weekend. First, he predicted they would fall to the talented UBC squad, which they didn’t. Then he said it would be “fun” if they lost to Ohio State, which they did. You can’t help but wonder if he was half hoping for a loss to motivate his team. Throughout the de facto final matchup, Ohio State Fever played smart, composed ultimate in the face of Fugue’s frenzied defense and fast paced offense. It was an excellent performance, but you can bet that Fugue is wasting no time looking backward, and might even be made stronger by the loss.

“I’m really happy we got the opportunity to play Ohio State,” said Fugue Captain Sophie Darch, “They are an extremely good team and playing them exposed a lot of weaknesses that we currently have, and showed us what we really need to work on.”

Oregon’s goals for the weekend showed they were thinking about big picture issues. According to Coach Burrus, Fugue was working on supporting each other, expressing themselves in their individual roles, and “increasing the throttle.” However, they played close first halves in most of their games, stepping on the gas only after halftime. When their defense was clicking it looked like nothing else in the women’s division, but when it faltered, big holes opened up for an opportunistic team to take advantage of. That team turned out to be Ohio State.

Fugue is stacked with driven, talented players that have the ability to play on a higher level when motivated. The electric Jessie Shofner, the solid and athletic Bethany Kaylor, and an offense led by the vision and throws of Sophie Darch is nothing to look past. After two more elite tournaments in the Northwest (conferences and regionals) we should expect to see a Fugue team more focused and intent on victory from the first pull. That should be a scary thought for anyone else looking to take the top spot in Cincinnati.

#11 Washington Element Remains Puzzling

The lead story going into the weekend was if Element would finally emerge as one of the division’s elite, or show they just aren’t that team. Unfortunately, they failed to reveal anything that conclusive.

Maybe it is just an issue of perspective; Washington has lacked statement wins, but has some pronounced losses. Their best wins this season are over #9 Western Washington and #10 Michigan, but neither team was at full strength by the game’s close. They did display some more of the type of play expected from their roster, cleanly throttling #13 Colorado and #18 Tufts.

On the whole, how you view Washington is up to you. They took a full strength Stanford squad to double game point at Stanford Invite and played tight with UBC while missing some of their key personnel. At Northwest Challenge, they built a good lead on Western even before Callie Mah went down. And in the Friday night showcase game against Fugue, they looked very competitive in the first half. They also got trounced by Ohio State 15-2.

We know Washington can be good. They have experience, some of the division’s top players, and capable role players. Good isn’t enough for a team with this much potential.

Can #6 British Columbia Shift Into Another Gear?

It is hard to call British Columbia a surprise in the traditional sense. Looking at their Stanford Invite, which was their first sanctioned event, you could see a team with a high ceiling that hadn’t yet gotten their feet wet. Their losses were to the tourney’s top teams by reasonable margins and they captured wins over Washington and #19 UCLA.

So while their 6-1 showing at the Northwest Challenge is under the radar, it makes sense. They won all of their games convincingly, and were even up approaching half time against Oregon. The T-Birds were running deep lines, showing off their depth and balance. Mira Donaldson is one of the game’s premier offensive weapons, but UBC doesn’t rely on her to win them games.

The T-Birds offense was one of the most skilled and disciplined in Seattle this past weekend. All of their throwers were competent and it makes their offensive disc movement click. They’ll need these skills to overcome their inexperience on the big stage should they make it to a key game at nationals. Laurel Jay, Devra Waldeman, Gera Stancheva, and Teryn Chan will need to provide solid veteran leadership.

Injuries Hit #7 Stanford and #9 Western Washington

Western Washington entered the Northwest Challenge with high expectations, after making it to the finals of Stanford Invite at the beginning of March. In Seattle, they were met with the challenges of bad weather and injuries, leaving them to play a 1-6 weekend. The cold conditions and intermittent downpours handicapped WWU’s deep game, which turned out to be a fatal blow.

At Stanford Invite, Chaos found success in putting the disc deep and letting their athletic receivers, such as Abbie Abramovich, bring it down. However, they were unable to utilize this strategy all weekend, either because of the weather or a lack of focus. Adding to their challenges, Callahan nominee Callie Mah was injured during Saturday’s games and was out for the rest of the weekend, further stifling the deep game by forcing Abramovich behind the disc. Even before she went out with a concussion, Mah didn’t seem to be fully utilized by the Chaos offense, and was at some points playing passively.

Coach Pauline Ruegg said that the tournament’s main challenge, and its main benefit, was the amount of elite competition in the three day format. For a team like Western Washington that hasn’t had much experience with this level of competition, Northwest Challenge presented the perfect opportunity to experience the level of extended intensity that Nationals will bring. In preparation for the series, Coach Ruegg said that WWU will work on their continuing strength, their deep game, and work to correct some of the weaknesses they showed at the Northwest Challenge.

Stanford Superfly was also plagued by injuries at Northwest Challenge. Coach Robin Davis said all of the players out with injuries were starters, which left them with a depleted roster to work with. This was a blessing and a curse for Superfly, as their younger players were left to run the field against elite opponents.

Davis said that they were not adjusting their style of play to accommodate their shortened roster of 12. Instead, younger players got the opportunity to develop and see playing time in the existing Superfly structure. Davis called it “a learning experience” for many players, and they finished with a 3-4 record, pulling out wins over WWU and UCLA, each by a single point; most of their losses were competitive.

Come time for the college series, Superfly will have the advantage of experienced rookies and the ability to sub deeper than other teams who didn’t have this development opportunity. In a crowded Southwest region, this could be critical, especially when matched up with teams that may be running shallow rotations.

#Bidwatch Winners & Losers

A number of bubble teams came into the weekend looking to make a final case for regional strength bids. It was another rough weekend for the Southwest, with UCLA going 1-6, with their only victory over 1-6 Western Washington. Stanford and Western were both passing out some additional rankings points with injured rosters.

The Northwest may have come out the winner, with Whitman’s 4-3 weekend, including wins over Tufts (also 1-6) and UCLA; they lost to Colorado by just a point. There were murmurs that Washington gave Whitman a win on Sunday to help the region, so make of that what you will (for me – not much).

In the end, we may just see very little shifting of the bids. Whitman’s performance looks likely to take home a 6th bid for the Northwest. Unfortunately for the Southwest, it looks like they will be finishing the season with just two bids, after UCLA got pushed out after a rough performance this weekend. An anticlimactic ending, perhaps, but two weekends does not a season make.

The Return of #12 Carleton Syzygy

We were glad to get a look at a more complete Carleton team. Their rust still showed, making their four game Friday — against many of the tournament’s best — a rough way to start. That may help explain blowouts at the hands of Oregon and UBC in their third and fourth games.

Syzygy’s Sarah Robinson said that it was “fun to play in rainy conditions and make adjustments” and that the format allowed them to take “each game as its own.” The gratitude for conditions that other teams railed against show just how happy Syzygy was to be outside and playing together again.

Accordingly, the Carleton women came back ready to fight on Saturday. Julia Snyder and Kirstie Barton were at the helm, but got plenty of support from Emily Buckner, Brianna Rick, and Katie Ciaglo. If they can survive the minefield that will be North Central Regionals — they look like the best team in the region — they could be a much improved and much more threatening squad come the College Championships.

  1. Brady Winsten

    Brady Winsten first learned to flick at YHB in Arlington, Virginia during high school. She captained her team at James Madison University and played with assorted women's club teams in central Virginia. She is now a happy Northwest transplant and lives in Portland, Oregon.

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