Eastern Michigan Guts Out Win Over Northwestern To Reach Nationals

Photo by Nick Lindeke – UltiPhotos

Disclaimer: I am a Northwestern alumna, and I cheered for NUT throughout this final. This perspective, this story, is my own.

After avenging their Conference loss against Illinois with a 15-11 win, Northwestern University NUT moved into the finals on Sunday to face University of Michigan Magnum. In 25 mph winds, the teams eked out points against each other as Magnum remained on serve.

The finals epitomized Great Lakes ultimate, even when it wasn’t beautiful. As NUT Coach Kevin Bruns recalls, “With that kind of wind, you just have to grind and gut it out.”

NUT took half with a break 8-7, and by the time Michigan tied it up at 8s after half, soft cap was on. Game to 10. Both teams scored again to reach double game point, but Michigan sealed the game and the first Nationals bid with a backhand break huck to the big man, 6’9″ Jesse Buchsbaum. Despite the close, exhausting loss, Northwestern turned immediately to the next task. Their day wasn’t over, and they still had a shot against the Eastern Michigan Hellfish.

Northwestern’s fight to reach this game was literally etched on captain Ian Preston’s face, in the black eye and the heavily swollen lip that the weekend had wreaked upon him. Preston is the soul of Northwestern Ultimate, and his indefatigable spirit carried his teammates through every game’s highs and lows. The Hellfish had fought through the backdoor bracket, taking down Notre Dame 13-11 and University of Chicago 12-7.

Both teams rely on a strong core of senior and graduate students who won’t have second chances. Neither team has ever been to Nationals. Ultimately the wind and the fatigue mattered a lot less than the bid on the line and the sweat both teams had already shed to be there.

The first few points of the game were nothing but extended highlight reels. Eastern Michigan’s James Highsmith would fly for a layout D, only to have Northwestern’s Zach Woodruff make catches just short of miraculous. Hellfish handler Austin Engel released break throws from an inch above the grass, while Alex Holterman was a dynamic force of athleticism for NUT. Both teams played tight offense in the midfield so that incredible bids were the only means of changing possession. Eastern Michigan and Northwestern traded points in the same endzone throughout the first half, and it seemed to forecast the rest of the game.

Eastern Michigan has been criticized for only relying on a small handful of players, and it’s true: they played a tight line. But it’s hard to critique a team that chooses to rely on men like James Highsmith and Johnny Bansfield. The Hellfish offense often began with an impossibly low break reset between Austin Engel and Bansfield who would then find easy deep looks to Highsmith. Even when the deep look wasn’t easy, Highsmith managed to come down with the disc cleanly over piles of defenders. NUT Captain Jack Shey gave Highsmith a challenge as his defender, and these two players posterized each other repeatedly as the game wore on.

But the EMU break-to-deep set was ultimately unguardable for Northwestern. Their best marks came from graduate student and former UNC captain Max Shepard, who handblocked Bansfield at least once, and from sophomore Edward “BK” Speyer, who at one point blocked a disc so hard that it bounced off the grass and into a Hellfish player’s hands.

Kevin Bruns acknowledges the team’s unsuccessful attempts to shut the handlers down: “We tried to put a put a flat mark on Johnny Bansfield, and we tried to go no-around on the rest of their handlers. I think we made Johnny work hard to get his hucks off than we made the rest of the handlers work to get their arounds off. This is where I feel we lost the game.”

The game turned for Eastern Michigan when they were able to seal a break after half. After that, the Northwestern energy shifted. The sidelines strained to channel their raw voices, their excitement, and their love for the team toward the NUT men. Northwestern didn’t lose their intensity in the second half, but Highsmith scored bookends to reach 10-8 as soft cap loomed. Northwestern’s bright kernel of hope seemed to dim as the boys walked to their endzone in uncharacteristically quiet concentration. EMU scored again, 11-8.

The final point of the game is one of the most emotionally haunting points I have watched in my 11 years with this sport. Hellfish and NUT traded possession several times, with the NUT handlers punting some blades for position that gave Eastern Michigan opportunities to throw better looks to their cutters. The point was long, with several calls and discussions.1 

The hard cap horn blew, and as Eastern Michigan continued to swing the disc towards their endzone, not scoring, the Hellfish sideline began to roar, chanting “Hellfish! Hellfish!” because the game was theirs. The NUT men continued to fight, with Alex Holterman and Ben Richardson playing effective handler defense, but the Hellfish soon found Dan Boyton in the endzone, and the game was over.

Nothing was stolen. Yesterday Eastern Michigan outplayed Northwestern. They had better throws in the wind and their catches were better than NUT’s in the second half. Snark will undoubtedly fester about whether they should have been at tournaments other than Warm Up this spring: weather cancellations make this point intriguing but rather moot, and their performance against Eastern Michigan showcased a roster of men who could have raised hell at Nationals.

Eastern Michigan will bring players to the field in Cincinnati that most of the country has never heard of, and James Highsmith will ruin some team’s day. They may struggle against stronger defensive teams who can limit their handler movement, but that’s an issue for another week. Because today, they’re victors.

  1. The spirit in this final match-up was admirable: both teams played clean defense and most calls were dealt with quickly and respectfully. This game showed how elite men’s ultimate should go down. 

  1. Katie Raynolds

    Katie Raynolds took a break from Seattle ultimate to test out the Midwestern scene, but now she's back in the Northwest to investigate this "bubble" she keeps hearing about. She played for Northwestern Gungho, two seasons with Chicago Nemesis, and now plays for Seattle Underground. Katie serves as Ultiworld's Women's D1 College Editor, and is damn proud to cover women's ultimate. You can reach her by email ([email protected]) or on Twitter (@kraynolds90).

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