May 14, 2014 by Alec Surmani and Sean Childers in Analysis, Video with 9 comments
Ohio State’s victory over Oregon at the Northwest Challenge in March was a milestone for a number of reasons. It was one of the few major tournament losses for Oregon Fugue in recent memory, it revealed a number of weaknesses in the most dominant program in college women’s ultimate, and it ensured a number one overall seed for OSU at the College Championships.
Perhaps most importantly, given the wide margin of victory — a 15-11 loss at the elite level is often taken as a clear sign of one team being convincingly stronger than the other — the upset implies more than just the vulnerability of Oregon and the excellence of Ohio State Fever. Maybe there is a greater amount of parity among the elite women’s teams than people — thinking about Oregon’s dominance earlier in the season — had assumed.
One thing’s for certain: We can expect an exciting Nationals.
In anticipation, we sat down with the tape from that Oregon v Ohio State marquee matchup. After the Fever victory, some of Fugue’s narrow victories at previous tournaments, such as their 12-11 and 10-9 victories over Central Florida and Stanford respectively at Stanford Invite, further add to the drama. In the hindsight of Ohio State’s win, those games now look less like Oregon playing a little sloppy and letting some opponents make a match closer than it should. Instead, those wins look like tight games that Oregon simply managed to pull out in the end.
Looking at the tape of Fugue’s loss to Fever illustrates what can happen when breaks don’t go Oregon’s way and when Oregon’s execution is merely that of an excellent and well-coached team — rather than an unstoppable one. That is made even more interesting when Oregon is playing a team as fundamentally sound and smooth as Ohio State.
Oregon may not have played their best game, but they still played quite well. As tempting as it is to see the storyline through the lens of a rare Fugue loss, the real story is that this was a game where Fever played aggressive and confident, and flat-out won.
Fever at their best, or even their near-best, however, just so happens to be a team capable of shutting down any opponent and dictating their will on offense. With two Callahan nominees in Cassie Swafford and Paige Soper1 leading the charge, and a quietly solid supporting cast of strong cutters and disciplined defenders, Ohio State played an impressively clean game and took down the #1 team in the country, earning it all the way.
Swafford and Soper
One of the immediately apparent elements of the game is the omnipresence of the Fever captains and U-23 stars Swafford and Soper. At least one was on the line at all times, and of the 26 total points in the match, each played in 21 of them, 16 of which featured both.
To some, keeping your stars on the field may seem smart; to others, playing them that much may seem like overkill. But their presence and leadership helped to consistently anchor their teammates and keep the team focused. As anyone who’s played college ultimate knows, teams tend to play better when they have at least one leader on the line to set a tone of fearlessness and hunger that the rest can feed off of and continually draw inspiration from.
Yet, Fever does not rely solely on the strength of their stars. There were plenty of points where, though Swafford or Soper may have been involved, Fever worked their way down the field as a unit without need of a clear head operator. It mostly just meant that there was always at least one leader on the field to make a big throw or help retain possession when the flow got muddled.
And sometimes their presence just meant that even if Fugue was playing decent defense or managed to get Fever to put up some questionable looks that, due to the skill of Swafford and Soper and the trust placed in them by their teammates, plays tended to fall their way.
Take Fever’s first offensive point:
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Swafford picks up and holds the disc for a good six seconds waiting for someone to get free downfield before hitting Soper on a curl back to the open side. Soper likewise sees nothing upfield. Swafford is forced upline by solid Oregon dump D and receives the pass from Soper on a tough I/O flick.
Elizabeth Gates, though seemingly about to get open on an in cut, sees just in front of her Swafford receiving the upline in power position and Gates immediately digs in hard and cuts vertically out. Swafford fakes the backhand continuation, forcing her trailing mark to bite on the open side, then puts up a beautiful floaty flick huck to the break side that Gates runs onto for the easy score.
By most standards, particularly college, the two decisions of a tough I/O flick to the dump and a same-thirds break flick huck would be considered if not poor then at least unnecessary looks. Yet Fever made it look easy and effectively opened up the deep game from the onset as a result.
Moreover, one can’t even place too much blame on Oregon for poor defense. Watch again: the dump defender doesn’t get turned around and stays looking at Swafford the whole time, even forcing her to go upfield. Soper’s mark lets off what’s essentially an open side throw, and not exactly an easy one at that. Gates’ defender, though admittedly beaten deep, can hardly be chastised for a flawless break side huck on the same third of the field. Fugue played decent defense; it just wasn’t enough.
Swafford continued to put up dimes throughout the game, often to cutters streaking to the break side, confident that their captain would find them as long as they got open. She went a perfect six-for-six on hucks for the game.
Though recognition deservedly goes to Swafford and Soper for Fever’s overall strength as a team, Fever’s dynamic cutters also deserve praise. Few, if any, other teams at the college level display as much discipline, chemistry and in-game ultimate IQ as Fever.
As with any squad, there were points where they struggled to find a rhythm, but on the whole and throughout the game Fever demonstrated a remarkable ability to set up their cuts, time them well, and improvise based on context. Their skill at recognizing and actualizing continuation cuts in real time — and making comeback cuts when their defenders were out of position and the disc had swung to their side — collectively showed a cohesive team where people generally understand their duties and excel at performing them on a reliable basis.
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At the start of this clip, Oregon has just thrown it away on a miscommunication. Soper picks up and throws an upline to Swafford, just missing, but finding another receiver instead. Swafford reacts to this by turning for the continue cut. Fever then works it around in the red zone, waiting for something to open up.
After a nice breakside continuation, Soper leads her defender to the break side and plants back to the open. Down in the endzone, Gates sees this and does the same in turn, setting up a beautiful S cut and getting open by a good eight yards. Soper hits her to complete the clean endzone offense.
The separation comes from a combination of recognition, set-up, and execution. Doesn’t get much more textbook than that.
In the second part of the clip, Swafford walks to pick up the disc after an Oregon drop. She hits Caitlin Harley upfield with a high-release backhand down the break sideline. Upon recognition of this, Lauren Franke, who was clearing away from the same sideline and back into the stack, plants hard and sprints to the break side for the easy goal.
A less experienced player would make the cut too late after the mark had already reset. Or maybe even refrain from making that double breakside cut altogether, for fear of clogging the endzone — a no-no commonly drilled into the heads of young players by more veteran teammates who don’t want them messing it up.
In addition to their superb ability to react to situations in the moment, Fever also shined at running set plays off of bricks and timeouts. Fever routinely showed great skill at mirroring each other downfield and executing plays from a stopped disc, which reflects well upon their coaching and smart use of practice time.
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Opening up this clip is Fever coming out of a timeout seeking to snag a crucial break to take half, starting on the backhand sideline with a flick force. From the horizontal stack, the second cutter starts a little deep to give the first cutter room to work without fear of a poach.
The disc is tapped in, and Stephanie Miller gets her defender to bite on the inside cut, a little to the open side, giving Harley a nice window to hit her with an inside flick. While this develops Emma Schroder sets up her deep cut and already has a good ten steps deep on her defender for the continuation huck.
Although the throw ends up being too floaty and Schroder can’t come down with it as a result, the play nevertheless succeeded in its aim of creating space and opening up the field, thwarted only by a rare execution error on the part of Fever.
The next part of the clip, however, showcases the usefulness and ingenuity of Fever’s set plays even better and helps them break the game open with a three-point lead.
Coming out of the half, Fugue pulls it out of bounds. Just before Soper taps it in at the brick mark, the one and two cutters in the horizontal stack switch while the three and four stay out of the way. This puts the defender on the new cutter in the lane out of position and, as a result, the cutter, Katie Backus, darts for the endzone as the three cutter comes in to pull their defender.
Though her defender attempts to help anyway, it’s to no avail. Soper’s huck lands right on the money and Backus catches it just short of the goal line before hitting a streaking Schroder who S cuts to the corner for the easy score.
One really couldn’t ask for a better playcall or better execution. Consequently Fever find themselves in prime position to maintain their momentum from the first half and stave off a possible Fugue comeback. Lots of the women’s teams at Nationals employ set plays, but Fever executes them with great discipline; you can see in the play calls the strong fundamentals in their game. They rely on this discipline even more than they rely on their stars taking over, which sets them apart.
Breaking the Zone
Even when Oregon came down in their flustering zone that terrorized teams all weekend, Fever managed to retain the same discipline and flow they displayed within their regular offense. In the following clip, Fugue pull at 7-9 and throw a junk zone that Fever shreds with good movement and smart cutting.
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Fever does a good job of seesawing the movement of the disc to keep the junk moving, opening up downfield throws that their poppers can find.
When these holes close up and the disc gets trapped on the sideline they swing it back to the middle. When the disc gets stuck in the middle they slash through the cup to get new angles. When they see space but can’t hit it, they throw fakes until they can. And when the defense starts collapsing in to attempt to contest these in-cuts and crashers, Swafford rips a high backhand to the far corner, catching the deep-deep off guard.
No matter how suffocating or fluid a team’s zone look might be, if a team is capable of showing as much patience, fundamentals, anticipation, and skill as Fever often did, it doesn’t matter. They’re going to score.
Much like their disciplined offense, Fever helped themselves establish and keep their leads with fundamental, hardworking defense.
The following clip shows three different possessions for Fugue, as they attempt unsuccessfully to navigate the Fever defense.
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In the first possession, Fever just turned it over and look to get it back by keeping Oregon in their own endzone. After a swing to the middle, the Fever defenders jump on the inside of the Fugue cutters and push them all out and away as Swafford poaches in the middle. Even the dumps are locked down. Oregon’s Angela Tocchi is forced to put up a tough high-release, and Fever comes down with it and punches in the break.
Next, Fugue receives the pull and finds trouble asserting any kind of flow. Once again, the Fever defenders remain on the inside of their opponents and push them to the sidelines, not allowing much separation at all for the cuts through the middle. Consequently, Oregon’s Jesse Shofner throws an errant dump pass that Bethany Kaylor can’t reel in, as the former tries to throw-and-go, likely hoping to find and create space in a stagnant offense.
And lastly, Fever continues to push out and away, but this time Oregon decides to take them up on their offer. Having found no open cuts in the middle, Fugue dumps and tries to hit Kasey Harris running to the sideline. Ashley Young throws her a low backhand, and Kasey can’t make the grab.
None of these turnovers or defensive sets look particularly flashy, but they get the job done. Much like Fever’s overall identity, the team’s defense doesn’t run on huge, athletic plays or sneaky tricks designed to catch the opponent off guard. Like their offense, Fever’s D functions on good fundamentals, hard work, and execution.
Sure, they got some help from at least five Oregon drops and a wealth of throwaways. But any number of those turnovers could also be chalked up to Fever’s smart, team defense. And perhaps more importantly, even some of those that were mere execution errors on the part of Fugue were eventually converted into full credit for Fever when they exercised the discipline to wait for their chance to punch it in and convert the break.
To be fair, one might be able to say that Oregon hurt themselves with poor execution and weren’t at the top of their game. They are still Fugue, after all.
But what this fails to mention is that even if Oregon were able to eliminate most of the execution mistakes and play at a more dominant level — the kind of level they’ve been known for all season — that it might still not be enough to beat a team like Fever when they are playing this well.
What makes this fact even scarier is that Fever’s strong play relied not on coming down with big plays, putting up perfect throws, or much anything else that might be difficult to replicate in future scenarios or when the pressure turns up. Fever excelled through the discipline of running simple systems, while simultaneously having enough flexibility to let their players just play and react to game situations.
Any team that can do that on a consistent basis is a team to be feared.
- Swafford and Soper, though not the only driving engine of the Fever offense, anchor the team and provide strong leadership for the rest of the squad to rally around. They will play a lot of points towards the end of the College Championships.
- Great handler retention, cutting flow, and progression through looks. Downfield players excel at continuation cuts and mirroring and handlers do a great job of hitting them.
- Skilled at running solid plays off of stopped discs and good at creating and finding holes in junky zones, while keeping the disc moving and the angles changing.
- Capable of slowly and steadily wearing down opponents’ offenses with fundamental and occasionally poachy defense (pushing opponents deep and to the sideline), which often works well as a unit and generates turnovers.
- Biggest problems were largely execution errors, such as drops and throwaways. But poor percentage looks, often cross-field O/Is, and other unnecessary decisions were also a significant factor.
- Callahan nominee Sophie Darch has a frighteningly accurate and versatile flick and can be almost unstoppable to guard at times. She would periodically try to do too much, however, and jam a tough throw into a distant spot.
- May have had the advantage in athleticism in a number of their match-ups but were not able to routinely capitalize on those assets, often due to strong team defense on the part of Fever.
- Despite this loss (and their earlier one to UC Santa Barbara at Pres Day Invite), Oregon still remains a team capable of scarily efficient offensive production and intimidating defensive pressure. Both Oregon and Ohio State are the best teams at finding open space the moment before it opens up, and Oregon may be even better in this dimension.
the former this year and the latter in 2013 ↩