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Sandy, Surge, and Understanding Star Defense, Powered by Agility from Five Ultimate

Scandal's Sandy Jorgensen and Riot's Sarah "Surge" Griffith are two of the game's most impressive defenders, in any division. Learn from their techniques and styles in this video analysis about great defense.

In the women’s club scene, two individuals have separated themselves from the pack with their defensive abilities. Seattle Riot’s Sarah “Surge” Griffith and Washington D.C. Scandal’s Sandy Jorgensen, headliners of the 2013 Ultiworld All-Club 1st Team, have established the gold standard for defense in women’s ultimate.

What exactly make them great, how do other elite women’s defenders compare to the best, and what can other players learn from them about playing — and beating — great defense?

Interestingly, the two players have quite different styles. Griffith plays straight out of the textbook, shutting down opponents with precise positioning, a relentless workrate, exceptional focus — following all the obvious rules for defense, just doing it better than anyone else.  Jorgensen, capitalizing on her elite length and speed, plays defense like a ball-hawking safety in football, running down blocks that seemed impossibly out of reach.

How Good Are They?

One thing that both players have in common? They generate blocks and interceptions at a freakish rate. The average number generated in our dataset of elite womens players was 3; on a per-possession basis, the average defender got a block or interception on 3% of her defensive possessions. Jorgenson and Surge generate blocks about four times the rate of the average player. Also included in this list are Fury’s Lakshmi Narayan and Showdown’s Enessa Janes (more on them later).

Player NameNarayanSurgeJorgensenEnessaElite Womens Average
DLine Points Played (Sample Size)62461074238.37
Blocks and Interceptions (per Dposs)8 (6.2%)14 (12.5%)18 (10.7%)6 (8.2%)3.06 (3.2%)
Goals Against Per DPossession Played0.0310.0090.0470.0410.043
Yards Against Ratable Share13%12%20%9%14%
Odds of Giving Up Touch (Defensive Disusage)16%13%12%14%14%
Ultiworld D Rating (Rank in dataset)0.60 (33)2.73 (2)1.05 (17)1.44 (13)N/A
Def. EC (Rank in dataset)0.39 (5)2.81 (1)-0.65 (29)0 (10)-1.57

Another way to describe their amazing performance: These two players were so defensively dominant in 2013 that smart money says they will inevitably perform worse in 2014. In part opposing teams will adjust to them; in part, Surge and Jorgensen were so far beyond their peers that they must regress some back to the mean.

San Francisco Fury (and Team USA) coach Matty Tsang and Seattle Riot’s Gwen Ambler were both full of praise for the two stars. “Sandy is currently in a league of her own when it comes to defenders that combine speed, size, and an aggressive attack to rule the air,” Ambler said. “Scandal has designed entire defensive schemes around Sandy’s dominant play on deep shots, directly contributing to their championship run last season.”

If Jorgensen is the best in terms of highlights and storylines for the fans, Surge may be even better in terms of an example for younger players to follow. “I was teaching someone defense I would have them watch Surge,” Tsang told Ultiworld. “[With a unique ability to guard both handlers and cutters well], Surge is one of the best.”

How Do They Do It?

SARAH “SURGE” GRIFFITH — Speciality: Perfect Positioning

Statistical and video analysis of Griffith point in the same direction — Surge was the best all-around defender in the game last season. Yes, she is a first-rate athlete, but her effectiveness comes from combining that athleticism with intelligent positioning and incredible hustle. In addition to generating a crazy amount of blocks, the stats say that Surge almost never gives up goal — while giving up a below average number of touches and yards (despite often times taking the toughest matchups).

In the clip below, watch as Griffith (6) shuts down Octavia Payne, one of the best players in the world and the focal point of Scandal’s D-line offense, as Payne makes a series of cuts in the primary cutting lane.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ZRdsbK0eZ8

Griffith uses her body to stop Payne from getting near the disc on the open side, forcing Payne to give up on most of her cuts. We also see that whenever Payne is not a threat, Griffith moves out into throwing lanes to take away offensive options. She is always in a position to make the next throw harder, and isn’t afraid to play spatiality-conscious defense even when covering a talent such as Payne.

While her field positioning is flawless, Griffith also distinguishes herself with her footwork.  In an article discussing her defensive approach, Griffith emphasizes positioning and footwork.

I think that this applies pretty directly to Ultimate. In my mind, there are three phases of defensive footwork: the first is backpedaling/ drop-stepping where your body is essentially a mirror image of the offense; the second is when you’ve committed your hips to the cut but your upper body is on the cutter/field; the third is when you’ve committed your whole body to the cutter’s position and line.

The best defenders stay in phases 1-2 more often.

Reading Surge talk about her defense makes it clear that she excels in two different types of positioning. Yes, there’s positioning based on how you set up in relation to your man — fronting, backing, getting into the lane, poaching off into center field, or staying within arms reach to dissuade a throw. Surge obsessively adjusts this spatial positioning based on where the disc is on the field, who’s throwing, and who she is covering.

Ambler notes this as a huge strength of her teammate.”[Surge] has spent countless hours studying film and analyzing play to develop an incredibly nuanced field sense,” Ambler says. “As a result, she can seamlessly transition from shutting down her player to clogging the lanes and pressure other options, depending on what is most dangerous in the moment. “

But, as Surge’s own defensive article emphasizes, there’s also “positioning” as it relates to a defensive stance.1 Lots of good defenders focus on the spatial positioning aspect, but Surge emphasizes both. She’s conscious about how she moves weight through her body and when she turns her hips, staying low until she decides to commit. She is also conscious about her footwork, trying to moving her feet more often than her offensive player and trying to avoid parallel footwork.2. The image below shows the perfect Surge posture — the clip shows how she naturally avoids parallel feet, while also maintaining a slight crouch/knee bend, able to react and explode quickly.

Once when she does commit, Surge uses her knowledge of the offense’s objectives to take an ideal angle, usually closing whatever small window might have existed. In the below video, Griffith is forcing her opponent under and gives 5-10 yards of padding, but makes the interception on an under cut because of her instant reaction, angle of attack, and insane closing speed.

Note that although she excels at sticking to her defending without over-committing, she does fully commit in one direction when the throw is likely or the risk is minimal. Both conditions apply here, and she closes full speed.

Closing Full Speed Clip

On the rare occasions when Griffith’s opponent catches the disc (usually a broken mark, it seems), she somehow turns her motor to a higher gear on the mark. She moves constantly as a mark, but her activity is informed by awareness of offensive objectives. Consider the two plays below, where she uses the split-second before she sets to identify downfield options in order to contest the throwing lane.

Video 1  – 25:35 – 25:42 “Griffith footblock”

Video 6 – 1:10:43 – 1:10:54 “Griffith challenges downfield look”

Griffith credits her mental approach for much of her defensive effectiveness, as we could see in the above clips as she identified and took away the thrower’s best options. Here is another example—from the wing position in Seattle’s zone—of recognizing the offense’s objective far enough in advance to break up the pass. Notice that Griffith starts sprinting to the passing lane before the thrower has begun her throwing motion. She is able to do this because she is imitating the offense’s thought process. Both her and the thrower recognized the appealing downfield continuation around the same time. Advantage: Griffith.

gfycat.com/WideVapidCaimanlizard

SANDY JORGENSEN — Speciality: Speed and Recovering

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and Sandy Jorgensen’s unorthodox defensive style has brought remarkable success. Jorgensen has defied defensive convention on her way to becoming one of the most effective defensive players in the world. While Griffith’s shutdown style emphasizes work before the disc is thrown, Jorgensen makes her impact after the throw goes up. She follows her opponent around, to be sure, but her footwork and positioning are a far cry from the Griffith glue treatment.

While Griffith is almost obsessive-compulsive about always adjusting her positioning, hips, and footwork, Jorgensen at times walks or jogs near her opponent.3.  At times it looks lazy, but Jorgensen is also devoting more of her attention to the thrower. Jorgensen is content to allow her opponent some separation if it means she can see every throw developing, save some energy, and then spring into action when the disc is released. When the disc starts to slow down, so will Jorgensen — a bit unlike Surge, her positioning responses are based more on the disc alone.4.

Video 1 – 34:23 – 34:33 “Jorgensen recovers deep”

Video 2 – 1:03:18 – 1:03:26 “Jorgensen recovers under”

None of this would be possible, of course, without Jorgensen’s length, speed, and grace. Not only does she erase space in the blink of an eye, but she reaches her long arms out with perfect timing and control to consistently break up passes without creating contact. Watch in the clips below as she catches up and makes an effortless break-up.

Video 3 – 19:17 – 19:23 “Jorgensen speed and length”

In Scandal’s zone, Jorgensen plays deep and takes a similar approach. She is willing to concede space deep because she is confident in her closing ability.

http://gfycat.com/ParchedShowyKronosaurus

In man and zone, Jorgensen’s dedicates her attention to the thrower’s eyes, giving her an input of which most defenders only get a glimpse, enabling better anticipation and breaks to the disc.

Jorgensen knows that most throwers will not think twice when they see a strong cutter with five-plus yards of separation, and she knows that she can break up the pass any time the offensive execution is short of perfect. None of it would be effective, of course, without her superlative athleticism. Cushion, recover hard, hope for hangtime and contest is a strategy more commonly employed in the men’s game, but Jorgensen’s brought it to Scandal and may be employing it more effectively than any player in any division. Her defensive approach gives the offense tempting looks and relies on imperfect execution.

The other side of that gamble is that the approach can be exploited. Note in the following two clips how throwers recognize the deep look but minimize the hang time, while their respective receivers position themselves well enough to fend off Jorgensen’s hot pursuit.

http://gfycat.com/PartialForsakenAfricanmolesnake

http://gfycat.com/GleamingImpeccableAmurstarfish

The stats back up Jorgensen’s risk-taking tendencies. Compared to Surge and even the average women’s defender, Jorgensen gives up more yards — about 20% of the total yards given up by Scandal when she is on the field. In part this is because she hangs out in the deepest spatial areas on the field, where she has the most space to catch-up and make plays but also the most yards to give up if she fails.

Yet the successes are instructive exceptions to the rule. Jorgensen’s tournament-leading 15 D’s at Nationals last year played a huge role in Scandal’s championship, and would not have been possible if throwers saw no chance of beating her deep. Instead, she gives them just enough space to think they have a viable opportunity, and uses her closing speed and wingspan to eat up any slightly inaccurate or floaty throw.

In order to beat Scandal, you must play Jorgensen differently. All spatial decisions must be recalibrated with Jorgensen in the area. That will go a long way toward reducing her effectiveness. The other adjustment that throwers should make is to utilize pump-fakes and eye-misdirection. Jorgensen plays like a safety, so as a thrower you can beat her the way quarterbacks beat safeties: creating time and space by looking elsewhere before you pull the trigger. Heading into the 2014 club season, it will be interesting to see if teams learn how to better neutralize Jorgensen and Surge — and if those players are able to make adjustments on their own to stay effective.

Two Other Great Defenders Worth Watching

Lakshmi Narayan (Fury) — Speciality: Fronting Positioning

Narayan shares more tactically with Surge than Jorgensen. Like Surge, she is constantly taking many little steps (more steps than her offensive cutter) in order to both constantly reposition her hips and to stay on the balls of her feet. One difference: Narayan doesn’t explode (or sellout) with as much explosive forward momentum as Surge, instead preferring to stay upright. That approach gives her good balance and tight defense, but generates fewer blocks.

More than average, Narayan and Fury employ harder fronting when the field position lends itself to do so.5 One thing that makes Narayan special is she has both the attention to detail and workrate to then quickly adjust to a new fronting angle as her cover moves elsewhere.

Ambler, who has played both with and against Naryan, was full of praise. “[She] is a master of playing the angles. She stays light on her feet and balanced while constantly using micro-adjustments of her defensive positioning to take away the biggest threat. Watch her guard an isolated cutter in the endzone and you’ll notice that her deep understanding of the passing lanes allows her to play shut-down D. This style of defense isn’t flashy, but its effectiveness is why Shmi is usually guarding an opposing team’s star player”

Narayan’s faceguarding on resets gives up space towards the open side and becomes less effective when opposing offenses move the disc quickly. But more often than not, she’s able to deny touches to handlers that would otherwise get open, Combining the initial face guarding with quick foot movement and above-average length allows her to constantly keep windows tight — and throwers second-guessing.

Enessa Janes (Showdown) — Speciality: Footwork

Enessa Janes, a staple on Showdown’s defense line, is one of the game’s great defenders because she has complemented her athleticism with brilliant technique. Janes, as we are unsurprisingly finding is the case with all great defenders not named Jorgensen, distinguishes herself with pre-throw positioning and footwork off the disc. Fluid and agile, Janes stays balanced and on the balls of her feet in order to stick like glue to her opponent. Rarely does her opponent create separation, because Janes is always ready to react.

Her movement is exceptional because instead of using her skill to merely chase the defender, she uses it to chase angles. Janes reactions are based on the opponent’s movement as well as on potential throwing and cutting lanes. When she accelerates, she stays between her opponent and the obvious change-of-direction lane (e.g. the under during a deep cut), buying her an extra moment to react. Combine this with her balanced running style, and opponents are hard-pressed to create separation.

Tsang also called attention to Janes’ footwork, while Ambler noted her competitive nature. “Defense relies on focus, and Enessa’s ability to be hyper-focused on the moment at hand allows her to come up with clutch blocks when her team needs them most,” Ambler said.

What Can We Learn from These Players?

Each player offers lessons, but there are some common threads.

  • We can’t all be the fastest player in our division, but good positioning and small tweaks make a difference for even the most athletic players.
  • Focus and over thinking are more universal to this group than athleticism or speed alone. Whether it is Sandy recalculating how much cushion you can give or Narayan thinking about how to position a fronting, focus has to be 100% if you want to continual improve at defense.
  • As Surge writes about, there are two important kinds of defensive positioning: relative space and body adjustments. Online strategy often emphasizes the former, but there’s low hanging fruit in both, such as avoiding overly-parallel feet, employing a stance that plays to your athletic strengths6, and staying on the balls of your feet as much as possible.
  • Always seek out and take away offensive options with spatial positioning. Try to think one step ahead of the current movement, while still keeping track of your person.
  • Don’t be afraid to hold onto some amount of risk when playing defense. Whether it is poaching off Opi slightly, bouncing her hands on the mark, or running 100m speed on an in-cut, Griffith trusts her instincts and it pays off. Similarly, Jorgensen knows that she can probably catch up (even though she doesn’t always make it) and Narayan picks moments to faceguard, despite its inherent risks.
  • Use any available information to anticipate and break on the disc early.
  • Don’t be afraid to give space if you have a matchup advantage. Sometimes good defense is daring the thrower to make a perfect throw. Practice catching up on hucks (focus on angle and body control) so that you capitalize on those imperfect throws.

CONCLUSION

Besides trying to emulate the strengths showcased above, what can we learn from watching these standout defenders? From Griffith, a reminder that commitment to detail—footwork, positioning, anticipation of offensive tendencies and objectives—can pay major dividends when it all comes together. She is the cover girl for Lou Burruss’ claim, in the aptly titled Inches All Around Us, that “defense is actually harder to learn than offense” because of the complexity and detail required in mastering it.

From Jorgensen, we can take home a reminder to be more proactive about forcing turnovers. Most players lack Jorgensen’s substantial size and speed advantage, but there is something to be said for incorporating more risk in one’s defensive approach. Depending on the matchup and score, sometimes it is optimal to risk your positioning in order to watch the thrower, dare tough throws, and generate turnover opportunities.


  1. Over-emphasizing positioning may discredit Surge’s raw athleticism: after setting up well, her fluidity and quickness take over. Griffith backpedals and turns on a dime, rarely losing steps as a cut develops. She holds out on committing fully to a cut long enough to be balanced and prepared for a change of direction, making it almost impossible to beat her with double moves. 

  2. “On a footwork note, I think that the “pre-step” is under utilized. This tends to help with the problem of getting run around or blown-by because it enables better balance. I often see folks play or teach body-D where the initial position has both feet in the same line. Instead, I like to see defenders drop one foot slightly behind the other to start with. This way, no matter which direction the O goes, you’re poised to explode immediately. If you start with your feet parallel, you have to take a step before you can make an explosive move in any direction, and if you’re doing this and tight to a cutter, you’ll get beat” 

  3. If Ultimate had Sports VU cameras like NBA.com, Surge would lead the league in distance run 

  4. One similarity between both Griffith and Jorgensen is their aggressiveness once the disc is in the air — or even perhaps the moment before. They aren’t afraid to risk overcommitting when their instincts tell them the thrower is about to throw. Both of them clearly reap the rewards of taking those risks, as they routinely get run through D’s, sometimes by committing to a cut more than even the offense appears to be 

  5. For example on handlers, especially if they creep into the middle area between handler and cutter space. 

  6. Not every player in this group has the same default stance! 

  1. Jeff Hetzel

    Jeff Hetzel started playing ultimate in high school in Vermont. He is a graduate of Middlebury College, where he captained the team his senior year.

  2. Sean Childers

    Sean Childers is Ultiworld's Statistics Co-Editor. He started playing ultimate in 2008 for UNC-Chapel Hill Darkside, where he studied Political Science and Computer Science before graduating from NYU School of Law. He has played for LOS, District 5, Empire, PoNY, and Truck Stop (current team). You can email him at stats@ultiworld.com.

  3. Jeremy Weiss

    Jeremy Weiss is an Ultiworld statistics contributor. He began playing ultimate at the University of Pennsylvania Void and now resides in Madison, WI, where he studies statistical machine learning and medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Contact him at jeremy.weiss@gmail.com.

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