The Northeast Mixed region has been flush with bids for years. But with just two spots in Frisco in 2014, which teams will rise to the occasion?
September 24, 2014 by Alisha Schor in News, Preview with 8 comments
Despite all the speculation and debate over how the bids might have better been allocated, the fact remains: the Northeast has just two bids. For a region that had five bids last year, three who earned Pro-flight status, and three representatives at Worlds this summer, the swing is quite a shock. All are taking it in stride, though, choosing to focus on their own game and using any frustrations they have as fuel.
Four extremely evenly matched teams have the potential to advance to the national championships: The Ghosts, Slow White, Union, and Wild Card. All but Union (Toronto) hail from the Boston area, and have faced off several times. None have proved to be clearly dominant. And while these teams are much stronger than the rest of the region, a few quarterfinal games might issue challenges. New York’s 7 Express—a national qualifier last year—has a chance to upset The Ghosts is the second round. Boston Pleasuretown had a variable summer but gave a serious scare in the game-to-go at regionals last year, and SHUYAMOUF — filled with New York and Connecticut talent from past teams like Bashing Piñatas — can’t be counted out.
The likely semi-final matchups, in broad terms, are (1) Wild Card vs. The Ghosts, a story of the young, energetic group vs. the veterans and (2) Slow White vs. Union, an enigmatic old team vs. an enigmatic new team.
The Ghosts formed in 2011 as a conglomerate of veteran talent. They won regionals in their inaugural season and have since finished sixth, seventh, and third at nationals. They are adaptable and introspective despite not holding practices, and they win when they believe it counts. This did not include the 2014 US Open, an event that USAU required The Ghosts to attend, but it did include WUCC, where they placed third.
Following WUCC, The Ghosts elected not to travel to the Pro Flight Finale (PFF), citing the significant expense and time commitment already invested in traveling to Italy and Minnesota. This obliged them to play at the East New England Sectionals. Using Sectionals essentially as a practice, they handily dispensed of all competition while trying out new defenses and tweaking strategies.
Going into Regionals, The Ghosts should be taken seriously. They looked vulnerable in the early season after losing a number of their most experienced players, including Jeff Graham and Chrissy Dobson. The Ghosts lost to all three regional rivals—Slow White, Union, and Wild Card—at the Boston Invitational, and won only one game at the US Open.
But then they earned Bronze in Lecco and were on the map again. And while about half a dozen players on their Lecco roster will not be playing at Regionals, the 21 who are remaining are experienced enough to adjust. Players like Beth Nakamura, Amber Sinicrope, Casey Terp and Paul Batten, to name a few, remain on board and contribute plenty of elite experience. The Ghosts also have a huge asset in coach Jason Adams, who provides a wealth of strategic insight and ensures that the team utilizes individual skills well.
The 2014 Ghosts look a little different and a little younger than in past years or at WUCC. This could present a challenge for a team whose success has been built having individual players with many years of elite-level experience. To earn a spot at Nationals, the team—and Adams—will have to rely heavily on in-game adjustments and hope they can play smarter than others.
While many teams tread cautiously around setting process goals vs. absolute goals, Slow White is clear that they are going for the jugular.
“We think we can win. We want to prove ourselves. I personally don’t think that anyone can beat us at our best,” said co-captain Alex Trahey.
What is Slow White’s best this year? With a lot of the summer spotlight on WUCC teams Ghosts and Wild Card, it’s hard to tell. Slow White won the New York Invite (Pro-Elite Challenge) and felt good about their performance at PFF. With plenty of time between PFF and Regionals, Slow White is confident that they will be ready.
“[PFF] was a test for us. It was a question of ‘have we gotten better?’ ‘Do we know how to play together?’ and now we know what to work on,” said Trahey.
Slow White is the longest-enduring mixed team in the Northeast region; a trip to Nationals this year would mark their 10th in a row. In recent years, they’ve maintained a core of 10-15 players that help establish a team identity and keep their playing consistent.
“We try to think of ourselves as a family, not just a team,” says Trahey. “We’re really proud of being able to hold a team together [for the last decade], and we feel like we’ve built a culture.”
Time played together might be their biggest asset over their younger competition, although The Ghosts might match them most closely in individual experience. That being said, Slow White went through heavy roster turnover this year on the women’s side, replacing six of 11. The upside is that the newcomers include a couple of playmakers: Phoebe Shambaugh, formerly of Nemesis; Hannah Baranes, from Wild Card; and Amy Kawai, currently at Brown. The downside is that six is still a big number, and they’ve had to rework team strategies around this. New York Invite, Trahey explained, was largely a test of how some lines fit together. Trahey also recognized it’s becoming more popular to play 4 women on offense.
“Defensively, we’ve been working on playing 3/4 since that’s what Wild Card and Union like to play. Another change we’ve made is that while we usually run distinct O and D lines, the 11 women will play both lines,” Trahey explaind. “The men will continue to play on fixed lines.”
This recognition and workaround is a good example of how Slow White’s experience will help them in their quest for the region’s top spot. They play strategic ultimate with disciplined spacing on offense and appropriate poaching on defense. Their biggest hurdle going into the tournament will be ensuring that their six new women are fully incorporated into team strategy. Every team has roster flux, though, and Slow White is seasoned enough to handle it.
After bursting onto the scene with their surprising semi-final run last year, Wild Card set the bar pretty high for themselves. At 2013 Nationals, they were proud to earn their label as the upstart team with the youngest average roster. This year, though, they head into regionals with a target on their back. The shift from a no-expectations regionals with five bids to a high stakes regionals with just two will be a test of their mental game. Coach Mike Mackenzie explained their approach as primarily internal:
“Our goal is to become our best team by Regionals. We’d love to win, and I think we have the ability, but we just want to execute at the highest level,” he said.
With a lot of preparation going into WUCC, Wild Card’s 2014 TCT performance was erratic. The US Open boosted morale with wins over Polar Bears, AMP, and a bare-bones Ghosts. Then they sent their 2013 roster to WUCC, where Wild Card finished in 9th place. While seemingly far from the third placed Ghosts, they were only a double game point away from a quarterfinal appearance.
Over Labor Day weekend, their current roster—which differs by about 10 people from WUCC—reconvened after a 6-week layoff to fly to Seattle for the PFF. At PFF, Wild Card suffered from the “worlds hangover,” losing all of their games except a 12-10 victory over Philadelphia AMP1. But as many have pointed out, the performance of WUCC teams at PFF doesn’t necessarily foreshadow post season play. Indeed, Mackenzie feels optimistic about Wild Card’s performance.
“I think we built the foundation there,” he observed. “We’re where we need to be to get the improvement that we want.”
Wild Card’s practice time between PFF and regionals, Mackenzie says, will be focused on building consistency and rhythm and optimizing personnel combinations. They picked up a load of talent this year, but they need to get their offense clicking as a unit if they want to head to Frisco. Their WUCC-abbreviated practice schedule has made this difficult.
What they will rely on are their women. Wild Card’s female contingent is a powerful balance of height (e.g. Aly Heath, Lily Steponaitis, Eva Petzinger), speed (Katie Sullivan), and disc skills (Emily Eisner). Smart matchups will give them the edge in close games. For the “upstart” team, keeping nerves calm and trusting their own system will be the key to a good tournament.
Those that have been around Northeast mixed ultimate for a while know that there’s always at least one Canadian team that is really good but a complete mystery. With Odyssée not participating in the USAU series, that team this year is Union.
Facts we know about Union: they took gold at the 2013 Canadian Club Championships, played well at the 2014 US Open, and took fifth at WUCC. They’re tall and have a handful of veterans with plenty of international experience. Opponents are treating them as a serious threat, but Union’s approach is anything but serious. Co-captains Warren Tang and Amanda Moore, for example, were quick to point out that their major focus between Sectionals and Regionals is, “Learning names and getting enough jerseys.” Another primary goal is to receive fewer TMFs than at US Open, where they had a habit of dropping F-bombs in excitement over good plays.
Perhaps a light-hearted attitude is the right approach to a bid situation beyond anyone’s control. To be sure, Union is still gunning for a finals appearance. It’s just that no one knows how they plan on getting there, let alone Union themselves.
In the debates about bid allocation this year, many supporters of the system rightfully pointed out that teams on the cusp will always be dissatisfied with the outcome. Advocates challenged critics to point out situations where obviously deserving teams would stay home under the current system. Whether or not the system is fair, it’s pretty easy to say that two nationals-caliber mixed teams from the Northeast will not be in Texas in October. What Sunday will bring is anyone’s guess.
Wild Card lost to AMP earlier in the tournament, 7-13. ↩