Washington Topples Arizona State To Win Santa Barbara Invite

Washington vaulted themselves into the national conversation with a quality performance at the Santa Barbara Invite.

Washington Sundodgers
Washington Sundodgers. Photo via Twitter.
SANTA BARBARA — There’s something particularly exciting about early season tournaments and bearing witness to the emergence of a team into the national debate of top contenders. Say hello to the Washington Sundodgers.

Cruising through most of the competition before pulling out a 9-8 double game point win over Arizona State Prime in the finals, Washington asserted themselves as a team to be watched in 2015 with their convincing Santa Barbara Invite victory this weekend.

Though a good majority of the teams at the Southwest tournament looked as rusty as one would expect them to be in January, the Sundodgers proved to be one of the few teams capable of routinely putting together strings of good points and big plays.

The finals were no different.

While Arizona State may have looked like the more disciplined, polished team for much of the contest, thanks in large part to their strong dump-swing and break game, it was Washington that managed to execute in the crucial final points.

Despite trailing for most of the game, the Sundodgers surged out of the half and took their first lead at 8-7, thanks to a run-through D and gorgeous inside-out backhand huck to the opposite corner from captain Khalif El-Salaam.

After a few turnovers on both sides, Prime would answer back with a massive flick huck from Nate Bridges to Aaron Flegenheimer. Arizona State called a timeout, then Washington followed suit, effectively triggering the hard cap and setting up double game point.

A great layout grab by El-Salaam near the endzone looked to be the decisive play, but it was nullified by a huge layout block by ASU’s Josh Walker in the endzone after a Washington timeout.

But Arizona State gave the disc back on an ill-advised floaty huck. Washington again connected on a huck and worked the disc around near the goal line, before El-Salaam found freshman Steven Benaloh with a clean inside-out flick for the win.

“Our team this year is the strongest team I’ve played on at Washington,” captain Jonny Stacey said. “I’ve played on more talented teams, but the way we came together and brought it up on the sidelines. That’s what did it for us.”

The victory was an exciting cap on a weekend of great ultimate where, with the exception of their final and quarterfinal games, Washington went largely untested.

Their first game on Saturday, a 13-3 routing of Dartmouth, set the tone early. It was their 13-7 smashing of British Columbia in semis, however, that perhaps best hinted at the Sundodgers’ great potential.

In that match, huck after huck landed right in Washington’s receivers’ hands. Almost every completed break swing seemed to coincide with a complementary continuation cut to the break side for the easy score.

Yet, in the finals, even when they struggled to connect on deep shots or their flow fractured to a series of independent cuts, the Sundodgers managed to figure out how to get the job done — which, in many ways, is an even greater sign of a team’s strength and character.

Many points in the final featured a handful of turnovers from each team, some the result of failed execution and some just plain bad decisions. Only five points in the entire game didn’t include at least one turnover from both teams.

But despite the fact that so much of what had allowed Washington to breeze through the competition all weekend couldn’t be relied upon in the final — their huck game, smooth break flow, and players consistently going up huge and making plays to prevent poor choices from yielding the turnovers they probably should have — the Sundodgers still managed to stay close all game, only falling behind by a margin of two points once in the contest.

Much of this success could be attributed to their strong chemistry.

ASU ran perhaps the best zone of any team all weekend: a malleable junk look that shifts positions, attempts to clog the lanes while watching incoming cutters when the disc is in the middle, and traps when the disc is near the sideline.

Yet, Washington navigated it better than just about any team at the tournament thanks to their well-timed and well-placed cuts. Even when Prime switched back to man, the Sundodgers managed to punish the poachers on multiple occasions.

If it weren’t for the handful of poor deep looks that Washington took, the game might have been much less close. Whereas a good many of Prime’s turnovers came from miscues of execution, a number of the Sundodgers’ came from bad decisions.

While this seemingly goes against smart ultimate teachings, namely the idea that as long as your team is making the “right” mistakes and merely failing to execute the better choices then you’re in a good place, at least some of the credit for Washington’s occasional questionable decisions can be attributed to ASU’s downfield defense.

ASU captain Danny Bellissimo said that part of the reason Washington’s hucks were less successful against his team was because Prime defenders were closer to their man, making the Sundodgers throwers believe they had to put hucks farther out there in order for them not to be broken up.

“What we strive for is being in a position to make plays at all times,” Bellissimo said. “The physicality in being close downfield. Close enough to a guy to touch him.”

Nevertheless, even with their bread-and-butter huck game diminished, Washington regularly figured out ways to find the endzone, thanks in large part to big play from their main contributors El-Salaam, Stacey, and Kyle Steen.

Additionally, as evidenced in the final where turnovers were abundant, the Sundodgers excelled all weekend at locking down on defense after the turn.

“If our entire seven gets down because we turn the disc over, no matter what situation it is we’re going to get scored on,” El-Salaam said. “It’s the mental intensity and the mental toughness to get it back on defense.”

Although ASU executed their dump set freely, with numerous swings, breaks, and uplines, Washington often did a great job of holding them to only that, limiting downfield cuts and forcing such a high number of passes that Prime would eventually turn it on many points.

When the Sundodgers got the disc back, they’d resume their aggressive offensive attack by taking shots and giving their stars a chance to make a play.

This confidence served Washington well all weekend, even seeping into their strategy of logistics.

“The short second half worked because it allowed me stack lines a little bit,” coach Alex Wells said. “After soft cap went on, we even took a timeout to get into hard cap because we were really confident and receiving.”

Washington’s next tournament will be President’s Day Invite in San Diego on Feb. 14-16, where they’ll get to test themselves against elite programs like Oregon, Colorado, and Minnesota.

ASU’s next tournament will be Warm Up: A Florida Affair in Tampa the same weekend, featuring an even larger host of elite squads like Pitt, Florida, Wisconsin, and Carleton.

  1. Alec Surmani

    Alec Surmani and some close friends began playing ultimate in high school and started Hercules Jabberwocky. He played college ultimate with UCLA Smaug and has played with various Open and Mixed club teams in the (former) Northwest and Southwest divisions. He started and now leads the team Bay Area Donuts.

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