Queen City Tune Up 2015: Tournament Recap (Men’s)

UNC Wilmington and UMass stole the headlines at the Queen City Tune Up.

UMass' Ben Sadok makes the catch as Georgia's Elliott Erickson dives for the block.
UMass’ Ben Sadok makes the catch as Georgia’s Elliott Erickson dives for the block. Photo: Christina Schmidt — UltiPhotos.com

CHARLOTTE — With so many teams seeing their first field time in months, we knew there would be plenty of twists and turns at Queen City Tune Up in 2015. Boy did it deliver.

Here’s a recap of the biggest stories from the action-packed weekend.

UNC Wilmington Goes Unchallenged Until Sunday Afternoon

When the final horn of Saturday sounded, UNC Wilmington was already cooling down and packing up after easily putting away Harvard in a 13-8 win. Red Line’s total would be the most any team would score on the Seamen before their eventual final matchup with UMass.1  

Wilmington recorded a perfect weekend, showing the kind of efficiency and maturity that we didn’t expect to see from them until later in the season. We knew going into Queen City that Xavier Maxstadt and Luke Hancock would be dangerous for all opponents (especially when gunning for Jack Williams and Eric Esposto downfield). What we may not have expected were the massive hammers flying out of the hands of captain Charlie Lian, most of which found their mark.

Lian will continue to lead a fleet of younger athletes on Wilmington’s D line. Offense was not the question coming into this weekend. “We had good energy, we finally had our legs under us. I think we took it to every team we played… I think we’re mentally very strong,” said head coach Greg Vassar.

Regional rival UNC Darkside has been the class of this tournament two years running, leaving little to question about who was top dog while we wondered about what it would take for Wilmington to improve. Talk about a role reversal.

A tight rotation of about nine players on offense has already built impressive chemistry around throwers Hancock and Maxstadt. Where their D-line counterpart Lian would be quick to throw over defenses, these two offensive stalwarts found little resistance from opposing marks, especially towards the end of the day. Maxstadt’s length is a problem for most markers, and as UMass’ energy on defense faded in the final, he took advantage of many open looks and cranked hucks from a wide stance. “He had the green light to throw anything and everything. And he did,” said Vassar.

With the offense humming and the defense chock full of rotatable athletes, Wilmington will now look to improve consistency after the turn and stay focused. “It’s the first weekend of February,” said Vassar. “I’m glad we did they way we did, but it could have been a lot better.” He seemed simultaneously pleased and frustrated with his team’s performance, happy with their dominance on the weekend, but remaining critical of their execution.

When asked about the Seamen’s early success — something they haven’t had in recent seasons, even in last year’s semifinal run — Vassar was cautious. “This could be a springboard,” he said. “This could be a trap.”

UMass Begins To Erase the Question Marks

We knew headed into the weekend to watch UMass. There was a general consensus that the last round Saturday matchup with Georgia would be probably the most exciting and anticipated matchup of the day. Having seen Georgia display fall dominance against bigger programs, UMass’ undefeated fall against lesser teams suggested more of a question mark.

But UMass didn’t deliver a close contest; they blew Georgia out of the water from start to finish. They were one of the most impressive teams of the day, consistently winning by wide margins.

This team is deep, and like Wilmington, went largely untested before the final bout on Sunday afternoon. Even then-#2 ranked UNC Darkside could not muster the discipline to overcome UMass’ well-coached zone and physical man defense.

The Amherst area has long given birth to talented high school Ultimate players — smart athletes that reached unheard-of potential under the tutelage of Tiina Booth. She and co-coach Evan Johnson (Dark or Light, Bodhi) have now brought their coaching talent to UMass, a team which has often floundered as a hot-headed regional contender where players fought with each other. “We’re not getting into the dynamic of teammate vs. teammate,” said Johnson after the final on Sunday.

Though his team had just been dealt it’s first loss of the 2014-15 year, Johnson was visibly proud when reflecting on the otherwise stellar performance on the weekend. “It was the first time we’ve played outside since the fall, so I think [the weekend was] good and we battled the whole way,” he said.

There appears to be plenty more upside for this team to achieve. While it’ll be easy to see their run at Queen City through the lens of one of many stellar plays from POTY candidate Jeff Babbitt, Johnson and Booth are also working with a lot of young talent, athletes who are committing to disciplined defensive schemes. Babbitt traded heroic appearances downfield all weekend with sophomore Conor Kline, a freakishly fast cutter. Kline proved an equal temptation to UMass throwers Ben Sadok, incredibly impressive freshman Brett Gramann, and Connor Dowling.

When those hucks missed, and they certainly did, the defense stayed confident and committed to generating another turn. “We’ve worked hard on our mental toughness, on taking it one point at a time. Another thing we’ve really done well is supporting each other through tough times, which has not always been the case with UMass. That’s been a really big improvement…we’ve come together as a team to support each other. We play less hero ball,” said Johnson.

Babbitt, who continues to be a leader admired by his teammates for his on-field presence and by his coaching staff off the field for his leadership, was already looking for areas where the team could improve. “Offensively, that’s where we have to work the most. Our defense is good,” Babbitt commented.

The weekend for UMass was in fact a study in strict zone defense. The team hosts plenty of athleticism beyond Kline and Babbitt and their hallmark became the endless generation of turnovers by their four-man cup . Queen City offered just the kind of big game experience for the younger talent that Johnson wanted the tournament to provide, and helped the team find cohesion on defense.

Both coach and captain mentioned throwing numerous times as an area for improvement. Johnson had his eye on some costly turnovers, and Babbitt was focused on offensive resets. “We can always get in better shape,” said Johnson. “Our throws can always improve. We had a lot of turnovers this weekend.”

Notably, though, they had a lot fewer than other teams, as they managed the windy conditions quite well. The fundamentals-heavy handler core didn’t seem phased by the wind, and their four man cup was perfectly suited to stifling everyone but Wilmington. If it was less windy, could they have beaten UNC? That remains a question mark.

UMass moves forward to Centex with just one loss between the fall and spring on their record. If their throwing improves the way the leadership would like it to, it’ll be tough to pinpoint the next loss.

UNC Has Some Work to Do

There were three teams that went untouched in Charlotte this past weekend before the semis, and UNC was — ase expected — one of those three. But this was not the UNC of last year, or the year prior. They didn’t cruise on Sunday. They were a clear third behind Wilmington and UMass.

There were some notable moments of frustration or weakness in UNC’s performance against UMass in the semifinals.“We didn’t capitalize on a couple of opportunities we had to break,” said UNC head coach Mike Denardis after the loss. “Or, right off of our break, we let them break back upwind,” he noted.

Make no mistake, UNC still has a remarkable amount of talent up and down their roster. Even so, the team in early February of 2015 is not what it was a year ago. There are roles to fill and solidify, and, more than in 2014, a lot of work to be done. “We haven’t practiced against zones. We have a couple of junk looks that we practice, but we haven’t practiced against pure zones, or in a really strong wind to really understand where people really need to be,” Denardis explained. The stringent four-man cup from UMass taxed and tested UNC’s offense and too many mistakes ended in breaks.

The earlier exit may not have been what UNC expected after two dominant wins at this tournament in the past two years, but their loss is less a sign of a dropoff in talent than it is a harbinger for change. Windy conditions gave the UMass zone a leg up on Sunday afternoon, and the Darkside offense relied heavily on movement from captains Jonathan Nethercutt and Ben Snell. “They tried at times to be cute or complicated when they didn’t have to be,” said DeNardis. “When they were crashing the cup, popping, they threw some stuff over the top and it worked. But when they held it for a long time — didn’t move it, didn’t crash the cup — we over-complicated things.”

The offense looks a little less dangerous without Christian Johnson as a threat downfield. Nethercutt and other throwers will need more time working on their zone offense to help Aaron Warshauer and Nathan Kwon find the right spots to penetrate in similar conditions. Denardis remained confident, quietly observant of his teams mistakes and ready to get back to work.

Other than their semifinal loss to ZooDisc, this team faced little resistance from the Pool A field or Luther in quarters. They continue to show the hallmarks of a program that is well-built and humming: a bevy of talent and athleticism, unmistakable chemistry at the top end of the roster, and strong coaching. UNC has a system to fall back on and the big picture to focus on. “I told the guys, these tournaments are great to win, but you’re building for one tournament, essentially. Or the Series, so two to three tournaments,” Denardis said.  “You don’t get your cup for winning the Queen City Tune Up, so it’s not the end of the world.”

Denardis believes that frustration from the loss against UMass may be a blessing in disguise. “Last year we had a great season and then late in the year we lost at Easterns. That was the first time we had a tangible loss that season, and then we lost at Regionals and that was a shocker,” he said. “It was like ‘Oh my gosh, we can lose.’ Whereas now, we know we’re fallible and they realize, we need to get better. That’s how [the team is] approaching it.”

UNC heads next to Centex, so they’ll have a month to tune up that zone offense and be ready for more defensive looks from opponents.

Harvard Makes it to Semifinal With Youth, And No Jeremy Nixon

Roster turnover and an injured Jeremy Nixon left Red Line in a questionable spot during their opening regular season weekend and, at times, it wasn’t pretty. Mark Vanderberg, Wyn Tucker, and James Thurm looked occasionally optionless downfield, giving rise to a somewhat stale offense that was stuck aimlessly resetting.

Coach Mike Mackenzie was optimistic though, noting that the team features nine freshmen this year, and ten total first-year players. And lest I forget, I’m being critical of a team that made a semifinals appearance after a scrappy 2-2 performance in pool play. “It’s an early season tournament. This is the first meaningful ultimate this spring for almost half the roster,” Mackenzie pointed out.

Unlike the other semifinalists, Harvard started the weekend with a surprise loss to Virginia Commonwealth (more on them later) on double-game point, and suffered both late pool play and semis blowout losses to Wilmington. There were plenty of bright spots among those losses though, ones where Mackenzie seemed please to see his newer players performing well around his veterans. “Even in this last [UNC-W] game, we had a lot of rookies on the field when we scored and a lot of rookies doing good things,” said Mackenzie.

John Stubbs remained an impressive utility player, although he looked a little lonely without Nixon. Alexander Hem joined Stubbs in the dynamic player category, as both players made repeated bailouts for their teammates in tough situations and showed repeated grit that kept the team in some of their games.

Red Line’s well-coached resetting and systems-based offense showed its real merit in the wind against Michigan during Sunday’s quarterfinal, a game which was securely in Harvard’s hands after halftime. They took bigger shots over MagnUM than expected, and converted in places where they had struggled against lower ranking teams. Mackenzie expects the team to continue to gel and was positive about the season’s outlook in spite of a performance that didn’t line up with the team’s reputation for consistency.

“The goals of this team are not in February, they’re in late April, May, and beyond,” he explained.  “We’ve got a lot of building to do and a lot of time to do it.”

Harvard takes the field again at Centex.

A Few Words on Michigan and Georgia

After a 4-0 day on Saturday and their presumed quarterfinals matchup with Harvard, Michigan looked poised to reach the semifinals, despite some bumpiness in offensive execution in the wind. But it was not to be — the windier Sunday hurt them and they fell 15-10 and missed the semis.

Much of what we knew about this Ann Arbor team held true, though, particularly their emotional play style that is fed by the sideline’s eruption in cheers every time the defense forces a turn. MagnUM went down early in a few different spots throughout the weekend, and then, like clockwork, the team would lock in mentally and start to generate and convert turns. The only time that didn’t seem to work was in the wind against Harvard, who avoided giving the Michigan defense the break opportunities they needed.

Eli Leonard and Sam Greenwood were there again for magnUM as possession-oriented leaders, and they continued to feature more of Jesse Buchsbaum downfield. Buchsbaum is growing quickly into a multi-threat player, able to launch his own big throws after catching bigger gainers underneath. He also factored into the middle of the Michigan zone, a looming threat daring throwers to test their over-the-top looks.

Michigan come away from Charlotte with only the loss to Harvard to blemish an otherwise productive weekend’s 6-1 record. But that’s a bit misleading — they played close with less talented teams and never really looked impressive. Maybe that was the wind, maybe that was because this was their first tournament of the year. Either way, they’ll need to tighten up their offense to survive another windy day of bracket play. Turns cost this team more than they should have in quarterfinals, and we should expect their younger players to continue to improve as we get deeper into the season.

***

Georgia came into the weekend riding the hype of an impressive fall. A return to prominence is still not out of the question for this team, but they leave the weekend with big losses to ranked teams: 4-13 to UMass, 7-14 to Wilmington, and a heartbreaking 11-12 to Michigan on double game point in consolation play.

In those marquee matchups, Elliott Erickson spent a lot of time behind the disc and not downfield, where he’s proven himself more of a threat as a dangerous continuation thrower. When Georgia took on zone defenses, high stalls left them gunning for big cutter Michael Peters in isolation. Peters was nothing short of heroic when it came to chasing the 50/50 balls flying his way, but Georgia lacked patience and creativity in the backfield and let their offense devolve quickly into desperation shots.

Shawn Paul played well for the team, adding some highlight plays to his consistent cutting. But they can’t just rely on their deep cutters to come up with huge plays.

This team was not the only one to receive a reality check when they took on opposing zones, but of the top-seeded squads, Georgia felt the pressure the most when conditions went south. They’ll need a more reliable and up-tempo backfield to avoid getting squashed by the zones of elite competition.

Bright Spots From Regional Contenders NC State and VCU

The weekend started off with the wrong kind of bang for the North Carolina State Wolfpack. In game one on day one, veteran leaders Kiron Allen (concussion) and Sam Shearer (off hand ligament tear) were sidelined. “It’s huge for us to lose Kiron because we kind of look to him to settle us down when we get the turn,” coach Garrett Dyer reflected later in the weekend. “Kiron’s wherever you need him.”

Still, NC State rode the multi-talented game of Jake McGoogan and veterans Mason Gardner and Clayton Carey for the duration on Saturday, jumping from the fourth seed in the pool to second (behind Michigan) by the end of the day. There were flashes of excellence, even with two of their three key contributors sidelined. Expectations rode high, much of which may be due to Dyer and his co-coach Kris Bass. Dyer felt that their presence on the sideline, even without the grounding presence of Allen on the field, allowed some of the pressures of strategy, matchups, and time to come off the players.

“If you can just play, it helps you,” said Dyer as Sunday came to a close. “We always knew we could play with big teams — the problem was that we couldn’t beat teams that we were ‘supposed to’,” he observed. Even with a tough mental breakdown at the end of the day on Saturday against Michigan and a hard-fought loss in prequarters against Luther Sunday morning, NC State found a bit of a rebound in the consolation rounds against VCU and Maryland.

Wind can quickly sap the energy from a team that struggles with confidence like NC State, but Dyer was quick to note that Sunday’s conditions allowed the Wolfpack’s various junk looks to settle in. “Junk is our great equalizer,” he explained.

With Bass, Dyer and veteran leadership at the helm, it’s easy to see the upside for NC State as they head into the season. The team has shown confidence where it has lacked in the past, and pulled out two notable wins over regional rival Maryland, who they see as a constant obstacle in achieving greater regional recognition. McGoogan is a threat that will have more room to move when Allen and Shearer return, and the team’s outlook will be all the more positive for it. “The big thing that’s changing now is that we’re building a program, whereas previously I think we were just forming frisbee teams every year,” said Dyer.

At press time, returns to action for Allen and Shearer seemed positive. NC State will hope to have them back for Easterns Qualifier (February 21-22). As the wind continued to blow while we talked on the sideline Sunday, Dyer shared the team’s expectations to make a splash at EQ in late February. With their aim high and stock rising to meet it, the Wolfpack will look to top out the field and earn a compete with some of the best at Easterns in late March.

NOTE: In an earlier version of the recap, we reported that NCSU would not be attending Easterns Qualifier. 

***

I had my back turned to the field when a roar erupted from the Round 1 sidelines where Harvard was taking on VCU. The Villains entered the weekend seeded only in front of Davidson (19 of 20) and managed to open the weekend with a huge splash: a double-game point win against Harvard in near-perfect weather conditions.

Word quickly spread that VCU had unleashed a torrent of athleticism to beat Harvard in a big shot focused deep game. Though they had game-planned for Jeremy Nixon, the Villains adjusted easily, sank more effort into pressuring Vanderberg, and started hucking. “There wasn’t a lot of wind, so we were able to play some big ball and it worked out,” said coach Scott Andrews Sunday afternoon.

VCU didn’t stop there. Veteran player Tim Jackson recounted the harrowing end to their third round matchup with UConn, which featured a pair of breaks to put away the game. They finished second in the pool behind UNC Wilmington, notching their other win against Tennessee.

Sunday’s results were less promising for this team, who are still poised to begin building their program into something greater. They’ll just have to get over the initial shock of competing at the next level. “I was salivating at the chance to come to Queen City. I knew we were going to do some stuff, but other teams knew us as just this small team,” said captain Adante Thompson.

They are packed to the gills with athletes and very literally beat Harvard simply by jumping over them. Zone looks were more of a challenge, both because cups blocked throwing lanes and because defenses were better positioned to make a play on a hanging huck. But VCU clearly has raw talent. Now we know who they are — especially thanks to video like this.

Quick Hits

Michigan quietly took fifth place with an 11-8 win over Luther.

Iowa had a tough weekend, even after going 3-1 on Saturday. They made the choice to rest their starters in their last round matchup with UNC, in the hopes of drawing on fresher legs in a prequarter matchup with Harvard. The wind just didn’t blow their way, and Iowa fell quickly into the 9th place bracket. They went winless on Sunday.

Dartmouth was undisciplined in key moments on Saturday. After a Round One loss to NC State, they jumped out to an early lead against Michigan and then promptly gave up the ghost. Dartmouth’s early returns here and at Santa Barbara Invite don’t bode well for their hopes of earning another bid for New England.

– Some early buzz out of the Southeast suggested that Tennessee would be a team to watch this weekend. They went 2-5 on the weekend, beating only the depleted Eastern Michigan team and bottom-seed Davidson.

– Luther was solid if not spectacular, beating all unranked teams and losing to ranked teams. They got blown out by Georgia, Massachusetts, and UNC, but did hang tough with Michigan in an 11-8 loss. They lost a lot of talent this season, so we’ll see what they can do as players get more comfortable in their new roles later this season.


  1. It’s worth mentioning that VCU notched 7 in the round previous. 

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld. You can reach him by email (charlie@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

  2. Simon Pollock
    Simon Pollock

    Simon Pollock is a Contributing Editor at Ultiworld. He lives in Seattle and started writing for the site in 2014 while living in Baltimore, MD. Email him: simon@ultiworld.com or tweet at him: @_simonpollock_ .

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