Claremont fell in a brutal collapse in the DIII Nationals semifinal last year. Is this their year?
February 17, 2015 by Patrick Stegemoeller in Preview with 3 comments
Go back to the morning of May 18th, 2014, and you can find the Claremont Braineaters leading their semifinal match-up at D-III Nationals 12-7. On the brink of advancing to the championship game, they only need to score three of the next ten points, which in most games would be little more than a formality.
On this occasion however, formality turned into calamity, as their opponent was Bentley Icehouse, the number one team in the country and one of the best teams in the short history of D-III ultimate. Bentley found another gear, Claremont crumbled, and after suffering an excruciating 15-14 defeat, the 2014 Braineaters would go down as just another team that fell to Icehouse in the story of Bentley’s dominance.
“It was just an unfortunate combination of Bentley finding new energy and us faltering slightly, right at the same time,” said Alex Cloud, a senior captain of this year’s Claremont team. “Once they had broken us a few times, we made a handful of uncharacteristic mental errors.” Uncharacteristic is right, as Claremont has had a history of performing well in tight games, but this anomaly ended up costing them the season and changing the narrative of D-III ultimate.
Entering the 2015 season, the D-III landscape is tilted to the east, with reigning champions Bentley atop the division and looking to cement their place among the elite programs in the sport. Of course, if just one point had gone the other way during their incredible 8-2 run that closed out the semi-final against Claremont, we would be looking at an entirely different narrative.
Claremont were on the precipice of being one of the biggest stories of the year. They looked poised to pull off the upset over Bentley and receive the plaudits that come with beating the consensus favorite. Thirty minutes later they were a footnote in a story that was no longer about them. This of course is the way of sport, moments that comprise 1% of a team’s season determines how the other 99% of it is viewed.
Claremont’s program has made quite a history for itself in a small span of time, with a national title in 2011 and quarterfinals or better finishes in 2013 and 2014. However, they are generally regarded as a rung below the likes of Carleton G.O.P., Puget Sound, and Bentley when it comes to naming the best D-III programs. This season, the Braineaters have the chance to redeem their 2014 semifinals collapse and put themselves once and for all in the D-III pantheon.
- Finished T-3 at 2014 D-III Nationals
- Finished #4 in Ultiworld’s 2014 Power Rankings
- #2 in Ultiworld’s 2015 Power Rankings
- Many teams that reach semis at Nationals will experience pretty severe turnover the following season, but the Braineaters are retaining almost all of their 2014 squad. This doesn’t just mean role players, as Claremont returns five All-Region players from last year, most notably Alex Cloud, the 1st Team All Region handler who plays for Boost Mobile during the club season. In addition to the veterans, they have several promising underclassmen who will be looking to play a bigger role on the field as the year moves along. In particular, sophomore Jordan Lim can be expected to take his game up another level after suffering an injury plagued 2014 season. The YCC player from Seattle was projected to make a huge impact last season but never really hit his stride. Look for him to break out this year if he can stay healthy.
- Promising Fall. One of the biggest advantages that comes with returning a roster almost intact from the year before is that the preseason can be used to solidify roles and chemistry rather than as an experimental period designed to fill voids left by departed players. Having a familiar roster to work with in the pre-season gives Claremont an advantage over their rivals who were forced to reload during the fall.
- Claremont picked up a new coach this season, Adam Bronstein of the AUDL’s Seattle Raptors. Teams with a collection of veteran talent like Claremont this year can sometimes run into problems juggling playing time, egos, and decision making responsibilities. Having the new coach on board to make the tough calls and bring a fresh perspective to the team could be very important in preventing Claremont from stagnating.
- Top Tier Talent. Clearly Claremont has a host of very good players, but it is still to be seen if they have a truly great player, someone capable of being the best player on the field at all times at Nationals. Cloud is the team’s best player going into the season, and about to become a household name if he keeps up his progress on the field. Still, he has yet to prove himself at the highest level for Claremont. When it comes to the semis or finals at Nationals and something goes wrong, will he be able to step up and take control of the game the way Bentley’s best players did last year?
- Peak too early? It may be a stereotype, but historians of the sport can point to examples of fair weather teams that peak too early and aren’t on top of their game as the season drags into May. With Nationals set in Chicago this year, a city whose moniker says it all when it comes to weather conditions, Claremont’s players will need to show that they can comport themselves outside of the sunny climes of Southern California.
This is a very different Claremont team from the one that rampaged through 2011, posting a 22-1 record and bringing the program its first and only national championship. That team had Tommy Li, maybe the best D-III player ever, and ran shallow lines that allowed their best two or three players to do most of the work. As noted above, this year’s edition of Claremont is a much deeper, more complete team, one that distributes the load across the board.
Cloud will be expected to take on the biggest responsibility, and the offense hums when he is given the space to isolate his matchups in the handler space and go to work. Despite Cloud’s prowess, the team is reticent to make him do too much, as they have so many other capable players and don’t want to become one dimensional. 2nd-Team All-Region senior Chris Brown is one of the better break throwers in the division, and his playmaking abilities as a distributor are essential to the fast paced, open field game the Braineaters want to play.
Because of the ability of Cloud and the other Claremont handlers to get open and move the disc, they are able to take high percentage deep shots out of movement, a much better look than the standstill bombs that can get huck happy teams in trouble. Lead by supremely talented senior Alex Gruver, the Claremont cutters are able to swallow up those good deep looks on the breakside. For teams looking to limit Claremont’s vertical gains, the key will be containing the handler movement. The Braineaters’ downfield cutters are just too good to be stopped if the handlers are able to get the looks they want.
Defensively, Claremont wants to use their depth to outwork teams and then strike quickly against weary opponents. The Braineaters run a rotation that goes 16+ deep even in the most important games, which shows the trust the team has in its role players. Off of a turn, the D-line players have the green light to push the pace, as the team is confident in the playmaking abilities of everyone on the field. Having to haul back to stop a streaking cutter after every turnover wears on teams, and Claremont hopes to smother their opponents with their depth early and often.
Likely Ceiling: National Champions. This is the most complete team in the country, at least in the beginning of the season. Returning almost every key player from a run to the semifinals would make anyone a contender, and when combined with a promising youth contingent ready to make their mark, the Braineaters are at the top of the list of teams in serious consideration to win it all this year. For Cloud and all of the returners, anything else will be a big disappointment.
Likely Floor: Quarterfinalist at Nationals. The concerns with this team are mostly quibbles, gripes that could play a factor but are essentially rounding errors in the summation of the team’s abilities. Anything can happen and if Claremont runs into the wrong matchup, perhaps a team with a dominant player that takes over the game, they could fall short of their goal. It is very difficult however, to envision that happening before the late rounds at Nationals.