Presidents’ Day Invite 2015: Tournament Recap (Men’s)

The Presidents' Day Invite offered a close look at the best teams from west of the Rockies.

Presidents_Day_Invite_2015_2015-02-04With its strenuous three-day format so early in the season, the Presidents’ Day Invite often serves as the first rigorous test of focus and execution for teams, many of which are attending their first tournament of the year.

Here’s a look at some of the takeaways from the weekend.

Oregon Already Looking Dangerous

After making the early season trek out to San Diego a handful of times in the past few seasons, Oregon finally managed to break through this year and take home the title.

All weekend long, Ego gave opponents nightmares with their isolation horizontal stack that gives playmakers great freedom to get open with little fear of poaches or clogging.

Meanwhile, on the defensive end, Oregon consistently applied great pressure on opposing offenses, particularly on the resets.

This ability to generate turnovers and effectively clear space and convert a high percentage of breaks allowed Ego to run away with games early against lesser opponents. Blowouts like their 15-2 annihilation of Arizona in power pools helped save their legs for Monday’s bracket play.

With the possible exception of their 14-12 win over UC Santa Barbara in semis, Oregon never seemed to let up or succumb to complacency, even when they had six-break cushions. Such a quality often goes overlooked when it comes to defining what makes a great team, but Ego’s aptitude for protecting leads will go a long way if they can maintain such discipline throughout the season, especially at Nationals where energy conservation is extremely important.

Also of particular note is that Oregon won their two hardest games on Monday without the help of star handler Dylan Freechild, who injured his heel on Sunday and played only a few points in their semis match. Some have said that in years past Ego depended too much on Freechild and crumbled when he couldn’t shoulder much of the load, a concern that naturally carried over to 2015 with the loss of big targets like Gabe Fruchter.

Oregon proved with little doubt this weekend that the other 17 people on their roster are more than just role players.

Connor Matthews is a terror to guard in free space. Trevor Smith, Chris Strub, Jack Slevin, and Colton Clark all have the throws to hit any open cutter regardless of where they are on the field. Adam Rees and Mario Bundy are workhorses on both sides of the disc, just as capable of burning someone deep as they are of chest-high layout Ds.

Considering how good Oregon already is at flowing in the team’s system and converting high numbers of the break opportunities created by their stingy man defense, there’s no telling how good they’ll be by May when they’ve had another three months to further develop chemistry — and re-incorporate one of the country’s biggest weapons back into their game.

Washington Confirms Elite Status

If it weren’t for a few crucial late-game turnovers — and perhaps a couple 50/50 plays that went Oregon’s way — the story of the weekend in San Diego would have been how a team that didn’t make it out of Regionals last year reloaded in 2015 to best two of the nation’s most elite programs before March.

Yet, the story of Washington at Pres Day would arise as only slightly different.

Nothing can detract from their convincing 15-12 victory over Colorado in the semis. Nor from their strong performance against Oregon in the final, which would only further hint at Washington’s great potential and how close they already are to realizing it.

Perhaps the main element that’s most contributed to the Sundodgers’ success is their unflappable confidence.

Tight sideline windows, bladey leading hammers to the break side, lefty backhands to space. Washington have little qualms taking risky shots, often connecting on more of them than one might think, thanks largely to the varied skill set of their top players.

While seemingly difficult to pull off at the college level, this aggressive offensive attack has paid off for the Sundodgers. They like to set a tone early that they’re willing to pursue looks many other teams won’t, and their propensity for succeeding at those attempts helps force opposing defenses into playing honest and respecting a variety of threats. This, in turn, makes fundamentals like triangle under-cuts and dump-swings easier to execute, as defenders tend to bite on fakes they know are legitimate threats.

Washington also excels at creating open deep looks in context, as opposed to simply burning their defenders. If a Sundodger makes a deep cut, doesn’t get it, and turns to come under, but then sees a handler receiving an upline, that cutter will often stop and make another deep cut (whereas most other college cutters would simply keep running under or clear for fear of blocking the lane).

Much like Ego, the Sundodgers also have a knack for both dictating and taking what defenses give them. Washington are happy to take the free unders when opponents try to limit their deep game. Then, when those opponents tire of watching the Sundodgers march it up the field and decide to better contest those unders, the Washington cutters exploit that over-pursuing and beat their defenders deep.

The problems for Washington arise, however, when they play opponents with a high break conversion rate. For, regardless of who they’re playing, the Sundodgers are going to give their opponents a number of chances to break — a natural consequence of their high-risk, high-reward style of play.

Up until their finals loss to Oregon, no team had managed to capitalize on enough of those opportunities.

Now with that experience of tasting their first loss — an occurrence that coach Alex Wells said left a palpably bitter impression upon his team — Washington is sure to push even harder at practice in preparation for Stanford Invite.

If they can tighten up their reset system and maybe work on improving decision-making downfield, the Sundodgers could very well make it deep into bracket play of that highly competitive tournament.

Mamabird Falls Back Down to Earth

It’s tempting to read a lot into Colorado’s 15-12 defeat at the hands of Washington in semis.

Coming off their dominant title run last year, this kind of loss seems to invite claims of Mamabird freefalling into relative mediocrity — or as close to mediocre as any team that’s pretty much guaranteed to make Nationals every year can come.

But to do so would not only be a disservice to the great game that Washington played, but would also be a somewhat dangerous assumption, as Colorado is still a very good team.

They still have the benefit of one of the most successful programs in college ultimate. They still have athletes like Stanley Peterson, Pawel Janas, and Jeremy Harker that can run circles around most defenders. And they still have the hunger of a team that’s never satisfied with anything less than a national title.

If the kind of overabundant, unfailing confidence and energy of last year’s championship squad is no longer apparent, coach Brent Zionic said it’s simply because the team has a different vibe this year.

“This year, we just have a different set of people. They’re not really ra-ra guys,” Zionic said. “This team is working on our identity.”

This formative process could be seen throughout the weekend. Though Mamabird most definitely still have a number of solid contributors, the loss of huge playmakers like Jimmy Mickle, Tim Morrissy, and Hidde Snieder nevertheless entails a certain transitional period wherein younger players are learning how to step up and develop larger roles.

Colorado’s transition was recently made significantly more difficult by the loss of former captain Mark Rauls, who is still earning college credits at a semester-long internship but was deemed ineligible to participate in the university’s club sports due to not being enrolled in on-campus classes.

Mamabird really could have used his explosive talent in their match against the Sundodgers. While Colorado hurt themselves with a series of drops that led to some key breaks, having just one more weapon to combat Washington’s many would likely have made the game that much closer.

Instead, Colorado will look to Stanford Invite and Centex to regain some of their mojo and remind everyone why they’re one of the most respected programs in the country.

UCSB Verging on Excellence

Improving upon their solid play at their home tournament last month, UCSB put together an even stronger performance at Pres Day this weekend, illustrating that Black Tide are a good team just on the verge of becoming great.

They space well and often make excellent continuation cuts, especially to the break side. Their zone offense consistently displays good timing and forces opponents to abandon junk sets quickly and revert back to man defense.

Moreover, the minimum skill level across their roster is quite high, meaning that most of their players can routinely break the mark, put up mid-range hucks, and cut and clear without much trouble.

UCSB’s main problems over the weekend commonly came as a result of not staying patient or focusing in on throws and catches.

While their offensive line showed great poise on the whole, and their defense remained hungry, their D line offense frequently struggled to convert breaks, particularly upwind.

Numerous times in their power pool game against UCLA and semis match against Oregon, Black Tide could be seen triggering a turnover, working it up a good length of the way upwind, but eventually turning it near the goal line on a decision that wasn’t entirely poor but nevertheless entailed a certain amount of difficulty that resulted in countless missed opportunities.

As a result, a handful of their victories over squads like UCLA, Arizona, and Vermont came at much slimmer margins than Black Tide probably would have liked.

These failures to remain disciplined and focused really plagued them in semis. Winds during that game were as strong as they were all weekend, but Black Tide’s errors came mostly in the form of taking tough shots or simply failing to execute.

This led to the contest leaping from being on serve at 2-2, to Ego barreling through a 5-0 run to make it 7-2.

UCSB would eventually earn a few breaks in the second half, but by that point Oregon had already attained such a large cushion that even Black Tide’s surging energy wasn’t enough to close the gap before the cap ended the match.

Yet, while UCSB’s comeback win over a crumbling Minnesota proved to be their only victory over a top opponent on the weekend, it was nevertheless a successful tournament for Black Tide and surely locked up their bid to Stanford Invite.

How they’ll fare against more of the country’s elite squads will be a strong indicator of where their potential might lie. If they can manage to snag at least a few wins against ranked opponents, they may be able to steal a second bid for the Southwest.

Minnesota Crumbles In Key Moments

Out of all the teams in attendance this weekend, none demonstrated a greater range of soaring highs and baffling lows than Minnesota — often within the same game.

In their first match of the weekend, Grey Duck jumped out to a three-break lead on UCSB in the first six points. By halftime, they had given up two of those breaks and would go on to lose on double game point despite getting three chances to close it out. Minnesota would shock everyone the following day and leap out to an 8-4 advantage over Colorado in power pools, primed to receive out of halftime and extend the lead. Instead, they would give up an astounding 8-1 run and lose 14-11.

The total collapse would devastate Grey Duck and set them up for a loss to Ego in quarters, knocking them out of contention.

Although they would clean it up a bit and cruise to fifth place with wins over Cal and UCLA, the damage had already been done. Their three losses may have only come to other semis teams, but if Minnesota had only managed to halfway protect their leads, they likely would have been walking away from the weekend with a respectable semis or finals exit, proud of their work and eager to improve even more.

With pieces like the towering Ben Jagt regularly skying packs of defenders and Grey Duck’s handful of crafty handlers tossing around lefty backhands and high-release flicks like they’re nothing, it was sometimes baffling to see them struggle so mightily for long stretches.

Getting back a healthy Josh Klane, who only played in the Colorado game and mostly on O points, should do wonders to solve this issue, as it often seemed as though Minnesota just needed an on-field leader to direct traffic and bail them out of a few jams to boost everyone’s confidence.

Until then, Grey Duck will need to work on mental fortitude for the remaining duration of their season if they want to earn another bid, put an end to their poor luck, and make it out of the treacherous North Central Regionals.

UCLA, Cal Stepping Up

Bouncing back from their disappointing showings at Santa Barbara Invite, both UCLA and Cal put together solid performances this weekend, finishing sixth and seventh respectively.

Although they opened the weekend on a demoralizing note, where UCLA tallied two early breaks on Washington before giving up a backbreaking 10-2 run, Smaug collected themselves and notched nice wins over Brown and UC San Diego. All of their losses were to the top five teams, including a 12-11 loss to UCSB in power pools due to some critical late miscues.

With dominant handler Nicholas Alexander throwing out dimes to athletic receivers like Ryan Flamberg and Josh Fankhauser, and defensive monsters Nils Clauson and Jacob Bartholomew suffocating opposing teams’ studs, look for UCLA to come out hungry at Regionals.

Similarly, Cal nabbed some good wins over UCSD and Oklahoma, while only dropping to the main contenders. While Ugmo struggled at SB Invite and Stanford Open, even against easier opponents, they’ve made large strides in just under a month.

Andrew Goldstein anchored the offense with easy breaks and well-thrown hucks, many of them lofted out to Kohji Sugioka.

Although Cal may no longer have any bigtime playmakers like Zane Rankin or Chuck Cao, they work very well as a unit and can relied upon to never give up on a point. They should play the thorn in many sides come postseason.

Quick Hits

Arizona and San Diego State also showed marked improvement since their subpar SB Invite performances. Sunburn made a run at UCSB and the Federalis put up good fights against Colorado and Washington. Who knows what they’ll be like in May.

– Defending regional champs UC San Diego had a rough go of it at their home tournament this year. After initially looking strong, taking second in their pool and nearly upsetting Colorado, the Air Squids lost to the two finals teams before dropping to both UCLA and Cal, each of the last two on double game point. UCSD frequently beat themselves up with costly drops and throwaways. They’ll need to regroup and reclaim their focus by Sectionals if they don’t want to slip into the lower echelons of the Southwest.

Brown flashed glimpses of strong offensive play, particularly their ability to hit fundamentally sound, cross-lane hucks. They just didn’t have quite enough dynamism to grind it out when opponents forced them under and made them work it upfield in small segments. Much like last year, they’ll be able to shake things up at New England Regionals. With UMass on the rise this year, and Tufts and Harvard still looking strong, however, they seem like a longshot for Nationals.

  1. Alec Surmani
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    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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