The Easterns field is deeper than ever! Get ready for a mini-preview of Nationals!
March 26, 2015 by Simon Pollock in Preview with 1 comments
12 teams in the USAU Top 20, 16 in the top 30, and 14 in the Ultiworld Top 25. Lurking just outside USAU’s “page one” teams are Maryland (#24), Michigan (#25), NC State (#26), and Colorado College (#27).
That’s a hungry bunch making up the lower end of the field; a successful weekend for Maryland or NC State could bring the Atlantic Coast another bid. Michigan hasn’t seen top end competition since Queen City Tune Up either, so they’ll be ready for another shot at a Cinderella run like last year.
Then of course, there’s the top end.
Pittsburgh Still Yet To Peak?
The #1 Division I men’s team in both USAU and UW rankings hasn’t missed more than a beat or two per tournament since they took a few losses on the chin at Carolina Kickoff. It’s been smooth sailing for Pittsburgh’s unflappable offense, a deadly talented bunch lead by the Swiss Army Knife skills of Max Thorne and the crafty lefty breaks of Pat Earles. With the versatility of Marcus Ranii-Dropcho and the size of Christian Pitts downfield, there’s little that Pitt’s O line can’t do. They’ve been close to flawless since February.
Still, there’s more work to be done on defense. Coach Nick Kaczmarek has his top defensive lines creating pressure and stopping some looks, but they haven’t been able to convert enough in games to quickly handle opposing offenses. With the experience and fitness they do have, especially under the leadership of Trent Dillon, Saturday’s matchups with Georgia, Carleton, and Illinois shouldn’t offer too much trouble. It may be the Pool A #2 seed, UMass, that they’ll need to be careful with.
A UMass team at full strength will feature some strong and unpredictable throwers in Brett Gramann and Ben Sadok –both of them small, speedy, and a headache to cover. Gramann and his favorite deep target, sophomore Conor Kline, are both nursing injuries coming into the weekend and could leave Sadok and Jeff Babbitt with a load on their shoulders.
The healthy UMass defensive line has spelled trouble for opponents this year. Their zone was very effective at a windy Queen City Tune Up, demoralizing Georgia 13-4 and frustrating UNC Darkside’s talented backfield. Babbitt is at times the heart and soul of the defense, patrolling the wings and baiting the deep throws to generate turns for his team. Zoo Disc will be dangerous, but they might not push too far into the bracket without all of their top players. Their bench looked weak and at times bad at Centex.
Georgia has experienced that UMass defense first hand, and it wasn’t pretty. This team hasn’t seen real action since nearly taking out #3 UNC Wilmington in a wild 17-16 loss at Easterns Qualifier, but that tournament was a big improvement after a less-than-stellar start at QCTU. What this team is missing, especially against Pittsburgh and UMass, is backfield depth. We’ve seen them lean heavily on Elliott Erickson, occasionally relying on him to both cover the opposing number one and also complete big hucks from resets. If they can find consistency from the handler position, they have the athletes to compete with any team at the tournament.
All three of these teams, and perhaps the rest of the field, should be worried about Pool A’s #4 seed, Carleton. We’ve spent most of this season talking about CUT’s tendency to not show their true potential until close to or during regionals. This team is filled with young talent and Stanford Invite was something of a coming out party for the Justin Lim/Sol Yanuck backfield duo. Where Pittsburgh takes more of a unique approach to their sets, CUT often uses determined, methodical, and traditional attacks to the break side to score.
Even with the promise of their talent, it hasn’t been quite enough yet to guarantee CUT a strength bid; they were sloppy and underwhelming at Stanford. Carleton sits at #20 in the USAU rankings and, without a Metro East or Great Lakes presence in that top group, they’ll need a few very strong performances to capture a bid. It’s not out of the question at all, but CUT’s tendency to show their colors late in the season leaves them a bit of a question mark coming into this weekend.
The UNCW You Know, And The UNC You Don’t
Queen City Tune Up, Easterns Qualifier, and Centex — all three tournaments belong to #3 UNC Wilmington this season. They have zero reason to slow down this coming weekend in Myrtle Beach.
After a rocky start at Carolina Kickoff, Wilmington has started to hit a stride. This is a team that battled into the conversation in early February and has remained there since. Their hallmarks on offense have been and will be big, rule-breaking hucks from Xavier Maxstadt and Luke Hancock, a veteran backfield that has the green light to throw anything. On the receiving end, Jack Williams and Erik Esposto will be out-jumping and outrunning defenders. Charlie Lian, defensive captain, will launch hammers in transition at a moments notice to convert breaks, chances they get frequently with an athletic defensive unit.
All this to say: anyone else taking the one seed away from UNCW in Pool B is unlikely on Saturday. Wisconsin stands a fighting chance, if their offense can keep pace with their defensive lines. What we’ve seen early on from the 2015 iteration of the Hodags has been athletically impressive when looking for blocks, but they haven’t found the same consistency on offense, despite excellent play from Avery Johnson and Craig Cox. This is a big weekend for the Hodags, and they’ll get some great challenges in pool play.
Florida provides the last interesting wrinkle for UNC Wilmington. The Gators have a 15-13 win to hang over Wilmington from Carolina Kickoff, and they’ve got their own talented backfield in Bobby Ley and James Dahl. With a relatively strong performance at Centex under their belt, Ley and his teammates will try to get creative to knock Maxstadt and company down a peg. You can watch that game LIVE on Ultiworld.
UNC Darkside, unlike their coastal counterpart, still manages to raises questions, despite being ranked #4 on USAU and #5 on UW. Though Jon Nethercutt has been nothing short of incredible at times, his veteran teammate Ben Snell has been less of a force in 2015 as he continues to get back to form after an ACL tear at this tournament a year ago.
At the beginning of the season, UNC coach Mike Denardis was excited by the unknown potential of his team, a lot which was stored in a dynamic batch of underclassmen led by Nathan Kwon. While the offense might just be in search a rhythm and consistent health, it’s UNC’s defense that should have other teams nervous about unknowns. Their speed at QCTU and Centex was more than apparent the number of turns generated, and efficiency appears to have been building steadily since then. It’s a quick turnaround for Darkside after Centex, but they had a month between Charlotte and Austin, so freshness shouldn’t be an issue.
Despite having a lot of potential, Darkside’s #4 seed at the tournament lands them in Pool D, which means they’ll face the #5 seed Florida State in their late-day 1 v 2 pool matchup, that may be streamed live on Ultiworld. After bidding through all of the competition except Pittsburgh at Warm Up, the red hot FSU team cooled to a simmer, with some outright cold moments spotting their Stanford record against Colorado and Wisconsin. Still, if Chris LaRocque and Andrew Roney can get it going on offense, they have the tools to beat every team at the tournament. Inconsistency has been an issue, though, already this season.
Darkside might have additional trouble with Michigan and fellow AC-regional contenders NC State. Both teams have their own talented veteran cores and both come with some mental game idiosyncrasies. Michigan seem to have made a habit of emotionally charged comebacks, usually riding a wave of turns generated by a tight-knit zone defense. Big men Sam Greenwood and Jesse Buchsbaum make appearances in the middle of that defense, surrounded by other athletes looking to cause trouble on swings. NC State is on the other end of the spectrum, a team that seems to play its best when they’re not thinking about what’s at stake. They’ll be hoping for a little wind this weekend, with many of their wins due in part to junk sets that prove tricky for opposing offenses to break down. The Wolfpack are on a quest to grab another bid for the Atlantic Coast with some upset wins this weekend.
Oregon Cruising On Nearly Flawless Season
It’s hard to imagine that #2 Oregon has its sights set on anything other than a revenge win against Pittsburgh at Easterns 2015, one that wouldn’t come until late in the weekend, assuming seeds hold. That’s an unfortunate fact for this Oregon team — their 18-man roster isn’t unheard of, but it certainly raises questions about the team’s ability to get the one or two game-changing turns they’ll need for a big win or two in bracket play. With the team’s best seven trotting out on offense, they are very difficult to generate breaks against, but they don’t have the ability to unleash big blowout wins with lots of defensive breaks of their own this season.
Fitness shouldn’t be a question for Saturday, and this team is too streamlined to see much resistance from the bottom half of Pool C. Ego’s experienced lines should offer Harvard’s young squad a good deal of trouble, and their pacing may be difficult for Maryland to handle. They should be concerned, however with UCF and Auburn.
The toughest part about game-planning for UCF is figuring out which team will cleat up. The Dogs of War were flawless early in the year at Carolina Kickoff and have wins against what seems like nearly half the Easterns field, including Pittsburgh, UNC Wilmington, UNC, Florida, Colorado College, and NC State. The stars on this team have all been here before, but for whatever reason, 2015 has been an emotional roller coaster after a fiery January. The top seeds have since earned their wins back against this UCF team, and the Dogs have yet to match up against Ego. When the time is on, it’s really on, led by outstanding play from Jeremy Langdon and Michael Fairley. But sometimes that team doesn’t show up and they find themselves facing big deficits and finger pointing.
Bursting onto the national scene at Stanford, Auburn took their invitation seriously. A winning record has landed them a few good performances away from slotting into another strength bid for the Southeast at the weekend’s end, and you can bet they know that. Auburn has already taken on Oregon once — they nearly knocked Ego off the top of the pool a few weeks ago in a 14-13 nailbiter. Auburn’s been all team-effort and hard work so far this year, although they ride the offensive stylings of captain Ryan Landry when they need a game-changing play.
Without a coach, Landry and the rest of the Auburn leadership have done an impressive job with their mental game so far this season, and an upset win against Oregon and other top seeds in bracket play isn’t out of the question. Still, they’re vulnerable. Georgia made quick work of Auburn at Easterns Qualifier after opening the game up with a few breaks, and they have struggled to close out games against top 10 teams. Still, they are well balanced and patient, great qualities to have in the college game.
The final wrinkle in Pool B is Harvard. This is a team with a nationals pedigree, experienced coaching, and extreme trust in their system. Though John Stubbs is operating alone without Jeremy Nixon downfield, don’t count on Red Line to go quietly this weekend. We’ll get a chance to see if they’ve made the necessary adjustments to their game since Centex, where they lost too many close games late.