Centex 2015: Tournament Recap (Men’s)

Here's what went down in Austin.

Centex 2015With upsets and exciting games in the Texas sun, Centex was a worthy stop on the trail to Nationals. Here’s a look at the action from around the Men’s Division.

UNC Wilmington Overcomes Sleepy Start To Stay Hot

Coming to a high level tournament right after Spring Break is never an easy transition. That’s exactly what UNC Wilmington faced as they drove into Austin for Centex. Luckily for the Seamen, they had some time to burn off the fog before they faced their toughest challenges on the weekend.

Even on Sunday, though, they weren’t their sharpest. The offensive line hasn’t been as precise as it was last season, giving up more turnovers and facing, as coach Greg Vassar put it, “too many multi-possession points.” Xavier Maxstadt was putting up dimes on many of the O line’s points, but he also had a few throws into spaces where cutters simply weren’t going. Chemistry is still building.

“Sometimes he’s on a different page than his receivers,” said Vassar.

Jack Williams continues to be a big weapon downfield, but in many games this weekend he was turnover prone when he looked to attack with his throws. Certainly there is a growing process for this offense, and we should expect to see it sharpen over the next two months. What has to be concerning for the other elite teams is that UNCW’s offense has the most room to grow (save for perhaps UNC), and yet they’ve been undefeated since January.

A big reason for that has been the team’s defense. With the typical combination of aggressive man, smart junk sets, and various wrinkles (out of bounds roller pulls to curtail the opposition’s offensive flow, zone to man transitions), Wilmington forces the opposing offense to think more than react. That creates turnovers.

They may not have the most fearsome defensive line, but they have one of the most effective in the country right now. They generated ample breaks against every team they faced, and the efficiency after the turn — while not as good as the coaching staff would like — was almost better than the offense’s. Charlie Lian is aggressive with the disc in his hands, putting pressure on the deep defense, and Cale Ward has matured into a fantastic cutter with a knack for finding the end zone.

“We’re expecting big things out of [Ward] and we’re getting it,” said Vassar.

There’s a reason that UNCW started the year as a preseason top 4 team — they have all the parts they need to make a run towards a title this year. How they stack up against the truly top teams — Pitt, Oregon, and UNC — has yet to be seen. We should learn a lot at Easterns.

Texas A&M Readies For The Postseason

Texas A&M wrapped up their regular season with a very encouraging performance at Centex, including wins over UNC and UMass and a decent effort against UNC Wilmington on tired legs.

As has now been well documented, the team lives and dies through Matt Bennett, who has proven to be one of this season’s most exciting and talented players. Alongside Dalton Smith on offense, he is able to utilize his throwing skill set at full capacity. There may be no tougher cover at the handler position in college.

A&M’s offense has matured since last year, where it was a bit more huck and hope. Now, they are willing to be patient and wait for looks to develop, taking deep shots (or break side scoobers, or 50 yard hammers) in more advantageous positions.

Still, at times it breaks down, like it did in the final vs. Wilmington. With Smith sidelined with a nagging hamstring injury, Bennett had to do everything and he pressed too much, finishing the game with double digit turnovers, many coming on too cheeky break side throws with defense in hot pursuit.

But those turnovers are a part of their game. Normally they have fewer, and they think that the format at Nationals (should they make it out of an always tough South Central Region) will benefit their shallower-than-most roster and help them avoid the fatigue that has led them to lose their offensive edge.

“We’re setting the bar high,” said coach Jose Cespedes. “If we can stay healthy, we can compete with anybody.”

While the team clearly runs through the throwers, veteran cutters like Thomas Slack and Ben Smith have proven to be valuable assets, able to create separation and make big one on one plays in the endzone. The chemistry between them and Bennett and Smith is also obvious: just watch as players constantly run fade routes to the back corners, awaiting a bending Bennett blade.

The defense is filled with athletes, and the vary between using a hard man and a soft, poachy zone that changes shape and creates the illusion of open space. Bennett gets a lot of blocks with his outstanding field awareness as the deep in the zone.

There are very fair questions about the team’s ability to take out top opponents: generally, turnover prone offenses struggle at Nationals as defensive efficiency vastly improves by May. They struggled last year, even with Bennett throwing 10+ assists in multiple games. But Nationals is one game at a time, and there are fewer teams you’ll want to face than A&M in a one game scenario. If Bennett and Smith get hot, good luck beating them.

UNC Still Coming Into Form

Where will this UNC team end up? While they are unquestionably a talented team, this year’s squad hasn’t shown the kind of regular season dominance that foreshadowed a finals appearance at Nationals. There have been blips of excellence: a double game point win over Pitt back in January, some strings of excellent offensive play, a very nice win over Colorado in Centex quarters. But there have also been problems: poor reset communication, an ugly loss to UMass at QCTU, and a general lack of consistency on both sides of the disc.

There are plenty of valid reasons for those issues. The team is moving a lot of younger players into bigger roles, a good number of rookies are being asked to contribute at a high level, and the offense needs rejiggering with the loss of All-American cutter Christian Johnson. But soon there won’t be much more time for the team to figure it all out.

For one, they need to get healthy. Snell has been less than 100% all season long, and if they truly want to compete for a title, they need him back in 2014 form. Aaron Warshauer has also been in and out — he will be a big piece of the offense at full strength.

Notably, Jimmy Zuraw, a U23 selection, has really stepped up his game this year after struggling with consistency in 2014. He has worked better with Nethercutt than Snell on offense from the games I’ve seen this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Snell take over as a defensive handler again once he’s ready to take the physical toll of playing on D line again.

But like many teams around the country this year, it may come down to how well the freshman and sophomores play in May that decides how far the team will go. They could lose in quarters, or they could win a title. Big test at Easterns coming up.

UMass Stumbles Through Centex

After something of a coming-out party at Queen City, UMass came back down to Earth at Centex, after taking two losses in their pool (to Cal and Texas A&M), barely making the bracket (thanks to a double game point loss from Cal v. Luther), and then losing to UNC Wilmington, Florida, and Colorado on Sunday.

While their results look worse than they really are (they almost beat Wilmington in what was far and away their best game of the weekend before resting many starters in consolation play), there are legitimate concerns for the team. Surprisingly, they are largely mental ones.

Up three vs. Cal, they took their foot off the gas and collapsed late. They never brought their A game at all on Saturday, frankly. And then they basically decided against playing hard after losing to Wilmington on Sunday in games that they could have learned a lot from.

You can count on coaches Tiina Booth and Evan Johnson being unhappy with the mental fortitude on display.

But in their truest test of the weekend, quarters v. UNCW, they really did show up and play well, despite missing two critical pieces of the offensive line in freshman phenom handler Brett Gramann and sophomore cutter Conor Kline. Ben Tseytlin was a workhorse on defense, and Ben Sadok had an excellent game as the primary offensive handler.

We’ll see how this team responds in a very tough pool at Easterns this weekend.

Colorado Hanging Around As Series Approaches

While Colorado Mamabird is clearly not the juggernaut they were a year ago, the team continues to hang around the top 10 and stay in the conversation for contenders. Although they lost to Florida in pool play and then UNC in semifinals, they were right in both of those games with a chance to win.

I don’t think anyone should be surprised if they win the South Central again, even if Texas A&M is coming in as the higher seed.

Stanley Peterson remains an athletic beast and made some unbelievable plays, despite being well less than 100%. I still have major questions about his ability to run the offense, as his throws just aren’t close to his cutting abilities. It will be interesting to see how coach Brent Zionic deploys him in the postseason.

More than solid contributions continue to come from the team’s deep roster, particularly from Wes Chow and Pawel Janas. The team’s lack of signature wins is obviously concerning if they are hoping to defend their championship, but all we’ve seen is improvement since the start of the season.

“Our big problem now is just ironing out the mistakes,” said Zionic.

A few upward ticks in their offensive efficiency percentage could mean the difference between the narrow losses they’ve been taking and coming away with wins. With the balanced talent they have, there’s no reason to think they can’t raise their game by May.

Central Florida: Hot And Cold

No team in the country this year has been quite so up and down as the Dogs of War. Watch them one game and they’ll be all energy, making huge defensive plays, ripping 60+ yard hucks, and winning easily over quality teams. Watch them another and you’ll see heads down as they give up strings of three or four breaks in a row.

I’m not sure I have an explanation for why the team plays in such a manner. They were brilliant on Saturday at Centex, rolling to a 4-0 day without much of a sweat. But then they were totally flat on Sunday morning, falling in a big hole against rival Florida before mounting a huge second half comeback after Florida’s Bobby Ley rolled his ankle and missed a big chunk of points.

After that emotional win, they were utterly outmatched and outplayed by UNC Wilmington, who embarrassed them in semifinals. Blame it on legs if you want, but that wasn’t the same team out there that was at the fields on Saturday. It certainly didn’t help that they only came to the tournament with 16 players and finished with 11 actually playing.

“We’ve just got to have numbers,” said UCF coach Andrew Roca. “We can’t win games consistently relying on our top 12 guys.”

If they can smooth out their consistency issues, they will be a fearsome competitor at Nationals. Jeremy Langdon and Michael Fairley have been just outstanding when they’re clicking, and the team has all the athleticism and skill it needs to go deep into the tournament. Don’t forget that last year — after a sour regular season — UCF put up a brilliant game against Pitt in pool play at Nationals and lost only because Pitt was just that much better.

This year’s team has had better results than last year’s by a bit of a distance. But to truly become contenders, they will need to lock in their mental focus for each and every game. They’ll get a chance to do that this weekend in Myrtle Beach.

Florida Still A Step Behind The Elite Teams

Florida is right there. They have a superb backfield featuring Bobby Ley and James Dahl, a well-rounded set of cutters led by Tanner Repasky, and an above average defense. But they just haven’t been able to make the leap into the truly top tier, the teams in the semis conversation.

At Centex, Florida struggled with focus at times, coming out very slow in pool play and dodging some bullets against Missouri and Harvard. But they also had some strong games against Colorado and Massachusetts. Then, on Sunday, they were dominating UCF before an injury to Ley led to a total meltdown. Ley’s ability to get open for resets as well as create downfield opportunities with his throws is the most important part of the offense and the team really leans on him to make plays. With him on the sideline, the offense stiffened and cracked.

It’s not clear how this team will really improve over the next couple of months. They already play fewer than 14 guys in the rotation, as they have all season. When things are working, they look quite good, but never overwhelmingly so. And they can’t seem to find wins against the very top teams.

The difference between this team and the Championship winning Florida teams of the past decade is simply the talent. Brodie Smith, Kurt Gibson, and Tim Gehret were three of the best — if not the absolute best — players in the country. While Ley is in the conversation among the top group, he simply does not dominate the way his forerunners did. And his teammates aren’t in that tier.

Florida will continue to win a lot of games, but I struggle to see them advancing beyond the quarterfinals of Nationals. They seem to have already reached their ceiling.

Texas Remains On Upward Trajectory

Much like in-region competitor Colorado, Texas has had to deal with significant roster turnover, including the loss of Will Driscoll and Mitch Bennett, two vital offensive players last season. That has meant a longer building process and more early season losses. But the team is getting better.

Though they again lost to Texas A&M (in quarterfinals), they got a solid win over UMass and played good, competitive games all weekend. Their height is an obvious advantage, and Chase Cunningham has really played well enough — especially this weekend — to start deserving a look for the Player of the Year shortlist.

The team’s system — masterfully run by long-time coach Calvin Lin — is helping to stabilize the results of the team after the offseason departures. Is this team’s ceiling as high as last year’s? Certainly not, but they’re no pushover either.

Though it would be a stretch to see Texas in the semis, another quarters appearance is definitely not out of the question. They will give teams trouble with their length and size, especially in certain matchups.

Where do they fit in in the South Central? Does A&M finally overtake them at Regionals this year? Right now, you have to think Texas is the third team in the region. But if they keep improving at the same pace they have been, they could rise higher.

A Spirit Aside

While spirit issues were largely not present at Centex (in fact, some games were downright friendly, like the Texas A&M v. UNC semi, where A&M’s sideline would yell “Lord” anytime Jon Nethercutt had the disc in order to alert their downfield defenders), multiple teams made comments — both on and off the record — about UNC Wilmington.

This is not a new topic of conversation, of course, and I’m often left wondering just how much of Wilmington’s issues are created by their actions v. their reputation.

From what I’ve seen this season, Wilmington plays physically, but they are not out of line in their play style. Sure, they have their share of bad calls, but not outside the norm of college elite men’s ultimate. I think this Cody Johnston article gets that part dead right.

However, UNC Wilmington talks trash. A lot of trash. It’s not a good look, and it heightens tensions in what would otherwise be well-spirited contests.

“We’ve got things to work on. I think every team has things to work on. Nothing happens in a vacuum,” said Wilmington coach Greg Vassar. “There’s lots of things that go on that don’t get seen on the ultimate field. So judge us by our next tournament.”

Top teams have consistently discussed Wilmington’s poor spirit again this season.

“That’s how they play and that’s what works for them,” said Texas A&M coach Jose Cespedes. “And we’ll have to adjust if that’s how it’s going to be.”

To the coaching staff’s credit, they do want to end the behavior. UCF coach Andrew Roca noticed a stark contrast in their semis matchup. “In the first half, I was very unimpressed with their team demeanor,” he said. “But in the second half, I was extremely impressed. After talking to the coach, it obviously made a difference.”

“They don’t have to play the way they did in the first half to win games,” he added.

Quick Hits

– Impressive weekend for Colorado College, who got nice wins over Minnesota and Harvard. They remain a quiet contender in the South Central, and they’ll have a shot to get some more nice wins at Easterns.

– Minnesota went 3-0 on Sunday, but after a 1-3 Saturday. Playing without Josh Klane, the team was inconsistent. They have yet to beat a ranked team this season. Can they find a way to get past Wisconsin or Carleton this year after two years of coming up empty?

– Fantastic, sunny weekend in Austin. It was a well run tournament (though it definitely needs observers) and it’s hard to beat a little Texas BBQ. Austin’s also a great city — highly recommended for a visit.

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