Northwest Challenge 2015: Tournament Preview

The nation's most competitive tournament creates a nationals-like atmosphere for teams looking to claim bid and titles.

NWC LogoThe second annual Northwest Challenge will bring most of the division’s top ranked teams together for an event tailored for the best of the best. There is no pool play. There is no bracket. There is no final. There’s just your team, seven games against nationals caliber opponents, and, potentially, high stakes throughout the weekend. The challenge is unlike any other.

Well, there’s one tournament NWC draws some unique parallels with: the College Championships. Three days of games, predetermined schedules, and elite competition all give teams a taste of the big show, a rehearsal of sorts for the top tier of contenders. But for many teams, the tournament may serve as a platform to earn a spot on stage when the curtain is pulled back, the lights are dim, and the spotlight is on. The hunt for strength bids will reprise its role as a key character in this year’s rendition. But the battle for the nation’s top spot takes top billing.

True Test Facing Virginia

One of the first comments on the Northwest Challenge Schedule post asked if #4 Virginia is really elite, giving voice to the question left unanswered so far this year. A trendy semifinalist pick since the season’s infancy, they’ve hung around the top 5 spots in the Ultiworld Power Rankings and Coaches Poll, despite surprising losses to #9 Florida State (a much more appealing loss now that FSU won Centex) and #18 Pittsburgh. They back it up with mostly dominating performances the rest of the season, including two decisive victories over aforementioned Pitt.

Now they travel into the lion’s den to test their mettle. No doubt they’ll be hoping to emulate the success of a similar contender last season: future national champion Ohio State Fever. OSU went undefeated in a starring performance that made them the favorites heading into the postseason. Hydra — a team that has been fighting for national respect for years, toiling away with consistently strong performances that fell just short of the semifinals — has been hungry for the recognition OSU garnered.

For their part, UVA aces the eye test. They harness the energy of Player of the Year hopeful Alika Johnston, but their true source of power is their depth. Hydra’s defensive prowess stands as their sturdy program foundation. But now the likes of Janie Mockrish, Sarah Hansen, Nada Tramonte, Rebecca Meeker, and Michele Derieux give them a formidable armada of offensive tools to turn to.

With an underwhelming region and potentially two bids, there isn’t much on the line for Virginia aside from esteem, both external and for themselves. Flying out of SeaTac airport knowing they rank firmly in the national championship hunt is a hell of a prize.

Stanford's Michela Meister winds up a forehand huck against Oregon in the Stanford Invite 2015 Final. Photo: Rodney Chen
Stanford’s Michela Meister winds up a forehand huck against Oregon in the Stanford Invite 2015 Final. Photo: Rodney Chen —

Stanford and British Columbia Gunning for The Top

The last two games Oregon has played were their closest of the season: double game point victories over #3 British Columbia, then #2 Stanford Superfly, to win the Stanford Invite. Excluding Oregon losses, the duo is a combined 23-1. Second fiddle won’t be enough for either outfit.

Superfly has unfinished business at the Northwest Challenge. After an injury-racked squad went 3-4 at the tournament last year, things went sideways for Stanford. They failed to win their Conference, then failed to win their region, then failed to even make the bracket at nationals, after a hot start to the regular season had thrust them into the semis conversation. Don’t expect the same Stanford to show up to this year’s affair.

The UBC Thunderbirds have only played the Stanford Invite so far, but fired a strong opening volley. They’ll really be dialed into improving, with their bid position locked up, but a potentially bloody Northwest Regionals looming. Their play at Stanford suggested a team finding its strengths and limitations, and still in the early stages of their defensive development, all to be expected in a debut.

The confidence and focus exuded by UBC, however, is a crucial sign that they have their sights set on much more than just making it to the ESPN streams. Mental strength will need to be forged to match their technical muscle and balanced attack; they only display vulnerability when their energy fades. Tackling that will be a chief concern, especially in the nationals-style schedule. Can their leadership keep them motivated and dedicated? If so, perhaps they can make themselves the favorite.

Oregon Fugue in Familiar Favorite Territory

Undefeated, with 21 straight wins, the favorite to win the national championship; just another day in the life for #1 Oregon. They’ve bested the best — 2-0 vs. Stanford, 1-0 vs. UBC — and have rarely been tested outside of those matchups. Their roster may have the Player of the Year on it; heck, like last year’s title winners, it may have the top two.

So what separates Fugue? They have the athletic depth to wear you down and the talent to stomp you out.

“We’ve put in the hard physical work so that we can attack teams 20 strong. We are playing split lines, and deep; so every time we step on the field we want to be fresher and faster than the seven women on the other line,” said Oregon’s Jesse Shofner. “Then when it gets tight, we have versatile talented players who can play on either side of the disc and give physically intense points back to back.”

That works for nearly every opponent that they come across. Fugue is well practiced in the strategy, and why even good teams seem to fall behind in the face of their relentlessness. Close games quickly turn to blowouts. But every once in a while, Oregon comes up against a wall sturdy enough to stand up to their physicality and speed, that can go deep into their roster, too. That’s when they lean on their top end.

What it really comes down to though is that this generation of Fugue has a history of gritting out tight games,” said Shofner. “When we get in sticky situations we are well practiced in winning with defense.”

It hasn’t failed them this season, and has done so rarely throughout this generation’s tenure. There are more reasons to expect the trend to continue than there are indicators otherwise.

Bidwatch: Northwest, New England on Notice

Not unlike 2014, #16 Victoria Vixens (USAU #20), #17 Western Washington Chaos (USAU #18), and a New England squad are headed into NWC in a tough spot for bids. #13 Dartmouth Princess Layout (USAU unranked) takes on Tufts’ role from last year, representing New England’s hope for a second (or third, depending) bid. They’ll each take on one another in critical matchups, and have chances to snag some additional rankings points.

It worked very well for the Northwest last year, who famously claimed a record 6 bids when Whitman, WWU, and Victoria all delivered. Repeating that feat looks very difficult, but possible for the pair of talented teams on the hot seat. Questions about their health will be pertinent for audiences, but the teams themselves seemed unfazed by the context.

“It’s all about the process,” responded Chaos captain Abbie Abramovich when asked about bid pressures.

Concerns about Western’s struggles at Stanford are not shared by the team. “We weren’t trying to peak at the Invite, like we did last year,” explained Abramovich. With a younger team, with a cadre of contributing sophomores and freshmen, that developmental process is critical for a WWU team that has plans on making nationals again and doing more than they did last season.

Meanwhile, Victoria is working on yet another bid-earning endeavor. They don’t get to play many tournaments due to the intensity of travel for the Vixens, but they try to make them count. Defeating Whitman in the Stanford Invite prequarters was huge for UVic, who looked like the most likely team to miss the cut in the Northwest. But at 2-5, they’ll need to capture some extra points to move into range this weekend. Victoria will look to defensive buzzsaw Kate Scarth and playmaking cutter Lexi Omand to lead them to those key Ws.

Tickets Available for Dartmouth Hype Train

Dartmouth's Angela Zhu is a critical component. Photo: Christina Schmidt
Dartmouth’s Angela Zhu is a critical component. Photo: Christina Schmidt

Are you buying or selling?

Dartmouth is probably the nation’s most mysterious team. They withdrew from the second day of their only tournament this season, concerned about traveling during the ice storms that crushed the east coast during QCTU. That means they’ve played just four games, amassing a 3-1 record with a loss to #15 Carleton and a win over #14 Central Florida.

But the question is less about what we know about them and more about what they know about themselves. The captains explained the team had played an indoor tournament against northeastern teams and scrimmaged Georgia, saying, “we are not coming in too unprepared.”

Dartmouth is undeniably talented, featuring elite club players like Angela Zhu of Brute Squad and Eva Petzinger of Wild Card. New additions Julianna Werffeli and Piper Curtis bolster a solid roster that has some good players you haven’t heard of — like aggressive throwing Katy Peake or fellow captain Qingyun Lu — filling out the roster to make them a more complete unit. Princess Layout is also getting back some missing parts, players who were gone abroad during the year’s early months.

“In past years, we’ve regretted focusing too much on rankings,” said the Dartmouth captains, echoing the sentiments of Western Washington. “While earning a strength bid would be a huge advantage over past years, just getting to play good competition at NW Challenge will help us elevate our game and prepare for Regionals.”

For the first time in years, they stand a solid chance of winning their challenging region, and as such, are refocused.

What’s a Whitman?

The out of nowhere story of the Whitman Lady Sweets featured an unexciting first chapter. While they opened 2-0, they’d drop 3 of their next 5, including to Victoria and unranked California. Inauspicious for a team pegged in the early season as a top tier team.

But while watching them perform at the Stanford Invite, the Lady Sweets gave off the sense that they were far from peaking. That stands to reason as their first tournament. They looked unpolished and were still integrating their exciting new pieces. Veterans Julia Bladin, Ari Lozano, and Margo Heffron looked in tune with one another, while Nina Finley and freshman twins Alissa and Linnea Soo were finding their way. The Soos were highly effective just on their speed and ultimate IQs, but will get even better as things develop.

The other factor was health. Finley and Revere both looked worse for wear and have had nagging issues in the past. Both can be huge impact players, but Revere’s college career has been plagued by health issues, preventing her from filling the elite cutter role she has the capability to dominate in. Finley seems to be taking up a key defensive role, but she was a critical piece of Ohio State’s semifinals run two seasons back, so she’s plenty capable on O.

Their rankings situation looks reasonably settled, so their pressure is on merely playing well against the nation’s best teams. That’s been the plan – and outside expectation – all along. We’ll find out a lot more about what and who they are, maybe more than any other team at NWC.

Carleton Climbing

It hasn’t been as planned for #15 Carleton Syzygy, but they return to the Northwest Challenge in a comfortable position. Stanford Invite had some scary moments, but overall, a solid victory against Western Washington and strong showings against Oregon and Washington gives Carleton the looks of a team in the mix for a quarterfinal spot. The tools are there, but the seasoning isn’t, making this weekend a good developmental measuring stick for the top ranked team in the North Central.

The stakes are fairly low for Carleton. Barring the incredible, the North Central will land just one bid. Carleton is the favorite and nobody in their region has cracked the top 20 this season, despite stirrings from middle of the pack teams like Wisconsin, #24 Minnesota, and #25 Iowa State. Syzygy will benefit in the long run from being able to place their attention on refining their game and tuning their systems. The dividends come down the road, and possibly in spades for a team that thrives when executing correctly. Their charge is led by Emily Buckner, who could play her way into the thick of the Player of the Year race.

Washington On the Precipice

Elite is just over yonder for #6 Washington Element. They’ve seen this view before, last year: a very solid resume lacking the fiery showings that would have marked them a championship contender. And then they dipped into a scary descent at the Northwest Challenge, their home tournament. It forced them to reexamine. They closed the year a semifinalist. This is the anniversary of the weekend that changed things.

It is unlikely Element is looking for the same type of weekend. It is a very different team, few of them acquainted with the ghosts of last year’s tumultuous affair.

When you watch Washington play, it is important to see the big picture. Even I found myself a bit starstruck by the influence their new grad students — particularly Lauren Sadler, Emma Kahle, and Tess Young — had on their play. But upon reviewing the film, the returners steadiness began to shine through. Grace Noah, Nora Landri, and Cami Canter were playing with confidence and doing their jobs. Sam Hing, Nicole Cramer, and Alli Tjader offered their contributions like seasoned vets.

The final push could come from the return of Sarah Edwards. Her status is up in the air, and it is hard to imagine she’ll be able to more or less show up and dominate, but she’s a premier talent who even in a few points could make a big difference. Washington doesn’t need her to be successful, but she might be the unstable piece that gives Element some explosiveness.

Other Notes

  • As this article is going to press, it’s flat out gorgeous in Seattle. Sunny, perfect temperature, and crisp air. The forecast makes no promises, but looks a bit more in line with the Northwest’s reputation. Chances of rain and clouds seem constant, and winds look potentially formidable in both Seattle (Friday) and Puyallup (Saturday & Sunday). Worth keeping an eye on.
  • UC Santa Barbara may have fallen from the power rankings with their disastrous Stanford Invite performance, but there is silver lining. They’ve played five games against teams that will be in attendance this weekend, and while they are 0-5, they were in all of those games. They probably won’t consistently scare teams, but expect them to push some teams in isolated performances.
  • After a solid showing at Centex, the Seattle Fryz are back in the college scene, with three games on the schedule. We’ll be filming the future at some point!
  • The Friday night showcase game between Oregon and Washington was a lot of fun last year (even if the crowd took a while to get going), and I’m hoping for another fun night.
  • The tournament will, again, be putting an emphasis on spirit, encouraging post-game spirit circles that are common in international play. Their presence seemed to spike after last year’s Northwest Challenge, and they were still seeing some use at Centex.
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