Rematch Ready: How #1 Oregon Edged #2 Stanford, Powered by Agility from Five Ultimate

The two top seeds in women's college ultimate, Oregon Fugue and Stanford Superfly, could meet again in the National Championship. We breakdown the video from the the match between these squads at the Stanford Invite earlier this season.

This year’s Stanford Invite final in the women’s division pitted consensus #1 Oregon Fugue against #2 Stanford Superfly. Neither team had lost a game all weekend. Best of all — and somewhat surprisingly — the early points of the game revealed two teams with relatively even levels of talent. Even as Oregon trotted out stars like Hayley Wahlroos, Bethany Kaylor, and Jesse Shofner, Stanford fought the whole way, with Fugue ultimately claiming a double game point victory.

Stanford’s ability to answer was paced in large part by their ability to move the disc and own deep space, pinging the disc between handlers until they could find a deep shot, and winning several 50/50 hucks throughout the game. In particular, Monisha White’s ability to throw lofty, pinpoint arounds to create lateral space and new attacking angles, combined with Halsey Hoster, rookie Courtney Gegg, and Michela Meister’s height and aggressiveness in the air, kept the contest close until the end.

So how did Oregon manage to control the game?

Oregon Controlled Tempo

A big part of the answer lies in how the entire Fugue team implemented head coach Lou Burruss’s schemes bogging down Stanford’s intended tempo and spacing. Oregon, on the other hand, refused to drastically alter their own style of play even in the face of different looks from Superfly. Despite a mix of man, zone, and junk employed by Robin Knowler and the rest of Stanford’s coaching staff, Fugue’s offense, powered by stunning play from their dominant trio,1 frequently managed to do things like this:

YouTube Clip #1


…and this.

Meanwhile, big plays like this one from Stanford kept them in it until the very end:

Unfortunately, those plays often arose out of stagnation. Stanford repeatedly failed to move the disc beyond the second level of Fugue’s zone defense for easy scores and would instead chuck it from the handler spot, hoping Hoster or another big might win yet another 50/50 battle. As one might expect, this pattern didn’t hold up for Superfly, with key moments in the game steadily breaking in Fugue’s favor.

Fugue took what they wanted, Superfly took what they could

The largest difference between a win and a loss in this game was Fugue’s ability to produce looks they were comfortable with, while Stanford looked like they were scrapping for nearly every goal they earned.

This contrast was most visible in comparing how each team responded to zone defenses. For Fugue, the goal was to get the disc to a top thrower and allow her to use shots over the top — primarily big, looping blades. From there, Oregon’s cutters were superb in getting off to the races, moving the disc quickly and establishing momentum that pushed them past the cup. When Stanford’s zone looks did create turnovers, they were often anomalous mental errors, as Fugue’s downfield players got a touch too anxious to score on the goal line.

Still, these turns left the Superfly defense with 70 yards to go, and Oregon frequently used their gritty person-to-person or a zone of their own to get the disc right back and score.

Interestingly, Stanford was equally effective in getting beyond the first level of the defense when Oregon came down in a zone look. Superfly’s preferred method of moving the disc through Fugue’s cup or junk D was fast throws directly through the first level of the defense, typically coming from White or Jennifer Thompson. Stanford’s handlers were generally successful in zipping low-release rising backhands and forehands to Veronica Cruz and Rosemarie Sandino directly past defenders in the cup.2

What killed Stanford in this game was that they couldn’t get the disc beyond the second level of the zone with anywhere near the ease that Oregon could.

There are two levels of problems with this clip: First, there just aren’t easy options for the receiver who just caught a Jennifer Thompson dime behind the cup. Ideally, one player should be filling in that open space while another sets up to be her continuation cutter. Second, and more importantly, the popper who received that first pass through the zone doesn’t even seem to be looking for her next option, and instead turns backward to Superfly’s handlers almost immediately, giving up yards and letting Oregon’s disciplined zone settle back in. Stanford’s cutters — Steph Lim’s hybrid role in particular — looked less confident and dynamic than Oregon’s even though they have the throws necessary to move the disc on a fast break after getting through the cup. Whether they’ll be willing and able to do it against zones they face at Nationals will be an interesting storyline to monitor.

Another key difference is how Oregon’s handlers penetrate into the zone after hitting an open cutter. The aggressive cutting of the handlers is both a response to and enables their cutters to be more threatening by giving them a moving option with a lot of momentum. Considering the quality of throwers on both side, handlers in those positions pose a serious problem for zone defenses still in recovery mode. Oregon’s handlers pressed their advantage where Stanford’s settled for what was given.

On a related note, Stanford’s throwers have the ability to go over the top and showed it off at various points of the game. White in particular showed off a knack for loopy blades over her mark to the break side and the occasional hammer. Unfortunately, while Oregon’s blades and hammers produced yards and open looks ahead of the cup, Stanford was frequently caught throwing hammers just to move laterally and reverse the field.

YouTube Clip #2

Even though these throws were completed at a high rate, receivers rarely caught the disc with an advantage because Oregon’s zone recovered so well. From there, Superfly was forced to go back to open dumps and swings, waiting for tough throws through the cup to open up (and then falling back into a frustrating pattern of immediate dumps).

While talent, tenacity, and some luck kept Stanford in the game, there’s a world of difference between scoring with a 6 throw fast-break against a broken down zone and grinding for 20+ completions to punch it in against a zone that holds its shape for the length of the field. It’s incredibly difficult to do the latter for an entire game and hope to pull out the win.

Fugue’s “rulebreakers”

In one of his many insightful, fun to read columns, Lou Burruss broke down the value of having certain players who have the freedom to operate outside of a system.3 Fugue’s ability to really unleash its three most potent weapons in Wahlroos, Kaylor, and Shofner puts an incredibly fine point on Burruss’ argument.

It’s really, really hard to create offensive schemes that deliberately make use of throws like this one, regardless of the level of play or division:

Instead, in order to account for the creativity and explosiveness of Fugue’s talent, Burruss and his staff scheme in a variety of ways to get his players into space and then seem to hand them the keys to the car. This showed up in three ways as Oregon built a lead against Stanford.

First, against zones, Oregon’s handlers were free to throw blades or upside down throws to get to the second level of the defense. Once that goal was accomplished, Fugue was great in getting off to the races. At its core, Oregon’s zone offense appears to be about its best throwers cracking the door open in unconventional ways, and then letting the rest of the team burst through it. Because players downfield knew to expect the disc virtually anywhere and at anytime, they were excellent about going to the disc in a controlled and systematic way, so that every successive receiver had an option (sometimes the thrower sprinting directly at them for a dish) and so that Fugue usually gained 20-30 yards for each zone-breaking throw.

Second, as Charlie Eisenhood and Keith Raynor pointed out in the telecast, Fugue used a variety of iso sets designed to place Shofner one-on-one in the center of the field, trusting that her athleticism would produce a first pass, and that her throws would move the team from there. While the Stanford game was not Shofner’s best, her success this season carrying the team speaks for itself. Similarly, the two-player game in the first clip above is just not something most teams will do if they can help it. Oregon’s coaching staff looks to have gameplanned that Wahlroos/Kaylor wrecking ball in spite of conventional wisdom.

Third, coming back to the original point, Shofner, Wahlroos, and Kaylor just seem to have an overall green light that is uncommon for college players. The confidence Wahlroos has to throw a 45-yard, cross-field, inside-out backhand over 3+ defenders comes in part from hundreds of hours of time spent honing her throws. For this to happen in the final of a major college tournament, though, it’s almost equally critical that her coach has the foresight to step back and allow her to use that throw in practice, even as it will unquestionably be a turnover in many, many scrimmages. At some point, it seems that Burruss and his staff made the choice to turn their stars loose, such that it’s hard to tell what, if anything, those stars are forbidden from doing with the disc in their hands.

It looks to be working, and it’s awesome to watch.

Superfly’s gritty one-on-one defense nearly saves them

Knowler and her staff chose to unleash a swarming person-to-person late in the game, on defense and pulling to Oregon down 11-12. At that point, Superfly desperately needed breaks to stay in the game and this turned out to be a great choice. Against a zone, Oregon was free to move the disc into the hands of its strongest throwers, who were simply nonplussed the options they saw downfield. By contrast, in its first non-zone point late in the game, Stanford created a turnover on Oregon’s first throw by hustling down on the pull and shutting down the center handler option.

Outside of a few hiccups (blown assignments mixed with jaw-dropping stuff from Fugue), Superfly’s person-to-person looked pretty strong when it popped up throughout the game. In the end, Stanford probably should have made the shift to matching up one-on-one earlier. It was ultimately their intense defense down the stretch that gave them a chance to win. With zone looks, Oregon was free to find their most effective throwers, who in turn put the disc wherever they wanted to (the end zone seemed to be a favorite). When Stanford finally matched up, they were able to generate individual pressure on players 4 through 7 of Oregon’s O-line, resulting in errors away from Kaylor and Wahlroos by throwers and receivers. In the event of a future meeting, Stanford should definitely be on notice that they match up well enough with Oregon to feel confident in letting their players go one-on-one, especially if Superfly’s coaching staff can scheme ways to steer the disc away from Fugue’s star players.

Last note: Both teams are just really fun to watch

Lots of videos of ultimate games make the viewer want to skip forward through stoppages, which are often frequent and take forever. During the Stanford Invite ladies’ final, though, I found myself stuck watching the teams between points, during half, at timeouts, whatever. Why? Because was immediately clear that these teams are having a ton of fun playing the game.

Oregon’s timeouts suggest that it’s just a cool team to be on. In a tight game, fighting to win a huge tournament, Oregon’s huddle is loose and looks like they’re having a good time. Their swagger isn’t limited to their on-field talent, the sideline stunts pretty loudly too:

On Superfly’s end, everyone gets visibly pumped after each score. Huge cheers, big hugs, and crowd mobs were common, especially in big moments. This display (editor’s note: the break dance) after a particularly crucial Superfly score by Meister is probably my favorite:

This year has probably been the best college women’s regular season I have ever seen, from the loud, silly personalities of teams — check Superfly’s Uptown Funk video if you haven’t already — to gritty, flashy stars like the Oregon trio, to insane talent spread all over the country, Nationals is going to be super fun to watch. For those of us who won’t make it to Milwaukee this year, I sincerely hope that the video coverage can capture all of these features of competing teams. They make our sport look great.

If we’re lucky, we’ll get another Stanford/Oregon matchup in bracket play at Nationals. The ladies and coaches on both teams are killing it. A few adjustments by either team could easily produce a different result, and regardless of whether they do, the fans are in for quite a treat.

  1. Ultiworld and international news giant The Guardian both spotlighted Wahlroos’ throwing extravaganza shortly after UW’s video of the final became available 

  2. The turnovers that happened as a result of these throws were typically the kind that should be factored in to any risks necessary to beat a zone: the occasional drop or weird miscommunication between cutters in space. 

  3. Burruss’ work is sorely missed. Just great reading for strategy enthusiasts, fledgling coaches, and lovers of the sport, generally. 

  1. Kevin Herrera

    Kevin Herrera is an Ultiworld video analyst. He played college ultimate at the University of Minnesota and University of Georgia, before attending law school in New York. He has played for PoNY, the Nashville Nightwatch, and NOISE. He lives in Tennessee.

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