Finals Preview: Long Awaited Rematch Sets Stage For Epic Final, Presented By Ultimate Central

#1 v. #2. Here we go.

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 —

The National Championship game between #1 Oregon and #2 Stanford is fast approaching. There were suspicions these were the division’s best two teams. By the time pool play concluded, there was little question. By the time Sunday was over, there were no doubts. Each passing round made it clearer and clearer these two teams were on a collision course for an epic clash.

Their narratives throughout the tournament have looked similar, and now it seems they were actually traveling down one road to the same destination. Oregon’s first half of play against Notre Dame was tough, but they decisively won their pool, crushed Dartmouth in the quarterfinals, and overpowered a dangerous British Columbia team in the semifinals. Stanford went through their pool, fielding some resistance from Washington — they went into an 0-3 hole — before rolling through their quarterfinal against Colorado. A first half challenge from Carleton in the semifinal was overcome and Superfly cruised to the finish.

The two teams enter the game with sterling resumes: a 6-0 record, each, and Stanford with a +54 score differential to a +48 for Oregon.

Their past matchups have both gone Oregon’s way, making the reigning runner-up the favorite. Oregon thoroughly outplayed an incomplete Stanford team in their most recent matchup at Northwest Challenge. Prior to that, the two played a classic at the Stanford Invite, a final that culminated in a dramatic double game point. Superfly has resisted Oregon’s pace-dictating style, but has struggled with the defensive schemes Fugue has deployed.

“They have those smart players who can find the holes and spaces and force teams into traps and run through Ds,” said Stanford Co-Coach Jamie Nuwer after their semifinal.

In order to tip the scales, the Southwest champions have been drilling hard on understanding the areas to attack in Oregon’s D. They’ve shown, with their throwing core of Jennifer Thompson, Steph Lim, Michela Meister, and Monisha White, the ability to maintain possession effectively even under immense pressure. Ohio State used this strategy against Oregon effectively in last year’s championship bout; playing with that level of defensive intensity — like Oregon does — can wear a team down if their opponent weathers the storm. Coupled with White’s over the top throws, Stanford may be able to show their work was worth it.

“We have been working relentlessly on improving our zone offense and our man offense since we played them last to try,” explained Nuwer, “to adjust to specific pressures that we know that they like to use.”

Oregon’s offense can be just as imposing as their defense, and Stanford will need to compose an answer. Head coach Lou Burruss uses numerous different spread plays to set up space for Jesse Shofner, or, when she’s getting a breather, Sarafina Angstadt-Leto. When given room to operate, the team’s dynamic throwers can launch monster throws to their athletic cutters, a group championed by the speedy Olivia Bartruff. Their speed and power is vicious and leads to huge plays that can sap energy from opponents and inject it right into Fugue.

Stanford’s offense, on top of its strong possession continuity, has some size that Oregon has struggled to defend. Halsey Hoster (5’10”) and Courtney Gegg (6’0″) lead the way in the Superfly deep game and no Oregon defender has the combination of size and speed to keep up with the duo; Meister (5’9″) is also strong in the air and could prove yet another troublesome threat.

Both teams have a rich history, with Stanford being one of — if not the — greatest programs in women’s history and Oregon the strongest program in recent years. Fugue has been a consistent presence in the title race, and this is their fourth straight trip to the final. Stanford has been in the finals 12 times since 1995 and earned 8 titles, but tomorrow they will be seeking their first title in 2007.

All the strategy, history, and domination has led to this. For the first time in Milwaukee, a blowout seems completely out of the question for either team, even if the game’s pressure breeds wild outcomes.

“I think it’s really going to raise the level of play because both teams are going to come in with a really high mental attitude and both teams ready to strike,” said Nuwer. “It is going to be really exciting for the fans and the crowd because it’ll be a hotly contested and fiery fun game to watch.”

Both teams, with veteran leadership, experienced coaches, and strong team cultures to fall back on, will be well prepared for one another. The best is what will be required of the winner and the best is exactly what Nationals seeks to find. We’ll see the best ultimate of the weekend right when we should.

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