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Seattle Riot’s Quest for a Return to Glory: 2015 Club Preview

The reigning world champions are back and better than ever, returning a majority of their roster and touting the top rookie class in club ultimate.

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Seattle Riot is a pillar of excellence in the Women’s Division. Consistently a top four (and usually top two) finisher at the Club Championships, Riot comes into 2015 eying the biggest prize of all: a Championship.

Overall Indicators

  • Gold medalist at WUCC 2014 and #1 or #2 in Power Rankings throughout club season
  • 2014 Northwest Regional Finish: 1st
  • 2014 Nationals Finish: T-3rd
  • 2nd place finish at the 2015 U.S. Open, losing on double-game point despite missing Sarah “Surge” Griffith and Calise Cardenas

Positives

  • Gwen Ambler has pushed back her retirement for at least one more season
  • Impact additions in Qxhna Titcomb, Paige Soper, Lauren Sadler, Julia Snyder, and Jaclyn Verzuh
  • Large majority of last year’s roster has returned, allowing for an easy transition into 2015
  • Returning coaches in Andy Lovseth and Callie Mah

Concerns

  • Large gaps between two major TCT tournaments
  • Scheduling conflicts in the form of U23 World Championships and the All-Star Ultimate Tour
  • Recent history of inability to win the “big game”

Season Outlook

Seattle Riot comes into 2015 on the coattails of their most successful season in recent memory. Even though they finished tied for third at the 2014 Club Championships, Riot took down Japan’s UNO and HUCK along with USA powerhouses Scandal and Fury to earn WUCC gold in Lecco; it was the program’s first major trophy since winning back-to-back national championships in 2004 and 2005.

Adding a third national title has remained elusive, though Seattle’s consistent excellence over the past decade and a half has assured they always have a chance and numerous times have come very close. Riot has seven 2nd and five 3rd place finishes at UPA and USAU Club Championships since 2001. Twelve of the last fourteen seasons—including the last ten—have culminated with Seattle taking home hardware that isn’t gold; Riot is seemingly cursed to ever be looking upwards on the podium.

This year’s iteration returns 22 members from the 2014 roster, including stars Alyssa Weatherford, Calise Cardenas, Dominque Fontenette, Sarah “Surge” Griffith, and Rohre Titcomb. With so many returners, it’s easy to imagine that Riot could pick up right where they left off and build on last year’s success.

“In some ways, yes,” said Rohre Titcomb. “Our roster consistency allows us to take much of the fundamentals work we put in last year and add nuance and detail to our technique. That part is fun.”

The long-time handler for Riot also touched on the challenge of returning hungry after a Worlds year, and the preparation to finally end the national championship drought.

“Last season was incredibly long, so I think people took the offseason very seriously and are coming into 2015 with a healthy ‘new season, new story’ mentality,” she said.

One of the major pieces of news after Nationals last October was the retirement of superstar Gwen Ambler. Like Justine Henin of tennis, Ambler was walking away while still at the top of her game. But couldn’t stay away from the sport she loved for long, showing up for the Riot combine back in April. Her career is illustrious, but she’s never won it all with Seattle. The thirst for that final title is one of the many reasons she came back.

“The true measure of a team or a season should never rest on which team brings home the trophy,” said Ambler. “Obviously I have my sights set on earning a national title with Riot this year, but the reasons I decided to play again were about the joy of playing and competing as part of an incredible group of talented, compassionate, competitive women.”

With their field general and emotional leader restored, the task at hand for Seattle was filling the few open roster slots. Any player who dons a Riot jersey is undoubtedly a fantastic player, but the rich got richer this offseason in the form of five massive pick-ups.

Elite teams will always draw elite talent, but Riot is consistently near the top because of Seattle’s farm system. It’s a well known fact that the Emerald City has one of the best youth scenes in the country, and Riot plays a major role in the development of these players. With sixteen members serving as coaches at some level, Riot is molding the area’s athletic youth into savvy veterans who are ready to make waves as college freshman.

Perhaps the area’s biggest success story since 2010 Callahan winner Shannon O’Malley is eighteen-year-old Jaclyn Verzuh, who, despite her youth, is already playing an impact role at the highest levels of the game. Verzuh has the ideal build for the sport of ultimate: tall and strong, with excellent hand/eye coordination and preternatural body control.

Like basketball legend Cheryl Miller, Jaclyn is a once-in-a-generation talent with her size, speed, and explosiveness. Verzuh has a 6’0″ frame, a bevy of throws, and has the athletic capability to make jaw dropping plays. But what makes Jaclyn a complete player is her incredibly self-assured decision making with the disc. Teams will likely back her for the entirety of her career and, though she’s already shown the ability to huck to speedy receivers like Molly McKeon, Verzuh doesn’t force the issue and waste possessions.

Another big roster addition is Lauren Sadler, a two-time club National Champion with Scandal and Ultiworld 2015 College Defensive Player of the Year. She joins Riot’s defensive line, making her mark with her gritty handler defense and explosive playmaking ability. Sadler’s greatest strength is her high level of endurance that allows her to run top offensive handlers into the ground when break opportunities arise. The DC transplant rounds out one of the most terrifying handler defender corps in the sport with Angelica Boyden and Kelly “Vegas” Johnson, the latter of whom packs a killer one-two punch of layout blocks and relentless give-and-go offense.

The remaining three pickups are all world-class players with accolades of their own. Qxhna Titcomb is U23 gold medalist in the mixed division, a WCBU gold medalist, a finalist for the 2015 Callahan award, and a selection in Ultiworld’s 2015 All-American Second Team. She was a key handler in Boston Brute Squad’s 2014 semifinals run thanks to her steady throws in the wind and big pulls. Titcomb is also skilled off the disc on defense and offense. 2014 College National Champion and Ultiworld Player of the Year Paige Soper is another athlete who can make things happen in the air. “Diddy” is well known for her handling skill, fiery defense, and an intense energy that her team feeds off of. Rounding out the group is another Seattle youth product, Julia Snyder, an Ultiworld 2014 All-American First Team selection who just finished second at the U23 World Championships in the women’s division.

Star power can only get you so far, as defenses can create schemes designed to neutralize the impact of a few players. What makes the top teams the best is their depth, how their full roster is utilized throughout tournaments and in big games. At this point in the 2015 season, Riot has second place finishes at Summer Solstice and the U.S. Open. Both losses have come at the hands of Fury, Seattle’s long-time rival. If one was to just look at the scores, they might think “different year, same results.” But Riot’s deployment of their players in the latter final deserves more recognition.

Coaches Andy Lovseth and Callie Mah inserted their rookie talent into important roles: Soper and Snyder split O-line points, where Soper was consistent on offense and tough on the turn while Snyder navigated Fury’s poach looks with poise and control. Verzuh played a majority of the defensive points and was called upon in big moments. Sadler was given the difficult task of slowing down Alex Snyder and the pleasure of punishing her on the turn. A team’s depth can only be reliable in October if they are used throughout the season. We may look back at Riot’s double-game point loss on July 5th as the work of a patient coaching staff, rather than further evidence supporting the narrative that the team can’t win in major finals.

It is now late July, and we are currently in the middle of the lull in Seattle’s season. Riot will be playing against Verzuh, Qxhna, and the All-Star Ultimate Tour tonight in their first stop. Outside of this showcase and without a tournament in early August, Riot is not playing competitively again until the Pro Flight Finale. This two-month break between major tournaments is a critical time for Seattle and is one of the main concerns from an outside perspective. Will practices and inter-squad scrimmages be enough to fuel the competitive fire and facilitate player growth? If nothing else, it should allow the team to be at full strength in late August.

“We should be back to a 100% healthy roster at [the] Pro Flight Finale in August,” said Rohre Titcomb. “I think Riot will look different then.”

A complete roster means the returns of Cardenas and Griffith. Cardenas was out for the U.S. Open Final and Griffith is recovering from an ACL tear suffered during the semifinal battle against Fury last October in Frisco.

“Calise and Surge are both powerful forces in the cutting space for us,” Titcomb added. “Having them back will add another dimension to what a team will have to take away from us downfield.”

This is possibly the most relevant quote as we turn into the second half of the season. Riot at their best last year was unstoppable and the addition of their five rookies makes slowing them down an even more daunting task. If a team focuses their energy on stopping Surge or Cardenas, players like Hana Kawai, Jaclyn Verzuh, U23 standout Shira Stern, or Dominque Fontenette will be there to fill the gaps. Fontenette was awarded the second ever Callahan award back in 1997 and to this day remains a titan on the field.

If Seattle Riot is firing on all cylinders come October, teams won’t be able to clear a path fast enough. With twenty-two returners and five world class additions, Seattle will be a force of nature in Frisco. Can they finally return to the top of the podium after ten long years?

Likely Ceiling

National Championship. If everyone is healthy coming into finals, Riot is arguably the best club team on paper this season.

Likely Floor

Semifinals of Nationals. Given the drop-off in strength after the top 5-6 teams, Seattle will likely reach quarterfinals without much difficulty. If Riot can perform well at the Pro Flight Finale and go into Frisco as a top two seed, the road to the semifinals will be yellow-bricked. After that, the best have consistently shown they can beat one another on any given day.

Post Script

No team in any division puts out more video than Seattle Riot, thanks to Luke Johnson of Fulcrum Media. The daily diaries of the World Ultimate Club Championships, USA Nationals, and the 2015 U.S. Open are among the best videos of ultimate out there and thankfully Johnson doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Coverage like this is fantastic for the growth of the women’s division and for the sport as a whole.

  1. Zack Smith
    Avatar

    Zack Smith is a reporter who is passionate about the college and club divisions. He captained SUNY-Buffalo for three years, played club for New York's PoNY, and is now a member of Seattle Sockeye. You can reach him by email or Twitter.

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