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2015 MLU Championship Preview & Conference Finals Recap

Boston and Seattle face off in an exciting finals matchup.

Image via MLU. Photos: Scobel Wiggins & Kevin Leclaire -- UltiPhotos.com
Image via MLU. Photos: Scobel Wiggins & Kevin Leclaire — UltiPhotos.com

With the East and West conference titles decided at the end of July, the Seattle Rainmakers and Boston Whitecaps will meet in Philadelphia’s PPL Park for the 2015 MLU Championship. Neither team was initially expected to play in this game, with the favorites for most of the season — the Portland Stags and Philadelphia Spinners — both ending up defeated in their respective Conference Finals. This is the first time each team has played the other, and the first time the Rainmakers have been to the MLU title game.

WEST FINAL (Seattle Rainmakers def. Portland Stags 17-16)

The Seattle Rainmakers upset the Portland Stags 17-16 to end the Stags’ season a game shy of the MLU final for the second time in as many years.

Heading into the game, both Ultiworld and the MLU published game previews favoring the Stags. With a 9-1 record, highlighted by a perfect 3-0 against #2 Seattle, Portland had good reason to be confident heading into the game. Head coach Danny Quarrell had stressed the importance of starting off strong, noting that Portland has usually needed a stellar second half to defeat Seattle, and that he had mild concerns about the team’s extended time off without real-game reps.

Portland started off the game strong, forcing a short-field turnover from the Rainmakers. However, a rushed throw sailed out the back of the endzone over an open receiver, foreshadowing the types of break opportunities the Stags would fail to convert throughout the game. After a pair of opening holds, Seattle broke Portland twice in rapid succession to go up 4-1 after an errant red zone hammer, followed on the next point by a stellar layout catch block on the dump from Ben Beehner.

With stars Henry Phan, Khalif El-Salaam, and Eddie Feeley absent, a number of players were asked to step into larger roles for Seattle for the first time in 2015. Most notable was Gavin McKibben. As coach Steve Gussin said, “Gavin was especially unguardable. When you get five goals and zero turnovers from an offensive handler, that’s a big contribution.”

Alex Laws, while contributing an assist on the field, was more influential as a sideline juggernaut; he led the Rainmakers’ celebrations after almost every point, and was visibly the most excited player during team huddles. It was that type of jubilant energy that helped propel Seattle even after Portland broke them in the second half to tie the game on more than one occasion. The Rainmakers were in the driver’s seat from the beginning, and never relented. A key moment came when Seattle perfectly timed their score at the end of the third quarter to go up by one. That score seemed to only cement Seattle’s desire and belief, and they executed brilliantly to take the game.

Despite several strong individual performances, Gussin was quick to discount reliance on any few players. “The biggest key to the game was our depth,” he said. “We just had everybody contribute. We knew going into the game that if everyone just did their job, we would have a really good chance of winning, and that mindset ended up working well for us.”

For Portland, Timmy Perston (7G, 1A), Steve Kenton (5A, 1G, 56/57 passes completed), and Benjamin McGinn (2A, 1G, 46/46 passes completed) were the most consistent performers on an otherwise lackluster night. The Stags will take this narrow loss as significant motivation heading into 2016; the result just goes to show that the postseason is a different beast.

EAST FINAL (Boston Whitecaps def. Philadelphia Spinners 21-16)

Over on the east coast, Boston met Philly in a rematch of their final regular season game that Boston had won for home field advantage in the East Division Championship. In stark contrast to the relatively calm conditions out West, the Whitecaps and Spinners would have to endure blustery, swirling winds that had an immediate impact on the game. In spite of the poor conditions, Boston endured en route to their second victory in as many games and earned a spot in the MLU Championship game.

From Boston’s first offensive possession, it was clear what they were trying to do: move the disc quickly, preferably to the breakside, and let the best throwers take the deep shots when the opportunities presented themselves. The Spinners’ defense rarely had the chance to set and develop any sort of teamwide cohesiveness. While they did a good job taking away the Whitecaps’ initial looks, especially deep, second and third options were frequently left wide open as a result. Double teams were applied ineffectively and with significant risks that rarely paid off. Flat marks attempting to deny hucks allowed Boston to easily swing the disc and advance laterally time and again; they still managed to successfully hit away shots after cutters beat their marks to the sideline.

Philadelphia’s offense frequently allowed themselves to be trapped on the force side, failing to get off swings and eventually turning the disc on tight throws into coverage upfield. Defensively, Boston began the game at a high level and never turned down the intensity. Even on Philly’s turnover-free possessions, tough catches were common, often only just beating the bidding Whitecaps’ defenders. Boston also ran a junk look when defending the full length of the field with mixed success.

For the MLU finalists, Sam Kittross-Schnell led the assault on the endzone with six goals, while Josh Markette paced the offense, completing 47/48 passes. Assists and blocks were scattered relatively evenly, with eight different players recording a block (no player had more than one on the night).

Billy Sickles (2G, 2A, 4D) and Jake Rainwater (4G, 1A) led the charge in Philadelphia’s last battle of their 2015 campaign. Despite their best efforts, the Spinners were just unable to play the type of clean offense that came to be associated with them throughout the regular season; while they only finished the game with six more turnovers than Boston (23 v. 17), the Whitecaps simply played with more efficiency in the tough wind when they had the disc.

CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW (Boston Whitecaps v. Seattle Rainmakers)

In terms of preparing for the final in Philadelphia, Gussin is convinced that the Rainmakers are still preparing to reach their full potential: “The focus for the next four weeks is going to be the same as it’s been all season. We’re all about the process and about growth. We feel like we still haven’t played our best game of the season yet, and we’re going to keep working hard to make sure that our last game is the best one we play all year.” It remains to be seen whether the extra week of rest will help Seattle in their championship quest, or if the significantly longer trip will play a factor in the game.

Similarly, Boston seems to be peaking at just the right time. Tufts standout Tyler Chan has continued his terrific college play in the MLU, and he adds another level of speed to an already-dangerous Boston O-line. With the return of Phan, El-Salaam, and Feeley (the former two on return from national U23 team duties), it will be interesting to see who Seattle assigns the Chan matchup, especially when Markette and Graham are on the line as well.

As is often the case with cross-divisional play, these teams will be much less familiar with each other than their previous opponents. The first half should begin with relative parity as the teams start breaking each other down; expect the second half to be much more intense as they adjust to what has been hurting them.

Another question mark is whether experience will be an issue. Boston has already won the MLU championship once; the Rainmakers are rookies in the title game. Having already won an away game against the hometown favorite, though, Seattle seems to have embraced the underdog title. In just a few days, we’ll see if they can keep it up for another 40 minutes in Philadelphia.

Seattle will be missing Ben Whipple for the Championship, but otherwise compete with a full roster. Boston’s injury report is not yet public.

***8/7 update: Boston is confirmed to be missing sixteen players, and Josh Markette is currently questionable. Could be a huge swing in Seattle’s favor.

  1. Steven Wartinbee
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    Steven Wartinbee graduated Georgetown University in the class of 2015, where he captained the men's team, Catholic Justice. He currently lives and works in Arlington. You can contact him at swartinbee@gmail.com, or find him on Twitter @swartinbee.

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