In a season filled with standout individual players, Jenny Fey stood above the pack.
December 9, 2015 by Robert Gough in Analysis, Profile with 17 comments
While ultimate has made impressive strides in terms of its organization, competitiveness, and visibility over the past decade, some aspects of the game have yet to catch up. Statistical recording for the sport is still in its infancy and currently doesn’t do a very good or thorough job of painting a detailed picture of games or players. With only two reliable statistics (goals caught and assists thrown) recorded at only two or so events a year (U.S. Open and Club Championships) through USA Ultimate, analysis of the club season and its participants is left in large part to conjecture and subjective evidence.
Within the shallow system, however, some performances jump off the page and demand attention. The first performance that caught my attention in 2015 was Kelly “Vegas” Johnson of Seattle Riot: a crunch-time effort at the U.S. Open saw Johnson play in a majority of second-half points in the semis and finals, and serve as the source of many of Seattle’s assists/goals — 10, to be exact, across those two games alone. It was surprising to see an individual player on a team that is so stacked with talent account for such a high percentage of Seattle’s goals and assists. But when I looked back at the tournament’s stat sheet, I was more surprised to find that she wasn’t even the most exaggerated instance of this type of individual dominance:
Top Contributors - 2015 U.S. Open
|Player||Team||Games||Goals||Assists||Total Points||Points per game||Team Points||% of team goals caught/thrown|
|Alex Kovacs||Winnipeg Fusion||6||20||8||28||4.67||61||45.90%|
|Robyn Wiseman||Madison Heist||6||8||25||33||5.5||72||45.83%|
|Jenny Fey||Washington D.C. Scandal||6||13||23||36||6.00||79||45.57%|
|Kelly Johnson||Seattle Riot||7||4||16||20||2.86||98||20.41%|
Kelly Johnson, while having a strong semifinals and finals performance at this year’s US Open, was far behind other contributors over the course of the full tournament.
Alex Kovacs was a bright spot on a Winnipeg Fusion team that finished second to last, and Robyn Wiseman has become a usual suspect on the stat sheets over the past couple of seasons on Madison Heist. Jenny Fey, however, accrued the highest total goal and assist tally in the tournament while playing with the two-time defending National Champions, Washington D.C. Scandal.
Even with several big contributors leaving Scandal in 2015, it is still an amazing feat to be such an involved part of a top six team’s offense. Fey continued her dominance at Club Nationals this past October, catching 15 goals and throwing 22 assists — factoring in 38.1% of the points scored by her team — again topping the list of individual contributors in the Women’s Division.
Fey’s 2015 campaign yielded unparalleled individual results. Unfortunately, with USAU-recorded full tournament stats only available for four tournaments over the past two years, we lack the ability to place Fey’s 2015 numbers in any kind of historical context.
But in our small sample size of four tournaments — 2014 U.S. Open, 2014 Club Championships, 2015 U.S. Open, and 2015 Club Championships — Fey’s stats are remarkable. Her 6.00 points-per-game (ppg) at the ’15 U.S. Open (Table 3, below) is the highest rate reached at the tournament by half-a-point per game; her ’15 Club Championships rate of 5.29 ppg (Table 4) represents the third highest individual average at a tournament this season. Additionally, Fey’s 36 and 37 total points at this year’s U.S. Open and Club Championships respectively are the two highest point totals of any players at any of the four recorded tournaments. Fey doesn’t top the list in percentage of points contributed at either ’15 tournament, mainly because her team scores at higher rate than those players ranked above her on this statistic. Fey’s offense-only role also makes her huge stat lines only more impressive, as fellow high-stat producers frequently play on both sides of the disc and log more points than Fey does in any given game.
Setting the Stage for a Historic Performance
It won’t surprise many people to learn that Jenny Fey had a super productive season in 2015 from a statistical perspective; she has been playing competitive ultimate for 13 years — attending eight Club Nationals in that time — and has been a huge contributor on Scandal for a long while.
“I don’t think there was anything specifically different about Jenny Fey this season,” said teammate and Scandal co-captain Sandy Jorgensen. “She’s always been a phenomenal handler who can do anything with her throws.”
Fey’s performance this year is particularly interesting because of her reduced presence on the team in the past two years. An ankle sprain at the 2011 Club Championships led to a series of additional related injuries, including a calf strain suffered in the 2013 National semifinals. These injuries nagged and slowed Fey, severely limiting her minutes for the 2013 finals, which Scandal won against the 7-time-defending National Champions San Francisco Fury. After a taxing season, Fey decided she would take a step back from top-level women’s ultimate in 2014, only playing with Scandal for the World Ultimate Club Championships in Lecco, Italy, and sitting-out the USAU Club series.
“I have no regrets about taking 2014 off because I think I needed it,” Fey said, “but even fewer regrets about coming back out again in 2015.”
Sandy Jorgensen agrees that the time off did wonders for Fey in 2015, noting: “I do think she was really excited about this season after only playing the first half of last season, and that may have contributed to her really ‘giving it her all,’ so to speak.”
On top of Fey’s healthy return to the team this season, Scandal made a major shift in offensive strategy as they saw their roster lose many skilled players, including Octavia “Opi” Payne, Alicia White, Lauren Sadler, Crystal Davis, and others.
“Our offense this season was designed to be more about creating open cutting space than in past seasons, and that is definitely a situation that Jenny can take advantage of,” notes Scandal head coach Alex Ghesquiere. “She was set up to be a pivotal part of it (literally the pivot handler) and she stepped into that role perfectly.”
The stage was set the entire season: a fresh, healthy Fey returning to a new offense designed to create open space, and a new reliance on Fey and her throwing abilities.
Pull Plays and Offensive Structure
In watching the game film available from the UltiWorld Club package this season, it’s clear to see that Scandal runs pull plays that aim to get Fey the disc in the flow of the offense. Most often, fellow handlers Alika Johnston and Kath Ratcliff would pick up/catch the pull and center to each other before Fey is given several stall counts to work in isolation downfield.
One of Scandal’s most common and successful pull plays starts the same way, setting Fey up with the disc in position to hit a secondary underneath or away cut from Sarah Itoh, utilizing Itoh’s speed and athleticism.
Fey, in her orange/yellow cleats, is isolated in the cutting lane as Scandal runs a side stack pull-play.
Similar set-up, this time finding Itoh deep.
But Scandal also rotates Fey’s role in the pull-play progression: catching the initial centering pass, picking up the disc on bricked pulls, and sometimes catching the pull outright. The idea is always the same: get Fey the disc early, with cutters timing their moves off of Fey receiving the disc.
Transitioning out of pull plays, Scandal’s offense would often slow to a grinding pace. If defensive juggernaut Sandy Jorgensen wasn’t crossing over to the O-line, D.C. rarely had one-on-one matchups that they could reliably flow through. Jorgensen made for a wonderful down-field target and a great bail-out option for the offense if the stall was rising or if the offense was struggling. Alika Johnston certainly has the speed and play-making abilities to be an every-other-throw kind of player that can march down the field, but her role in the offense was more of a pure/reset handler that stayed in the backfield. Itoh is a true deep threat, but would almost equally split time cutting underneath near the disc, not abusing the deep game with the same frequency as Jorgensen. Fey was often the best option for bailout situations, as she is plenty capable of making a play in the air with well-timed bids.
Cutting and Isolation
Despite likely being the best pure handler on the team, we find Fey in this offense working in space as both a handler and a cutter. Within the structured offense, Fey is given almost free reign of the field, reading the offense as it plays out and playing where she is needed. Fey doesn’t look to beat opponents over the head with breakout speed; rather, she is comfortable taking what the defense gives her, taking a few jab-steps to poke-and-prod her defender, forcing them to show their hand, before taking whatever open option she was given. This often results in a deep cut, as defenders frequently try to push one of the better throwers in the division away from the disc.
The Traffic defender here seems to expect Fey to cut back towards the disc; Fey sees the body positioning of her defender, and takes a free run to the open deep space.
The Molly Brown defender is content giving up the deep space to Fey, who motions to Sarah Itoh that she has room for a deep throw, and Itoh delivers.
Fey is clearly a dual threat on offense: throwing goals as frequently as the other first-class handlers around the country — like Alex Snyder, Wiseman, and recently Cassie Swafford at Nationals — while still catching goals at a high frequency.
Unfortunately, Scandal’s 2015 offense didn’t field many players that were willing and able to make great deep throws. Johnston, while able, isn’t one to force a huck when she has the throwing ability to make almost any short/mid-range play. Ratcliff plays more on the weak side of the offense where she can work on breaking the mark for mid-range gains. All of these factors lead to a Scandal O-line that didn’t have huge success in the deep game outside of pull-plays with Itoh or one-on-one shots to Jorgensen, with almost all of the hucks coming from the hands of Fey. Furthermore, it rendered Fey’s take-what-the-defender-gives style less effective as defenders gave-up the deep cut, leaving Fey open for hucks that never came.
As Scandal worked down the field and the cutting space shortened, however, Fey’s cutting style proved more effective, with the disc being thrown to her much more often, as there was less strain on handlers to rip the disc long distances. Rarely were defenders able to completely shut-down Fey in isolation.
It is important to note that Jenny Fey plays almost exclusively on the O-line. In four filmed games this season, Fey played in just two defensive points in a soft-capped scenario against Vancouver Traffic. But Fey is far from a liability on defense, playing a savvy, position-focused style of defense, unafraid to sag off her mark or play help defense on a huck to another player. This style means Fey can spend most of her energy as the focal point of the offense that sees her cutting almost unrestricted all over the field.
Touch and Control
The versatile throwing of Fey and Johnston did allow for Scandal’s mid-range, open-space offense to play clean, efficient ultimate. Fey in particular has an almost unmatched ability to put touch on the disc, guiding the disc into open space to “sit on a shelf” for nearby cutters to run onto.
Watching Fey, especially on the same line as Johnston — who is more of a “fast-ball” thrower — is a great lesson in putting touch on the disc and throwing to space. Even on hucks, the amount of control Fey has on the disc is impressive. Take another look at the pull play clip shown previously, with a Fey huck to Sarah Itoh:
While Itoh does have to make the play with a defender on her hip, Fey’s throw is placed in a wonderful position in space: enough initial pace to fly out in front of her receiver, with a ton of spin that allows it to hang-up in the air, allowing Itoh to go out and beat her defender in a footrace and control the play.
A similar thrown can be seen from another previous clip, a backhand huck to Itoh that sits wonderfully out in space, allowing Itoh to coast for the last stretch of the cut after losing her defender in the initial move:
There is more to Fey’s control than playing to space, though. Release speed, release points, release timing, disc angles, break space — Fey understands them all and really utilizes them to not only make the right choice in who to throw to and when, but how to throw to them. In younger, newer players, you’ll see that they really only have one forehand throw and one backhand throw, and more importantly, one release speed. Fey won’t top the charts in pure throwing power/speed, but she manipulates the pace of the disc in order to give her receivers the best and easiest chance to make a play. In baseball terms, she would be a control pitcher, relying on elite command and placement of the disc to hit her spots.
Shot-taking and Play-making
Don’t let the control game mislead you; Fey is not afraid to take shots and tinker with her game. In talking about what is most impressive about Jenny Fey, coach Ghesquiere said, “I think people will quickly jump to say Jenny’s throws are the most impressive, but what I really appreciate is that it is always a work in progress for her. She’s constantly trying to improve execution and decision making, but (this season in particular) never in a way that gets her down on any mistakes or too high on any successes.”
Jorgensen agreed. “[Fey] is smart enough to analyze the best throws and know where and how her teammates are cutting, while not overthinking and playing too safely,” she said. “Jenny is the craftiest player that I have seen. She can make every single throw go exactly where she wants it, and she uses them so smartly – she’s unpredictable and confident, which is somewhat uncommon in the women’s game.”
This confident, loose, unpredictable playing style definitely contributes to the great success Fey found this season, and only allows her to get better.
Here is a shot that most handlers will shy away from: breaking the mark really far on the inside space to curve the disc around the far side of the defender:
While not as far to the break-side as likely intended, the throw itself takes a lot of guts and skill to pull off.
Lastly, here’s a throw that many players will only make when the stall is high and options are limited: a hammer.
Fey uses this throw as a primary or secondary option, as opposed to a last resort, and has the recognition and skill to see the play early and make the throw before the defender can adjust to the break-side move by the cutter. While the hammer is not the rarest kind of throw in the division, Fey uses it like few others can.
Jenny Fey was one of the best players that took the field for the Triple Crown Tour in 2015. Her huge stat lines might be the product of an offense designed to rely heavily on her unique skill set and give her almost complete freedom on the field, but Fey has produced at a high rate in years past, as well.
“This past season was one of my favorites of all time with Scandal,” said Fey. “I trained hard and felt better than ever, and, although the team lost an unprecedented number of outstanding players, we had incredible energy and really embraced our underdog role.”
It remains to be seen if this season was a peak for the Scandal star or if it perhaps portends a rejuvenated, ever-improving Jenny Fey continuing to dominate for years to come.
All I know for sure is that 2015 was a hell of a season for Fey, a ton of fun to watch, and all the more reason to tune-in next season.
Below are tables of individual player statistics from each participating Club team at the 2014 and 2015 U.S. Open and Club Nationals in the women’s division. The highest scoring player from each team was included.
Table 1 – 2014 U.S. Open: Women’s Statistical Leaders per Team
|Team||Player||Games played||Player Goals||Player Assists||Player Total Points||Player Points-per-game||Team Total Goals||% of team goals caught/thrown|
|Scandal||Ashley Daly Morgan||7||13||5||18||2.57||80||22.50%|
|Brute Squad||Becky Malinowski||9||18||9||27||3.00||119||22.69%|
Table 2 – 2014 Club Nationals: Women’s Statistical Leaders per Team
|Team||Player||Games Played||Player Goals||Player Assists||Player Total Points||Player Points-per-game||Team Total Goals||% of team goals caught/thrown|
|Brute Squad||Becky Malinowski||6||10||9||19||3.17||82||23.17%|
|Molly Brown||Kristina Snodgrass||7||22||2||24||3.43||81||29.63%|
|Green Means Go||Katie Ryan||7||15||4||19||2.71||62||30.65%|
|Tabby Rosa||Katelyn Cobelens||7||2||15||17||2.43||52||32.69%|
|Tabby Rosa||Kelsey Viars||7||14||3||17||2.43||52||32.69%|
Table 3 – 2015 U.S. Open: Women’s Statistical Leaders per Team
|Team||Player||Games||Player Goals||Player Assists||Player Total Points||Player Points-per-game||Team Total Goals||% of team goals caught/thrown|
|Brute Squad||Lien Hoffman||6||10||16||26||4.33||86||30.23|
Table 4 – 2015 Club Nationals: Women’s Statistical Leaders per Team
|Team||Player||Games Played||Player Goals||Player Assists||Player Total Points||Points per Game||Team Total Goals||% of team goals caught/thrown|
|Brute Squad||Kami Groom||7||12||12||24||3.43||105||22.86%|
|Molly Brown||Claire Chastain||6||2||12||14||2.33||80||17.50%|