Prez Day set the stage for an exciting Stanford Invite in two weeks.
February 19, 2016 by Simon Pollock in News, Recap with 0 comments
LA JOLLA — With sunshine, high 70s, light wind, lodging close to the beach, and an extra day of competition, there’s little that could make President’s Day an unappealing tournament. With a recent history of producing a national finalist, expectations ran high this past weekend in San Diego.
With much of the headline action on tape and the finalists crowned, this mid-February extravaganza built excitement for the top dogs, and may have crossed some teams out of the conversation early.
A Whole New Flock
While many onlookers, including this reporter, expected the long shadow of a departed star to color the weekend for Oregon Ego, the Eugene team spent the weekend blasting into the spotlight of a new season. Capping their performance off with a commanding win over Washington 15-11 in the final, Ego launched themselves right back into the country’s top three teams in the division.
Nothing about that jump in the rankings is unfounded. Much like last year, Oregon set the bar high with an offense that may be able to outrun anyone, and did for the most part this past weekend. Five of that line’s top seven got significant run in 2015 campaign that took them all the way to the national final: Adam Rees, Chris Strub, Colton Clark, Connor Matthews, and Braedon Petrus.
Rees was a focal point all weekend out of pull plays for Oregon, blazing into isolation, catching gainers from Clark, and firing shots off to Matthews or Strub for easy scores. Clark, who put his own throwing ability on display last season, showed improve range on deep looks and was rock steady when the hucks weren’t there, pairing well with the speedy, smaller Petrus to keep the flow going while the stack reset. Add two very competent first-years downfield in Xander Cuizon Tice and Will Lohre, and it makes for an offense that went largely unfazed on the weekend. No Freechild? No problem.
“In part, it’s thanks to Dylan [Freechild] and Trevor [Smith] because they taught us how to do all this. We owe a lot to them as a program. Now we’re a good offense even without them. We’ve all developed so much that we don’t need a star player like Dylan or Trevor to take over an O point. Colton’s throwing 70-yard hucks, I’m breaking, Adam’s beating everyone under, and Connor’s skying everybody. And then we have two freshmen who come and just ruin people,” said Strub after the final.
On defense, returners Will Watkins and Tim McGinn brought the experience needed to grind out breaks. After a weekend of impressive blocks and good scores to convert, Watkins capped Monday with a beautiful Callahan score late in the second half against Washington. Ego also picked up a plug-and-play veteran in Marvin Waldvogel, a German grad student with experience on the national stage.
Despite all the hubbub, it wasn’t a perfect weekend for Oregon. Coach Jay Janin looked on as his offense coughed up the disc at awkward moments on Saturday, allowed San Diego State to come within a point of the upset in power pools, and barely staved off a hot British Columbia team in their semifinal.
“On [offense] we need to adjust to defensive changes and recognize when we get different looks. We had a lot of easy scores and we need to make sure we don’t get too confident. The D-line is still finding itself. We need to work on everything from keeping our pulls in bounds, to figuring out what [offensive] sets we’re going to run,” Janin said.
Zones thrown as pace-changers or in rare moments of gustier winds did work to briefly stunt Ego, particularly the defensive look from San Diego State on Sunday, supercharged by extra support from their hometown sideline.
Strub added that in games when one line underperformed, the other one usually followed. “We just kind of need to learn a little bit of consistency to keep the fire we had in the [Washington] game,” he said. “We came out four breaks right off the bat, so we just need to figure out how to harness that on every game we play instead of just some game.”
Perhaps the matchup that would’ve tested Oregon the most would’ve been facing the equally athletic Colorado defense, which tore off pairs of breaks or even more against every opponent they met. Remember that the last defense to put Oregon in its place was a smothering North Carolina defense that completely interrupted the offense’s flow in last year’s National final. Whether it’s zone or person, it’ll take another super athletic, well-coached system to give this team a true test before gauging their top end.
For now, Oregon looks like a top contender, ready for a deep run in Raleigh. Tougher defenses await them first in Stanford, just a couple of weeks away.
Washington Building Steadily Toward A Higher Ceiling
Maybe it was the slimmer competition, but it wasn’t clear if the Washington team that took the field in late January was top-ten good. The Sundodgers arrived in San Diego with a lot more improvement on the agenda and hoping to notch a win in the holiday finale where they fell to Oregon in 2015, 15-12.
They were saddled with the additional challenge of having British Columbia lurking just below them in their pool on day one, a team that has show equally impressive flashes already this season, and gave Washington a close game in the semis at Santa Barbara. With a few more practices and time to settle into their system, Presidents’ Day was another proving ground for the Seattle team.
Saturday was handled with relative ease — the Sundodgers beat San Diego State and UBC by two and three points, respectively. Those were scores that showed a team in control just enough to produce results, a team playing their game, but maybe not quite in their top gear. A 14-7 thumping of Cornell may have been a confidence builder.
The biggest test before the final may have been an emotional rematch against Western Washington Dirt, the team that spoiled the Sundodgers’ trip to Nationals in 2015. Dirt had a break in hand early and the Washington defense needed a gut check to forget Northwest Regionals before scrapping into an 8-7 halftime lead. They pulled away confidently to a 15-11 win.
The system was humming and star Khalif El-Salaam was playing fast and loose all the way through the end of Washington’s impressive beat down of Colorado Mamabird in semifinals. Steven Benaloh kept the disc moving in the backfield, working confidently with any teammate to find resets and punish marks. Tomás Delgado continued to put on a show with his speed, getting horizontal on deep looks and opening up big spaces underneath to find flow. It was also something of a national debut for Cooper Schumacher, a big goal-scoring machine who also took tough defensive assignments in crunch time. A variety of defensive looks and enough athleticism to create pressure in one-on-one matchups showed Washington as a team starting to find itself.
Their confidence after semis evaporated for the first four points of the final against Oregon. Maybe it was the quick transition with just minutes in between the semifinal and final. It could have been an all out mental effort from the entire team to make Colorado their statement win. Whatever happened, Washington plunged into a 4-0 hole and never recovered. It was a disappointing start for a team that had been building well all weekend.
No one on the Seattle campus is likely to let that brief collapse go easily, especially knowing that they have both the talent and the patience to hang with the top competition. Practices before the Stanford Invite will be tough. When asked about what the team needed to eliminate similar lapses in the future, coach Alex Wells kept it simple. “Just getting guys to ratchet up the defensive pressure even higher and get used to playing under that intensity that we found today in the semis and finals, that was a little bit different than the Saturday games here,” he explained.
Wells has the team playing a smart, possession-based style of ultimate, but he allows the rangy El-Salaam to play where he’s needed. As the system continue to coalesce around the homegrown Seattle star, this team should also continue to improve.
Not Enough From Colorado Or UBC
Both Colorado and UBC proved themselves as contenders on the weekend, but each finished the weekend a few points shy of satisfaction.
Colorado came to play in southern California with seven injuries keeping players sidelined, and finished the weekend with an additional two players in shoes. Two of those out were notable veterans Wes Chow and Pawel Janas, key pieces for Mamabird last year who will be instrumental in the postseason when they’ve returned to health. “I’d be completely comfortable putting a universe line on the field from those 9 guys if they’re healthy. If our current offense can continue its rate of improvement, we might be able to let those guys run wild on defense once they’re back,” said coach Mike Lun of the hobbled rostered.
The offense was able to get the job done for most of the weekend, trying out a couple of different looks, and doing its best to stay patient all the way into the end zone. Isaac Chestler had some bright moments for Mamabird, involved in his share of backfield resets and downfield scores. But that was also their weakest area of play on the weekend, letting a couple of teams back into the game late earlier on in the tournament, and getting beaten badly by Washington before the D-line was able to come in and make up ground.
The real standout for Colorado was Mark Rauls, whose return couldn’t have been more exciting after his eligibility issues last year. Rauls was instrumental in scoring after the turn, just as effective at making the right decisions on throws from a handler spot as he was in getting on the end of them for goals. Rauls’ speed was exciting to watch, and he’ll pair very well with Janas when the latter is healthy. Unfortunately, he couldn’t do it all himself (although he certainly seemed to be trying at times), and Colorado just lacked the punch that their full roster will bring later this season.
The program is a very strong one, packed full of power and athleticism and already able to rip of breaks in chunks. Once the offense heals, Mamabird will be right back in the conversation in a national field that, so far, looks wide open.
British Columbia shored up some of their mental lapses from Santa Barbara, and came out blazing, aside from their close loss to Washington on day one. It should be noted that the Thunderbirds absolutely throttled the San Diego State Federalis 15-3, a team that later pushed Oregon into a double-game point nailbiter and only lost to the very consistent Washington by three. UBC also made up breaks in the second half of their semifinal against Oregon, pushing that game as well to a 14-15 finish.
Their performance this weekend earned them a nine-point jump in the rankings this week, and that’s no mistake. The team has a bonafide star in Peter Yu, whose blistering pace, impressive hops, and excellent throwing make up for his lack of size.
Despite a penchant for mental slip ups, which coach Marc Seraglia is well aware of, Yu and his teammates owned some of the most technically impressive play on the weekend. The Thunderbird throwers seem to have a particular dislike for opposing marks, run their give and gos as fast as Oregon, and have a number of players that are ready to make vertical plays even after a full-out sprint.
Though it didn’t happen quite as much as they may have wanted it to, UBC defenders continually put themselves just outside of throwers’ peripherals, racking up blocks and excellent closeouts on in-cuts.
Of the top teams in attendance this weekend, it’s hardest to project a ceiling for the Thunderbirds. Their offense — both the O-line and the D-line after the turn — plays with a kind of throwing expertise that’s still somewhat uncommon to see across the board on a college team, and Yu has swagger in spades. The challenge for this team, as it is with many others, is finding consistency in each and every game.
– Cal-Poly SLO may have only gone 4-5 on the weekend, but they had a big regional-rival win over UC Santa Barbara 12-9 in the fifth place bracket. That’s a big plus in terms of team pride and accomplishment. Unfortunately, it smacked of a another dismal postseason for the Southwest, where decent teams beat up on each other in search of a single bid. Both of these teams need wins outside the region badly, and Slocore is a program that could seriously benefit from the grind of traveling to the Midwest or East Coast and having to beat teams they’ve never seen before. They have the athletes and talent to stay on the bubble, but their dreams of another bid shouldn’t be resting on a win over Tulane from SBI alone.
-USCB Black Tide finished just behind SLO in the standings at #7, falling from the top of Pool D coming into the tournament. Tide seem to have plenty of good pieces, a stout zone defense, and the quintessential chip on their shoulders due to a long legacy of winning, but the sum of the parts has yet to be great enough this season to suggest that they could beat Stanford.
– Western Washington Dirt and Colorado State Hibida are dangerous regional contenders. Both teams took leads against their big regional rivals (Washington and Colorado, respectively) this weekend. Especially for Hibida in their game against Mamabird, their was an air of the little brother finally beating up his big brother for a time, only to get stuck in a full nelson in the last moment. For Dirt, they immediately exposed some lackluster deep defending from Washington and used the emotional energy of the matchup in their favor. Dirt finished a notable 5th this weekend, piling on the good results for the Northwest at the expense of the Southwest (they beat SLO in the 5th place bracket).
– Yikes. The two Metro East teams in attendance this weekend, Cornell and Columbia, went a combined 2-11, with the Buds getting a forfeit win over Oklahoma. The Northeast was represented only marginally better by a thinly rostered Vermont, which snagged three wins.
– Shoutout to Luke Johnson and Fulcrum Media for the fun and impromptu livestreaming and two-camera setup for those lucky enough to tune in. I tried my hand, tentatively, at a little commentary during the men’s final.