Northwest Challenge 2016: Tournament Recap (Men’s), Presented By VC Ult Camp

A strong weekend for Oregon and BYU, with many questions heading into Northwest Regionals.

Oregon's Adam Rees marked by Washington's Khalif El-Salaam. Photo: Steve Athey.
Oregon’s Adam Rees marked by Washington’s Khalif El-Salaam. Photo: Steve Athey.

The article is presented by VC ULT Camp; all opinions are those of the author. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and participate in VC ULT Camp!

SEATTLE – While the 2016 Northwest Challenge continued to be a premier event for the top competitors in the women’s division, the tournament launched its first Men’s division this year, albeit with less fanfare since the tournament was comprised mostly of local Northwest teams. Still, with the region on the cusp of receiving four bids thanks to excellent early-season play from top teams on the West Coast and with the added excitement of a steadily-improving Brigham Young University in town looking to ruffle local feathers, meaningful play lasted until mid-morning on Sunday.

Oregon Ego walked away the lone undefeated team and left no question about who stood as the best men’s team in the Northwest, but a number of other successes and struggles resulted in movement in the rankings and provided foreshadowing for what should be a dramatic regional race for trips to Raleigh.

Should Oregon Have Skipped Its Annual Trip East?

Oregon Ego’s performance last weekend should erase doubt, if there was any lingering, about who the top dog is in the Northwest. Facing a number of injuries and illnesses, Ego’s youngsters spent most of the three-day round robin getting lots of extra playing time in their dominant run through the competition. Captain Chris Strub was completely sidelined on Friday due to a violent stomach bug. Veteran Tim McGinn was in shoes thanks to a pesky hamstring injury that had flared up at practice. Connor Matthews left a little early on Saturday after he collided, head-on, with UBC captain Peter Yu’s teeth. Defensive stalwart and captain Will Watkins played excellent ultimate but was working through some ongoing back issues.

Yet Ego never looked to be in serious trouble. Rookies Will Lohre and Xander Cuizon-Tice continued their stellar play on the O-line, with Spencer Latarski stepping in often in place of the ailing Strub. Leandro Marx led the charge for the youth contingent on defense, taking tough matchups for much the weekend, while Jacob Lambert had a strong showing as he used his height to get blocks and breaks. The group handled the region’s best with ease, beating both Washington and UBC at 15-10. Brown, led by the exciting play rookie Mac Hecht, came the closest to defeating Oregon on Saturday morning, in a 15-13 contest.

“Yeah we’re actually feeling really good about our weekend,” said Watkins after the final game on Sunday. “It’s a little a hard with the round robin format to get us [as] psyched for the games as we usually do and it’s not quite the tournament…In the past we’ve gone to Easterns, or something like that, as our third tournament of the year outside of [President’s] Day and Stanford [Invite]. So, a bit of a step down, but between everyone being sick and us having [fewer] personnel…I think it was really good and I was happy with it. We got really good games from a lot of teams.”

In spite of their injuries, Watkins and Matthews were their normal selves for Oregon. Matthews was unphased by his hospital visit on Saturday afternoon and reeled in goals with ease against Washington Sunday morning. Watkins took some of the toughest matchups all weekend, and came up with some of his signature bidding blocks to the delight of his sideline and the faithful Ego parents.

The question about Oregon from this weekend isn’t about play style, or what types of defenses frustrated their vaunted offense1. It’s about toughness in competition. Watkins and his leadership were very aware of the lesser competition in comparison to Easterns. In 2015, the team sent all of two lines to Myrtle Beach and made the semifinals. It was an exercise in building chemistry against the best in the division for the tiny roster, who made the trip without their coach, Jay Janin.

There were no Minnesotas, Wisconsins, or Pittsburghs at the Northwest Challenge in 2016. Instead, Oregon got a gritty game from an injury-riddled Washington, and disengaged effort from UBC. While many younger players took on larger roles, it’s unclear if the level of excitement from game to game was sufficient to prepare the team for the heightened emotions of the game-to-go at regionals and just about any game at Nationals.

“It’s good to beat up on these teams, but we’ve definitely got a different playing style up in this corner [the Northwest] than they do over there,” said Watkins. The club made the choice to stay on the West Coast before their expected trip to Raleigh in 2016. Convenience wasn’t the only factor, either. The trip to Easterns in 2015 left the team in debt that’s carried over into the current season. According to Strub, the team owes roughly $3500 in back dues between returning players and some alums. The competition might have been watered down, but the Northwest Challenge’s convenience and decent level of play was likely too good to pass up for a team expecting to foot another Nationals bill.

Assuming Ego handles most of these same teams with ease at Northwest regionals, their biggest challenge will be preparing themselves for the division’s best without the prep–they’ll have to rely on game tape and their own energy at practice.

BYU Successfully Making It “Awkward”

Teams and fans alike have already been clued into one the year’s most exciting stories: the rise of BYU in both profile and the rankings. It’s easy to write off a team that doesn’t play on Sundays when they don’t have relevant wins or talented players. CHI no longer fits that profile, and they haven’t for a while.2

The news rolled in last week as a result of BYU’s excellent play. A 6-1 weekend with confident wins over Washington and UBC made the team from Provo the clear second place finisher in the round robin format. Add in a win over Victoria, who had been floating high in the rankings on their wins at Santa Barbara Invite, and CHI had plenty to boost themselves beyond the rankings cutoff and into bid-earning territory.

Success for BYU came on the back of workman-style ultimate. All 23 players on the roster are in great shape and were ready to run in Seattle. They played patient, reset-heavy end zone offense when needed, had cutters clearing well in the open field, and performed well behind the leadership of Lance Gardner and Jason Mckeen. Coach Bryce Merrill quietly kept sending out five rookies to start on his D-line, but smothered any possible matchup exploitations by switching between a diamond zone and a three-person cup. After the turn, the D-line fired hucks in transition and sent athletes streaking after the disc. It worked.

The team’s cohesion on both sides of the disc hid players who weren’t as comfortable with their throws. Their demeanor throughout the weekend was focused, cheery, and intense. CHI’s one major slip up came Saturday morning against Oregon, when the one elite team in attendance handed down a 15-9 reality check. But BYU regrouped.

“We turned on like four unforced errors in the first six points, and Ego punishes you for that. We got blown out by a really good team and that was tough. So I told them we had a chance to prove to ourselves and the Northwest and people watching that the Ego game was one bad game and that our Friday results were no fluke,” said Merrill after Saturday play.

CHI bounced back, first with a win over Oregon State, and then a statement win against an injury-plagued Washington to close the weekend, 14-12.3 The Sundodgers had Saturday evening to regroup and prepare for a third day of play, but the afternoon was different for BYU after that big win. The team gathered in a group past the end zone.

“Well, for us, that’s the season. We celebrated our season and our seniors,” said Merrill. “This was it for us. No post season. In our spirit circle with Washington, Lance talked about how he was honored to share his last collegiate game with UW because of their competition and spirit. And I know that made it real for me–UW who is maybe halfway through their season, with two months of the best ultimate ahead of them, and Lance Gardner who has to wrap things up in late March. It was a reality check for what it means to be a BYU athlete in a sport that currently requires Sunday play.”

Aside from asserting themselves as a talented team, BYU achieved their goal of making it “awkward.” Merrill had hoped that a good weekend of beating other top-ranked teams would force the very conversation that unfolded this week: should USA Ultimate be considering regionals and nationals accommodations for the team?

BYU’s weekend landed them at #16 in the rankings released by USA Ultimate this past Wednesday, essentially swapping one Northwest team for another (Victoria). If rankings hold with CHI inside the cut off, a fourth bid will stay with the region per the official statement from USAU–but BYU won’t have the chance to compete for it. If they send a squad to Saturday of Sectionals, it’ll be more of a victory lap than a serious appearance.

No one on this team was expecting immediate accommodations–they wanted tough competition and a chance to prove themselves on the field. The conversation was a bonus. Now that they’ve arrived, don’t expect BYU to go away any time soon.

Gut Checks For Washington & Victoria

The Washington Sundodgers, benefactors of early season excitement and a top 10 placement in preseason rankings, continued their bumpy ride through the regular season at the Northwest Challenge. The team sits at 20-7 so far4, certainly with enough talent on the roster to keep them in the national conversation, but perhaps without meeting both internal and external expectations.

The weekend, essentially a home tournament, still went relatively well for Washington. In spite of various nagging injuries and the notable absence of big cutter Cooper Schumacher, the raw talent of Khalif El-Salaam, Steven Benaloh, and Tomás Delgado was enough to help Washington scrape into their wins, none of which came by more than five points.

Washington has been dealing with a depth problem, both in terms of injuries and talent. They competed this past weekend with no more than 16 healthy, cleated players at any time. And yet, the exposure was likely good for the team’s younger players, much the way that it was for Oregon.

As the weekend wore on, Xiao Dong Liu and Oliver Speltz (both rookies) continued to take on more responsibility and handle it well in their roles. Junior Galen Kornowske played tough and contributed well. Tian Chuan Yen, a senior, was rock solid moving the disc. There’s no doubt that Washington has a strong set of role players behind their top four, but the lack of subs and bad weather on Sunday seemed to grate a bit on the team’s demeanor.

Washington will need as many of its players back as possible before Regionals. With any luck, that will include Dongyang Chen, who’s been sidelined all season, essentially acting as a player coach. The Sundodgers, when focused, play a smart, possession oriented style that punishes weak marks and works diligently to get to the break side, but they had trouble executing against BYU and Oregon. El-Salaam vacillated between spurts of brilliance and unfocused play, the sophomore Benaloh could only do so much to keep the disc moving while also being a target in the red zone, and Delgado rested at times due to a nagging hamstring injury.

Between tough losses at the Stanford Invite and now at Northwest Challenge, the sizable break before the postseason should give Washington the rest they need to recuperate. If the team is focused –and certainly if a fourth bid hangs around in the Northwest– they’ll be able to continue their grinding style of play all the way to Raleigh. But if injuries continue to nag the team or they show up overconfident, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see a frisky Western Washington play spoiler again to the Sundodgers’ Nationals goals.

***

After an impressive 2016 debut at the Santa Barbara Invite, scheduling difficulties sent the Victoria Vikes into what was basically hibernation until the Northwest Challenge. While other teams built chemistry through wins and losses, good weather and bad weather, and long distances traveled together with little sleep, the Vikes’ ranking held steady while they waited to take the field.

When Friday play finally rolled around, Victoria faced some unexpected slowdowns on the drive into Seattle, and kicked the weekend off with a rough double-game point loss to Whitman Sweets. Charged up after the surprisingly gritty game, they turned right around to play BYU minutes and traded breaks in the first half. Then something cracked, and BYU ran away with the game, dealing the Vikes a 15-10 loss and an 0-2 start to their long awaited second weekend of sanctioned play. They’d take one more loss, another one-pointer to Brown on Saturday morning, before rebounding for a trio of wins, and closing the weekend with a loss to Washington.

The Vikes brought hard, physical play to the field, but it was easy to see that the team was out of rhythm with tournament play, and perhaps even a little overconfident. They were also without handler and captain Malcolm Bryson, whose pace and experience may have helped his team greatly in their tighter games.

This was the type of the weekend that most teams don’t mind having in terms of the bigger picture. While going 3-4 is no recipe for staying inside the top 20, facing adversity and adjusting expectations can do wonders for a team that is looking to find its identity. The question for Victoria is if this is too little too late. With Oregon, Washington, UBC, and Western Washington all gunning for Raleigh, the Vikes have their work cut out for them come Regionals.

UBC Thunderbirds Still Talented, Still on Track, Still Unpredictable

The Thunderbirds were a unique presence in the men’s division of the Northwest Challenge, but not exactly in a good way. They were the one team on hand with the speed and talent to match up well against Oregon — the two teams battled to double-game point at President’s Day. But they were also the best team in the field with the biggest mental toughness issues.

There are times when UBC looks unstoppable, with athletes all over the field making plays. They play a great long game, have a glut of dangerous throwers, and keep some varying defensive looks up their sleeves at all times. Peter Yu is often the best player on the field in a given game.

Yet, somehow, they hold onto the piece of their identity that allows them to fall behind, or let lesser teams stay way too close. Despite a 5-2 weekend, with the same losses as Washington (and just one point in difference), it was easy to remember the first half of prequarters at Santa Barbara, when this talented team went down 3-7 to Kansas, before running 10 points in a row to win the game.

Yu, his fellow captains, and coach Marc Seraglia will need to find consistency as the Series kicks off. UBC has all the tools they need to get wins over the other top Northwest contenders–except for focus. The last piece of the puzzle for the Thunderbirds is figuring out how to get three or four of their best games this season played in a row, the kind of run they’ll need to play into a Nationals bid.

Quick Hits

Western Washington continues to hang around, lying in wait to take down one of the other Northwest contenders with their exciting deep plays and capable defense. They haven’t quite shown the top gear necessary to consistently get wins against the best teams on the west coast, but a bad game from Washington or UBC at Regionals could easily give Dirt another chance at nationals.

– It’s quietly been a very nice, under-the-radar season for the Oregon State Beavers. It’s all relative, of course, but the team has a winning record and solid standing as a regional competitor on the cusp of pushing into the lower tiers of national consideration. They were a point away from a win against Victoria, and suffered only one big blowout loss, to UBC, at the weekend’s end.

Brown rookie Mac Hecht is very, very good. He has a strong frame, excellent throws, and sees the field very well. He will be a piece to build around for years to come.

– One of the more exciting moments this weekend was walking up on double-game point between Victoria and Whitman. The sidelines were treated to Sweets sophomore and lefty Grady Olson’s cannon of an arm, as he fired home the winning 65-yard backhand to the back corner from a standstill.

– Illness and injury were the notable setbacks for Oregon Ego this weekend even with their 7-0 weekend, but the most conspicuous absence? The break bucket. Ego’s signature celebration of recent seasons was notably missing as they ran through the competition. Tradition be damned.

– Thanks to Kyle Weisbrod, Rusty Brown, and DiscNW for an excellent tournament. The weather was great for two days, and made toughing it out through the wicked rain, wind, and cold on Sunday easier.


  1. Basically nothing, at least at this tournament. 

  2. In recent seasons under coach Bryce Merrill, the team has been arranging for an increasing number of Friday evening games and building relevance in the regular season. 

  3. This game is available on the Ultiworld Video store for College Season subscribers. 

  4. This includes a forfeit loss due to travel from Santa Barbara. 

  1. Simon Pollock
    Simon Pollock

    Simon Pollock is a Contributing Editor at Ultiworld. He lives in Seattle and started writing for the site in 2014 while living in Baltimore, MD. Email him: simon@ultiworld.com or tweet at him: @_simonpollock_ .

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