DIII Easterns 2016: Tournament Recap

Franciscan is back in a big way.

Franciscan -- 2016 DIII Easterns champions.
Franciscan — 2016 DIII Easterns champions.

Franciscan FATAL took home the hardware and the headlines at DIII Easterns. With Jay Ratajczak back in the line-up, FATAL went undefeated, winning five of their seven games by five points or more. Crisp and fearless on both the offensive and defensive ends, Franciscan proved why they are capable of winning their second national championship next month.

“In our first two tournaments, we let our emotions decide which way games were going to go,” said captain Tommy Koch. “We became a whole new team last weekend, and that team that everybody saw is the team they can expect to see from here on out.”

Dominant from end to end, Franciscan look to be the favorites heading into the Series.

Let’s review how we got here.

Pool Play

The opening pull on Saturday morning went up with a light mist falling and winds around 10 mph. The forecasted heavy rain never materialized, and the fields remained intact all weekend.

The first major result came in Pool B, with Elon knocking off Brandeis in round one. The game stayed on serve until Elon broke at 9-9 as soft cap sounded. They rattled off two more breaks to take the game 12-9.

Containing Brandeis’ handlers was Elon’s primary goal.

“Brandeis had an extremely disciplined dump rest system, so we were pressuring their resets as much as possible, and we remained calm until we saw an opening,” said captain Zander Taylor. The win propelled Elon to the top of the pool. After clinching the #1 seed with their round two win over Rice, Elon rested their players against regional rival Mary Washington.

Brandeis recovered well though, routing Mary Washington and then beating Rice 11-7 to take the second spot in the pool.

Over in Pool D, Oberlin came out strong against Air Force, winning 12-10 in a chippy, physical game.

Air Force captain Jake Johnson conceded that his team was not ready for their opponents.

“We had some kinks to work through, and Oberlin capitalized off our mistakes,” he said. “We underrated them and were surprised when they brought the heat.”

Unfortunately for Oberlin, their momentum was short-lived. The rain picked up in round two, making every throw and catch more challenging. Against Davidson’s stifling 1-3-3 zone, Oberlin could not find holes and committed numerous unforced errors. Down 3-8 at half, Oberlin attempted a comeback, but came up short.

The loss put the pool out of reach for Oberlin, and, as anticipated, the top seed came down to the final game in Pool D: Air Force vs. Davidson. Davidson broke Air Force on the first point of the game and took a quick 2-0 lead. However, they surrendered their advantage as quickly as they had earned it.

Drops doomed Davidson. Wide open in-cuts, sweep plays – even a pull – all slipped through players’ hands. Whether it was nerves, a lack of focus, or a combination of the two, Davidson never found their offensive rhythm the rest of the way.

Air Force made them pay. Using their size advantage, Air Force ran isolation cuts off a vertical stack to punch in breaks, going on to win 11-8. With the win, Air Force likely guaranteed the South Central three bids to nationals; Davidson’s loss jeopardized the Atlantic Coast’s third bid.

Pools A and C were far less dramatic. Richmond cruised for most of Saturday, winning Pool A with a +18 scoring margin and going two games before being broken on offense. Franciscan was even more dominant, trouncing Indiana Wesleyan 15-5 to clinch Pool C.

IWU coach Joey Cari (Indianapolis AlleyCats) was impressed by Franciscan, but believed that his team had lost their mental edge and beaten themselves. Captain Zakk Mabrey agreed.

“I believe we played as bad as we possibly could have,” said Mabrey. “Our top six players all had their worst games of the season – at the same time. Combine that with playing a fantastic team in Franciscan, and we just got flat out embarrassed.”

Despite the loss, IWU took second in the pool fairly easily. Occidental beat Union to clinch the second seed in Pool A.

Bracket Play

Pre-quarters began on Saturday afternoon, with the sun high in the sky and winds gusting and swirling above 25mph. Seven of the eight pre-quarters matches were blowouts. But the eighth game is the one many people will remember most from the weekend.

After taking a 6-3 lead on Mary Washington, Richmond just “seemed to lose something,” said captain Dennis Maclaine.

Richmond dropped more than 10 uncontested catches, and the wind rattled their throwers. Small miscues on offense snowballed into a complete mental collapse.

Maclaine searched for words to describe the defeat. “It’s hard to put a finger on it,” he said.

Mary Washington ended the game on an 8-2 run to knock the top overall seed out of the tournament before the quarterfinals.

Sunday morning’s quarterfinal match-ups featured two intraregional rivalries in the bottom half of the bracket. Oberlin and Franciscan faced off in one game; Davidson and Elon met in the other. Both games were decided by one point.

Oberlin relied on their man defense to shut down Franciscan’s top cutters.

“We match up well against them because we have depth – a full ten guys who we trust to be strong enough on defense to limit their elite tier,” said captain Jason Freedman.

However, offense was the problem early on. Oberlin committed too many unforced errors against Franciscan’s tight man defense, and the game got out of reach.

Down 10-14, Oberlin found their stride, breaking FATAL three times in a row. Unfortunately for them, the third came after the horn had blown for hard cap, and so the game ended 13-14.

Elon and Davidson traded breaks all game, with no team ever gaining an advantage over the other until the very end. Both sidelines were loud, and the game began with the nervous drops and confident hucks that are trademarks of Series elimination games. On serve 7-7 and pulling upwind to Elon, Davidson came out in their 1-3-3 and forced a turn. After swinging the disc between the handlers, Davidson hit quick inside break to take half.

Elon came out of half hot, punching in a quick break to tie the game at eight. Hard cap went off in the middle of the ensuing point, giving Davidson a chance to win the game on offense.

They got more than a little bit lucky. Just outside the end zone, a break throw intended for the front of the vert stack popped up and was batted by an Elon player to a wide open Davidson cutter who flipped it up-field for the score and the win. It was Davidson’s first win over Elon in four years.

In the other half of the bracket, Indiana Wesleyan and Brandeis advanced over Air Force and Mary Washington in decisive fashion.

Indiana Wesleyan matched up well with Air Force’s size and style, playing one of their most complete games of the season. After going down 0-1, IWU flipped the switch.

Coach Joey Cari put it simply: “We were amped for this game. We never let up.”

They set a four man cup zone with a rotating mark, and whenever they got a turn, Travis Carpenter picked up the disc, broke the mark, and ran give-go’s up the field. They broke Air Force four times in a row to take a 5-1 lead and never relinquished it.

Air Force could not match IWU’s intensity or execution and fell 6-10.

Riding high off the win, Indiana Wesleyan broke twice to start their semifinal against Brandeis and continued running zone. But the style of play that worked against Air Force – heavy on zone defense and taking deep shots on offense – was not as effective against Brandeis.

“Perhaps the way we played against Air Force carried over to the Brandeis game, which may not have been to our benefit,” Cari said.

Brandeis was more patient than Air Force and, led by an army of talented throwers, did not let two early breaks turn into any more. Brandeis took half 8-7, and, after letting IWU work the disc down to their goal line, fought hard to get the disc back. They went 70 yards back up field to convert a grueling, game-winning point on hard cap.

After falling to Elon in the first round of the tournament, Brandeis was into the finals.

In the other semifinal, Franciscan notched another blowout win: 15-5 against Davidson. Drops continued to plague Davidson, and their zone defense did not generate the turns it had forced earlier in the tournament. To make matters worse, two of Davidson’s three main handlers left the game with injuries. By the end of the weekend, they would lose two more cutters to injury. However, injured or healthy, Davidson was not going to beat Franciscan this weekend.

Tommy Koch and Dom Schuster played both ways for FATAL, and when they weren’t forcing turns on defense, they were converting them on offense. Hammers, blades, hucks – everything was working for Franciscan’s stars.

They rolled in the championship game having played only one game decided by fewer than five points.

Final: Franciscan v. Brandeis

In their previous match-up this season at Layout Pigout, Franciscan led Brandeis for most of the game but could not close the deal at the end. They knew coming into this game that they would have to stay on top of their intensity from start to finish in order to beat Brandeis.

“The key to our success in this game and over the weekend was that when we were up on teams, we did not stop pressing,” said Koch.

Early on, it looked like it might be Brandeis who was going to go up on Franciscan. Up 3-2 (and on serve), Brandeis failed to convert two break opportunities. They missed another opportunity two points later, and Schuster made them pay for it with a hammer up the line for a score.

At 6-6 and down a break, Brandeis ran a three-man zone and forced a turn at mid-field, but a huck sailed just out of reach.

Together, these misses were the difference in the game.

Dom Schuster caught a huck for the hold, and Franciscan broke again to take half 8-6. After another hold to make it 9-6, Franciscan had the game in their control. They kept the pressure on like they had planned, and Schuster assisted on the game winner. Final score: 13-10.

“Franciscan is a great team, there’s no doubting that,” said Brandeis captain Elan Kane. “They make some gutsy plays that most teams don’t think about making.”

What separated Franciscan from their competition this past weekend was not simply their creativity or defensive intensity. The risks Franciscan took, by and large, worked out. Credit their athleticism and ability to create space on offense, credit their throwing ability, and, above all, credit their teamwork. While a handful of guys do play the lion’s share of points for this team, Franciscan plays with speed, beauty, and chemistry that few teams can rival.

Final Takeaways

Few Weekend Surprises

At the very most, I count three upsets from the weekend: Mary Washington over Richmond, Oberlin over Air Force, and Elon over Brandeis. But even in those games, Oberlin went on to lose by a point to Franciscan, and Elon have been Nationals contenders for the past three years. Outside of Mary Washington, the top two seeds of each pool advanced to the quarterfinals, and most of them, fairly easily.

If anything, the margins Franciscan was able to run up were the big surprise – not the results themselves.

Bids

No team outside the top 12 challenged Davidson or Air Force for the last strength bid. Oberlin and Elon came the closest, but close losses in the quarterfinals sealed their fates. Finishing fourth on the weekend does not look like it was good enough for Davidson, whose pool play loss to Air Force appears decisive. The Great Lakes region looks to have taken two strength bids on the weekend at the expense of the Atlantic Coast and North Central.1

Series Preview

The Atlantic Coast regional will be brutal. The top AC teams at Easterns — Elon and Davidson — are unlikely to have earned the region bids. The two teams that have earned bids, Richmond and UNC-Asheville, are national title contenders. No combination of those four teams making Nationals would be a surprise, and the two who qualify should be favorites to advance deep into the bracket on Sunday.

The Ohio Valley regional will also be very exciting. Oberlin proved this weekend that they can keep pace with Franciscan, and if they can limit unforced errors, they may very well pull the upset in three weeks time. Haverford quietly had a solid weekend as well, finishing 10th overall behind Richmond. The Ohio Valley is a deep region, and the semifinals and championship should be hard-fought games.

Brandeis continues to improve entering the Series, but they will need to peak at Regionals to qualify from one of the most difficult regions in the country. D-line offense will be key to Brandeis’ success in April and May. If they can develop a similar level of fluidity and confidence among their d-line players as they exhibit on the O-line, Brandeis should come out of the New England regional ready to challenge for the title.

For the time being, however, everyone in the field is chasing Franciscan. The defending national champions asserted themselves at Easterns. After struggling for much of the regular season, Franciscan look like the team everyone has been waiting for.

Tournament Finish

  1. Franciscan
  2. Brandeis
  3. Indiana Wesleyan
  4. Davidson
  5. Air Force
  6. Elon
  7. Oberlin
  8. Mary Washington
  9. Richmond
  10. Haverford
  11. Rice
  12. Union
  13. Middlebury
  14. High Point
  15. Occidental
  16. Dickinson

  1. Indiana Wesleyan captain Zakk Mabrey tells Ultiworld that USAU has indicated to the team that they will be reinstated in the final rankings, which will secure the Great Lakes another bid. 

  1. Kyle Taylor
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    Kyle Taylor is a DIII reporter for the Atlantic Coast region. He is a senior at Davidson College and has been a captain on DUFF each of the last two seasons. Kyle hails from Indianapolis, Indiana and played on Brickyard last summer. You can reach him at kytaylor1293@gmail.com.

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