A bid bonanza for the Great Lakes.
April 27, 2016 by Zakk Mabrey in Preview with 3 comments
Since the creation of the DIII Series in college ultimate, the Great Lakes has been a relatively stable region. The story has been the same for years, with the region never gaining more than one bid in the current regional alignment and seeing only two different schools qualifying for Nationals. However, with a down year for perennial region favorite North Park University, this seems to be an opportunity for a new team to rise to the top.
Bolstered by great regular season showing from top-tier teams Indiana Wesleyan (USAU #2), Valparaiso (USAU #4), and Wheaton (USAU #7), the Great Lakes managed to rake in a total of three bids to the National Championships in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. With obvious powerhouses at the top of the region and a handful of weaker teams filling out the field, the region’s three bids seem to have become a four-team competition.
What To Watch For
Indiana Wesleyan v. Valparaiso: The region’s top two teams have proven themselves time and time again and seem destined for a finals matchup at this year’s Great Lakes Regional Championship.
After falling just short of qualifying for Nationals in each of the team’s first two years being sanctioned, Indiana Wesleyan seems to have finally taken the next step and put themselves in position for a run at a national championship. On the shoulders of Ultiworld 2015 D-III National Player of the Year Travis Carpenter, Indiana Wesleyan proved themselves to be a top-tier team growing in athleticism and skill throughout the regular season while finishing second in the USAU rankings system and fourth in Ultiworld’s power rankings. At D-III Midwestern Invite, IWU showed their dominance by blowing out many teams and picking up wins over regional top-runners Valparaiso and Wheaton en route to an undefeated weekend and a tournament victory. At D-III Easterns, the team continued to show their strength, picking up wins over top-tier teams such as Air Force and Davidson and only losing to the tournament’s top two finishing teams in Franciscan and Brandeis.
Valparaiso is a team that seemingly came out of nowhere on the national scene. After finishing fourth at last year’s regional championships, they returned a strong cast of players and had a breakout year – only taking close losses to Indiana Wesleyan and Franciscan throughout the entire regular season. By virtue of picking up a handful of blowout victories over average teams and working through undefeated weekends at Music City Tune-Up and Illinois Invitational to go along with wins over top level teams Franciscan and Colorado College, Valparaiso has proven themselves as one of the country’s top teams.
These two teams have matched up three teams thus far in the spring, with each game coming down to the wire and being decided on double game point. At D-III Midwestern Invite, Indiana Wesleyan took advantage of a Valparaiso team that had low numbers and took home a 12-11 victory in the tournament semifinals. The two teams split matchups at Conferences, with IWU winning 9-8 in Saturday’s pool play and Valparaiso taking home the tournament championship, 11-10, on Sunday afternoon. Matchups between these two teams have been high energy and well-spirited throughout the year.
The contrast in styles between the two teams makes their matchups a battle unlike any other we will see within the Great Lakes region. Valparaiso relies on athleticism to make big plays throughout a tournament, with a handful of players with an uncanny ability to keep the disc alive and make big throws downfield. On the other hand, Indiana Wesleyan relies on an athletic, stifling defense that is willing to bid for almost anything. When the defense is rolling for Indiana Wesleyan, the team becomes almost unstoppable. If both of these teams are able to play to their maximum potential and reach the regional finals, this could be one of the most entertain regional matchups in the entire country.
The Third Bid: According to scores and rankings, the two teams who seem to be jockeying for the region’s final spot at nationals are Wheaton and Knox.
Wheaton enters the regional championships as the #7 team in the country according to the USAU algorithm. This team thrives on height and big throws to take advantage of teams. Working the disc to the middle of the field to put up hucks to any of their high number of tall, athletic players led to success for Wheaton throughout the year. As one of the highest-ranked teams in the country, and the team that earned the region’s final strength bid, Wheaton would seem to be a near-lock to qualify for nationals.
But not so fast. Knox enters the regional championships as a relative unknown. The majority of talk surrounding Knox is in regards to their superstar talent and Sub Zero player Harper Garvey. According to Olivet Nazarene head coach Phil Warren, “They have a large team and the guys on it are in great shape. As a whole I would say they were able to outrun everyone they played against. They have a handful of good throwers and the biggest threat is probably Harper Garvey. His skill as a thrower are probably unmatched in the region. In weather like we had this weekend he can hit probably any cutter at any time.” Having only played one regular-season tournament before the Series, Knox was unable to gain a true USAU ranking. At Illinois Invite, Knox only took one loss, to Valparaiso University, on the weekend.
Knox and Wheaton matched up at Conferences in a hard fought game. Each team showed maximum effort and fought it out for the championship in a game that allowed the winner to go home early and not have to participate on Sunday. The athleticism of Knox was able to take away some of the strength for Wheaton, and Knox pulled out a handy win, 13-8. With a thrower as talented as Harper Garvey, the strength of Knox will be dependent upon the ability of the team’s supporting cast throughout the weekend. Will Knox be able to repeat what happened at the Conference Championships, and steal a bid to nationals from Wheaton, or will Wheaton show their full power and keep the bid they earned?
The Rest of The Field: Outside of the top four teams, there is not much threat to steal a bid to Nationals. With a down game, however, some teams could get a pool play surprise that would change the landscape of the weekend. Perennial powerhouse North Park has shown the pedigree to win time and time again. However, with such a down year, it is hard to imagine the team making any big splash. At the Illinois Conference Championships, North Park was only able to bring 10-14 players and only picked up two wins over winless Bradley University. History has shown North Park to dominate the region, however, and the consistency of their coach and program makes them a team that can leave a big impact on the weekend if they are able to peak and play to their full potential.
Olivet Nazarene had an up-and-down year. Throughout the regular season, the team was able to pick up wins over average teams and played closely with a handful of higher-level teams. In recent weeks, however, the injury bug has struck Olivet. They have lost a handful of players to knee and ankle injuries, and saw one of the team’s captains go down at the Conference Championships with a broken collarbone. As the only team other than North Park to make nationals in the current alignment (in 2014), however, Olivet Nazarene has a handful of players still on the roster with Nationals-level experience, something that is valuable in breaking down opponents throughout a weekend that can be as tough mentally as it is physically.
Kalamazoo College is a team that is run through a handful of strong handlers. Showing steady improvement throughout recent years, Kalamazoo College is a school that seems to be just a tier away from being able to make some real noise on the regional stage. Despite not playing in a regular season tournament all spring, Kalamazoo had a strong showing at the East Plains Conference Championships, finishing third overall, blowing out a majority of their opponents, and playing within three points of Indiana Wesleyan twice on the weekend. It is not likely this is a team that can take down someone from the top-tier, but Kalamazoo will not be a game to take lightly as they will put up a fight in every game by scoring points through solid handler movement and well-timed deep shots.