The finals are set.
June 25, 2016 by Lorcan Murray in News, Recap with 0 comments
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This time last week, hundreds of players were landing in London getting ready for the biggest international tournament of their lives. The fields of University College London lay blissfully untouched in the gentle British sun. Since then, seven of the most crucial days in many players lives have passed. For most of the players who made the trip to the capital of the Old Empire, today marked the end of their tenure for their respective national teams. For those elite few who are still in contention, today was the penultimate step into legend.
America contested semifinals in all three divisions; six if you include Masters and Guts. Canada joined them in the Open, Women’s, and Mixed. A testament, regardless of inevitability, to the seniority these nations hold on the world stage.
Japan and Australia both compete in two of the three divisions, with Colombia taking the final spot in Women’s, and surprise entrant France breaking through in Mixed.
It is fitting that in the largest international tournament ever, it is the established powers who inundate the final four in each division. A disappointment certainly for Europe, who had more representation across the three divisions than the rest of the world combined. However, the legacy of this tournament will influence the hearts and minds of the communities who attended far longer than the final positions of the teams.
That said, now that the great expanse of fat has been cut from the flanks of international ultimate, it is time to decide who is the real steak and will get to walk out with gold tomorrow.
The first two gladiators to enter the arena today were Colombia and Japan. With a spot in the final ahead of them, and a week of fights behind them, both teams were ready to battle it out.
Colombia started on defense and drew first blood. Opening up the game with a clever zone, the Colombians were able to shock the Japanese offense into making a careless turn from a misthrow. Rare as such occurrences are against the well disciplined Japanese, it came as quite the surprise when the same thing happened on the second point. Yina Paola Cartagena made sure the Colombians took advantage of the opportunity and put both scores in to take an early lead 2-0.
There was also cause for sadness for Colombia as Viviana Carolina Zamora Moreno slipped and injures her knee, taking her out of the game in the opening point. She consoled herself quickly and was soon one of the loudest voices on the sideline.
Refusing to bow down to early pressure the Japanese hit back with a hold. It took them almost nine minutes and several turns to get the score. The Japanese made up for their early uncertainty by righting the ship with a break to make it 2-2. From an early stage, it was apparent that this game was going to be high flying. Both sides were laying out liberally, and despite a few careless turns, the standard was scintillating. Another monster point followed where either team could have put it away; Yina Paola Cartagena found the always dangerous Elizabeth Mosquera Aguilar for the score.
The Colombians had done their homework on the Japanese and were playing smart defense against their signature inside-break-to-short-cuts style. “We studied them at the Dream Cup and in a few games here,” head coach Mauricio Moore said. “We tried to shut down their first two passes.”
The strategy, when it worked, was exquisite. The Colombians seemed to be leeching the Japanese confidence on the longer points. Slowly the Japanese were starting to cut closer and get fewer gains on their throws. Normally this isn’t an issue due to their strong love of possession, but the Colombians were forcing mistakes from their opponents, something the Japanese are normally adept at politely refusing.
The next point was much shorter as the Colombians were more clinical following the turn. Yina Mendoza deciding that Cartagena can’t have all the glory and got her own assist to Jennifer Andrea Ricaurte López. Ever the rock, Kana Kobayashi took over the Japanese offense, swinging the disc gradually down the pitch with the other Japanese players slotting in as required, and found Saori Mizukami for a goal.
The Japanese come down with their zone look in an attempt to stifle Colombia’s Latin swings. Several turns ensued before Eliana Rico and Maria Valeria Cardenas Velasquez hook up to give and go through the gaps. Elizabeth Mosquera Aguilar finds herself on the front of the endzone with three Japanese women surrounding her. Laura Ospina made an ingenious cut, teasing the edges of the cup into collapsing before turning and running behind them to collect the pop over the top, 5-3 Colombia.
Japan were starting to look rattled: the usually crisp throws looked limp and their cuts were shorter than usual. That’s all credit to the Colombians who were playing clever defense. They were switching the force as was required, forcing back in towards the pitch on the flick side, straight up in the middle and up the line on the backhand side. The frequent changes to the force seemed to be disrupting the Japanese inside flow.
Further harassing their preferred course of action was the face guarding at the front of the stack. Lots of communication and an unwillingness to throw to stationary cutters due to the threat of a poach block ground the Japanese offense down. The point went on for almost nine minutes, with a timeout from either side. The crowd seemed to sense that this one was crucial to the outcome as murmurs whisk their way around the outside of the pitch. Eventually Camila Pelaez finds herself running on to a perfectly weighted leading pass for the score, 7-3. The style of the Colombian defense is intense; Yina Mendoza is locking Saki Kato away from her teammates on the dump. The points became long drawn out affairs. Japan managed to hold, but only just, and it took several attempts at offense and the better part of seven minutes.
What would prove to be the last point of the half developed into what is known in the local vernacular as a ‘spice point’. The marks are getting bumpy in Japan’s four man cup and the Colombians are bumping right back. Despite the occasional contact and constant pressure, Colombian captain Alejandra Maria Torres Echeverri was able to move around her opponents thanks to some very convincing fakes. As one spectator observed, ‘you can feel the tension build’.
Cartagena was seemingly breaking the cup at will and the point ends when Mosquera put a lovely swing to the endzone. Naoko Funabashi puts María Angélica Forero under huge pressure, but when both lay out it is Forero who stands up with the disc. Colombia took half 8-4.
At the break, Japanese coach Yuki Mori cracks the shell her team has retreated into. “It was clear we were not enjoying playing ultimate,” she said. “We were standing still. I said we have to move more. I told them to go out there and enjoy ultimate.”
The Colombians come out on offense and promptly engage the Japanese in a war. Both sides make mistakes and great plays. Eventually Japan call a time out. They came out of it looking like themselves for the first time this match and proceed to sweep down the field in emphatic fashion, ending in Saki Kato putting it to Keiko Temmyo for the score.
The next point is the longest of the game. It is clear as time runs out that the Japanese need to start racking up breaks. Saki Kato toes the line expertly but she is called out by Maria Manuela. A lengthy discussion followed. It ended when the Colombian coach checked a photo of the incident on a Japanese spectator’s phone (an acceptable method of resolving a call under WFDF rules) and told Manuela to retract the call. Japan were incredibly conservative, but unlike earlier they seem much more comfortable with the decision. Eventually they work it in, despite Mosquera hurling herself in the direction of the pass.
The next point is another marathon one, with Japan coming down on defense and opting to go no mark. Mana Date and Elizabeth Mosquera Aguilar got intensely good blocks on each other. As the point stretches on it becomes apparent Echeverri wants a rest, she takes over the offence, eventually ending the point with a perfect break to Eliana Rico to make it a game to 10.
The Japanese have refound their form, albeit a bit late, they run down the pitch, destroying Colombia’s hand crafted defense on the way, and score an Offensive point without turning for the first time in the game. Not to be outdone the Colombians respond in kind, Eliana Rico finding María Angélica Forero with an artistic leading pass for the win, 10-7.
Next up on the limited number of pitches was Australia going up against Canada. Before the game Australian Head Coach Ciaran Hutsun said, “We are keeping it within the family, we are only going to respond to things if they are fuel for the fire. Our bodies and minds are in peak physical shape.”
The confidence of their coach was reflected in the confidence of the Australian performance coming out of the gate. Both teams held until 5-4, Australia. Canada’s Justin Norden wass leading his team from the front of the O-line with Kielan Way backing him up while the Canadians simply don’t have a way to restrain Dani Alexander from getting free downfield.
Canada put up a huge huck to try and level the score at fives. Joel Bellavance reached for the sky but can only pinch the edge of the disc, the force from his considerable descent knocking the disc from his grip. Australia called a timeout to try and secure the first break of the game. Kyal Oh, Thomas Vo, and Timocles Copland swung the disc repeatedly with confidence. Oh bombed it to a sprinting Myles McCallum who chased it down and threw a lovely break to Emma Lothian to put the Aussies up 6-4.
With some momentum, the Aussies come out in a four man cup. Jeremy Norden responded by taking over his team’s offense, forcing the Aussies to switch to man. The Canadians put up a huck that floats long enough to set up a tantalizing battle between Jordan Meron and Vivien Stettner, which the Baramundi won. Australia worked it down the pitch under Canadian pressure. Tom Rogacki got an iso look in the endzone; Kielan Way battled him to the stalemate of a call. Disc is tapped in: Rogacki cleared the space and Australia ran a textbook endzone drill until they scored, 7-4.
This three point run would prove to be the pivotal moment of the game. The teams would trade a point each to half, with clean turnless offence.
The second half is an exhibition of offensive ultimate. With a slight breeze to their backs, both sides continued to rain points down on the downwind endzone. Justin Norden confirmed the crowd’s suspicions that he is one of the world’s best throwers with consistently precise hucks. Abra Garfield spent several points ignoring any marks put near him. Kirstin Auker and Jennifer Kwok went to war for a few points to the audible excitement of the crowd.
Zones were trotted out and eaten alive. Chris ‘The Greek Meat’ Kaliviotis has a particular taste for them, blowing through Canada’s with ten yard passes. In his own words: “Just easy throws right!”
Justin Norden will later lament his team’s failure to convert turns in the first half, understandable as they are few and quickly squandered in this match-up.
Australia were on offense at 14-12 with a chance to put themselves in the final. Cries of ‘tempo’ escaped from the yellow sections of the gathered crowd. Australia opted for four women to try and close out the game using their best match-ups. They play a somewhat disappointingly calm and controlled offense, which ends with Kaliviotis throwing an easy score to Vivien Stettner.
“We can play at a level to beat USA,” said Australia coach Ciaran Hutsun, looking ahead to Saturday’s final. “But we haven’t had to sustain it.”
In the first of the two Open semifinals, Japan matched up against Australia in a rematch of their friendly encounter at the Dream Cup earlier this year, a 15-13 Japan victory.
Australia came out in to the game strong with a hold followed by a quick break thanks to a Japanese throwaway. Japan responded quickly with some smart passes that lead to Masashi Kurono throwing a lovely flick to Japanese star Masahiro Matsuno.
Japan looked a little shaky at the start, the edges on their cuts duller than normal. The Aussies respond with a smooth possession with Peter Blakeley feeding Matt Dowle for 3-1. The Japanese respond in turn.
The Aussies worked the disk down the pitch nicely before Takaharu Komori interjects with a raucous layout block. The Japanese fail to convert the break, though, when a huck floats for far too long and the Aussies get under it. They work it back down the pitch using the unders they are given and score through Mike Neild and Mark Evans, 4-2.
Japan turn on a bladey huck to the endzone, with Lachlan McDonald reacting just in time to turn and get the block. Australia gave up a poor turn almost immediately. Tanaka scoop push passes over his mark after a stoppage and Kurono made it look like that was the plan all along, laying out for the score 4-3.
Australia’s offense continued to look comfortable with the options the Japanese were giving them. They worked it down fairly quickly before Mark Evans delivered an effortless lefty backhand break to Sebastian Barr preserving their lead handily.
The Australians were seemingly giving the Japanese the deep shot in a similar way to how they played — and defeated — the British. “I suppose we were baiting it,” said coach Matt Hill. “We were focused on trying to stop their inside game.”
The Japanese were having difficulty connecting on their deep shots up to that point. Yohei Kichikawa decided to rewrite the first draft his team had presented to the Australian defence, sending an inch perfect huck to Taiyo Arakawa for the quick score to make it 5-4. The Australians responded with a huck of their own, 6-4.
It was around this point in the game that the Japanese had literally found their footing.
“It was kind of slippy so it was hard to make cut,” said coach Yohei Abe said. “It took time to get our timing right.”
Kichikawa continued his narrative where he left off the previous possession, placing another disc exactly in front of Kurono. The Japanese reset the disc calmly until a hole appeared and Ryoma Katsuta set up Taiyo Arakawa.
The Japanese came down in a poachy defense looking for their break back. The Australians went over the top but the hammer was dropped. Japan called a timeout. When they returned the Japanese ran textbook inside break offense, the Australians defenders were expecting this and get close to a few blocks. Unfortunately for their lead, it was not close enough. 6-6.
It is worth noting that the Japanese celebrated the break by climbing aboard the break train, a celebratory vehicle they acquired stewardship of from the Belgians after beating them in the quarterfinal. The Belgians in the crowd love it and the Japanese players acknowledge the previous owners graciously. It was a beautiful little microcosm of the friendships built between ultimate communities at these international events.
The Japanese then proceeded to beat Australia’s season to death.
After another hammer turn from Australia, Matsuno picked the disc up and immediately found Mizuho Tanaka in the endzone. 7-6, all aboard!
The Japanese came down on the next point with more of a straight man but still maintaining a deep poach. They are aware of the threat Australia’s athleticism provides. Before the Game Yohei Abe and his staff targeted ‘shooter’ Mark Evans and receivers Peter Blakeley and Micheal Neild for specific defensive attention. The Aussies struggle to gain decent yards despite working hard to clear big spaces in front of the handlers. A poor throw away gives the indication the Aussies are starting to get a little rattled. Japan worked it up to the endzone before Taku Honna throws a tidy break backhand to Jun Kusano to take half, 8-6.
The half ended on a 4-0 run for the Japanese who seemed to be going from strength to strength. They came out on offense looking like there old selves. A smooth turnover-free possession filled to the brim with inside breaks and buttonhole cuts extended the lead to three. Neild is able to guide his team downfield and claw a point back to stop Japan’s run. However, they know have the deep game locked in and they take the next two points handily. The Aussies have started throwing poor turnovers against a team who rarely gives the disc back.
The Australian coach called a timeout at 11-7. From the sideline you could hear his rousing speech. It seemed like the Japanese were doing mentally to the Australians what they Aussies themselves had done to the British the previous evening.
Despite the speech, the Australians made another poor turn, though the wind gave them some help and popped up a Japanese dump throw just long enough to allow Nick Dousset to soar in and get the block. Sebastian Barr picked up the disc and immediately sent it in to Matt Dowle for 11-8.
The Japanese responded ruthlessly. Matsuno made a deep cut before turning and getting a great under to set up the instant flick blade to Kichikawa on the break side.
The Aussies came back to life, if just briefly, with Matt Dowle abusing the open side poach by throwing a soaring hammer to Evans. The Aussies work it down that half of the pitch ending with Nick Doussant scoring Australia’s final point of the game to make it 12-9.
Japan put out a big O-line looking to finish the game off. Matsuno, Tanaka, Kichikawa and Tetsuya Kamimura were all out there. They score on another picturesque blady huck to the breakside.
“We couldn’t get the disc back from Japan,” said Hill. “We tried straight up, we tried changing the force, we tried zone.”
The last point is a quick affair. Evans is unlucky to slip chasing down a huck, but the Australian defense simply doesn’t interest itself in covering the open side deep and Taku Honna places it right into the hands of Hiroshi Yuasa for the winning score, 15-9.
The Japanese have a lot of work to do to prepare for the final and USA. Rest assured Yohei Abe will be up all night watching tape on the USA team.
“We want USA cause they are best,” he said.
Yes they are Abe, and it will be interesting to see if it’s by a margin you can surmount.