While few players more singularly embody a specific style of play, Jesse Shofner's skills are far more than they first appear.
August 9, 2016 by Robert Gough in Analysis with 1 comments
Not many players in ultimate are synonymous with their on-field playing style. Sure there are a few exceptions, but even for many stars in the sport, they aren’t necessarily seen as the very embodiment of an entire offensive strategy but rather in terms of how their incredible skills and athletic talent successfully fit into existing teams and systems. But, for Jesse Shofner, anyone who has seen her play will almost immediately gush about the traits that make her a special and unique player.
Shofner’s style of play is a appealing one, and has drawn the eyes and compliments of players, coaches, and fans everywhere. Her pace was unmatched in the college division, and maybe in all of ultimate. Just check out her Callahan video; it’s the only background you’ll need to understand the kind of presence she has on the field. The only real comparison to her run-and-gun style was her Oregon classmate Dylan Freechild, whose own Callahan video numbers proves that people love that style. It’s exciting, and is remarkably effective.
But the good does not come without risk.
Shofner loves to push the pace, and she loves to take shots. Some of the turnovers she throws seem unnecessary and forced, and yet they happen frequently. When she plays defense, she’ll leave her mark and jump into passing lanes, sneaking in from behind to snatch the disc away. If the disc isn’t thrown, or the throw bests her efforts, a cutter is left wide open downfield. Whether it’s turfing a flick while trying to throw-and-go, or missing on a huck after forcing it through a tough mark on an early count, Shofner’s game appears to be unsafe and inconsistent.
And that’s just how Jesse rolls: she’s a risk-taker. When she hits her mark, she’s a talent near impossible to contain; when she misses, her team can be left reeling.
But don’t paint her portrait just yet. When we dive deeper into the game film, separating and isolating her decisions and results across the span of her many roles, teams, and scenarios, we find a role-player who plays a calculated, systematic style that considers the percentages and fills gaps on the field. It’s unique, it’s volatile, and most of all, it’s really fun to watch.
Defense is where it all begins for Shofner. Her big backhand makes her a choice puller, pushing the opposing offense deep into their own territory or pinning them on the sideline, sometimes both. She has a nose for the disc, willing and able to spring into action to play help defense and swat away a disc meant for someone she isn’t responsible for. Most importantly, Jesse’s tendency to take shots and push the pace can be murder for opponents after turnovers, rushing into transitional offense and scoring quick, big, exciting breaks that can really deflate another team’s spirits.
While it may not always seem like it when watching Shofner make a poach bid that comes up short, if you study how she plays defense throughout a point and throughout a game, it becomes clear that she plays percentages. She’ll tend to base her decisions on taking away the primary looks that the offense has. Every positional choice she makes forces the offense to make a more difficult play than they want to.
One place where this strategy becomes obvious is in her body positioning while marking cutters.
Here we find Shofner (in white, sporting bright yellow cleats) playing downfield defense after a turnover/stopped disc. Note the different positions she takes over the course of a four-second possession: 1) starting directly in the throwing lane while her mark has drifts toward the force sideline, 2) closing down her cushion once she has ensured there is no more dangerous upfield option, 3) adjusting to get on the force side as the Vancouver Traffic player sets up her deep cut, before 4) ending up in front of her mark on the open side as she gets the block. The layout is really just a form of security, as Jesse had the much better position on the disc.
A key aspect of her positioning/choices at the start of this possession is help defense: if Shofner lines up all the way on the open side to start, the only person she can guard is her own mark. Starting directly in front of the disc on her mark’s “break side” shoulder, she my invite a throw to the cutter that pushes the offense closer to the sideline, but also affords herself the ability to peel off towards the other downfield cutters in order to prevent a big, early stall break throw that can kill a defense. You can even see her checking-in over her shoulder as the play starts to spy on other potential cutters headed in her general direction. Once that option is denied, she recovers her open side position as her mark begins to cut as the most dangerous downfield option. From ther, it’s Ultimate Defense 101: stay on the open side of your opponent, forcing them to run though you to get to open space, or forcing the thrower to complete a difficult pass.
In general, Shofner lives to roam in open side lanes, not connected at the hip to her mark like some defenders use in person defenses. As her mark drifts farther from the primary cutting space, Shofner drifts father from her mark, preparing herself to poach into throwing lanes in the wake of her mark or to jump in front of a handler in a pseudo two-person cup. Fast and loose, these tendencies create pressure and tough, random choices for the offense.
Again, Jesse (#2) plays defense running almost on a straight vertical line in front of the disc in this clip, allowing a big buffer of space as her mark drifts into the break-side space to set up her next cut. She doesn’t necessarily tighten up as much as she waits for her mark to come back to the valuable space and then shuts down the force side cut. When the Whitman handler looks-off Shofner’s mark, the handler’s eyes lock onto her reset, unable to see Jesse sneaking in to snag the disc with help defense.
Shofner takes the good with the bad with this strategy. Jumping lanes and poaching leaves her mark with a lot of open space. Even though the space isn’t the most valuable on the field, good throwers and smart cutters can and do take advantage of these spaces, finding loads of yards after taking-off downfield when Shofner leaves them. Despite elite quickness, Jesse can’t always regain the ground she gives up.
You can find Shofner lurking off-screen on the bottom left of the image as this clip starts. Without seeing her mark (#21 on Riot), we eventually see Shof come back into vision, attempting to poach on a cut back to the disc from a different Riot cutter. Jesse’s eyes and focus are on the disc and other players, itching to jump in a passing lane, which allows her mark to simply sit back behind her in deep space and find an open pocket. The Riot handler eventually identifies this, gets Jesse to commit with a big fake, then hits a wide-open huck with little pressure, as Shofner, even with elite speed, had drifted too far away to recover.
Shofner is forcing the offense to beat her and her teammates with tougher, longer throws, but this can result in some great second looks that lead to easy yards or easy goals.
While her aggressive poaching has been her primary style of defense, Shofner can and does at times fall into more standard DIP defense, staying tight on her assignment with less help defense and more individual containment.
Shofner’s style of person-to-person defense generates a lot of blocks. Not just any blocks, but turnovers that result in great positioning for transition offense and quick breaks as Jesse’s mark is many yards away after Jesse peels off to poach. This leaves opponents scrambling to find marks, creating mismatches and confusion.
It’s hard to keep-up with Shofner and the gang in regular play — especially tough since she loves to run and/or huck the disc on breakaways — but pepper in match-ups you can’t choose and mental delays amid the chaos, and Jesse will find a way to beat you, or find a teammate who can do the same.
After teammate Ella Hansen knocks the disc down, Shofner runs over to pick it up and get the offense moving immediately. Cutting across the field in strange spaces just in front of her teammates allows her to keep some distance from the defender who picked her up after the turnover. The only player who is able to help on defense downfield gets caught in the awkward spot of deciding whether or not Jesse is about to catch the disc in the endzone or just short of it, and the pace of the transition allows just one brief moment to decide.
Working in transition after a turnover might be where Shofner is most dangerous. Her throw-and-go pacing is jaw-dropping. There is no doubt that her game was crafted in the same vein as Freechild, whose tempo and “game” Jesse loves. The two have had “endless conversations and [shared] advice,” much of which, Shofner says, was unsolicited.
If Jesse is able to catch her block without leaving her feet, the race is on. While maybe not the best 70-yard sprinter, Shofner is deadly in short, tight spaces, which is where throwing-and-going thrives.
“[Her playstyle] is fast and furious” says Fugue teammate Bethany Kaylor. “As soon as [the defender] is on their heels, you know they’re not going to catch back up to her.”
Again starting with a strange come-back cut to the break side, Jesse turns her defender around on the catch, then turns, throws, and flies upfield, again away from her defender. Shofner’s experience with these movements is blatant: the footwork used to find a brief balance to throw the disc just after she catches it, allowing both a flat, focused throw and a position to power forward with her feet in the same motion; her peripheral vision finds the second pass while she also gathers the disc in her hands; more footwork to fall into power-position to throw the goal when she knows her give-and-go options have run dry. It’s a remarkably focused effort that simultaneously looks effortless.
Not only does this cause problems near the disc, but if defenders fall into the trap of watching the throw-and-go unfold, Jesse has great vision and the sometimes unorthodox throws to find her teammates that may have gone unguarded amongst all the confusion of the turnover and transition. Pace and space is the name of the game, and if other cutters find empty space, Shofner will strike.
Whether it’s a pure deep-shot or a crafty use of angles, Shofner’s vision is perfectly matched by her throwing abilities.
When Shofner lines up on the offense, she is frequently the first option cutting out of the stack. She has the quickness to get out past most defenders, and perhaps more importantly, she is a threat with the disc in her hands. This gives defenses no room to allow Jesse to go deep to deny the disc, because her speed and body control lets her make great plays in the air.
The defenders in these clips aren’t actually even trying to deny Shofner the disc; rather, they are trying to play standard open-side defense or, in other words, “play everything.” Jesse’s quick change of direction and straight line speed is just simply better than most of her opponents’.
On the flip side, giving her the underneath means a decent chance at a continuation throw to a deep cutter.1 Shofner lives to work underneath, get the disc, throw a pseudo-forehand-fake, then launch a break-side backhand huck to the far side of the field where her targets have more room to attack away from their defenders.
In about one second or less, we see Jesse catch an under, pivot almost immediately against the force, and launch perfect backhand hucks to streaking cutters. The throws have the perfect amount of power to get out in front of her targets and away from trailing defenders, while having a ton of spin to allow the disc to “sit on a shelf” as receivers catch-up and reach the endzone.
When field space shortens in the red-zone, Shofner can really take over, either with the disc or without it. While not typically a handler in the regular offense, Jesse has a great understanding of break space and touch and pace on the disc when she’s throwing.
“I don’t consider her a handler,” says Lou Burruss. “She is most effective cutting out of the stack. She (by design) works as a handler in endzone offense, but that is akin to what Beau (Kittredge), Jimmy (Mickle) and Dylan (Freechild) do.”
If you let her, Shofner will simply use her great acceleration to beat defenders up the line. If the defense throws a zone, as seen in this clip, Jesse is also plenty capable of slowing down her game (although you can see her jumping and squirming while trying to push the pace, initially) and picking you apart.
Just like in the transition game, Shofner loves to throw-and-go on offense. Fugue was ready and willing to play along Jesse in this style, especially on the defense, but the offense saw some struggles in trying to making this style work. It has also been less consistently effective on Shofner’s other teams, like Schwa and the U23 squad.
Obviously, no one is perfect, but these execution mistakes are pretty common when watching Shofner. Throws get rushed, receivers sometimes aren’t ready or looking for that type of pass, and so on. It is interesting to note that when watching the film, these mistakes most frequently appear really early-on in games, and are harder to find in crunch-time scenarios, evidence that she may grow more conservative as games go on.
Jesse is one of the more polarizing players in the women’s game. When you play a style with no reservations and do so with fire and grit, you’ll likely draw some criticisms. Deservedly so, as Shofner has made some silly, likely unnecessary turnovers and “bad” plays.
But what if what most observers think is “reckless” or “risky” and is actually “calculated” or “favorable”?
“…I found that teams were able to go 70 yards without a turn only 1 in 9 tries. 1 in 9! 11%! Why not huck and play d? Surely we can throw hucks that are better than 11%.” — Lou Burruss, Win the Fields: ‘Words are Worthless’
True possession ultimate has never been the biggest part of Shofner’s Oregon teams, and that starts with her longtime coach. Lou Burruss favors a style of ultimate that uses percentages and odds to weigh-down and overwhelm opponents and instilled that style in Fugue before he retired at the end of the 2015 college season. Field position was a priority. Take good shots, and play tough defense if it misses. To sum it up shortly, Burruss says, “I firmly believe that you can’t win if you don’t turn it over.”
Lou gives a great explanation and comparison regarding Shofner’s flick turnover against UCLA, one of the clips seen just above:
“Let’s compare two turnovers – Jesse’s turfed forehand and Han Chen’s forehand to Kristen Pojunis that Kaylor blocked so beautifully in the semis at Prez Day (watch here). Both are stupid turnovers. Both are execution/decision errors. Both are the products of the system those players are in and need to be seen as necessary by-products of what Jesse and Han are trying to do. In UCLA’s system, a big part of what they want to do is get Han the disc and let her take shots, especially at KPo. It often pays off, even when it’s a ‘bad’ choice, which this one is. A cross-field swing, through traffic into double coverage on the goal line? Uh-uh. But within UCLA’s system, it’s essential. If Han never takes these kinds of shots, their offense loses all its threat and possibility and defenses swallow it up. But if you’re going to play the ‘Han chucks it at KPo’ offense, you’re going to get some bad mistakes.
Exactly the same thing with Jesse’s turnover. How often have you seen Jesse highlights that show her running nasty give-and-goes through the heart of the defense? Those highlights don’t happen without the corresponding ugly turnovers. For both of these players, the difference between a bad, good, and great game is the extent to which they are able to play mistake free. Those great games will happen and when they do, their teams will win. When they have bad games, their teams will lose. That’s sports.”
Not only did the Fugue guidelines fit in with Shofner’s relentless nature, but her skill-set allowed her to be successful within them. Further-more, that system was built with specific roles in mind. There have been designated “shot-takers” every year since Burruss arrived: “In 2013, that was Bailey [Zahniser] and to a lesser extent, Jesse,” says Lou. “In 2014, it was Sophie [Darch]; Jesse played much more conservatively. In 2015, Jesse moved into the role of main risk-taker and her choices reflected that”.
In 2016, coach Kathryn “Nij” Weatherhead said her role was mostly the same: “I feel like she doesn’t really know how to play any other way, and I don’t think we’d want her to be any different.”
This past season, Fugue ran Shofner in isolation on nearly every single offensive point on pull plays, adding some structure to Jesse’s deep-throw attacks. The goal was to chunk away some yards with Shofner before she looks to continue to speedster Olivia Bartuff in or around the endzone. As seen above, her ability to maneuver the disc past marks and deep into space means that this play worked a lot. If it didn’t, Jesse would simply cut deep instead.
“Not that it didn’t work,” Weatherhead clarifies. “More that her defender would start guarding her under so she would take advantage and go deep.”
When we look at the stats from the past three College Championships, we can see those percentages reflected in the numbers:
We can see that the production and great stats have shown up regardless of her role, but the number of turnovers increased sharply when she was playing as the primary risk-taker in Burruss’ system, though less so in the more structured pull-play environment in 2016.
So Shofner is perhaps not just a prototypical shooter. Burruss points out, “if you look at her play in other settings, U-23, Manila Spirits, etc. you see a player who can play very high percentage.”
When slotted in to the Manila Spirits team as a cutter, Shofner recorded 20 completions with 20 passes, throwing six goals in the process. Again we see how clean and precise Jesse’s game really is when she is not asked to carry the load of taking risks:
|vs. Team Phillipines||12||2||0|
|vs. Team Japan||8||4||0|
While this is an admittedly small sample size, it does suggest that Shofner is more than pure gunslinger. When playing a role that asked her to just be a cog, she was able to adjust her play style and still prove effective.
A Morphable Master
Based on her play at Oregon, it is tempting to pigeonhole Jesse Shofner as a go-go-go point guard that needs her team to move at the same lightning speed and play the same “reckless” approach she does in order to be successful. Such is the reputation that precedes her that few players more emphatically embody such a singular style.
But in full context, Shofner appears to be a master craftsman, possessing all the tools necessary to morph into various archetypes and styles to do whatever it is that her team needs. That is why she has found success everywhere she has played. That is why she is so much fun to watch.
On Fugue in 2016, that was often Olivia Bartruff, arguably the quickest cutter in college ultimate. ↩