The weather, fields, and format threw some curveballs, but in the end, the weekend's best teams settled to the top. The middle, however, left more questions than answers.
February 22, 2017 by Simon Pollock in Recap with 1 comments
Ultiworld’s reporting on Presidents’ Day 2017 is presented by VC Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at VC Ultimate!
LA JOLLA, CA — Presidents’ Day Invite 2017 almost didn’t happen. When the weather report started looking shady, there weren’t any backup fields on hand. Tournament staff scrambled, a new format was born, drama ensued, and Colorado Mamabird picked up a tournament title. Here’s a look inside at some of the weekend’s stories.
The Weather, The New Format, And Colorado State
Between Thursday and Friday last week, more than 2” of rain fell in normally sunny La Jolla, CA. Regional rivers flooded. Five sailboats broke free from their moorings nearby, and two cars were swallowed by sinkholes in Los Angeles County.
The typically lovely three-day format at the Presidents’ Day Invite also took a hit. Teams were informed Wednesday of last week that the grass fields on the campus at UC San Diego normally in use for the tournament were closed because of the anticipated rain. Tournament directors went from having fourteen fields at their disposal to four. It almost didn’t come together.
In a valiant attempt to make the trip worth it for the 17 teams (between the men’s and women’s division) traveling from beyond the Southwest, rounds were shortened to 65 minutes. Teams were guaranteed two games a day and a minimum of six games, instead of the expected eight or more. And, to foster connectivity and interest, all intra-southwest games were eliminated from Saturday’s schedule. The new format planned for four “Other Region” teams and four Southwest teams to take the top spots in power pools on Sunday, before qualifying for semis and the final on Monday.
Likely, those reading this recap will have already heard about some of the casualties, and hindsight has surely produced plenty of “Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda” on the men’s side.
Colorado State coach Tim Kefalas saw it coming, and wrote as much in an email to the men’s side distribution list. With a long drive ahead for Hibida and some questions about the guaranteed competition within the new plan, he and his team secured a safe exit from the tournament without much consequence.
“Can you please explain the justification for four SW teams in the Sunday power pools by default? If current seeding held, that would be three teams that didn’t make quarters at the Santa Barbara Invite, two of which didn’t make the championship bracket. I understand the scheduling challenges you are facing, but this setup likely leads to some uneven games in power pools, as well as dealing with an awkward determination of who the fourth ‘out of region’ team will be,” he wrote.
San Diego residents weren’t the only ones a little out of sorts by the time the rain subsided Saturday evening. While games went off smoothly on the four turf fields, a bucket of teams finished day one at 1-1, with few common opponents to compare for tie break. Six Southwest teams went 0-2. Power pools would have included two of those teams.
Tournament staff adjusted, sending the top two 0-2 Southwest competitors (based on point differential) down into consolation play on Sunday and making space for two more Other Region teams in the power pools. Teams stayed late at the fields to propose alternate formats – in particular scrapping power pools and moving to finish pool play — but couldn’t find places and times for all the games to take place.
The format took another adjustment Sunday evening. Instead of moving the top four teams directly into semifinals per the captain’s packet, two undefeated teams— Colorado and Washington — moved on automatically while four teams — Cal Poly-SLO, Utah, Illinois, and Chicago — took part in quarterfinal playoffs to fight for the last two spots.
In spite of all the good, hard work and excellent listening from tournament directors, the schedule shifting on Saturday and Sunday added a unique degree of uncertainty to the weekend. Teams were left penciling out their point differential and comparing their performances to teams they hadn’t played and wouldn’t see.
Yet, save one major power rankings casualty, the best teams at the tournament moved on. Colorado Mamabird walked away champions, unquestionably the most complete team at Presidents’ Day.
Survivors Of The Format: Colorado, SLO, And Washington
Colorado Unfazed By Changes To Format Or Opponent
To be in the thick of the scheduling effort cast a shadow of confusion and stress on the weekend, enough to color the demeanor of any team that felt the effects.
That wasn’t #5 Colorado Mamabird this weekend. If there were challenges beyond each adjusting to playing outdoors together for the first time in months, they went unnoticed.
“We did a great job just coming out, both [days], excited and ready to play,” said Mark Rauls less than an hour after winning the Prez Day title. “We expected to play at 8am both days, [Sunday] we got bumped to 1pm. We’ve had a problem in the past with morning games, and coming out flat and we didn’t really see that this weekend.”
Rauls and company were more than any opponent could handle all weekend. After surviving a game full of turnovers that pushed them to double game point with UC San Diego to start the weekend, Colorado promptly adjusted and took care of business. The O-line earned the disc back after their turnovers with apparent ease. Defenders outplayed opponents around the disc and downfield, playing tough and pushing cutters off their line and pressuring throwers into bad decisions.
Freshman Matthieu Agee stood out on the D-line, leading the team in goals on the weekend. Rauls, Wes Chow, and three more Bravo teammates1 held down the O-line and kept a vertical attack humming and hitting on numerous hucks out side stack pull plays.
It took a heroic effort from the slipperiest handler set at the tournament, Western Washington’s Dennis Casio and Zhi Chen, to put Mamabird on notice with another double game point affair during power pools on Sunday. Dirt’s polished attacked was the only one that had Mamabird defenders really playing chase, but the former’s defense couldn’t muster the strength to overpower the latter’s offense.
Rauls and Chow were, unsurprisingly, an electric duo. Both got the isolation nod on various pull plays, and while Rauls outran his marks, Chow put his throws to work and broke free numerous times for his own set of goals. Chow did suffer an apparent shoulder injury during the second to last point of the final2 , but he was up and about later in the day.
Colorado right now has the same sort of strength and fitness that powered them into quarterfinals in Raleigh late last spring. While their defense stood out in La Jolla, key players on the O-line were also all executing on tough inside flicks to hit unders in their vertical stack system. If they can find someone else to join Chow and add just a bit more dynamic hucking, there’s an argument that this team should make semis in Cincinnati this year.
Cal Poly-SLO Continues To Build
A 4-2 record, with just two losses to the tournament champion, caps another solid building weekend for #14 Cal Poly-SLO CORE. After a 2016 season buoyed by outstanding athleticism and hard work, the team appears to be executing a calculated progression towards pushing further into the postseason than ever before.
Unlike first-place finishers Colorado, SLO didn’t let any opponents hang on for double game point. Aside from the losses, no team snuck within three points of the defending Southwest Region champs. That’s a big improvement after letting teams into that slim margin twice at Santa Barbara Invite.
Though the offense still lacked patience and polish at times, SLO seems to be adding more of both to their game at almost every opportunity. They’re breaking more marks earlier in the stall count, punting only when they have to, and throwing the right fakes to open up space for the mid-range players that fill out the middle of their vertical stack.
“We build off every tournament, really, and try to set ourselves up for the next one,” said coach Peter Raines. He was pleased with the weekend, and happy that his team caught a good physical thumbing from Colorado. “Coming up in practice, we’re going to work to get that offensive chemistry down a little bit more and step our defense up. Pressure our offense. Our defense doesn’t do the best job of pressuring our offense at practice, so going to get them fired up a little bit,” he said.
Dillon Whited and Ian Sweeney took on even more work marshaling the D-line, while Nate Pettyjohn played plenty of O-line with center handler Caleb Meriam. Cameron “Wheaties” Wariner continued to take the top matchups regardless of opponent. Watching Wariner go after Washington’s big man Cooper Schumacher during their semifinal matchup and then take on Rauls in the final begged for a bucket of popcorn.
SLO now owns their matchup with Washington this year at 2-0 and it has to feel sweet. By the end of Prez Day last year, Washington had put SLO away twice, and it wasn’t that close. The Sundodgers had a late lead in the semifinal on Monday, but CORE engineered a 4-1 run to end the game and took it 13-10.
The road to Cincinnati narrows for SLO: they’ll take their second place finish this weekend and try to spin it into something more, first at Stanford Invite and then at Easterns. In the end, it’ll be fewer games than 2016’s regular season run, but the mental PSI will be doubled.
Washington Hits On Process Goals, Comes Up Short In Bracket
Before coughing up their 9-8 lead and losing 13-10 to Cal Poly in their semifinal, #15 Washington Sundodgers had put together the strongest weekend of any team in La Jolla. Colorado eked out two double game point wins and finished the weekend at +22 for their point differential. SLO took their lumps and finished 4-2 and +17.
The Sundodgers? 5-1 and +34.
“Our defensive level definitely went up. We won…we just won a game 13-3. We won 13-2 on day one, 13-5 yesterday. The D-line had a great weekend,” said coach Alex Wells. “O-line good weekend, D-line had a great weekend.”
Washington dismantled regional rivals Utah twice, by five points on Sunday and by 10 on Monday to take third place.
Beating less-talented teams wasn’t necessarily an issue for the Sundodgers in 2016, but they are pounding them now, and that’s another indicator that a defense that lacked blocks last year is getting them now. Dongyang Chen is healthy and leading the defense on the field, while roleplayers like Galen Kornowske are growing into more responsibility nicely and making plays.
That gives the offense, which is still healing, more time to settle in. Washington added their phenomenal star Khalif El-Salaam back to the field this weekend, but he, cutting lightning rod Tomás Delgado, and Schumacher were all limited in one capacity or another during their play this weekend. There was one moment, however, when it was all coming together. On Sunday against Utah, Wells had all of the above players in cleats. Delgado zoomed away from Zion Curtain defenders and broke free for a set of goals. Schumacher used his size in the deep space and shook off the towering Josh Zdrodowski for a goal.
And, as if injury had never slowed him down, El-Salaam made a play that made this reporter fall over hooting and hollering. Tian Chuan Yen, somewhere near midfield, ripped an outside-in flick huck that flew far too high in the air. It started sailing down towards a pack of players near the back line of the end zone and, at a point far above the ability of anyone else in the field, El-Salaam put the group on a poster for the goal. Sit on shoulders, indeed.
And yet, despite all the signs pointing to marked improvement for this talented group from Seattle, they couldn’t close the door on SLO. In the semifinal, Washington had four chances at an early break in one point, but lost them on little drops and miscues. El-Salaam threw a turnover late that landed him on the bench the next point.
It was perhaps the only curious datapoint in an otherwise solid building weekend from Washington.
“Overall, we wanted to get healthier and get closer to full strength, which we were. We wanted the guys who were healthy to keep putting up good results for rankings algorithm purposes. I feel like we did that. And we wanted the young guys to keep developing and they did that,” said Wells.
Health will be key for Washington in two weeks at Stanford, and for now, they’re on the right track to continued improvement.
Victims Of The Format: Oregon
By now the news is out: Oregon Ego, long the #1 ranked team in the Ultiworld Power Rankings, handed in a careless performance in their first game of the weekend, resulting in a 4-point loss to UC Santa Barbara Black Tide. The mistake cost them bracket contention, per the adjusted format discussed at length above. A thumping 13-5 win over San Diego State in the next round wasn’t enough to push the team’s point differential high enough to make either of the top two power pools.
Oregon, alongside Western Washington, finished the day at 1-1. Without space to play a suggested early morning playoff3, the opportunity to play in power pools fell to a coin flip.
“In the end, it’s all on us. We messed up. We lost. We should’ve just been better,” said team coordinator Mike Fielden on Sunday after the team’s first two rounds of consolation play.
“We didn’t perform the way we should’ve,” added star thrower Colton Clark.
Clark —who normally finds his favorite targets Connor Matthews, Will Lohre, and Adam Rees in space with ease — was at the heart of the gut-check loss. He took aim and fired deep looks that weren’t tuned for the shorter field. The offense couldn’t earn the disc back, aside from some isolated heroics from Rees.
On defense, Oregon was swiss cheese at the back of the stack. Defenders were out of position, either knocking off rust, adjusting to competitive play, or expecting to be able to bait throws and make up the ground later. The absence of ace person defense from graduated captains Chris Strub and Will Watkins was palpable, as Ego struggled to generate pressure.
By Saturday afternoon, when it became clear that the format was going to restrict Oregon from challenging for the title, Fielden, Clark, and others spent over an hour at the fields working with tournament staff to offer suggestions for a more competitive finish for Sunday and Monday’s play. The team hadn’t thought much about the emailed questions from Kefalas about format at the time it was sent.
“Boneheaded [move] on us, not to go over the format when the captain’s packet came out. I think it was just a little bit of arrogance,” said Fielden.
Fielden and Clark owned up to the mistake, but couldn’t wash out the bad taste lingering in their mouths. In circumstances where great concessions are not made because of weather, tournament formats are designed to pit the most competitive teams against each other, and there is usually some margin of error built in during pool play for a top team like Oregon to take an early loss and still have a path to the championship.
But the format was available, issues about imbalance between Other Region and Southwest Region teams had been raised on the men’s side before play began, and UCSB took advantage of an Oregon team that hadn’t considered what would happen if they didn’t win all their games on Saturday.
Needless to say, Oregon cleaned up their efforts over the next give games, going 5-0 and letting none of their opponents within three points.4 They generated enough defensive pressure to create cushion for the offense to continue to tune up and finished out the weekend in seventh place.
The team heads back to Eugene now, with two weeks to get their ducks in a row before the Stanford Invite. The format might allow for more mistakes there, but don’t expect Ego to make such a great number in one game again.
Making Lemonade: The Great Lakes Teams And Utah
While Oregon struggled to reconcile their day one results, Chicago, Illinois, and Utah all turned in 2-0 performance on Saturday, followed by 1-1 performances on Sunday.
Zion Curtain Lets Their Bros Go To Work
Utah Zion Curtain turned in a seed-breaking performance, moving up three spots to finish fourth on the weekend on the back of their athleticism. The giant Josh “Crow” Zdrodowski was a focal point downfield, using his height and length to open throwing windows and clean up trash, while Michael Affleck was clinical out of the backfield when the team was playing within themselves.
Zion Curtain put away both of the Great Lakes contenders with their physical play, by a combined two points. They did just enough to get the edge in crunch time.
“We were really successful when we played kinda bro-y,” said assistant coach Tommy Newell at weekend’s end. “We’ve got a lot of athletes and we came down with a lot of swill.”
He went on to qualify that younger players were using the system to step up and make plays, setting an example for their veterans that might be more accustomed to going after high-stall hucks and trying to sky the pack to get the block.
While Utah earned some solid wins, they ended the weekend taking lumps. Colorado sent them packing from the bracket with a 7-point loss and Washington ended the third place game with a 10-point margin of victory.
“Takeaways for practice are fundamentals. I think we get a little nervous sometimes playing big games and revert to trying to be a hero and that’s not what we need, so we’re just going back to fundamental flatball,” said Affleck.
Chicago Takes Out Trash
Chicago Junk avoided Oregon during Pool Play, snagged a commanding win over San Diego State, and put away UCSB on double game point just a round after Black Tide notched the upset of the tournament. The connectivity brought to Chicago by that double game point win — assuming the Oregon shores up their play and floats UCSB in the rankings — adds to the excellent work done by Great Lakes teams this weekend to earn bids.
The Midwesterners ran a spread offense for much of this weekend and the team corrected well for the limited space on the small fields. They cleared well to make space to let deep cutters work in isolation downfield and scored on their fair share of good looking hucks. When opponents got wise to the horizontal stack, Chicago transitioned well and let their handlers drive the offense and score up the line.
They started the weekend 3-0, capping that run with a valuable and gritty win over #21 Western Washington. They finished the weekend 0-3 when the going got tougher.
Illinois got the last laugh of the two Great Lakes contenders. Their system and experience helped them through the weekend, and their roster size helped nail down a statement win 13-7 over Chicago, good enough for fifth place on the weekend.
A Lemon For Western Washington?
Two wins, four losses.
It was a rough weekend on paper for #21 Western Washington Dirt, just weeks after making an appearance in the final at Santa Barbara. Their two wins came against California and UCLA, neither team stocking the same kind of talent or experience that Dirt has on tap.
However, a quick look back at what Western Washington had to go through this weekend puts their schedule in stark relief compared to any other team that arrived in La Jolla in contention for a bracket appearance: it was a good deal harder than anyone else’s.
They gave Colorado the best test of the weekend in a double game point outing. They suffered a near miss against a Chicago team that came to play. And their weekend was bookended by a first round 8-5 loss to Cal Poly and a 4-point loss to Oregon. After all that, they still managed an 8th place finish.
Teams locked on harder this weekend to the fairly classic and predictable vertical system guided by Dennis Casio and Western Washington had another weekend of close games.
One Win To Rule Them All For UCSB
UC Santa Barbara Black Tide also finished the weekend 2-4, blowing out UCLA in their final round 13-3.
The other win? Their first game on Saturday, 12-8 against Oregon.
While Ego was busy starting flat and wondering why they didn’t get the disc back, Black Tide settled into a D-line rhythm and converted breaks with an almost mechanical efficiency. Alexandre Kupelian put up the game’s highlight reel block5, laying out full extension in line with Connor Matthews to smack down a shot to the back of the end zone.
On the short fields, UCSB played to their system and didn’t try anything silly. They rarely hucked, worked the disc through the system, put together a three break lead, and kept it. They were cool-headed, all business.
So the rest of the weekend was rough, but assuming Oregon gathers themselves and avoids similar mistakes, UCSB has a very, very nice win for the Southwest now in hand. They may have lacked firepower to get through another top-seeded team, but they took care of business when it mattered, and that should pay off nicely down the road.
A Note Of Thanks
Amidst the befuddlement of all SoCal residents who are used to having visitors in the winter and saying things like, “Oh this? Yeah, it’s normally like this in February. No big deal. Wanna hit the beach for sunset later?”, the Presidents’ Day tournament directors pulled off the herculean task of actually hosting the tournament on limited alternate fields.
Even while teams dreamed of longer fields and a full pool play schedule, rounds went off without a hitch, fields were staffed with a trainer on time, there was plenty of tournament food, and a sizable observing crew was on hand for all of Sunday and Monday. The schedule was reworked and rethought half a dozen times before its release last Wednesday. Staff patiently listened to teams with schedule suggestions after Saturday play and engaged in discussion, even though they didn’t have to. They contacted officials at USAU multiple times to checking formatting options.
Shoutout to the TDs. Or as Oregon’s Mike Fielden said, “We appreciate all the hard work they’ve been doing. They’ve done an incredible job to even make this tournament possible with the crap that they’ve been handed.”
Correction, February 26, 2017: An earlier version of this recap credited a throw to Steven Benaloh. An update has been made to credit the throw to Tian Chuan Yen.
Isaac Chestler, Josh Crane, and Erik Hotaling ↩
As did Agee. ↩
USA Ultimate ruled via phone late Saturday that if the men were offered a playoff to earn a spot in power pools, the same chance needed to be afforded to the women’s side to settle their three-way tie. There was not enough field space Sunday to accommodate both situations. ↩
Even that game, a 12-9 win over UCSD, was closer than it should have been. ↩
Which you can see with your Ultiworld Video Subscription! ↩