Massachusetts takes out the nation's top team while Texas bombs in their home tournament.
March 15, 2017 by Charlie Eisenhood in Recap with 2 comments
AUSTIN — With some top 10 firepower and plenty of hungry upstarts at a resurgent Centex, there was plenty to learn as we enter the final phase of the 2017 college regular season. Here are the biggest stories from the weekend.
UMass Recertifies Their Elite Credentials
After the Queen City Tune Up, Pat Stegemoeller wrote in the recap, “After a season in which the team had so much depth up and down their roster, Queen City was a reminder that this year’s UMass squad has a lot of weight on a select few shoulders.”
The story hasn’t really changed following Centex, but it’s clear that those select few shoulders can bear a heavy burden.
Relatively open lines on Saturday yielded good, if not spectacular, results for UMass, as they easily defeated UCSB and Texas before falling on double game point to both Minnesota and BYU. With a spread out rotation, they are clearly good enough to compete with anyone, but may not be quite the top tier team we saw throughout the 2016 regular season.
But tighter lines on Sunday perhaps flashed the true colors for this UMass team: they held firm against heavy first half pressure from Minnesota in semis before blowing the game open with multiple consecutive breaks in the second half. Then they handed UNC their first defeat of 2017 in the final.
While the team still got their bench in the game — “We played literally everyone that’s here, including one player who’s never played at a tournament before, ever,” said coach Russell Wallack of the semis and finals — it was clear that certain players were making the team go. Ben Sadok, in particular, was vital, offering tremendous backfield generalship despite being covered by one of UNC’s best defenders in Nathan Kwon. Sadok won the matchup on most points and served up a five goal, four assist performance.
The team also had strong performances this weekend from deeps Chris Bartoli and Pat Barron, who have filled in nicely in the wake of Jeff Babbitt and Conor Kline. Other more known contributors like Tannor Johnson and Brett Gramann continued to keep the offense moving.
“To me, that was a big difference for us: how much better our offensive spacing was this weekend, across the board, as well as having more motion,” said Wallack. “I think we saw that we were pretty stagnant against UNC [at QCTU].”
UMass’ D-line offense still has work to do — they only went 4/12 on break opportunities in the final — but the pieces look in place for UMass to again be a serious semifinals contender at Nationals.
UNC Has A Hiccup, But Don’t Doubt Them
After rallying back from down 12-9 to tie the game at 14, UNC took a double game point loss, their first of the season. It’s not exactly a resounding defeat.
This particular game requires some context. UNC was without their defensive lynchpin, Elijah Long, who broke his collarbone on Saturday.1 They also did not show a single defensive wrinkle, opting to play one-on-one, straight up D the entire game.
Of course, UNC is now famous for concealing their more complex defensive looks until the postseason. “We felt like it was a good opportunity for us to practice our man defense against a really strong opponent,” said UNC captain Matt Gouchoe-Hanas with a hint of a smirk when I asked him about it after the game.
For the large part of the weekend, UNC simply suffocated all comers, including a talented BYU team. That’s been their way all season.
Especially impressive was their defensive line’s offense: they converted four of seven break chances in the final thanks to outstanding play from freshman Kai Marcus. It stands to reason that they could have certainly created more break opportunities with more sophisticated defensive looks: UNC would likely be a favorite in a Nationals matchup with UMass (and perhaps any team).
While UNC may drop from the top spot in the Power Rankings, plenty of smart minds still see UNC as the team to beat, and for good reason. Their offense is lethal against person defense and they will surely learn from their mistakes against UMass’ zone, the difference maker in the final.
The team certainly isn’t worried about the loss and they emerge with room to grow heading into Easterns. “We got punched in the mouth early and faced some adversity, but came back, so I’m feeling upbeat about it,” said Gouchoe-Hanas. “I think that was a really good experience for our team.”
Injuries Hamper Minnesota, But Big Bracket Losses Leave Questions
Minnesota has now played in two big games deep in the bracket at elite tournaments. First, they rematched Pittsburgh in the Warm Up final and got blown out of the water, 15-7. Then they saw UMass a second time in the semis at Centex: again, a big 15-10 loss.
It’s an old sports adage that it’s tough to beat the same team twice, and it appears to ring quite true for Grey Duck so far this season. They’ve had some nice wins — a thumping of Pitt in Warm Up pool play, tight wins over UMass and BYU — but they have also come up well short in the biggest spots of the season. What could be scary is that they won’t see any truly top teams again until Regionals, as they will be at Huck Finn, not Easterns, on the final weekend of the regular season.
Head coach Tallis Boyd said that he’s not worried about the losses and that they’re simply working on getting better each game. “Our goal is not to be peaking now,” he said. “It’s to be peaking in May.”
Ben Jagt remains a potent weapon, but has clearly been forced by defenses to do more as an under cutter given his reputation. Handler Wyatt Mekler was superb at times, but has been inconsistent this season.
It’s worth noting that Minnesota was missing a number of key contributors in their loss to UMass, most notably on the defensive side of the disc. Defensive Player of the Year candidate Charlie McCutcheon did not play; Sam Bumsted — the team’s puller and most important two-way player on the D-line — didn’t either. Minnesota had some prime break chances in the first half that they didn’t convert. With those two guys out there, it could have been a different game.
“I was really happy with the pressure,” said Boyd. “We were really close on a couple and missed, and they were able to punch it in and hold. Second half, a couple minor things that we misexecuted on and they capitalized. And once they got one upwind break, they got another, and I think we got in our own heads a little bit.”
It’s that ‘getting in their heads’ part that might be a long-term concern. The team hasn’t responded well to sluggish starts against top opponents. They have work to do before North Central Regionals.
BYU Is A Top 10 Quality Team
They may not play in the postseason, but BYU has clearly cemented their bona fides as a legitimate Nationals contender after another strong tournament performance at Centex.
The team defeated UMass, Texas A&M, and LSU before falling to UNC in the final round on Saturday. As always, they did not compete on Sunday.
“To come out here and challenge UMass was really exciting for us,” said head coach Bryce Merrill. “You talk about these little baby steps and what it takes to be one of these top programs and to get to that level. And it is: it’s a step at a time.”
Clearly, BYU came up against a team in UNC that was a level above them — BYU had no answer for UNC’s offense — but they have a very nice offense with some talented individual players and a shoot-first mentality on their D-line. They upset UMass by consistently attacking deep in transition, piling up enough breaks to stave off a UMass comeback.
Bob Bodily and Jason McKeen, the team’s centerpiece handlers, are among the best backfields in college, and they get good downfield production from Taylor Caldwell and Devon Terry. It’s clear that the top seven can actually match up pretty evenly with other elite teams; they lack the depth, though, to find consistent wins against them.
“Wherever we go to apply pressure, they just go the opposite way,” Merrill said of UNC and other powerhouse programs. “And so if we can’t win all of our matchups, we’re not going to generate any pressure anymore.”
Merrill did not say whether or not the team would go to Sectionals, which would keep the bid they are certain to earn with the Northwest. A new USAU rule will move their bid to the ‘next region up’ if they don’t start the postseason. “I think we either need to be kicked out or we need to be included,” said Merrill. “This puts us in a decision making place in mid-March to determine the fate of the Southeast vs. the…the what? It’s so weird.”
A side note: I asked Merrill if he thinks USAU should reconsider accommodations for BYU after their strong 2017 season. His response is below.
We feel like we have to have more advocates. We watch some of these other player-driven initiatives with USA Ultimate, and we see that when a person with a big mic speaks up, they get an invite out to USA Ultimate headquarters to discuss it. And we tried to do that and we’re told no, that they wouldn’t have us out to discuss it.
So we know that part of it is an advocacy thing. How do you manage that? How do we say, what do we have to do to UMass to play them and hopefully beat them so we get the street cred but also parlay it that they might say, we need UMass saying, ‘No we’d like them to be at Nationals. We’re willing to advocate for that.’ There’s some big voices at some of these programs and we have to…I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know. It doesn’t come down to a strategy thing for me anymore. I think we are there. And I think there’s some strong public opinion on both sides and we don’t really know what USA Ultimate thinks of it other than a two sentence email telling us that there would be no accommodation made and that was it.
So I don’t know. It will be for them to decide and for the community to hash out, again, if they feel like it. I think a lot of people say, ‘We’ve already had this talk a year ago. Check out this Reddit thread, check out this Ultiworld comment section for all of our thoughts.’
I don’t know what’s changed since then other than a couple of rankings. You know, so, it’s one of those things that if someone with a big mic that isn’t such a strong advocate like me — obviously I’m pretty one-sided on this issue, I feel like I’ve done my job in advocating for that. And it will be hopefully up to someone else someday that has a better mic and a better relationship with USA Ultimate to say, ‘Hey you should reconsider this. Or you should at least tell them why you’re not considering it and give them some steps. Give them a road map. Give them something.’
I remember gender equity a few years ago and — is Tiina [Booth] NUTC? That’s her on Twitter, right? — and she was sitting there saying, ‘Tell us how much money it takes to put our freaking games on ESPN3. Tell us.’ And there was nothing. It was stonewalled.
And I think we’re to the spot. Tell me: is it $20,000 bucks? Is that the accommodation I have to pay to inconvenience everyone else? Because we just flew to Austin; we flew 30 people to Austin.
If it’s $20,000 bucks, tell me that, we’ll come up with $20,000 bucks. If it’s $50,000, well maybe we won’t come up with that this year but maybe we can fund it every other year. Give us something. That’s where we’re at right now.
And, again, we don’t get to decide that entire conversation. USA Ultimate and the community does. And we’ll just sorta keep playing frisbee until then.
Colorado State Struggling With Consistency
Colorado State came into the weekend looking like the South Central’s final hope for a second bid. This week’s rankings should tell us more about whether or not they can deliver.
Regardless, they have work to do before Regionals. A great start with a strong push to top Harvard and then a tight battle with Minnesota was followed up by a surprisingly close game against an outmatched Illinois team and then a monster blowout loss to Texas A&M.
Sunday was better — they lost 15-12 to UMass, but won their other three games against weaker competition — but the team still hasn’t found the groove to deliver high quality performances in every game.
The bright spot, though, is that they have some tremendous playmakers. Cody Spicer jumped onto my Player of the Year watchlist with his performance this weekend (although he was sick on Sunday). He went toe-to-toe with John Stubbs and got some big blocks against Ben Jagt, all while offering a ton of offensive production on both lines.
“Cody’s fundamental footwork and foot speed for his size are super impressive,” said head coach Tim Kefalas.
Jake Servaty is another key contributor, a strong handler with good reset ability.
The problem, like the one that many bubble Nationals teams face, is that they are at a disadvantage on a handful of matchups against top teams. Their offense can struggle under pressure, and they really need to have Spicer on the line to be a threat to break consistently.
The big loss to A&M can’t be a welcome sight for a team that will need a second bid — and then need to defend it — to make Nationals.
LSU Takes Easy Road To Semis
LSU made it to the semis thanks to two wins over Harvard, including in the quarterfinals. They had a relatively easy path, but won the games they needed to and held tough after an 0-2 start on Saturday.
“Our mentality kind of shifted,” said captain Eric Reviere. “These are games we’re going to have to win if we want to make a statement at this tournament.”
Whether or not they made that statement is up for debate. They are clearly a talented team and they got wins over Harvard, Texas, and UCSB. But Texas isn’t exactly ‘Texas’ without their top players, and the other two teams are unranked. LSU did not come close to wins over Top 25 teams UNC, BYU, or Texas A&M.
Part of the issue could be the team’s belief in itself. “When we come out hot in games, we tend to play really well,” said Reviere. “When we come out slow, we can slip up for a little bit.”
Still, they do believe they have what it takes to make Nationals out of the Southeast. A balanced region this year could open the door for an LSU team that’s been on the rise for two years. “Last year at Regionals, we felt like we had it, all the way up, even in the Florida game,” said captain Garrett Baringer. “It was just gas, we ran out of gas. This year, I think we’ve got plenty to make it.”
– John Brown climbed out of the Silver Division with a 4-0 Saturday and got to match up against Texas in prequarters. They pulled off the improbable 14-12 win thanks to the go-ahead upwind break with less than two minutes before hard cap. “Four years ago, we played [Texas] at [Just Plain Nasty] in the fall and they just absolutely trashed us,” said John Brown star Ethan Penner. “And afterwards asking them what we can work on, they’re like, ‘Throws, catches, and physicality.’ So that’s what we’ve been working on for four years. And so it’s kind of fun to see that four year transition from just getting trashed to actually having a program that can compete with them.” A huge win for one of the best DIII teams in the country.
– Texas A&M couldn’t handle the wind or Harvard’s zone on Sunday morning in prequarters, but did collect a nice win over Colorado State that could give them some belief come Regionals. The team is still young and they may be a year away from being a top team again.
– A spectating parent from Austin was aghast at the amount of money that the University of Texas seems to have (the teams were competing at a beautiful, brand new intramural field complex) and was particularly upset with the Longhorn Network’s continual refusal to allow Ultiworld to film games at Centex. He told me a story of his friend who owns a fiberglass company and made a big fiberglass longhorn statue as an auction item for a UT fundraiser. He said it sold to a UT booster for $890,000.
– UMass’ Pat Barron beat Ben Jagt deep for an upwind score, catching the disc over Jagt’s last-second attempt to catch up. Barron stared him down like an NBA player that just dunked on someone. A wild moment in a chippy game! Both players smoothed things over later and the teams both look forward to a cleaner game next time they meet.
– 12 players on BYU are married and four have children. Their main offensive handler is “Dad Bod” Bob Bodily. He has a child and another on the way. He will also break your team’s heart with full field backhand hucks.
He is expected to return for Nationals, if not Regionals. ↩