Stanford Mounts Comeback To Defeat Pittsburgh In NW Challenge Final

Stanford surged back with tough defense.

Stanford after winning the 2017 Northwest Challenge. Photo: Stanford Superfly.

Ultiworld’s reporting on the women’s division of Northwest Challenge 2017 is presented by VC Ultimate as part of their season-long support of our women’s coverage; all opinions are those of the author. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at VC Ultimate!

SEATTLE — Stanford Superfly overcame the ghosts of losses past to come back from a three goal deficit to defeat Pittsburgh 11-7 in the Northwest Challenge final. The victory is a late-season return to form for the elite Southwest team, who began the regular season with thumping victories. For Pittsburgh Danger, the final appearance signals how much closer they are to a peak for the post-season.

Pittsburgh had just edged out the California Pie Queens 12-11 in their well-matched semifinal, while Stanford kept a surging Notre Dame Womb team from stealing the game in the other semifinal. The two finalists emerged from either end of the format: Pittsburgh was one of the three day teams, and they were able to play their full schedule of pool play games before the schedule changed due to conditions.

Stanford, on the other hand, was only able to play two games on Saturday before the fields were closed.1

Stanford began the final with a break after Anne Marie Gordon generated a turn in the lane. Pitt’s O-line didn’t blink. Instead they confidently worked against Stanford’s zone to hold. In the next point, Abby Bomberger point-blocked Stanford’s Monisha White and then scored to put Pitt up 2-1.

Pitt broke twice more in the first half to open up a 5-2 lead. Pitt handler Carolyn Normile drew up to the disc immediately after every possession change, ready to fire an OI flick to Danger cutters charging the deep space. Early in the game, Pitt’s defenders clung to Superfly’s cutters like shadows. Stanford looked often to swing and continue in the break space, but their downfield options weren’t always open.

Danger’s defenders weren’t the only challenge for Stanford’s performance, however. Star cutter Courtney Gegg didn’t cleat up on Sunday after a persistent foot injury flared up on Saturday. Gegg’s absence not only lowered the average height of their cup in zone, but it also robbed them of a tried-and-true deep option.

Facing a three break deficit, Stanford had a choice. They could collapse, like they had at Presidents’ Day Invite against Texas or at Stanford Invite against Dartmouth. Or they could buckle down and fight.

“We’ve been talking about being mentally tough,” Stanford coach Robin Knowler Davis said after the final. “And in that Notre Dame [semifinal] we started really strong, and then they went on that five point run… and that was a mentally tough situation. It took us a few points – a few more than I wanted – but we got our composure and finished our game out strong.”

Stanford dug in again, and, in the final, they chose to fight. Their zone dragged at Pittsburgh’s driving pace. Superfly’s Shayla Harris applied pressure as the mark, Monisha White guarded the deep space, and Caitlin Go patrolled the midfield. Their break points were long, and Pitt challenged Stanford’s attempts to break quickly. But Stanford did break back. They scored three straight to tie the game at 5-5.

“That zone was pretty tight,” said Pitt captain Sarah Russek. “We really had to work the midfield and throw some over the top stuff, but it was definitely a challenge.”

Pitt reined in Stanford’s zone to hold during the next point. Normile, Caterina Pagano, and Linda Morse were breaking through the zone,  and that’s when Stanford made the choice that would seal the game in their favor. The long zone points were tiring their cup and making offense on the turn tougher. So they abandoned the zone and forced backhand instead. Downfield defenders sagged into the open lane along Pitt’s vert stack, and the handler defenders locked down on resets.

Suddenly Pitt handlers faced a sea of red and black downfield. Normile, Katie Cleveland, and Morse pulled out every tricky break and high-release they could to create space, but gorgeous throws weren’t enough. Stanford’s defense earned them another break to take half, 7-6.

Stanford held and then broke again out of half to cement their lead, 9-6. Without Gegg on the line, Stanford’s other cutters were able to step into the limelight. Gordon racked up three blocks, three goals, and an assist during the final, and Shayla Harris had 2G/1A/3D.

“It was hard for us to be missing Courtney,” said Knowler Davis. “But I think it was good for other players, because sometimes when [Gegg] is on the field it’s easy to let her run the show.”

Indeed Rosemarie Sandino, Deanna Abrams, Carly Eckstrom, and rookie Elise Bruguera each made their presence known downfield, despite heavy pressure from Pitt defenders. Caitlin Go put her own cannon on display in the second half with a backhand rip into the endzone after she caught an under.

Superfly got their groove back in a big way. Pitt only scored once in the second half, on a crafty high release backhand break from Morse to Haley Grajewski to make it 9-7, but as hard cap approached, the game was clearly already out of their grasp.

The victory is a big mental win for Stanford, a likely semifinal team who has failed to make the final at a tournament since January. Superfly knows now that they can fight back into the tough games, a skill they’ll surely need in Cincinnati.

Just reaching the final is a win for Pittsburgh Danger. The Ohio Valley team entered the Northwest Challenge with few elite games, but they left with wins over Dartmouth, Michigan, and California. Their loss to Stanford is only fuel for the fire.

  1. Stanford could have played UCSD in the updated format, but both teams agreed this regional matchup wasn’t worth traveling to the backup fields in Seattle 

  1. Katie Raynolds

    Katie Raynolds took a break from Seattle ultimate to test out the Midwestern scene, but now she's back in the Northwest to investigate this "bubble" she keeps hearing about. She played for Northwestern Gungho, two seasons with Chicago Nemesis, and now plays for Seattle Underground. Katie serves as Ultiworld's Women's D1 College Editor, and is damn proud to cover women's ultimate. You can reach her by email ([email protected]) or on Twitter (@kraynolds90).

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