Texas will be hoping to assert their title credentials early by topping Pool D.
May 23, 2017 by Katie Raynolds in Preview with 3 comments
Ultiworld’s reporting on the Women’s 2017 D-I College Championships 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!
The year may change, but the death pool rarely does. Once again, Pool D pits some of the division’s strongest teams against each other in pool play. In 2016, Whitman upset Central Florida to take the top spot. In 2015, Virginia was the no. 2 seed who ended up earning the buy to quarters after upsetting Colorado.
This year, the upset contenders are the no. 2 seed British Columbia Thunderbirds and the no. 3 seed California Pie Queens. Their target is Texas Melee. Texas’ wins against each team shouldn’t make them feel safe; California has improved a lot since Presidents’ Day, and UBC only lost by two points when these teams met at Stanford Invite.
With North Carolina and Connecticut completing the pool, this year’s Pool D promises to deliver enough close games and drama for the entire tournament.
Seeding: D1, Overall #4
Power Ranking: #1
Overall Record: 28-4
Against the Nationals Field: 12-4
Against the Pool: 1-0 vs. British Columbia, 1-0 vs. California
Key Matchup: British Columbia, 4:30 PM Friday
Texas Melee is used to being the underdog at Nationals. But after a dominant regular season, their spot at the top of Pool D makes them the biggest target at the tournament.
For the first time in the modern ultimate era, Texas Melee has a real chance at breaking into the semifinals and potentially the final. They have played in four tournament finals already this season, going toe-to-toe with the division’s toughest teams and emerging even tougher.1
Every final appearance and elite-level victory this season is really just a big, bold underline below their first upset over Stanford at Presidents’ Day Invite. The infamous game debuted a new, more lethal iteration of the play style Texas has developed over the past four years. They play quick, deep ultimate that denies opponents the chance to take stock of what’s happening. It’s no coincidence that two of their four total losses this year were to UCLA, a team with one of the best zones and the best deep deeps in the division.
Texas’ deep-rooted chemistry complements their gritty brand of defense and their veterans have spent many seasons learning how to win big games together. Handlers Shiru Liu, Dre Esparza, and Domenica Sutherland heavily favor upline cuts and quick give-and-go passes as they scope out power position opportunities. Sutherland will tackle teams’ toughest matchups throughout pool play, which could give fans the chance to watch Sutherland vs. UBC’s Ellen Au-Yeung, California’s Anna Wysen, or UNC’s Jenny Wei. Cutters Marissa Land and Gabrielle Cuina grind on under cuts and let Julia Schmaltz roam free in the deep space.
Texas edged out UBC once already this season at Stanford Invite in a closely contested game, and Schmaltz will prove useful again in the deep space. The Thunderbirds struggled this season to contain teams’ deep threats, and Schmaltz is one of the best in the division.
Texas also beat California handily at Presidents’ Day Invite, but they know that the rematch won’t be so easy:
“We’re very excited to play Cal again,” the Texas captain wrote to Ultiworld. “The last time we matched up against them was early in the season at Pres Day, so we expect them to look a little different. Cal proved themselves to be a strong team over the course of the season and they always play with a high level of energy.”
Texas spent the regular season proving why they deserve to be in top five conversations, but the final test will come during pool play. If they can survive Pool D, there’s no telling how high they could go.
British Columbia Thunderbirds
Seeding: D2, Overall #5
Power Ranking: #10
Overall Record: 19-5
Against the Nationals Field: 8-4
Against the Pool: 0-1 vs. Texas, 1-0 vs. North Carolina
Key Matchup: California, 12:30 PM Saturday
Watching the British Columbia Thunderbirds compete in 2017, it’s hard to tell that they graduated one of the best players in the division last year. Four of their five losses are to teams in the top ten at Nationals,2 and their smart defense has taken down the likes of Stanford, UCLA, and Colorado this year.
Their play style hasn’t changed in 2017. UBC remains quick, skilled, and smart. But the absence of Mira Donaldson highlights how deep and efficient this team always was. The Thunderbirds consistently do the little things right. Handlers and cutters break the mark easily, they cut to create space, they catch with two hands. Sound simple? It’s not for many top teams. When UBC puts all the pieces together, their ultimate is classic and tough to challenge.
Ellen Au-Yeung is a known commodity for the Thunderbirds, but the hard work done by cutters Naomi Morcilla, Julia Zhang, and Joanna Lo make the team’s offense possible. Their D-line relies on an agile zone to earn turns, and then they fast break, ripping through the inside break space to open the field.
While the Thunderbirds have their sights set on upsetting Texas early on Saturday, their real challenge will be keeping the California Pie Queens at bay. These teams have somehow not played each other in more than four seasons, yet on Saturday they will be jockeying for position to land an easier quarterfinal game. California, like Texas and Whitman, loves their deep game. UBC has some adjustments to make to their deep defense in order to survive this stacked pool.
California Pie Queens
Seeding: D3, Overall #9
Power Ranking: #7
Overall Record: 25-12
Against the Nationals Field: 7-9
Against the Pool: 0-1 vs. Texas, 1-0 vs. North Carolina
Key Matchup: Texas, 8:30 AM Saturday
The most dangerous thing about California as the No. 3 seed is that nobody has seen their best ultimate yet. The Pie Queens spent the season building to peak at Nationals, and they have looked more lethal with every tournament. California reached the final of Santa Barbara Invite early in the season, where Stanford trounced them. At Presidents’ Day Invite and Stanford Invite they couldn’t break deep into the bracket, but their wins were good (Michigan, Oregon, Ohio State) and their losses close. They lost their two games at Northwest Challenge by a cumulative three points.
The Pie Queens threw a range of defenses already this season, but count on them saving a few tricks for Nationals. They’re 1-1 against their poolmates this spring, with a loss to Texas and a win over North Carolina. They haven’t played UBC in years, but count on the Pie Queens coming prepared. California coaches Manisha Daryani and Michaela Lee love to tailor the team’s strategy to fit the opponent, so count on them having big plans for everyone in their pool.
“Being a huge strategy team, our coaches have been doing a great job at prepping us for our pool in terms of emphasizing certain aspects of our game to take advantage of other teams,” wrote the Pie Queens captains. “We play best when we play Pie Queens ultimate — a great combination of super fun and super competitive ultimate.”
For all their strategy, this California team plays loose. They cultivate a playmaking culture that generates huge bids from cutters like Alison Griffith and Jackelyne Nguyen and gutsy throws from handlers Anna Wysen and Mackensie Smith. They push the pace on offense with long away throws and cutters who never stop moving.
Last year, California was upset from their third spot in Pool A by a surging Virginia. This weekend, the Pie Queens hope to take Virginia’s spot in that narrative. They are the most dangerous no. 3 seed in the tournament, and they know it.
North Carolina Pleiades
Seeding: D4, Overall #16
Power Ranking: #15
Overall Record: 22-8
Against the Nationals Field: 6-6
Against the Pool: 0-1 vs. British Columbia, 0-1 vs. California
Key Matchup: California, 12:30 PM Friday
North Carolina Pleiades returns to Nationals for the first time since 2012. This North Carolina team worked hard over the past few seasons to earn another bid for the Atlantic Coast region, but they kept coming up short when all the cards were on the table. This season, however, the stars aligned.
UNC picked up Lindsay Soo (All-Star Tour 2016) from Wake Forest University and her presence alongside Liz Parker brought Pleiades to a new level this season. Jenny Wei battled injuries for most of the spring, but when she’s healthy, she is the fire behind North Carolina’s defensive force.
The Pleiades broke out at Queen City Tune-Up with excellent wins over Minnesota, Ohio State, and Florida. They followed up on their debut by winning Commonwealth Cup and pocketing a win over no. 13 seed Pittsburgh and no. 3 seed Virginia. Injuries hobbled their performance at Northwest Challenge, but this weekend’s Pleiades are ready to make their presence felt.
“Breaking seed would feel very well-deserved for us,” said the UNC captains. “We are confident in our teammates and know that at our highest potential, we can accomplish anything together. We have already beat teams like UVA, Pitt, and Dartmouth and we know that with the right attitude, we can do it again!”
UNC has already played against UBC and California so far this season, though they lost 12-6 and 15-4 in those games, respectively. Jenny Wei returning from injury will make a difference, but it’s likely not enough to surge ahead in such a top-loaded pool.
“Making Nationals has been a big goal for Pleiades, so we are very excited to be in Cincinnati along with the other 19 best college teams in the nation,” wrote the UNC captains. “Our goals this year are to showcase the hard work we’ve put in not just this season, but rather our growth over the last few years. “
Seeding: D5, Overall #20
Power Rankings: Unranked
Overall Record: 24-4
Against the Nationals Field: 0-0
Against the Pool: 0-0
Key Matchup: North Carolina, 8:30 AM Saturday
In a way, the Connecticut Huskies are stepping into a long-held pattern at Nationals: in the modern college division, the Metro East qualifier for Nationals has always been the no. 20 seed. For UConn, however, the experience is entirely new: this is their first appearance at the College Championships.
“The feeling is still close to unreal for us,” wrote the UConn captains. “As a program rapidly growing by the year, our goal is always to progress, both with our individual skills and as a team… We feel proud to have this opportunity to not only watch top tier ultimate but also to play against it and show what we can bring to the table.”
Connecticut is a fast, tall, and plucky team who won’t hesitate to make big plays in the air. Marissa Aldieri is Connecticut’s first initiating look in their offense, and she’s able to turn and launch hucks to Montana Bertoli or Ariel Virgulto. Bertoli’s minutes may be limited this weekend — the team reports that she’ll be playing with a torn meniscus.
The Huskies’ goals this weekend are to play hard, play smart, and play composed. They’ll be in Cincinnati to have fun, but to build their program, too.
Their record in these finals is 1-3 ↩
The only exception being their Saturday loss to Whitman at Northwest Regionals. ↩