Style and substance.
October 16, 2017 by Robert Gough in Analysis with 0 comments
Ultiworld’s reporting on the Women’s division of the 2017 National Championships is presented by VC Ultimate as part of their year-long support of our women’s coverage. All opinions are those of the authors. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at VC Ultimate!
We all have vivid, lasting impressions of sports teams, past and present, that wowed and entertained us, that soared and succeeded (or flopped and failed) with style. Jordan’s Bulls, Pop’s Spurs, and countless hipster NBA teams; the unbeatable Fury of the late 2000’s, the small-ball Sockeye groups, the huck-and-D Oregon Fugue years. There’s a vast number of different teams in different sports for different people. Regardless of varying tastes, however, there’s one team croc-walking their way through the 2017 club season and grabbing every ultimate fan’s attention: Denver’s Molly Brown.
While the defense is headlined by 2016 College Player of the Year Jesse Shofner and features the same year’s best Callahan video star Hannah Leathers (out for the season after surgery to repair a torn labrum), it’s the team’s offense that has really made a stark impression on fans and opponents alike. This 2017 group features a totally different schematic system from 2016: instead of a vertical stack that allowed two of the best players on the planet, Claire Chastain and Opi Payne, to run the show, the new group shares the burden of success by rotating a group of players through various roles in a side or horizontal stack.
While the clean, efficient playing can seem uninteresting on the surface, this cast has constituted arguably the best offense in the sport this season. Littered with star athletes, many of which have been primary options on past club or college teams, the depth of overall ability allows for flexibility and threats at all levels.
Now, coming into Nationals as the third overall seed, they will face the best the country has to offer every game. Only the sky (and possibly the Sarasota wind) is the limit.
New Look Molly
The 2016 Denver team featured a stylistic offense with Chastain and Payne generally given the entire backfield to go to work, creating an almost unguardable pair of give-and-go handlers with explosive athleticism and massive throws. The rest of the line usually set-up in a vertical stack, which created huge pressure on defenses who had to commit to open side cuts downfield, but yielded half of the field for Chastain and Payne to shred their marks. If teams managed to bottle them up, then the handler duos would simply turn to each other and play catch, putting handler defenders on an island: either cut-off the striking cuts from those small-space actions, or take away the downfield break throw. You can’t reliably take away both options, and that’s where Molly Brown hit you hardest.
The group sputtered and fell to likely the best defense at Nationals in a semifinal against Brute Squad. It wasn’t the reliance on the top two players on offense that cost them, who almost definitely touched the disc more than anyone else in the tournament. Rather, it was Brute Squad’s non-reliance on a couple of stars, using instead a rotating cast of players to apply pressure and contribute all over the field, that edged Denver out. Additionally, Molly Brown used a pod-based system of line calling during the season, which meant players could and would play on both sides of the disc. When things got tough and the team needed to string together consecutive goals, lines could tighten and the high end players would work a lot more than others.
After a couple years of roster stability and growth, peaking in a Nationals semis loss, Molly Brown had one of the most active offseasons in terms of player movement. They lost a sizable group of contributors and impact players: Lindsey Cross, Ashley Daly Morgan, Crystal Davis, Dorothe Franklin, Payne, Tania Reitz, Tina Snodgrass, and Alicia White. White and Payne were especially big hits to the offense, as the two were easily in the top five on the team for touches.
Even with the departures, the 2017 offense featured five returners as primary pull play options: Paige Applegate, Chastain, Megan Cousins, Nhi Nguyen, and Lisa Pitcaithley. Other returners in the offensive rotation would be the versatile veteran Dena Slattery, handler Lauren Baecher, and combo cutter Lisi Lohre, who bounces between the offense and the defense.
But two key off-season additions would be the tools Denver needed to stretch their offense into a truly dangerous unit: cutter Liza Minor and handler Sarah Pesch. Minor, coming from Madison’s Heist and recovered from a recent knee injury, has turned into a goal scoring behemoth, and Pesch, a left-handed distributor, can attack with her throws in different spaces than others on the O-line.
Now, late in the season, the team has almost traded Megan Cousins for Nhi Nguyen on the injury front after Nguyen returned and Cousins suffered a season-ending ACL injury back in August. Nguyen, who turned in a remarkable seven goal performance in the semifinals of college nationals with Colorado’s Kali, is a young, athletic cutter, like Cousins, who has slotted in well with the offense so far.
Also, let’s not ignore the possibility of Manuela Cardenas, joining the roster for the series, popping into the line to be a fourth/fifth/sixth option. A player of her caliber, with her athletic profile, allowed to operate as a cog in a well-oiled machine, is frightening.
“I’d say this line is a bit more versatile with more throwing depth than last year,” said Chastain.
Coach Joe Durst breaks down the offense in just a couple notes: “last year: 4 pods—2 cutter 2 handler. used in specific scenarios, but no true o/lines. This year: full o/d lines with very little crossover. 2 true handlers, 2 true cutters; the rest are mids. [We’re] trying for versatility. Side-stack, into [horizontal] stack, into vert stack.”
But let’s dig into how they give their players opportunities to play within themselves, to take shots if they have them, to attack the right spaces, and to simply succeed.
Pull Plays & Offensive Progression
In the spirit of versatility, Molly Brown loves to rotate players within their pull play structures. They’ll feature different players in isolation from point to point, and they’ll throw a couple different handlers out to bring down the pull and receive the centering pass. The one true exception to this rule is Applegate, who the team uniformly trusts to start things off. While other handlers like Chastain, Baecher, and Pesch might start in the stack, Applegate is always touching the disc first, either from the pull or immediately after. Her ability to reliably break the mark and make good choices with the disc makes her the perfect opening role player. It’s clear that Denver wants to generate the real downfield threats from motion and from cutters, so Applegate isn’t launching hucks or shredding zones in this role; she simply pushes the snowball down the hill, and then the snowball builds.
And, really, that seems to be a theme of their offense. In 2016, the team embraced the throwing creativity of Chastain and Payne, frequently trying to fast-break and reach for cutters downfield early and often. Now, what stands out is the group’s selective shot-taking and preference to stretch the defense across the field and build small advantages to build upon until the defense just can’t maintain and contain. Their pull plays frequently lead to an 8-10 pass possession, the disc rarely hitting the same player twice, save Chastain or Applegate.
That doesn’t mean that this team doesn’t have some punch. There’s a lot of big-play and big-throw potential.
“With the depth of throwing skill, everyone can take their shot–by this time we all know what a good deep shot for each person on the line looks like,” said Durst.
This is shown best by the downfield combination of Minor and Pitcaithley, which has proven to be just as potent as everyone thought it could. Pitcaithley is one of the most dangerous do-it-all cutters in the game: her length and long strides making her a threat cutting away from the disc, and her elite vision and ability to throw hucks on either side with touch makes her a threat underneath. Having Pitcaithley come out of a side-stack first gives her room to make space in any direction with success. If Chastain starts with the disc, a one-throw possession is definitely in play:
If Pictaithley comes under, she’s got a hairpin trigger flick huck that could be the most threatening tool on the roster. Minor is usually following her out of the stack, looking to continue in either direction as well. Minor has claimed the deep cutting space as her own this season, often operating so far down there that even good camera angles typically lose track of her. Through a combination of timing, anticipation, and raw speed, Molly Brown seemingly always has a look at Minor for the end zone.
While out of view, Minor shows good timing and a better knowledge of Pitcaithley’s throwing potential, starting and staying deep.
That’s maybe the most exciting one-two punch in any of their lineups, but even when it’s hot, Denver keeps its cast rotating, testing every matchup you throw at them. Putting an elite defender on Minor or Pitcaithley might mean that your best defenders are standing still while those two chill out in the stack, while Lohre, Slattery, or Nguyen pick you apart.
Nhi Nguyen, who works best cutting with expert and reliable timing, shows she can make the explosive plays, too.
Lohre, typically found first out of the stack as a mid, can threaten any level.
When the huck looks aren’t great, and the disc is bouncing from player to player, sideline to sideline, the team falls into a vertical stack as soon as they can sniff the end zone. Just as their side-stack pull play, the orientation and implementation are simple; there’s no tricks or twists to create advantages. Rather, it’s the spaces that the team prioritizes and the small-ball movements that apply pressure to the defense. If one side of the field gets closed down, they’ll race you to the other, bending the defense as a unit, until a bough breaks.
Here, in a game against Japan’s MUD, who love to throw funky, poachy defenses at you, breaking through the final couple of yards into the endzone was time consuming and strenuous. It stretched and slowed Molly’s attack, but couldn’t contain it forever:
Watch how the white jerseys eventually glob up into a pretty small space, which is when Molly Brown will attack the newly vacant space.
Once things start shifting around, Denver loves to hit the weak side of the field with an arching outside-in pass around or over the stack, using the momentum of the disc and the defense as a weapon:
And if it wasn’t clear from the previous clips, the red zone is where Claire Chastain makes her money. Her abilities as a handler force marks to respect and defend her throws to the break side, giving her windows to build advantages. Watch how much Brute Squad’s Lauren Sadler, a Worlds caliber defender, has to move and adjust to stop all of the threats Chastain presents:
Sadler does a good job containing Chastain, and only gives up an open side throw, but Chastain creates separation on the mark and makes Sadler work really hard, while Claire attacks what is given with smooth, subtle moves.
Easily the teams’ best small-space cutter, Chastain has a bevy of hesitation moves and a knack for attacking the hips of her marks that allow her to get open at any moment:
See how Chastain pumps the breaks early in her cut. If the defender reorients their hips in response, she’ll hit you hard to a space you are no longer prepared to stop.
As long-time coach Lou Burruss once said, there is a “small and simple thing that separates the great teams from all the rest: they threw to open people.” When Denver is moving the disc quickly, building pressure and tension for the defense, their game is really hard to beat. But it’s not impossible. There are moments that feel a bit like ‘hero ball’, and players will lock onto the endzone, or get too choosy with their throwing selections to try and wait for something better. It can take form in a redzone possession when players really want to score:
Molly moves diagonally to one side of the field to Minor right near the goal line. After looking off the initial continue option, Minor waits for another goal-scoring cut to come. Without looking to swing the disc, the front of the stack, where a reset would come from, remains idle, waiting for the acknowledgement from Minor to initiate a move. You can see Baecher and Chastain standing idle, by design, on the right-hand side. Molly Brown wants to attack the entire width of the field, as seen in the previous clips above, but that doesn’t happen here. The result: a tight-window throw that is well guarded, despite a great effort from Lohre.
Picky throw selection can be by design of the defense, as well. Check out this junky, no-mark defense from MUD after a wonderful pull:
While wonky and unfamiliar, the defense by MUD gave plenty of space for a couple of easy throws that, while not gaining yards or any measurable advantages, would have still gotten the disc moving and off the sideline.
There wasn’t too much zone thrown by opposing teams in filmed games, and maybe some other junky defensive sets can be a disruption to this typically efficient group. As with any team, taking away Denver’s preferred options and making them choose throws and spaces they don’t prefer is a good start to earning a turnover. Though, if you are so lucky, Chastain is an elite defensive playmaker, and others on the line (particularly Minor and Pitcaithley) are strong defenders and plenty capable of earning the disc back to avoid a break.
And, really, that’s it. Surrounding all of the talent and excitement is a pretty basic offensive structure. When things go well, no one has to reach for players deep, no one has to run the show, and no one has to follow complex guidelines. “The system is fairly standard,” says Chastain. “[We’re] just trying to execute it better than everyone.”
The combination of unique, powerful players — many of them their college’s Callahan nominees who have experience being do-it-all players — means the team can run old-school systems with a new-school vibe. Or, maybe that’s the mustaches.
When asked where the team’s style and swagger came from, the captains gave a simple response: Lisa P.
Beyond the field, Molly Brown has been engaging: whether it’s showing up on the ESPN live-stream in a high-profile finals game wearing those mustaches, earning themselves a Crocs sponsorship and rocking a team-wide all-white look, or using their own personal voices on social media to contribute to conversations that reach the wider community. The entire team, offense and defense, has an undeniable cohesion, even if it is a little…weird.
“I think Molly Brown has a history of embracing the Molly Weird that resides in each teammate,” said Miller. “This team is one where it’s just as easy to be bold, confident, and silly as it is to break down and be vulnerable because you know that your teammates will be there for you.”
Bold, confident, and silly, Molly Brown has already left an impression on the ultimate community. Winning a championship would be the cherry on top.