Washington D.C. Scandal used major roster turnover to their advantage this season.
October 17, 2018 by Daniel Prentice in Profile with 0 comments
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After a couple seasons of hanging onto the less-than-coveted honor of being the fifth best team in the division, Washington D.C. Scandal took a slight step back last season. The team needed a double game point win over first-time Nationals attendees, Toronto 6ixers, in prequarters to return to quarterfinals and ended up taking seventh place–their worst finish since 2011. Then news broke that two players that had been on the team since 2009, and had been vital in the team’s rise to the top of the division, were leaving the club: Jenny Fey and Sandy Jorgensen.
The 2017 team was built around Fey and Jorgensen and their departures left two sizable holes on the roster. But nine other members departed that offseason, leaving a crater in a team that was already trending downwards. Then again, Scandal had already been overachieving since their back-to-back championships of 2013 and 2014. They suffered massive roster turnover between 2014 and 2015, too, and they did well to evolve into the next best team outside of the top four upon falling out of that group of consistent semifinals qualifiers. 2018 threatened to bump Scandal down a tier once again, this time back into the middle of the Nationals teams pack. With their two most recognizable players gone and 37 combined years of team experience lost, Scandal seemed poised to struggle, at least in relation to their own illustrative history.
Instead, #5 Washington DC Scandal are better than they were a year ago. They’re the no. 5 seed at Nationals for the third consecutive season and still have struggled to get that big, meaningful win against any of the teams in the top four. But they looked the strongest they have in years at Pro Championships and are ready to defy expectations once again at Nationals. The team has steadily progressed over the course of the season thanks to a robust rookie class and reworked schemes. When it looked like Scandal was on the way out, they came back stronger.
Filling the Gaps
Every team suffers attrition from season to season. Most departures come from supporting players and depth, but superstars leave too. Whether they retire or take a year off, move cities or switch divisions, team pillars do leave. When that happens, new players come in to fill the gaps, or veterans step up into bigger roles. But Scandal didn’t lose just Jenny Fey and Sandy Jorgensen; they lost 11 players from the 2017 roster.
To put that number in perspective, when Scandal suffered the roster upheaval that saw them fall from back to back champions to a perennial quarterfinals team, 12 players left the club. Such extreme turnover generally changes the entire outlook for a club. For Scandal, it knocked them down a tier within the division. There was reasonable concern that could happen again this time around.
“Every year there are rumors of people retiring or leaving and we try not to let that affect us during the season, but in the offseason, we meet in December to go through the season and see what everyone’s commitment level is for the next season. I think that’s when it really sunk in that this team is going to be a lot different and it was a lot of trying not to panic,” said first year captain Amy Zhou.
“I was a little bit worried. I was like, ‘Oh no, is this the year that Scandal goes downhill?,” Zhou said. “As a captain, you feel a little bit of responsibility for that. So I was definitely nervous that Scandal would crumble and be partially my fault.”
Zhou is in her third year with the team and was part of the rookie class that came in after the roster turnover of 2016. So she wasn’t as accustomed to such transition as some of Scandal’s more veteran presences. But even for Zhou, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. “When you have Sandy and Jenny and all those players, you’re obviously going to work your system around them,” she explained. “So when we found out that they were leaving, it was a lot of ‘Oh crap, what’s going to happen?’ But also trusting in the team and [head coach Alex] ‘Dutchy’ [Ghesquiere] that he’d be able to find out the best way to get a maximum output of the people who were here.”
To Ghesquiere’s credit, he didn’t share much of Zhou’s concern at all. He’s been through the process of reshaping a team plenty of times before and he’s enjoyed the opportunity to mold new systems for a new group of players.
“I’m kind of used to it. Something I remember from coaching [California], every year as a college coach, you would always just be losing the best players,” said Ghesquiere. “You’re going to have to grow new players to fill those roles…every year. I was always surprised and pleased…how young players grew up into the roles that were vacated and how they stepped up and played well, and took on that responsibility and really carried the team. and it’s been the same [with Scandal.] It’s always a rewarding, and exciting process to go through.”
Molly Roy, now one of just two players left from Fey and Jorgensen’s rookie class, shared a similar sentiment. She was sad that her friends weren’t on the team this year, but otherwise felt like the roster change was part of the norm. “Scandal’s just a team that’s so transient; it has so much turnover,” she said. “It’s a bummer but it’s also part of being one of the oldest running players on the team. You see a lot of people come and go, but you kind of see every year as a new year, kind of get used to it.”
Scandal was a team in turmoil this offseason. There was genuine worry that the losses from last year’s team would be a major setback for the club. But there was also a sense that there was nothing different about 2018. Scandal had been through all this before. Ghesquiere and the team leadership were going to get the best players available and then work that team into the best unit it could be. The losses were severe, but if any team was prepared to weather this type of upheaval, it was Scandal.
Rookies to the Rescue
What’s the first step when recovering from an 11 player shakeup? Enter: reinforcements.
Kath Ratcliff returned to the team after a one year absence; Lauren Allen and Caroline Tornquist came over from DC’s second women’s team, Grit; Michelle Carey and Kelly Ross joined from the DC mixed scene; and Danielle Byers, Laurel Oldershaw, Lindsay Soo, Edith Teng, and Verena Woloson joined from other cities. It was a major recruiting effort all around the Mid-Atlantic area that was bolstered by the improvement of women’s ultimate in the area over the last few years.
The influence Scandal’s rookies have had on the team’s successes cannot be overstated. The rookie class, the biggest ever, said Ghesquiere, has taken differing amounts of time to settle into their roles, but they’ve all had their impacts. Several of them play major minutes on the O-line or D-line or both. Ross leads the team in points,1 with 24 goals and 19 assists. Allen is tied for fourth on the team with 16 goals. Soo is a two-way playmaker; Oldershaw is one of the team’s most dangerous under cutters; Byers emerged as a formidable deep threat just before incurring a season-ending knee injury. Scandal’s rookies have been some of their best and most important players this season.
Zhou agreed. “Our rookie class is a huge part of our success this year. They are,” she said. “They come in and they’re playing with all the confidence in the world and looking like they’d been playing elite ultimate their entire lives. It’s pretty incredible.”
The level of involvement the team’s rookies have had is uncommon for a club of Scandal’s caliber, but as Roy pointed out, the team’s dependence was borne out of necessity. “When you have a really big rookie class, it’s just [that] the odds are greater that they’re going to have a bigger impact,” said the veteran. “The more of them there are, the more we have to rely on all of them. If there was only a couple, it’s easier to be like, ‘Okay you’re like learning our system’ but when you have nine, it’s like, ‘You’re a massive chunk of the team.’ We better integrate everyone or there’s not very many people who can play.”
The sheer need for bodies may have dictated the number of rookies getting significant reps for Scandal this year, but they’ve risen to the challenge, too. Allen, one of the true D.C. products—having started her career at Georgetown and played on D.C. Grit for the previous two seasons—spoke on the pressure the rookies felt in helping to maintain Scandal’s caliber of play. “The difference in last year’s team and this year’s team is us and so you want the team to do well because you know you’re kind of part of the personality change that is really going to define you know the difference in performance,” she said.
But the rookies have also done a nice job–and the leadership has done a nice job in this regard as well– of not trying to really replace the players that left the team the year before. “On any team, there’s pressure to do your best and to contribute positively,” said Allen. “I don’t think that the players leaving really contributed to that pressure. None of the rookies are going to compare themselves to Jenny Fey, and think that we have to live up to Jenny Fey and Sandy Jorgensen. Sandy Jorgensen would burn me down the field every time no matter how hard I wanted, so I don’t think it’s a matter so much of trying to fill those holes.”
The production from Scandal’s rookies has been impressive. The way Ghesquiere has crafted the team to suit the new players has certainly played a role in that, but the way the rookies have lived up to the stage of being on a team like Scandal has also defied expectations. They’ve helped forge the 2018 Scandal identity from the ashes of the 2017 team, and Scandal wouldn’t have had the season they’ve had without them.
The rookie class isn’t the only thing different about Scandal this year. They’ve reworked their offensive and defensive systems to maximize their current roster. The 2017 offense built around Jenny Fey’s handling abilities was more stagnant and reliant on her elite throwing. This year the team doesn’t have that pivotal center handler. Instead they use quicker disc movement, more fluidity from their handlers, and share more of the throwing burden across the entire line.
In this clip from Scandal’s quarterfinal win over Toronto 6ixers at the Pro Championships, handler Jessie O’Connor catches the pull and centers to Ratcliff. O’Connor gets it back and immediately begins a give-and-go with Roy. Quick disc movement again from O’Connor initiates a move that ends with Ross catching an under and jacking a backhand to Casey Gorman.
Contrast that with a clip from 2017: Scandal’s pool play loss to San Francisco Fury at Club Nationals. Fey touches the disc every other throw, but it’s primarily from stationary positions. The disc stays in her hands for several seconds without looking to reset, and she eventually puts up a huck that Gorman misreads and can’t recover to save. Scandal was far from their best in that Fury game, but the offense’s reliance on Fey as the singular center piece is evident.
Defensively Scandal has had to play more team-oriented ultimate, as well. Jorgensen was an eraser in the deep space and the team built their defense to funnel long throws for her to gobble up. This year they didn’t have the luxury of having that safety net back there and had to change the way they challenged offenses.
These two clips, both from Scandal’s U.S. Open win over Japan MUD last year, both show Jorgensen’s penchant for staying in the deep space. The first shows her pulling off her mark to return to the deep space while the rest of the team is playing matchup defense. The second shows the rest of the team mostly guarding the unders while Jorgensen, off-screen for most of the clip, is responsible for the deep space.
This year Scandal has done much more sagging in the lanes, forcing handlers to throw the disc sideways as much as possible. Against Ozone during Pro Championships, the defense initiates in two horizontal lines, the back line waiting for the cutters to come to them, while the handler defenders begin to work together to keep the disc in the Ozone backfield, trying to force a short field turnover. Ozone worked the disc between the handlers successfully and ended up scoring on the point, but the difference in the defensive attack from a year ago is obvious.
Scandal had to readjust their systems from relying on a couple of players for a lot of the the plays to distributing that responsibility more evenly, on both sides of the disc. Scandal is a deeper team this season and that’s why they’ve been able to find the successes they have despite the key losses from a season ago.
“On defense we would play our typical zone defense and even if the zone defense didn’t work a lot of the time, someone would just throw deep and Sandy would make an incredible play and bail us out and so the process didn’t really work, but the outcome worked,” said Zhou. “There was no reason to change it at the time, but this year I think everyone feels a lot more responsibility to do their part because there is no Sandy or Jenny to make an incredible play to bail you out. It’s everyone needing to do their part because they have to now.”
With the volume of new players and new systems, it did take Scandal some time for them to feel things out. The early stages of the season included some flawed performances and underwhelming results. Narrow wins over teams they traditionally handled with ease suggested that Scandal may have indeed fallen closer to the middle of the Nationals team pack. A 15-3 destruction at the hands of Boston Brute Squad to start their U.S. Open campaign felt like another indication that the predictions of Scandal’s demise were coming true.
But U.S. Open also featured the turning point of Scandal’s season. They quickly rebounded from the Brute Squad loss to win the rest of their pool play games. Their 12-8 win upset win over #7 Atlanta Ozone to steal a semis spot was the moment that felt like an emphatic announcement that Scandal were still Scandal. The game was high stakes, for a chance to keep their competitive tournament alive. The result came at the expense of the team that was supposed to usurp Scandal as the big four’s toughest challenger. That made the win feel bigger than the result itself. It was a statement.
Scandal then built on their U.S. Open performance at Pro Champs, where they went undefeated up to the final. They played the same Brute Squad team they’d lost to 15-3 exactly one month prior. They were right with Brute for the first half, taking a one break advantage at point, and really were with the Boston club for the entire game until two breaks on the final two points gave Brute Squad the 15-10 win.
It was the cap to an incline of steady improvement from where Scandal had been at the start season, and their closing argument that they hadn’t gone anywhere, at least before Nationals. Despite all the roster turnover, Scandal is still that number five team, and maybe more apt to take on the top four than they were a season ago.
For Ghesquiere, the early season bumps were simply part of the process: “It’s sort of perverse, but it’s nice to have a lot of problems early in the season to fix. So you kind of have your menu of problems to solve right off of the bat at the after the first tournament and then you go diligently into practice after practice identifying a problem and solving a problem, and identifying a problem and solving a problem. You do that long enough and your list of problems gets a lot shorter. And you start to do little things more consistently. Our defenses don’t have holes in them as often. Our offensive sets, our handler sets, or endzone sets, all of them, just run a little bit more coherently. And we’re all sort of on the same page.”
Ghesquiere was able to treat this season like any other, despite how different it seemed it would be from the outside. As a result, Scandal is right where they’ve been the last few years: knocking on the door of the top four. Even from inside the team, though, Scandal’s consistency hasn’t been an entirely predictable outcome from year to year. “I didn’t know it was gonna happen. We’ve had years where we’ve had this much turnover when I’ve been on the team, and it’s always just a big question mark as the season comes up,” said Roy. “It is kind of wild to me that we have had a lot of turn over the years and…stayed in this no. 5 seed spot. It’s been really interesting because I feel like I started out a lot of seasons being like, ‘I have no idea where we’re going to end up.’ We always just tended to end in the same spot.”
Scandal has proven this season that they shouldn’t be doubted, no matter how many players leave or how important they are. They’ve found the recipe for staying right near the top of the division, but this year defied expectations more emphatically than they have in years past. If they maintain their line of improvement of this season, then they are poised to defy expectations once more at Nationals.
Based on USA Ultimate’s statkeeping at Pro-Elite Challenge, U.S. Open, and Pro Championships. ↩