PoNY and Sockeye went back and forth in a semifinal Saturday tone-setter.
October 21, 2018 by Patrick Stegemoeller in Recap with 0 comments
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Battle. Struggle. Showdown. These are all correct descriptors for the semifinal game between PoNY and Sockeye at Nationals on Saturday morning, but not the most accurate. This semifinal was a test. A test of the two team’s greatest strengths. A test of their ability to play in a cauldron of noise and emotions. A test of the game’s ability to bear the strain of two teams scrapping to create any advantage in a self-officiated sport.
PoNY passed this latest test, the one that mattered most for their title chances, beating Sockeye 12-11 on double game point in an inch-tight affair featuring only three breaks between the two teams.
The fresh cool of the early morning ocean breeze was quickly burnt away by the sun, hanging heavy over the fields even at 10:00 AM. Sockeye warmed up with a quiet intensity. Some players were locked into their headphones, others gave silent gestures of support with nods and hand daps. It was the focus they had displayed all tournament, and really all season. This was a business trip. PoNY, with a louder support section despite the coastal travel, was looser before the game, bantering and joking with each other.
Sockeye, in their matte whites, pulled off to ignite the game. Good pull coverage forced PoNY to work laterally, using physicality to hassle the offenders, but Sean Keegan was able to wriggle free downfield. He worked the disc to Mickle, who hit Kocher with flick over the top. Mickle to Kocher has been the recipe for so much of PoNY’s success all season and they went to that safety blanket early.
Sockeye weren’t afraid to be a little more flexible with their deep roster, and gave some young players big roles. Rookie Xander Cuizon-Tice got plenty of run on the O-line playing in the biggest game of his young career and made an impact early, finding space over the top of PoNY’s pressure to make it 2-2.
A new unit of defenders came down for Sockeye and PoNY’s offense committed its first turn of the day in the teeth face of the hungry line. Sockeye blew the chance, one of the few they would get, when Mitch Kulczak sent a huck out of the back of the end zone. PoNY’s offense had to grind the full length of the field and Sockeye gave away nothing easy, but finally Christian Foster allowed a tiny cushion in the back corner of the end zone to shadow the front cone and Chris Kocher made him pay by lasering a flick to Sean Keegan for the goal.
Sockeye quickly replied and for the third straight O-point beat New York’s defense over the top. Once the disc worked up to power position on the force side, Dylan Freechild made a vicious juke cut from the middle of the field, leaving Mike Drost stuck to the spot as Freechild burned deep to make the score 3-3.
PoNY’s defense started to ramp up the physicality to match Seattle’s, and Sockeye responded in kind. “They put pressure on our cuts all over the field,” said PoNY’s Chris Kocher. “They did a good job pushing us out of pull plays and then locking into a tight person. It was a level of defense we hadn’t seen yet.”
As the gears of the offenses ground against the physical defensive pressure, the game produced an exhaust of calls. Virtually every point in the first half included multiple travels, picks, and violations. Both teams refused to give an inch in their play, but insisted on receiving enough space for the rulebook.
A contested foul after Christian Foster body-checked Ben Jagt in the end zone sent the disc back for PoNY, and an uncharacteristic turf on a throw from Sam Little gave Sockeye the disc. Long time Sockeye mainstays Sam Harkness and BJ Sefton combined for the break that gave Sockeye a 5-4 lead.
Neither team could find the recipe for disrupting the opponent’s offense for the rest of the half. Conrad Schloer had played a great game against Kurt Gibson in quarterfinals, but couldn’t put the same leash on Freechild. On the other side of the disc, Kocher found enough open space to keep the disc moving upfield, and Ben Jagt kept Seattle’s defenders awake in the deep space.
With the score tied 7-7, PoNY loaded up their D-line for the first time looking to break for half. Sockeye was able to work the disc to the break sideline and Dillon put a loopy outside-in backhand up the line into the end zone. Matt Rehder had a step on Beau Kittredge, who stumbled and seemed to lose the disc in the sun. Beau wrapped up and all but tackled Rehder as he came down with the disc for the goal. Rehder howled. Beau got a PMF as Sockeye took half up two breaks.
PoNY had faced a lot of adversity at Nationals before this point. They dropped a game in pool play, and trailed Machine 7-3 in their quarters match before making a rousing comeback.
“We were confident because we were in a similar spot yesterday,” said Kocher. “We talked about how we were never down four in this game, and that feels good.”
“We knew we could do it,” said PoNY coach Bryan Jones. “We knew we would get chances. It was just a matter of how many could we cash in.”
As they have all weekend, PoNY responded. Coming out of half, the defense found a new gear and picked up on Sockeye’s formation switches without a hitch. Schloer got the first block of the point, Joshua Stevens-Stein got the second, and Kittredge found Ben Katz for New York’s first break of the game. PoNY wouldn’t need to wait long for the second, as they got it on the next point.
Seattle’s offense looked noticeably tighter, and Dylan Freechild put slightly too much bend on an OI flick huck. It was perhaps the only mistake Freechild made in an otherwise sterling game, but, as the disc tailed just out of the reach of Xander Cuizon-Tice, PoNY made it clear that he would pay for it. Confidently working down the field, New York put the break in when Ben Jagt found the soft spot in a switch at the front of the end zone.
With the score 9-8 and the game back on serve, PoNY’s offense was now under the spotlight. At 10-10 Sockeye almost got a break back, but Ben Jagt made the catch of the game, taking the elevator to the top floor before crashing down on a pile of players. The disc came loose and ended up on the ground, but the observers judged that Jagt had stopped rotation and Trent Dillon taking out his legs caused the disc to get stripped by Kocher. “Trent’s a great defender, but I think that’s a pretty clear foul call,” said PoNY captain Isaac Saul after the game. “If he doesn’t contact Jagt, then Jagt comes down with it clean. I’m definitely excited to see the replay because it was insane.”
Goal PoNY, up 11-10, game to 12.
Sockeye’s offense was still looking a little rattled as PoNY pulled to win, and it gave New York the chance to do just that. But with the game on the line, Sockeye clamped down on defense and forced a turn when Beau Kittredge couldn’t find a target and threw a swing pass to no one. Freechild initiated a fast break and Matt Rehder dished for his fifth assist of the game to send the contest to double game point.
With both teams facing elimination at the end of a fiery, taxing game, the final point was played in a near deafening tunnel of noise as the entire field complex had gathered around the field, amplifying the roar the players had been building all game. Sockeye’s defense was perfect. PoNY’s offense was perfect. In ultimate, perfect offense wins. Every window that PoNY needed to squeeze a disc into was tight — a swing over the back shoulder of the handler cover or a shallow inside throw in between a poach and an outside shoulder defender – but they hit them all. Freechild was marking up on Jimmy Mickle and didn’t give him anything, making PoNY hit increasingly difficult resets to get their big man involved.
With the disc ten yards out, Freechild sealed Mickle out of the play and Kocher, PoNY’s downfield release valve, was muddled in the stack. Sam Little had the disc and the stall count was rising as Matt Russell shut down his looks on the mark. Harper Garvey flashed into the shallow break lane and Russell shifted over to take it away. He lingered for a split second too long, and Little delivered an around flick to Garvey who finished his cut hard to the small corner of endzone break space.
The sideline roar died for the amount of time it took everyone present to realize the game had just ended. Then, sound came rushing back and the field was flooded with PoNY players and fans roaring in joy. PoNY wasn’t quite celebrating like they had won a title, but they were clearly reveling in the moment.
As PoNY rejoiced, Sockeye trickled off the field. The contest had taken a lot out of them and while their season had redeemed last year’s pool play disaster, losing such a tight emotional game was disheartening. “It sucks to lose in the semis when you have so much more to grow,” said Rehder after the game. “Rough loss. Rough loss, but all around great season.”
Seattle had flexed their depth throughout the game, but it wasn’t quite enough to top PoNY’s headline players. “The best quality of our team was our depth. That was our advantage we had to leverage,” said Sockeye coach David Hogan after the game. “Sucks that the game went to soft cap and didn’t get to 15 because I feel a lot better about three more points, us getting a break on one of those.”
The lasting image of the game was Dylan Freechild, who had just felt the best season of his career end, bear hugging his longtime friend Jimmy Mickle, a man largely responsible for ending it. Salving his pain and drying his tears in his ex-teammate’s embrace, Freechild showed how much each team had put into the game, and the challenge of putting it all back together once the game ended.
“We talked about how we didn’t want to wait another year to come back and play this game again,” said an elated Jones after the game.
PoNY will have a day to regroup and attempt to channel their emotions into the final against Revolver. Sockeye will have a whole season to channel their frustration into getting one point better for next season.