Five years after their 7-title streak ended, Fury is back to stringing titles together in signature fashion.
November 5, 2018 by Nina Horowitz in Analysis, Opinion with 0 comments
Ultiworld’s coverage of the 2018 Women’s Division is presented by VC Ultimate; all opinions are those of the authors. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at VC Ultimate!
This year, two of the best teams in the country lost in the final of Nationals to teams that were considered underdogs, but who had world-class coaching staffs, played “junk” defense, and clearly had adapted well enough to shut down their opponents’ standard options. Fury is now the most successful team in the modern era of USA Ultimate (and perhaps ever), with eleven plaques on the bent trophy since 1999 — a record that is sure to stand for years to come.
Aside from Nationals, Fury hasn’t won a Triple Crown Tour event in either of the last two years. They also had a disappointing finish at WUCC this year and lost games to Denver Molly Brown, Seattle Riot, and Boston Brute Squad during the regular season. On a larger scale, the team had only won Nationals once in the past five seasons (and only by a single point) after winning it each of the seven years before that. So how is it that a team with a less than perfect record was able to take down the previously undefeated Brute Squad for the second year in a row? The answer is multifaceted: a united team, an adjustable set of defensive systems, elite and confident athletes, and incredible coaching.
The first factor driving Fury’s success is their style of play: they are confident, focused, and unafraid to take risks. Their bold style of play works well over the course of a full season, even if it doesn’t win them every game leading up to Nationals. When the time comes to get something done, they get it done with discipline and what seems like sheer force of will. Their penultimate game of the 2018 season is a perfect example of this.
On the night of the semifinals this year, things weren’t looking good for Fury. They were down 8-5 at halftime against rivals and the defending Club World champions, Seattle Riot, and needed to make an unlikely comeback to win the game and advance to the final. Luckily, this is a position they had been in before—they came back from an 8-5 deficit in the 2017 National final to beat Brute and win their tenth championship. They knew what they had to do and they came out of half with a vengeance. Rattling off five breaks in a row, they took a two-point lead and rode it all the way to a 14-13 victory.
When a big game is going poorly or a chance at a title is on the line, mental discipline is a requirement. Fury has proven that they have the necessary mindset to grind through tough situations time and time again. They did not get broken in the second half of the final game in 2017 or 2018, and they only got broken once in the second half of the Riot semifinal this year, at 13-12 in a game to 14. However, following that point, they strung together 14 clean passes to win the game and advance to the final.
“That has been the story for us all season. When things are very clarified, like we have to put it in, it gets easier. The focus is just there and we get it done,” said Finney. “Having Sprout [Nicole Beck] here getting into the Hall of Fame reminded us what this program is all about and what it is to be winners and how that comes from within us. Having that reminder clarified our focus.”
The second factor driving Fury’s success is that they do not give up. They trust their system whether they are winning or losing, largely because it has been working for them for so long. (Credit is partially due there to Coach Matty Tsang, but more on him in a moment.) When their offense turns the disc over, they snap into defensive mode and often are able to get the disc back using speed and their honed awareness. Whether Fury is up by ten points or down by several critical breaks, they stick to what they know and keep fighting for every possible point. This year’s final exemplifies this attitude – even when they were down several breaks facing Brute Squad’s stifling defense and intimidating record, they continued to run their flexible lines and signature offense.
Unlike their semifinal, Fury was not able to immediately break Brute Squad and take a lead in the final. Instead, Brute held coming out of half to put themselves up 9-7 and they kept that lead for another seven points thanks to their breaks in the first half. But Fury wasn’t making it easy for them because they continued to utilize the defensive set that generated turnovers in the first half, even though they hadn’t converted most of them. Boston’s ninth goal took them 19 passes and their offensive line was beginning to look tired. Fury, on the other hand, was typically scoring in fewer than five passes and were no longer turning the disc over in the red zone. Having given up seven break opportunities in the first half and now needing two breaks to win, they were playing a much tighter game and exhibited the intensity necessary to turn things around in their favor. By the time soft cap came on, they had set the stage for a big comeback.
The fact that Fury’s defensive lines visibly improved even during the course of a single game is a testament to coach Matty Tsang. He is another major component of their success, since he forces them to constantly build, learn, and adjust in real time and between tournaments. Tsang has coached Fury successfully to nine national titles since 2006 and is so beloved by the team that they have an entire Tumblr page dedicated to him. “Before Matty, Fury won Championships. After Matty, Fury won Championships and the Spirit Award,” said Joy Chen, a former player under Tsang for Fury. “His pre-game pump-up speech was about a greasy pizza box,” reads Fury’s Facebook page. “There’s really no one like him and we are the luckiest.”
While most teams would be disheartened as they approached the end of a seemingly unsuccessful season, Fury and their coaching staff simply took the time for self-reflection and came to Nationals ready to prove themselves. “I wouldn’t say this was a great season given Worlds, but I think that was exactly what we needed to get this result,” said Finney. “I think it was a great lesson for us as a team that is going to help us with this program.”
Fury also studied Brute Squad’s offense and tested out a variety of defensive looks on other teams as they prepared for the final showdown. While everyone expected Brute’s defense to shine, many were surprised to see an equal defensive effort from what is typically considered an offensive team. Their strategic preparation proved itself time and time again as they shut down Brute’s initial handler and downfield options to stifle their flow. It was physical without being unspirited, flexible but tight, and clearly had been practiced enough times that the defensive players seemed to know what each other would be doing without even having to look up and check. Errors from Brute Squad were eaten up by Fury, and although their defensive line’s offense left much to be desired, they generated enough chances for themselves that in the end they were able to pull off the win.
As the game ground on, both teams forced each other to throw into tight windows, making throws bounce up too high or swings sail just wide of their intended receivers. Fury’s marks started wide to cut off the immediate swing or break looks and then snapped in, working together seamlessly with their downfield coverage to force Brute into unfavorable situations or mistakes. Each team took turns stumping the other in the red zone, and both utilized switch defense on the handlers even when their opponents were on the front line of the end zone. But ultimately Fury did a better job of getting the disc back after giving it up on offense, immediately switching into their defensive set and throwing on those same hard marks, which Brute’s defensive line was less equipped to handle. When they lost the disc while they were down 12-10, Sarah Griffith got it back twice on interceptions to keep the team’s hopes alive. Fury managed to hold and then broke Brute on the following point on a wide reset throw. Now it was 12-12, but San Francisco was still down a break.
With the game tied, both teams turned the disc once each. On Brute’s second possession, they worked it all the way down the field, but Fury was still grinding. A scoring pass went up to Elana Schwam and Amel Awadelkarim sprinted over and leaped just high enough to block it. Fury buckled down, and Anna Reed threw a perfect huck to Marika Austin to put them within sight of their end zone. They walked it the rest of the way and Beth Kaylor found Awadelkarim in the end zone for a critical break and the bookends. Now San Francisco had their first lead of the second half and they just needed to stay on serve to win the game.
Boston responded to the break with a clean hold to make it 13-13, and it was another double game point situation – just like 2017. Fury worked the disc down the field, but Kaylor threw a potential score just a bit too high and Finney couldn’t toe the line. Brute had the disc with a chance to take revenge and win it all, but Fury dug in. They played tight defense in the end zone, forcing a miscommunication when Chelsea Murphy thought Caitlyn Lee was cutting to the front cone but she stutter-stepped instead to try to throw off her stifling coverage. The disc landed on the turf with no one nearby. Miraculously, Fury had earned themselves a second chance.
It wasn’t pretty, but Fury made things work on their final possession. Opi Payne caught a wobbly throw from Kaylor through traffic that seemed destined to be a turnover, dished it back to Kaylor, and cut towards open space. Kaylor flipped her back the disc for the score and all of a sudden the game was over. Opi spread her arms like wings and sprinted around the end zone, where she was surrounded by elated teammates. She did a forward roll onto the turf as if she couldn’t quite believe it was real. Fury were back-to-back champions and Brute Squad would once again be leaving the field knowing even the smallest change in their performance could have altered the outcome.
Payne explained after the game that Fury’s second half comeback was a victory of attrition. “We both had to keep grinding and play the long game… that’s what frisbee at the highest level is, it’s just a game of inches. We always just believe in the power of writing our story. That’s what we’ve been talking about all weekend, we get to be the authors of our own story,” she continued. “All last year and all this year, we haven’t really had a dominant season, we weren’t necessarily in the talks to be the favorites, but all that external stuff is just noise. We get to decide what we make of it.”
It is remarkable that Opi, widely considered one of the most explosive players in the division, is just another athlete on the Fury D-line. This speaks to the next factor driving Fury’s success: their renowned depth. The team is strong from top to bottom, whether they have been playing at the elite level for over a decade or just a few seasons. Fury’s rookies shone throughout the tournament, with athletes like Awadelkarim and Kirstin Johnson making game-changing defensive plays and Reed moving the disc calmly and skillfully from the handler position. “Our rookies stepped up in a big way this weekend,” said Anna Nazarov.
“The future is bright,” agreed Alex Snyder.
Another recent addition to the team is rising star Beth Kaylor, who had three assists in the second half of the final and threw her body around fearlessly to maintain possession time and time again. The two-time First Team All-American from Oregon Fugue has been making big plays for years, but it is exciting to watch her come into her own at a truly elite level.
On offense, Fury had plenty of fearsome cutters to choose from, as well as handlers who could break the mark and put the disc accurately. Alex Snyder is still an unmatched thrower and when she is working with cutters like Kaylor, Maggie Ruden, and Sarah Griffith, even the best defenses struggle to stop them. Not to mention the fact that fellow handler and 2018 Club Women’s Player of the Year, Carolyn Finney, “…is playing the best frisbee in the division right now,” according to Kirstin Johnson.
Add to that roster a powerhouse set of defensive stars including Lakshmi Narayan, Payne, Nazarov, Kaela Helton… well, you get the idea. And to top it all off, they are flexible—their lines do not follow a strict rotation and Nancy Sun knows how to call them with balance; no one gets too tired, but everyone has chemistry with their linemates.
The last thing that makes Fury special is the unconditional love they have for each other and the game. They clearly have fun the entire time they’re playing and they smile whether they score or get broken by the competition. Fury radiated joy the entire weekend, cheering and singing on the sidelines, high-fiving their opponents, and showering each other with praise. I never once saw someone yell at her teammate or anyone on the other team. The team resembles a family, with Tsang as the benevolent and kindhearted father and his daughter Amari wandering the sidelines to complete the image.1 San Francisco earned the second highest spirit score in the women’s division this year on their way to a title.
Brute Squad and Fury have been neck and neck for the past three years, and both have made the semifinals every year since 2014. Each team is a dynasty in its own right, with strengths and weaknesses that can play out any number of ways in different games. For example, look at the 15-11 loss Brute handed Fury in the final of the U.S. Open, or the 15-9 loss at Club Worlds. Even the final point of this game came down to a single miscommunication. A huck to coverage playing out differently would’ve changed the outcome of the game and just one more execution error (or Meeri Chang calling odds instead of evens and losing the flip) might have lost the game for Fury. So what’s next? On one hand, two consecutive Fury titles have been decided on the slimmest of margins and Brute is hungrier than ever for revenge on the national stage. On the other hand, we could be witnessing the beginning of another championship-winning streak for Fury. One double game point win might be luck, but earning back-to-back titles is no fluke. The Fury roster is full of an effective combination of veterans and rising stars, and no one will be surprised if the team remains successful for many years to come.
As Sunday drew to a close, elated players from PoNY and disappointed athletes from Revolver meandered around Mira Mesa High School’s football field. There were tears of joy and tears of sadness. Huddles disbanded, the trophy was passed around, and players traded jerseys with one another. As I took it all in, I heard laughing behind me. I turned around to see Fury, back on the field smiling and playing frisbee barefoot in the sun.
Amari, in my personal opinion, is the team’s lucky charm. She is tiny, but somehow has a powerful presence, and she is perhaps the cutest child of all time. She walks around in a mini-Fury jersey cheering and clapping, and can do everything from give massages to provide cold towels for overheated players. Always giggling, she makes everybody smile even when the team is down. Anna Nazarov didn’t compete during some of Fury’s pool play games due to an injured back, but after a massage from Amari she was back on the field making huge plays. ↩