Presidents’ Day Invite 2019: Tournament Recap (Men’s)

SLO got the upset win as the west coast battled for bids.

Cal Poly SLO v. Oregon. Photo: Stephen Chiang — UltiPhotos.com

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SAN DIEGO – After three days of rain, wind, and rare bouts of beautiful weather, one team was left standing in San Diego. Cal Poly SLO may have won the tournament, but that just scratches the surface of everything that went down this weekend. 12 games were decided by just one point in pool and bracket play, and upsets were happening everywhere. Let’s dig into an exciting weekend of ultimate.

Cal Poly Adds Another Trophy to Their Cabinet

As it turns out, mixing a strong group of seniors and fifth years with one of the best recruiting classes in the nation may actually be a recipe for success.

After missing Nationals last season, SLO has wasted no time in putting their stamp on the 2019 college season. This year, the focus of the team is evident, and it’s bought them valuable wins over teams like Washington and, now, Oregon.

Cal Poly didn’t start their weekend looking like a finals contender. Their game against UCSD, the 15th seed, was uncomfortably close, and the team couldn’t seem to shake the Air Squids or get the upper hand on defense. UCSD’s zone defense tested the patience of Cal Poly, and it was only due to some wild late game heroics from Caleb Merriam that Cal Poly managed to close out a win.

“We’ve been pushing the idea of ’Fear nobody, respect everybody’ pretty hard this year, and I think the Oregon game was validation for the fact that ‘fear nobody’ isn’t just a platitude,” said head coach Cody Mills. “Results like the finals show that we can and should be blow for blow with the best teams in the country. In the same way, results like the UCSD game really underscore the idea that to be our best we need to play with the same intensity and focus every single game, even if it’s a pool play game against a lower seed. If we keep preparing hard and keep improving our mental game we can stay with anybody.”

They started rallying in their game against UCSB but still looked unmotivated at times. Cal Poly definitely has a tendency to play up to their tougher opponents but seems to lack the killer instinct at times to ruthlessly end games against teams that aren’t on their level.

Still, once they reached the bracket, the team was all business.

Rain, wind, and a narrow field did not deter Cal Poly from cutting the brakes on their offense and slamming on the gas pedal. They tested UCLA with every offensive possession, but really showed their talent with their offense after the turn. Jake Thorne, Sean Liston, and Emmet Holton were hunting for break chances but still refrained from rushing once they had the disc in hand. They closed at the game on a 6-0 run, winning 10-4.

Cal didn’t fare much better. The sluggishness Cal Poly had displayed in pool play was erased by day two, and they dispatched of Cal in a game that they controlled from the outset. Their O line didn’t have to play much, but they were getting contributions from the full extent of their D line, including Dillon Whited, who played on both units throughout the weekend. The final score was 10-4, although the game felt finished by half.

The final was a very different game for both Cal Poly and Oregon after a mostly easy walk to the matchup. While both teams had been relatively unchallenged on offense earlier in the weekend, suddenly they were being broken consistently. Of the first six points, four were breaks, split evenly. With the game tied at 3-3, neither team seemed particularly in control.

Both offenses would find their footing in the next few points, and it was two possessions later, with the game tied at four, that Cal Poly would earn their second hold without a turnover. Oregon pulled OB and set Cal Poly up facing the length of the field. This also allowed SLO to get a look at the defense, which was poaching into the open side space and giving room for handler resets upline. Merriam, Calvin Brown, and Sam Wedegaertner picked apart the Oregon look, silencing the rowdy Ego sideline and setting the new standard for the game–offensive efficiency.

The teams traded holds until 6-6, with Oregon pulling to Cal Poly for half. After pulling out-of-bounds again, Oregon set down to the business of breaks and forced Brown to overthrow a blade meant for Morgan Sommer. Colby Chuck snapped a flick huck to Will Lohre, who was well within the endzone, but the disc sailed wide and crept towards the sideline, giving Whited just enough time to catch up and stop Lohre from ending the point. Unfortunately for Cal Poly, a smart run-through block from Xander Cuizon Tice would return the disc to Oregon, earning them the break and putting them ahead at halftime.

Oregon held out of half to make it 8-6, and it seemed as if the game was slipping away from Cal Poly. But Cal Poly’s offense stayed strong, helped by the fact that Oregon’s new defensive strategy seemed to be exclusively focused on pulling out of bounds. SLO kept getting previews of Ego’s schemes as they prepared to set up their offense from the brick mark.

Their defense flipped a switch, too. SLO’s pulls were forcing Oregon’s handlers to initiate their offense deep from their own endzone and putting Ted Sither and Leandro Marx under increasing pressure. Behind the defense of Jake Thorne and Sean Liston, Oregon’s cutters were having trouble getting open downfield, and the team clogged everything in the backfield, too.

SLO got a break to tie the game at 8-8, then each team held before the cap horn sounded during Oregon’s offensive point, making it double game point. SLO got Oregon right into a sideline trap and Calvin Brown forced a stallout, upheld by the observer, giving SLO their chance to break for the game. To their credit, the gravity of the situation didn’t seem to have an effect whatsoever. Justin Ting received a whippy inside pass in the front of the endzone and spotted Liston cutting to the open side. He sealed it with an easy pass to Liston’s chest, ending the game and banishing the demons of Prez Day 2018, where Oregon stumped them in the tournament final 12-9.

“The whole game, but especially those two late breaks, showed me that we’re making good progress in our team mentality,” said Mills. “We kept coming the whole game. There were ups and downs all game with turns, breaks, and big plays but we didn’t lose our confidence or aggressiveness.

“Even against an opponent who we know is super talented, we didn’t back down and we had each other’s backs. Sidelines were huge down the stretch and we continued to go out there and grind as a team on offense and defense.”

SLO is back in action next weekend at the Stanford Invite, where they will get to face a much deeper collection of talent from around the country.

Oregon Strong But Still Growing

A loss to Cal Poly that could have easily gone the other way certainly isn’t a harbinger of doom for Oregon, though it does give a sense of the challenges the team will face this season.

With a large portion of last year’s scintillating O-line now graduated, including Adam Rees and Colton Clark, the team will need to develop chemistry and get some of the line’s new players, like Leandro Marx, settled into their roles.

Most of Oregon’s competition simply didn’t come close to them this weekend, given the talent chasm that most teams can’t cross. But USC and Cal Poly both challenged their offense, and when the going got tough, Oregon gave away turnovers on swing passes and resets.

“We need to play cleaner,” said captain Will Lohre. “I think we came out — especially after the early parts of the weekend when we were really steamrolling teams — it was easy to feel like we would have a similar day today. Not that we were overlooking teams, just that we felt a little unstoppable the past two days. And we had a little bit of a rough second half of that last game, a little lapse in focus. And then SLO just came out really intense and pushed our offense to do things that we don’t normally do, and execution errors started piling up.”

Still, they easily reached the final and had the edge over Cal Poly before a couple of crucial plays went against them, including the aforementioned stall call that maybe should have been overturned by the observer (decide for yourself).

The good news? Their defense got breaks on everyone, including the excellent units from USC and SLO, and simply looked fast and dangerous. Really, their defense did enough in every game to win, and that’s not something we’ve often said about Oregon.

Colby Chuck and Duncan Fitzgerald looked great for the D-line, and the team’s energy was fantastic all weekend. “Playing light, playing loose, getting buckets,” said Lohre.

Lohre himself was getting plenty of buckets on offense, as he destroyed most defenders that tried to cover him. He’ll be the focal point of the O-line all season, and as the handlers get more comfortable playing with each other and resetting the disc against tight defense, they should improve as an overall unit.

With exciting young players like freshman Kai Fuji and sophomore Lukas Ambrose stepping into bigger roles, expect continued growth from Oregon this season as they hope to challenge UNC and the rest of the top contenders for a championship.

Time To Believe the Hype About USC

Before the season truly began, USC already had a minor controversy that put them in the spotlight. With Sam Cook’s U24 campaign receiving more attention than the team might have expected, USC suddenly had a ton of expectations placed upon them without much precedent. Rather than shying away from the narrative, USC bought into it hook, line, and sinker. And while Santa Barbara Invite offered us a glimmer of their true potential, their performance in San Diego proved it wasn’t fools gold.

Despite coming into the weekend as the second seed in their pool, USC quickly established themselves as the best team by a mile. They never gave their opponents a chance to find their footing and swept through teams with an aggressive offensive system. Sam Cook was lethal in his first outing with the team and was a wrecking ball in USC’s early games, especially against UBC. Still, he was most effective as a good teammate, setting up the others on his line to shine. He might have moved on from the Team USA snub, but his team certainly hadn’t. “Sam Cook is the nicest guy in the world,” said USC assistant coach Gary Molano. “He would never hold that chip on his shoulder, so we do it for him. It’s given as something to rally around at the start of this season.”

After their strong showing in pool play, which included a 13-3 (!) win over UBC–a team that they had lost to in semis at SBI–USC gritted out a win over Colorado in quarters. The game itself was played just as the weather started to tilt towards high winds and rain, but it was USC’s offense that eked out the victory through a few aggressive hucks and explosive plays from Wyatt Paul.

By making it to semis, USC had already shown that they were in the top echelon of talent in the Southwest, but facing Oregon was a different beast. The team looked a little shell-shocked after being matched pound-for-pound downfield. Hucks that had hit their receiver in the chest were suddenly being ripped from the sky by Ego. It put USC in a rut by half, where they trailed 7-3.

“We initially were taken off-guard by how good they were,” said Wyatt Paul. “We don’t normally get a chance to play such elite competition. In the second half, we found our fire and just executed a lot better.”

Indeed, their second half was far more impressive. USC’s defense was able to earn some blocks against Oregon, and more importantly, convert on the other end to earn the breaks. “Phil Yang and Diego [Frankel] really came through for us this weekend and in this game,” said Molano. “Their deep hucks were connecting and allowed us to take a lot of shots.”

USC ended their game against Oregon with a respectable 10-8 loss, and, with the way they were playing in the second half, there was a chance they could have pulled out a win if the games weren’t shortened by the 65 minute hard cap rain schedule.

In their final game of the weekend, they channeled that same energy to crush Cal 10-4.

USC mostly ran a zone defense that caused problems for a lot of teams, though not much for Oregon on Monday morning in still conditions. Still, the blistering offense is the star of the show, and USC’s one-loss weekend launched them up into the top 20 and into position to claim a second bid for the Southwest.

UCLA Outplays Expectations

Before President’s Day, UCLA had yet to really find their feet. The team went 1-3 in pool play at Santa Barbara and lost to Washington in prequarters. In San Diego, they seemed like a different team.

Their weekend started with a solid win over Western Washington, but the team’s potential really shone through in their loss to Oregon. The Northwest team was a tournament favorite and the top ranked team at the tournament, but UCLA played them close the entire way through. Granted, Oregon earned a few early breaks that put them in control, but UCLA continued to claw their way through the game and forced Oregon to keep putting their starters on the field.

After their loss to Oregon, UCLA dismantled Santa Cruz, denying them a chance at a cinderella story. Going 12-1 over an in-region team is the type of hard-nosed, relentless intensity that is necessary to make it in the Southwest region.

Unfortunately, everything flipped for them in their quarters game against Cal Poly. The rain and wind showed the UCLA team at their lowest point. The blady flick hucks and sharp upline passes that had worked for them in pool play were not practical as the weather worsened.

Despite that, UCLA played tight with SLO to 4-4. Fiery defense and persistence had paid off for them until this point but the pendulum of luck finally swung the other way. Their inability to score when they had break opportunities forced their offense to take the field without much rest. One opening was all Cal Poly needed to race ahead, and they got it with a dropped pull. SLO broke twice to take half, and the shock never wore off for UCLA after that. Still, their leadership team remained positive after the game.

“Our mentality is very good,” said coach Orin Moore. “Our team is full of high character.”

The team is right to feel excited about their weekend. UCLA did break their seed and upset UBC fairly easy–even upsetting Colorado 9-8 in a nail-biter to take fifth. The team has a lot of trust in Noah Anderson to take control in games, and often it’s him and Michael Peng that do.

UCLA can keep improving and even have a chance to nab a couple more upsets through the season. They have size, good fundamentals, a solid strategy, and a fun vibe that should carry them far. Maybe they could even play spoiler at Southwest Regionals.

Don’t Sleep On Cal

Cal’s record this season hasn’t exactly been a laundry list of wild wins, but if you look deeper, it starts to appear far more impressive. Along with earning a bid to the Stanford Invite with a few commanding wins at the Stanford Open, Cal has won the games they were supposed to and have mostly only lost to the best teams on the West Coast.

At President’s Day, their wins over Colorado and UBC qualified them as a spoiler pick for any game against elite competition. Sure, they have some room to grow still–as shown by their pair of 10-4 losses to Cal Poly and USC–but they’re a team that is game for any fight and could keep the Southwest interesting this year.

UCSD Enters as the 15th Seed, Leaves as the 7th

No team overshot their seeding quite like UC San Diego. After entering their home tournament as the second lowest seed, UCSD was one of only two teams outside of the top six to make it to the bracket. And even that doesn’t even tell the full story.

In their first game of the tournament, UCSD almost pulled off the impossible, taking Cal Poly to double game point and giving themselves a chance to break them for the upset. They missed that opportunity but rebounded with a phenomenal win over Utah in a game where they trailed by three at one point.

UCSD relied heavily on their initiating cutter, Eric Hytönen, to make things happen. He was the favored target of their handlers and often boosted the disc deep to Mazden Mastromauro or Bryce Lozinski the first opportunity he could. This exposed Cal Poly when the two teams met, and likely would have continued through the weekend if captain Bryce Lozinski had not got injured.

UCSD’s defense wasn’t quite as sharp but caused a few key turns in tighter games. David Knapp has emerged from the woodwork as one of the best athletes in the Southwest and was beating his defenders left and right to save possession or keep UCSD’s opponents from scoring.

In general, the team’s energy was a powerful motivator for them and kept them competitive in the games where they were considered underdogs.

“In my mind, it was our energy that was taking us through our games,” said Lozinski. “If our offense got broken, if our defense had one slip by, we were all there to pick each other up and focus on the next point.”

Having the home crowd may had been a boon for the team, too. They knew their fields and didn’t seem as affected by the weather as some of their opponents. An early bracket play exit against Oregon was to be expected, but the team should be excited to finish the weekend 3-3.

Quick Hits

  • Colorado went 3-3 with no notable wins and close losses to USC, Cal, and UCLA. The team is very solid from top to bottom but lacks the three or four big playmakers that college teams need to really excel. They will need to get some guys to step into those roles or they will find themselves on the outside looking in at Nationals yet again this season.
  • It was a precipitous fall from the highs of Santa Barbara Invite for UBC. They took some brutal losses in a 2-4 showing, really seeming to struggle with the windier and less offense-friendly conditions. “We got our asses handed to us versus USC and that put us in a bad place,” said head coach John Norris. you never expect a beatdown by another team, but I don’t feel like I’ve seen our team play up to our potential, and we played near the bottom of what we are capable of doing.” They are certainly capable of much better — don’t count them out in the Northwest.
  • UCSB, too, laid an egg at Prez Day after a strong showing at SBI. They went 2-4, lost a rivalry game to UCSD badly, and got blown out by Illinois. They need to hope it’s not windy at Regionals.
  • A ninth-place finish for Utah isn’t anything to write home about, but the team has some good pieces to build around. They weren’t competitive with Cal Poly SLO, and they struggled to put away teams, but they were athletic and solid on offense.

All-Tournament Team

  • Will Lohre (Oregon)
  • Wyatt Paul (USC)
  • Sean Liston (Cal Poly SLO)
  • Caleb Merriam (Cal Poly SLO)
  • Eric Hytönen (UC San Diego)
  • Colby Chuck (Oregon)
  • Alex Pan (Cal)

Additional reporting from Carlos Ruiz.

  1. Graham Gerhart
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    Graham Gerhart is a Senior Staff Writer at Ultiworld, focusing primarily on the Women's and Mixed divisions. Graham graduated from the University of Cape Town in South Africa after playing 4 years with the UCT Flying Tigers. He now lives and works full time in San Diego. Follow him on twitter @JustGrahamG

  2. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld. You can reach him by email (charlie@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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