The Strength of SoCal: UCSD, UCSB, and UCLA Clinch Bids (Southwest D-I Women’s Regional Recap)

The country's deepest region delivered the goods at Regionals.

UC San Diego in the final the 2019 Presidents' Day Invite.
UC San Diego in the final of the 2019 Presidents’ Day Invite. Photo: Stephen Chiang —

Ultiworld’s 2019 postseason coverage of the D-I Women’s division is presented by VC Ultimate, the official gear outfitter of the Premier Ultimate League.

Even with three bids on the line, the Southwest knows how to keep things interesting at Regionals. Going into the tournament, there was a very real chance that any combination of the six best teams in the region could make a run to Nationals. This weekend did nothing to change that fact. The tournament may have ended with UCSD, UCSB, and UCLA booking tickets for Texas, but SLO, Stanford, and Cal all could have seen their season continue had a few points swung in their favor. In the end, it was depth that headlined the weekend, as it was the teams that outlasted their opponents who earned the region’s bids.

UCSD Rides Their Bench To Nationals Berth

Depth may have defined the tournament as a whole, but it was #2 UCSD Psychos that wielded theirs like a weapon. There was not a single point this weekend where UCSD look fatigued or dejected, due almost entirely to their excellent roster management. No single player on the team was overworked — and many of their stars were underutilized. When you’re the best team in the tournament by a strong margin, you can afford the luxury of emptying your bench each game, and that’s exactly what UCSD did.

“[Our] younger players were able to step up, hold their own, and make plays for the team,” said captain Kelli Iwamoto. “They were performing so well and making huge plays all weekend so we didn’t need to rely on only a few people to score points.”

By virtue of the tournament format, UCSD clinched their spot at Nationals in semis, playing against UCLA. BLU saw the writing on the wall early in that game after UCSD took a commanding 5-1 lead. UCLA continued to play their best lines for most of the first half, but UCSD changed tacks and began to open up their own lines. This allowed UCLA to pick up a little more traction but never enough for them to close the lead. Despite limited minutes from Dena Elimelech, Rebeca Ellis, and Leanne Go, UCSD won their Nationals spot with a 15-7 scoreline.

The final against UCSB was more of a victory lap for both teams than a heated battle. As UCSB had similarly locked up a Nationals bid, they too rested some starters — including captain Audrey Brown. This was the third time the two teams had played each other in a tournament final1 and they clearly enjoyed playing each other. Spirits were high, even if the score was not close. UCSD won the game 15-2, capping off a very successful tournament with their best win of the weekend.

“This Regionals, we were more experienced and prepared for the wind. Furthermore, we trained for specific teams who we knew we’d play, and I believe we were just more prepared than we’ve been in the past,” said Iwamoto.

There’s not much more to say about UCSD’s performance except to warn the competition. Don’t mistake UCSD’s use of rookies as resting on their laurels. If anything, it’s even more of a doomsday sign. This is a team that can win with any combination of their players on the field.

UCSB’s Defense Levels Up En Route to Texas

There were a lot of questions about #7 UCSB Burning Skirts heading into Regionals after two surprise losses to SLO and UCLA in Conferences. UCSB happily answered all those questions with a mic drop. The Santa Barbara women went undefeated all weekend until facing off against UCSD in a game where they had already earned their bid. The defensive brand that the Burning Skirts have built all season continued to be on full display and was thoroughly reinforced in their rematches against UCLA and SLO.

“Our game plan was the same as the entire weekend. We preach consistent high energy, defensive pressure, and red zone efficiency to our team,” said coach Sam Fontaine.

Even with an injured Audrey Brown taking a step back on defense over the weekend, UCSB tore through their opponents from day one. No team at San Luis Obispo was better at matching up.2 Their best players performed as expected and their role players rose up past expectations. For most of the weekend, Jasmine Childress looked like the best defender in the Southwest. She came up with block after block, especially against UCLA, where she seemed to have a vendetta against any BLU player heading towards the endzone.

Childress was not the only one who showed up to Regionals ready to dominate. Despite UCSB’s penchant for harmlessly penguin waddling to the line to start a point, their offense was lethal across the board. Lesser known names like Lauren Bedard, Elsa Winslow, and Nicki Yang were the bane of every team they came across. It spoke to the development of the program over the course of the year, as Fontaine noted, “Everyone cares a lot about getting better and are putting a lot of work to do so. That’s essential when you’re not building your program with YCC talent. We think we do a great job of catching our players up, so to speak, considering we only have one YCC player on our roster.”

If UCSB was worried about a lack of experience this season, those fears were put to bed by Regionals. In their Nationals play-in game against Cal Poly SLO, it was a full team effort that got them the win. Along with an almost uncharacteristically clean offensive game, UCSB’s defense was more than effective in wearing down Cal Poly’s tighter roster. SLO Motion didn’t have the depth to run out fresh lines every point and let Santa Barbara take a three break lead in the first half. Cal Poly rallied in the second half, but not enough to stop the Burning Skirts from a triumphant 13-10 win.

UCSB’s weekend was a powerful reminder of just how crushing their defense can be. It’s a death sentence for teams that cannot throw out fresh offensive players on consecutive points. Breaks aren’t a luxury with Santa Barbara: they’re an inevitability.

Rookies Headline UCLA’s Third Place Win

After a year away from Nationals, #14 UCLA BLU’s rookies gave BLU the final push they needed to earn the region’s final bid. All weekend, UCLA showed the resilience and heart that was necessary for them to emerge victorious.

The first sign of UCLA’s fortitude came in their opening game. Playing Cal to start Regionals was already a tough ask, and the Bruins were caught flat-footed. Cal led the entire first half and held all the momentum after going up 7-2. Then, something shifted in UCLA’s game. It was clear that they had found their fire, sharpened their blades.

Where once UCLA’s throwers had coughed up passes, now they were executing at an elite level. Everything fell into place and Cal’s lead kept dwindling. Cal was not really making many more mistakes than they had in the first half, UCLA just suddenly couldn’t make a mistake if they tried. UCLA’s second team may be called Midas, but it was the BLU women for whom everything was turning to gold. Erin Doyle was particularly inspiring at this time, fulfilling the Han Chen archetype by sitting as the deep in UCLA’s zone and firing off missiles when she would get the disc on offense.

UCLA won 12-10, capping off a 10-3 run that was exactly as wild to watch as one would expect.

UCLA’s next Iliadic test would come against UCSB. The game itself was tightly fought, but the true game changer was when captain Emily ‘Mamba’ Beck fell hard and had a UCSB defender land on her arm, breaking her right hand. Beck was a crucial part of UCLA’s offense, and it had the potential to be catastrophic for their Nationals chances.

Rather than dropping their heads, UCLA used Mamba’s injury as a rallying cry. Losing to UCSB had forced them to face off against UCSD in semis, but their eye was already on the back door bracket.

They didn’t have an easy path. Stanford proved to be their matchup, and the two teams hadn’t met since January, where they traded games against each other. Stanford’s roster was smaller, but they had just come off a confident win over Cal. Once again, UCLA’s resolve was tested and once again they prevailed.

With Beck out of commission, it was UCLA’s rookies that took on a larger role. Athena Lynch and Cameron Jewett soaked up many of the touches that had once been Beck’s and kept UCLA fighting. It was enough to earn them a 13-10 win over Stanford, setting the team up for their final game against SLO — winner goes to Nationals, loser goes home.

In the final game of their weekend and potentially the final game of their season, UCLA stood firm against everything that SLO could hope to throw at them. It was a true testament to their player development over the course of the season. Both teams were completely spent at this point; the only thing carrying them forward was the promise of a trip to Texas in their future.

The difference for UCLA was their system and depth, as had been the case for them in their games against Cal and Stanford. SLO’s roster was far more top-heavy, heavily featuring budding stars like Thalia Ward and Vanessa Beeler.

The BLU squad was far less accustomed to the spotlight, but every player that stepped on the field for them knew their role. They also had that extra bit of reserve to take on SLO’s stars point after point, preventing Cal Poly from securing a foothold early on.

As early as the second point of the game, UCLA’s defenders forced a turnover from SLO. In a few short passes, Katherine Jordak got open in the endzone for UCLA’s first break.

SLO tied it at 3-3, which only served to further motivate Doyle and Jordak. The two of them combined for five assists, four goals, and five blocks in the first half. What the stats don’t show is how dominant Cameron Hastings was that half. Her combination of speed, endurance, and experience was the release valve UCLA needed in tight situations. Cal Poly defenders didn’t have an answer for her in the midfield, and she collected passes with ease.

UCLA led 8-5 heading into the second half. It was enough of a lead that SLO would never get the chance to play back into the game. Both teams were running on fumes at this point, especially on defense. Every ounce of energy was spent on offense, leading to nine straight holds.

At 13-10, with time winding down, SLO’s offense panicked and rushed a pass that was picked off by UCLA’s defense. Doyle was there to pick up the disc and throw the assist. This all but sealed the game, as UCLA broke again on the next point to win.

On the scorecard, it may seem to have been UCLA’s sophomores that helped them punch a ticket to Nationals. In reality, the full effort from the entire roster gave them the opportunity. It’s fitting that in 2019, the Year of the Rookie, Athena Lynch, and Cameron Jewett get the spotlight. By exceeding all expectations placed upon them, especially after Beck’s injury, those two were the quiet difference-makers. BLU’s future as a program is in safe hands.

Cal Poly Falls Just Shy of Season Goals

#15 Cal Poly SLO Motion stands as the landmark tragedy of a region that should have had more bids. Despite how hard the program fought and the frankly astounding success of the team all season, SLO couldn’t get past UCLA and their season ended too early. SLO Motion has steadily developed over the past five years and rounded into a formidable roster in 2019. Losing in the game to go for the second straight year has to be taxing on the players, especially so for seniors Autumn Barker and Diana Swanson, who gave everything they could this weekend in hopes of taking the program to their first Nationals. It’s especially a shame that we will not see Swanson take on the best teams in the nation this year, as she carved out a reputation as one of the best players in the Southwest this season.

Still, there was a lot to like from SLO this tournament. They played the cards they were dealt and should hold their heads high after a season where they broke through regional anonymity to national relevance. A shorter roster and general injuries hampered the team this weekend, but they worked their way to a 4th place finish.

Losing to both UCSD and UCSB never shook the team, and they won every game they needed this weekend to play for a Nationals spot — coming from behind in many cases. Thalia Ward, Vanessa Beeler, and Kelly Dickinson are quickly becoming household names, driving their team forward when the games got tough.

Their final game may have ended with a loss, but it was encouraging to see how much everyone in their community had invested in the team. After earning their bid, the majority of SLOCore’s roster rushed to the SLO Motion sideline to cheer on their counterparts. They were joined by a strong contingent of alumni, including Holly Harrison, Zoe Anderson, and Danielle Tran, who had helped build out the program to the place where it is now.

With every hold or break chance, SLO’s sideline would roar with appreciation, and the atmosphere was tense throughout the game. This was emblematic of their weekend, too. SLO Motion’s entire community was engaged with the team’s progress, cheering for their success and commiserating with their losses.

Cal Poly had the difficulty of playing in the toughest women’s region in 2019. Their season may have ended with a loss, but it was a net positive for a team with a bright future.

Stanford, UC-Davis, and Cal Fall Just Short

This iteration of Cal and #16 Stanford’s women’s teams may have fallen short of Nationals glory, but it won’t be long until we see either team back on the big stage. Stanford and Cal are perennial Nationals contenders and proved that with tight games against UCLA. Both teams led for a period when facing off against BLU and could easily have claimed a spot in the game-to-go if fortunes fared differently.

For Stanford Superfly, their Regionals exit was still a strong testament to their ability to bounce back as a program. After losing one of the strongest senior classes of any roster in recent memory, Stanford started their season slowly, only to earn a bid for the region at the end of the regular season. In San Luis Obispo, Superfly suffered for their short roster with the brutal schedule: eight games over two days, including 110 minute hard caps with just 10-minute breaks in the bracket. They looked strong initially against UCSD but couldn’t convert several break chances in the first point, and the Psychos ground them down before running away with the game in the 2nd half.

Some sloppiness crept into their play during two wins over the lower portion of the pool that extended into the key game vs SLO that would decide 2nd semis slot. After going down several breaks to start, they fought back but could never make up the initial deficit. It was a tough break for Superfly when Cal dropped their final pool play game vs Davis, resulting in a tougher 1st round of bracket play that left them tired facing a deep UCLA team.

Bridget Connor shouldered a huge load for Superfly downfield, including numerous layouts and skies, as other top Stanford cutters were hobbled by injury. Freshman Elena Kamas and sophomore Sidney Stevens (despite a broken hand) injected energy for Superfly downfield and on defense. Hallie Dunham marshaled Stanford’s strong handler core, which featured first-year college player Rebecca Kestin, Carly Eckstrom, BLU alum Caroline McKee, and grad student Margaret Coad. In the end, Stanford missed too many opportunities to convert break chances, and their season ends short of Nationals for the first time in over a decade.

Cal struggled much more than their in-region rivals this weekend, but never gave an opponent an easy game. The strength of Cal’s defense was on full display in their games against UCLA and Stanford, where they could often generate a number of breaks in a row, drawing the momentum in their favor. Ultimately, they couldn’t overcome their tendency to overthrow receivers and too easily got trapped on the sideline, forcing uncomfortable throws. Even with their struggles at Regionals, this was a productive season for Cal. They outright won three tournaments this year –including a Conference title over Stanford. It may not have been the ending the Pie Queens wanted, but the chance for them to force their way to Nationals was always there. Sometimes you can’t ask for more than that.

UC-Davis was one of the biggest surprises of the weekend, though their success had been a long time coming. Bryn Levitan is an all-region talent and players like Rachel Sniderman, Iris Chan, and Allyson Tsuji have really developed over the season. Davis’ win over Cal in pool play was a statement on how Rogue was peaking at the perfect time. They were unable to replicate that success in bracket play, but it in no way takes away from their achievements in the postseason.

All-Tournament Team

  • Dena Elimelech (UCSD)
  • Jasmine Childress (UCSB)
  • Cameron Hastings (UCLA)
  • Thalia Ward (Cal Poly SLO)
  • Diana Swanson (Cal Poly SLO)
  • Hallie Dunham (Stanford)
  • Julia Kwasnick (UCSB)

  1. Meeting at SBI and President’s Day 

  2. Although UCSD’s zone may have been the best defensive scheme all weekend 

  1. Graham Gerhart
    Graham Gerhart

    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

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