D-I College Championships 2019: Colorado Outhustles Pittsburgh To Reach Semis

A classic matchups in the bracket.

Colorado pulls at 2019 Nationals. Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

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The wind died down and the intensity ratcheted up for a back-and-forth quarterfinal between division blue-bloods Pittsburgh and Colorado on Sunday morning. Colorado pulled away in the second half and withstood a late charge to edge out Pitt 15-13 to advance to semifinals.

Both teams took their shots early, and Colorado’s were on point. They built a three-break lead early with big throws from Quinn Finer and Isaac Chestler. The Pitt defense was close on every play, but the placement of the throws was too good for them to get a touch. At 4-1, Mamabird were brimming with energy and confidence.

For Pittsburgh, on the other hand, it took longer to get a handle on the suddenly calm conditions. Andrew Lehmberg, Leo Warren, Michael Ing, and Will Hoffenkamp, who hit their spots constantly on Friday and Saturday, all erred in the first half. From the look of things, Pitt were suffering from a mental carryover from pool play.

“We went into the upwind/downwind games [on Friday and Saturday] with the mindset that the deep shot, even if it wasn’t high percentage, was a better look than turning in the backfield,” said Warren. That logic did not apply in the much calmer conditions Sunday morning, and, consequently, Colorado had little trouble moving the disc after the Pittsburgh turnovers.

Pitt eventually pumped the brakes on their deep game and started to find consistent offensive success. “We definitely re-calibrated,” said Ing.

At the same time, Mamabird developed some foibles of their own. Given their hot start, they didn’t need to rely much on their dump set. Once Pittsburgh adjusted the defense to force them to grind, Colorado tensed up and showed some cracks. Covered players weren’t clearing early enough out of the dump space, fill cutters arrived late, and throws hit the turf.

It was just the opening Pitt needed to close the gap. Sophomores Hoffenkamp, Harry McNamara, and Kevin Tsui, playing nearly every defensive point for Pittsburgh during the tournament, took full advantage of Colorado’s mistakes. Those three carried Pittsburgh through a four-goal run to retake the lead at 5-4, and a few gritty points later, Pittsburgh took half on serve.

Colorado came back to the field with a new focus: using the break side. “Pitt’s poaches in the lane were super-effective in the first half,” said Finer. They had to find another point of attack. True to his words, the Mamabird offense pushed deep into Pittsburgh territory with big-yardage swings, with Finer and Alex Atkins taking turns as the hub. The plan was a good one: they held and broke to put themselves back in control of the game.

But there are some moments that you can’t plan. Atkins, pulling with a 9-8 lead, launched the disc into the stratosphere. It finally landed almost ten seconds later, half-way into the Pittsburgh end zone and just inside the line. Atkins took a philosophical line when I asked him to assess the devastating pull: “Dude, I’m just throwing it as hard and as high as I can so my teammates can run after it.” Jace Pivonka jumped the lane on the Pitt’s first throw for a Callahan.

The Mamabird sidelines went berserk, with one notable exception: captain Quinn Finer hung back near the team’s tent and barely cracked a smile. “A big thing for me is not riding that roller coaster. If you have big highs, you get big lows.” Finer, an explosive athlete, was a mental steel trap. There was no coaxing emotion from him, a quality that lent itself to intransigent patience when Colorado closed in on a score. Following Finer’s lead, Mamabird committed to waiting for the open look and executing their throws.

Faced with a 13-10 deficit, Pittsburgh refused to give in. The inherent desperation of the moment brought the best out of Pitt’s top performers as Ing, Hoffenkamp, and Lehmberg led En Sabah Nur back to 13-12. After Finer led Colorado to another hold, it was Matt Hanna’s turn to step into the limelight. Mamabird had the disc a few with a few yards to go for the winning break and called timeout. The play call was for an inside flick look to the back of the stack. Hanna, a step-and-a-half behind the cutter, sprawled past his inside hip to break up the score. Ing braved heavy contact the other way to secure the goal that narrowed the lead once more to a single goal. Hanna’s block was the equivalent of a call from the governor’s office just before dawn: it bought Pittsburgh a little more time.

Colorado’s next possession did not go according to plan. Pitt had the disc once more in the hands of Tsui, Hoffenkamp, and McNamara. They worked it to the Colorado goal line and looked for Ing in isolation at the front. Just like he had been doing all weekend, Ing deked his way open. But the throw, a little high and tight, glanced off his fingers. A catch would have tied the game and put Pittsburgh in fantastic position to break on the next point.

Colorado struck quickly on the counter. Daniel Brunker got the disc on the force sideline and powered a picture-perfect flick huck to Alex Tatum in the end zone. Game, Mamabird.

Ing, searching for answers after the game, struggled to process the loss. “Sometimes it falls your way, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not a concrete thing.” A few moments later, he added, “I think we had more to give.”

Out by the shade tent at the opposite end of the field, Mamabird had taken off their shirts in celebration of the victory. Though still fully clothed, Quinn Finer finally began to shed his robotic on-field persona, if only a little. Forcing a smile, he admitted, “It was a great team win. That’s what we’re built on.” Maybe I only imagined the smile.

  1. Edward Stephens
    Edward Stephens

    Edward Stephens has an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. He writes and plays ultimate in Athens, Georgia.

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