Pro-Elite Challenge 2019: Tournament Recap (Men’s)

Sockeye and Truck Stop separate from the pack as other top squads stumble.

Doublewide's Abe Coffin was perhaps the best player at the 2019 Pro Elite Challenge. Photo: Billy Dzwonkowski -- UltiPhotos.com
Doublewide’s Abe Coffin was perhaps the best player at the 2019 Pro Elite Challenge. Photo: Billy Dzwonkowski — UltiPhotos.com

AURORA, Colo. — The men’s division of the Pro Elite Challenge was a lesson in parity, with neither of the top two seeds making it past the quarterfinal round and a dozen or more upsets. At the same time, it may have only been a partial glimpse of what is to come, as many of the teams were competing without top stars, away either with U24 or AUDL commitments. Was this weekend just a one-time blip on the radar, or is disorder the new club order?

Sockeye and Truck Stop a Step Above the Pack

Scheduled after the conclusion of nearly every other game at the complex,1 the men’s final of the Pro Elite Challenge between #2 Seattle Sockeye and #4 Washington DC Truck Stop had the feel of a main event. A crowd gathered on the berm surrounding the field, their numbers increasing steadily as more and more teams finished their post-tournament stretches and meandered over. Sockeye and Truck treated them to a stirring battle, with members of both teams stepping up to make spectacular plays while they jockeyed for the lead. Truck Stop played a remarkable game at the end of a remarkable tournament. But it was Sockeye, propelled by outstanding performances from D-line leaders Ben Snell and Julian Hausman, who broke on double game point to claim the tournament championship.

At first, Sockeye appeared as though they were going to run away with the game. They jumped all over Truck’s mistakes in the first half and attacked the end zone ruthlessly. After six points, most of them pretty tidy once Sockeye had the disc, they held a 5-1 lead. It was a familiar formula for Sockeye, who, for the most part, had been riding a head of steam all weekend: strike fast on offensive points, strike even faster after turnovers on defensive points. Their aggressive plan of attack was not always perfect — Sockeye tossed their share of overthrows in the thin air — but it succeeded in asserting a dominance that was extremely difficult for opponents to withstand, let alone repulse.2 Simon Montague, Dylan Freechild, and Brice Dixon from the offensive unit, as well as (especially) Snell on the D-line, seemed ready to huck at any moment. The receiving corps — Trent Dillon, Matt Russell, Matt Rehder, Jacob Janin, Hausman, and (again) Freechild, among others — continually outran defenders who were often either a step slow or a step late.

Truck Stop, however, had been the more dominant team entering the final, and they responded to Sockeye’s initial flurry with a run of their own, culminating in a break to take half at 7-6. Honestly, anybody paying attention should have seen the comeback coming. Truck Stop’s closest game of the weekend before the final was a 13-9 quarterfinal victory over #3 Chicago Machine in which they (reportedly) only turned the disc over once.3 DC had just finished blowing out #15 Toronto GOAT in semis. Of course they were going to come back.

Truck’s biggest assets on offense this weekend were a wide variety of attacks and the most dependable set of deep throws on display at the tournament. “Every piece of this team is important,” explained captain Nate Castine. Nate Prior, Gus Norrbom, Lloyd Blake, Markham Shofner, and Rowan McDonnell all took regular reps in the main handler position on offense; crossing over Nicky Spiva, Max Cassell, and Castine from the D-line gave them even more good options. Shofner and Spiva were the ones who dialed in to lead the charge in the final with a few wonderful away looks, but the spark could have come from any of them. Between McDonnell, Tyler Monroe, and Jeff Wodatch, Truck had the horsepower they needed to keep finding separation against a fast and aggressive Seattle defense.

At 6-6, a missed Sockeye huck gave Spiva the disc on Truck’s goal line. He surveyed the field for a few stall counts before sending a flick almost into the opposite end zone, looking for Jeremy Hess. Rehder picked up the assignment, and both he and Hess camped under the disc for a moment when it was clear Hess wouldn’t be able to run onto it. Everyone knew what would happen next: Rehder gets the disc on a 50-50 ball. And then… he didn’t. Hess made what is undoubtedly one of the best catches of his young career to sky, from stand-still, one of the game’s best deep covers and biggest athletes. That was the last point Rehder or Spiva would play in the game — Rehder, who had seen limited action on the weekend and was perhaps not 100% healthy, sat out the second half, and Spiva was one of several Truck Stop players who had to catch a flight.

Losing the two stars did not lessen the excitement. If the first half ended in spectacular fashion, it was only a hint of what was to come. Sockeye came back from the intermission locked in on defense and showed shades of their famously strong effort from last year’s national semifinal. Coaches Dave Hogan and Mike Caldwell were impressed with the way the team seemed to get better on defense as the tournament wore on. According to Caldwell, “The biggest turning point for us between yesterday and today was embracing a mentality rather than embracing the X’s and O’s.” Truck Stop got out of the first high-stall jam on a good hammer from Shofner to Wodatch, but Seattle forced turnovers on their next two defensive points and converted them both to take a 9-8 lead. Hausman, with a layout block and a sky, was a major contributor on both breaks.

The Truck Stop defense responded with like intensity, and the slim Sockeye advantage soon evaporated when Truck forced a punt and broke back for 10-9. The teams traded holds until 12-12 when Ben Snell forced the turnover Seattle desperately needed. Perhaps Snell had been studying Blake and learning his tropes all game; perhaps Blake telegraphed the throw with his eyes; perhaps luck was involved — in any case, the North Carolina product was all over the attempted high-release backhand for a point block. Sockeye advanced the disc to up the sideline to just inside the attacking brick. Freechild, seeing a lot of space on the weak side, attempted an ambitious inside flick look thirty yards crossfield at an upfield, but extremely shallow, angle. The wind got under the throw to send the disc thirty feet over his receiver’s head, giving several players from both sides a chance to camp out beneath it. It came down right on top of the pile, and Hausman timed his jump perfectly to grab it first and give Sockeye the tournament win.

Both teams come away from Pro Elite feeling like they put their best foot forward. Each program made a statement by rising above the pack of good teams, and they have gained at least a small edge in separating themselves, temporarily, from what appears to be an extremely competitive top end. The fact that they both played as well as they did this weekend while missing a significant number of players (which was the case with most of the other top teams, as well) indicates that, like some of the other top teams from the weekend who did not have as much on-field success, they have upgrades already built into their season and may be able to stay a step ahead of the competition.

Doublewide and GOAT Impress

Though both were essentially laughed off the field in lopsided semifinal matches, the weekend overall was a success for #8 Austin Doublewide and Toronto GOAT, who played a double game point thriller of their own in the third-place game, which Austin won 14-13.

GOAT still rely on many of the names they have relied on for years. In fact, the 2019 iteration of the team still features seven core players from the 2014 team that upset Revolver to make semis at Nationals and were a point away from beating eventual champions Johnny Bravo. Toly Vasiliyev is still a cagey defender and a nightmare cover running the point after turnovers. Cam Harris still turns big in cuts into big deep throws. Andrew Carroll still wins almost every race to the endzone.

And Mark Lloyd is probably still a top-10 player in the division. He has enough firepower around him that he doesn’t exactly carry the team, especially if Jeremy Norden and Nathan Hirst continue to play as well as they did this weekend on the O-line, but it’s safe to say that the odds of winning any given matchup tip dramatically in GOAT’s favor when Lloyd’s getting heavy usage. GOAT knocked off #1 New York PoNY emphatically in the quarterfinal round, and they have made it clear that they will be a force at every tournament they attend this season, up to and including Nationals.

Doublewide recovered from a somewhat poor showing on Saturday to advance through the bracket on Sunday with wins over #14 SoCal Condors and #5 San Francisco Revolver. To hear them tell it, they’re still very early in the season, which could account for a lot of the game-to-game inconsistency. “We’re all spread out,” said captain Abe Coffin. “We’ve only had, really, one mini-camp before this, and this is pretty much another mini-camp for us. So we’re just embracing that grind together.”

When they’re on, they benefit from a heavy contingent of big-play athletes like Kyle Henke and Kai Marshall. Vinay Valsaraj, fresh off of a fine college season with Texas TUFF, crossed over from the defense on Sunday to fill in for banged-up captain Jay Froude and drew rave reviews for his excellent downfield work. Kaplan Maurer is a highlight waiting to happen when he takes the field, and this year he’s added some huge throws to his huge bids. He and Gabe Hernández run the D-line offense after the turn, with Hernández playing a nice foil, methodically working the reset space and looking for opportunities to float devastating little scoobers out of the defense’s reach.

But the most visible of the team’s strengths at this early stage of the season is captain and O-line dynamo Coffin, who is back from a year of fighting injury. With apologies to Mark Lloyd, Dylan Freechild, and Rowan McDonnell, Coffin was the best player at the tournament. He typically started each offensive point at the front of the stack and waited a few throws to initiate. Once he picked his spot to start moving on a given point, there was no containing him. Coffin, in any event one of the quickest cutters in the division, simply would not stop running. He has the hops to bring down jump-balls against almost anybody in spite of his size, and his frequent higher-risk shots to the end zone were remarkably precise. With a little more practice under their belts to shore up consistency, Coffin and Doublewide pose a threat to further disrupt an already disorderly men’s division.

Encouraging Weekends for Revolver, Machine

Two more of the preseason Top 5 teams, despite less than perfect results on the scoreboard, appear to be on the right track heading forward. San Francisco Revolver and Chicago Machine took fifth and sixth place, respectively.

Revolver, in white t-shirts with a stenciled avocado logo, spent the tournament determinedly working through three distinct lines on a strict rotation as they incorporated a large class of new players. I suspect they put more stock in the notably solid play of newcomers Hunter Corbett and Adam Rees than in the quarterfinal loss to Doublewide or uncomfortably close Saturday wins against Machine, #12 Atlanta Chain Lightning, or #22 Seattle Voodoo.

Of the San Francisco veterans, Eli Kerns stood out not only because he played well, but because he played with a certain boldness. He seemed happy to take any kind of shot that would get the team a chance for a goal, and his ambition paid off more often than not. It will be interesting to see how that boldness translates in tournaments where the scoreboard matters more. Tireless downfield cutter Tom Doi, finally healthy again, also had an excellent tournament. We don’t yet have a sense of what kind of personnel systems the team will have in place later in the season, as new head coach Molica Anderson is using Pro Elite to gather information about the team. “We’ve got a lot of new faces, and we’re still trying to figure out who’s working well with each other,” said captain Simon Higgins. The team is likely to get a boost once they adopt a more formal line structure, and when Nick Stuart and Ashlin Joye return.

Machine struggled through pool play on Saturday. It was not a surprising development, as they were the team hit hardest by the combination of AUDL and U24 National Team commitments and fielded a side of only thirteen players. But reinforcements arrived on Sunday to swell their roster to a whopping sixteen able bodies, and the reinvigorated Chicagoans suddenly found the success that had eluded them on Day 1.

Much of the credit for the turnaround goes to handler Pawal Janas, one of the three players who joined the team for bracket play. Johnny Bansfield and Paul Arters had been absorbing a lot of the team’s touches on Saturday — Bansfield, in particular, found himself almost exclusively relegated to backfield duty. But when Janas took over the main handler role on Sunday, both Bansfield and Arters were better able to pick their points of attack. Machine survived a strong comeback attempt from #9 Minneapolis Sub Zero, played a good quarterfinal game in a losing effort against a near-perfect effort from Truck Stop, and handed PoNY their second loss of the weekend before finally running out of gas against a Revolver team operating much closer to full strength. While it’s unclear how well the rest of Machine’s absent roster will gel once they get into the mix later this season — they will have to make room for Kurt Gibson, at least — this first glance at the team hints at a strong campaign.

PoNY Struggle out of the Gate

The necessary counterpart to a few unexpectedly encouraging performances is an unexpectedly poor one, and the bearers of that mantle at Pro-Elite Challenge were New York PoNY and #6 Denver Johnny Bravo.

PoNY arrived in Colorado a little light. Grant Lindsley, Beau Kittredge, and Jeff Babbitt were not traveling with the team, Ben Jagt and Marques Brownlee did not cleat up, and Sam Little saw limited action as he attempted not to exacerbate a minor injury. It would have been understandable if they had performed well and then lost in the bracket to a Truck Stop or Sockeye team who were clearly operating on a higher level than the rest of the field. Instead, they barely squeaked by Condors and #16 Philadelphia Patrol in pool play and were unceremoniously ejected by GOAT in quarters.

Chris Kocher and Jimmy Mickle failed to play up to their capabilities, and Harper Garvey at times played quite beneath himself. The result was a frustrated-looking series of bad hucks and shaky resets. The exception to the all-around poor offensive performance was Sean Keegan, who dumbfounded and overwhelmed defenders with his willingness to charge full-tilt into narrow upline spaces. It wasn’t enough to save PoNY from themselves.

It is extremely unlikely that the O-line turn in another such dismal performance, given how much talent still has yet to debut. But there are some red flags on defense, as well. On an individual level, some players shone. Mike Drost and new addition Jack Hatchett did an excellent job to limit opposing offenses, especially against deep throws. Joshua Stevens-Stein proved more than ready to make big plays when the disc came his way. And we know what Kittredge and Babbitt will bring to the table later this season. But PoNY were running the exact same defensive scheme they ran in 2018, and you can bet the rest of the division did their homework this time. It won’t be quite so easy for them to sneak a poach in from the dump space or peel away from the front of the stack to get in the sightline of a cutter speeding through the narrow part of the lane because their opponents will expect it. Offenses began to exploit the patterns a little this weekend, surely a trend that will continue unless PoNY develop some wrinkles to throw them off the scent.

Quick hits

  • Minneapolis Sub Zero finished out of the money when they couldn’t quite pull off a prequarter comeback Sunday morning against Machine. But make no mistake, Sub were impressive this weekend. Their offensive line was one of the best units I saw all weekend.
  • As it turns out, the preseason was way too early to write off #18 Portland Rhino Slam! The Northwest underdogs scored victories over Doublewide and Johnny Bravo to make quarters. Owen Murphy led a patient and effective offensive attack, and, according to captain Vinh Bui, Rhino are taking a long-term approach to building up throughout the season.
  • Speaking of Johnny Bravo, the hometown boys had a rough weekend, with their only wins coming against Patrol in pool play and Voodoo in consolation. The various pieces of the offense have a lot of room to improve on a clunky performance.
  • Chain Lightning, Condors, and Patrol, despite turning in some good results, all seem to be hovering at a level just below the division’s top ten for now.
  • A few less heralded players turned in excellent weekends:
    • Will Lindquist (Chain Lightning) sparkled as a do-it-all offensive threat and go-to finisher.
    • 2018 Breakout Player of the Year runner up Nate Goff (Machine) has added a fierceness to his game and is surprisingly agile for a big man when forced into the handler space.
    • Codi Wood (Sub Zero) impressed all weekend after the turn for his D-line, which he commanded with a vast array of throws and precision cutting from behind the disc.

All Tournament Line

  • Abe Coffin (Austin Doublewide)
  • Dylan Freechild (Seattle Sockeye)
  • Kaplan Maurer (Austin Doublewide)
  • Mark Lloyd (Toronto GOAT)
  • Nicky Spiva (Washington DC Truck Stop)
  • Rowan McDonnell (Washington DC Truck Stop)
  • Sean Keegan (New York PoNY)

  1. The mixed final of SFI West was being played concurrently on the adjacent showcase field. 

  2. Doublewide, who turned in a commendable weekend overall, wilted in their semifinal against Seattle. 

  3. I watched every point of a flawless first half, and representatives of both teams confirmed to me separately that Chicago scored a break the first and only time they got the disc on a defensive point. 

  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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