Two defenses got into a scrap in a high-level and close final.
September 5, 2019 by Edward Stephens in Recap with 0 comments
PHILADELPHIA — After withstanding a long lightning delay and a ferocious comeback, #2 New York PoNY held on double game point to defeat #12 Chicago Machine 12-11 and win the 2019 Pro Championships. The final point, technically a clean hold for New York, was an especially tense affair that featured some of the men’s division’s most exciting moments all weekend. The victory augurs well for another successful run at Nationals in October.
Machine’s offense ran into trouble on their first possession.1 With the disc at midfield, Joe White looked to Pawal Janas for a reset. Janas didn’t have much room to get open behind the disc, so he took a line ahead of White on the break side. Around backhands into the lane had been one of White’s signature throws during the tournament, but with his eyes following Janas’ cut, he failed to notice Ben Spielman until it was too late. The New York D-line scored a few throws later to take an early 2-0 lead.
PoNY, on the other hand, played a steady offensive game at the outset. In a distinct reversal of their style in the US Open final a month before, New York’s O-line shied away from taking big shots on Labor Day. Their scores were the result of sifting through progressions until they found an open look. The Jimmy Mickle and Sean Keegan pairing in the handle set is almost unfair: both of them combine powerful strike cutting with a magnificent variety of break throws that make them difficult to contain in reset situations. The pair led the way for New York with a combined 99% completion percentage on 80 throws, four assists, and 364 yards throwing, accounting for about one third of the team’s throwing yardage.
But as poised as the PoNY offense looked, they had difficulty working through Chicago’s sag-heavy zone sets. Trailing 4-3, Machine scored a key turnover to set up their first break. Ben Jagt sent the disc through what seemed like an unguarded lane for an easy continue up the backhand side to Mickle, but Johnny Bansfield had the pass in his sights. He raced in for a poach block that was almost PoNY-like in execution.
“Machine…it’s funny. It’s like we’re stealing from each other,” mused PoNY coach Bryan Jones after the game. “They run a lot of the stuff we like to run.”
But more shaky throws from Machine on ensuing possessions prevented them from truly competing in the first half, which they ended on a four-point skid. The problems for Chicago’s offense were compounded — or, perhaps, dictated — by a sharp PoNY defensive unit that went two lines deep. Flash poaches to the open side from the handler defenders (a PoNY specialty) shrank the margins on Machine’s basic underneath looks. Meanwhile, downfield defenders crept into the reset space. The upshot was that spaces on the field that had been essentially open looks for Machine earlier in the tournament were closed.
Nor could Machine huck their way out of a jam: between veteran Mike Drost and new recruits Jeff Babbitt and Jack Hatchett, PoNY have assembled an indomitable set of deeps. White shanked a backhand well out of bounds attempting to skirt the back side of the defense; Babbitt, who finished with three blocks, ate up a straight-on shot from Janas on a pull play.
New York’s D-line made the most of Chicago’s mistakes. By the time a Hatchett-to-Babbitt hammer put a bow on the first half, PoNY held a commanding 8-4 lead.
Machine was down, but not done. The offense managed to collect themselves for a two-possession hold out of half. Once the D-line took the field on the next point, the comeback bid was on. The pressure they had been putting on New York’s offense since the first point of the game finally began to pay real dividends. Clamping down forced a desperation timeout from Mickle late in the count. He was able to find a reset when play resumed, but within a few passes Grant Lindsley, trying to find a new attack point, threw a long hammer out of bounds. Machine tore down the field to counter before New York could get set to take their first break of the half.
Machine followed that break with another as the defense again forced a non-system throw out of New York. Ben Jagt tried to hit a Mickle strike with a high-release backhand over his mark’s head, but Chicago’s Stephan Mance stepped in to block it before Mickle could get to the space. Machine’s attack after the turnover ended in an emphatic huck from Peter Graffy to Tim Schoch, who skied New York’s Chris Kocher for the goal.
From the sidelines, Graffy’s shot to Schoch seemed to be a dare, a bit of high-octane gamesmanship to reassert some psychological power over New York. To hear him tell it, though, the throw was nothing more than a technical read of the situation. “I saw Tim going. I saw Kocher in the deep space, but his momentum was coming toward me. They were about even-plane when I threw it…I put a little bit of breakside edge on it so he could make a play, and he did. I wasn’t surprised at all,” said Graffy. Either way, it was cool.
Both defenses continued to pester their opponents’ primary looks for the ensuing series of (mostly tortuous) holds. Each side had moments in which it looked like they would break through. A rare error from Keegan on a short pass gave Machine’s D-line a look at the game-tying break from just outside the PoNY end zone — but Bansfield underthrew an upwind hammer, with predictably disappointing results. On the next point, Hatchett made an unbelievable play to knock away a deep shot after White’s juke left him well out of position. White made up for it by smacking one away from Hatchett in the other end zone. The succession of bizarre turnovers that followed — five total for each team on the point before Chicago finally scored — attested to the attrition that had set in.
The soft cap2 alarm sounded before Machine found a way to tie the game. With a chance to hold for the win, PoNY made deliberate progress through the gauntlet of Machine defenders, and Keegan made one of his signature force-side strike cuts at midfield. This time, though, Von Alanguilan was ready for it. He kept a line just underneath Keegan’s and matched his pace to close the throwing window just as it opened. A foul call from Keegan, no matter how adamant, was not enough to maintain possession. Alanguilan was on the receiving end of a nifty scoober from White to complete the bookends.
The Machine break set up a tumultuous sudden death situation. Chicago once again came out in a gooey zone. PoNY responded with the same patient offensive sets that had held the lead for so long. It seemed as though we were in store for one last cerebral game of cat and mouse. But this time there was one key difference: Babbitt crossed over from PoNY’s D-line.
Babbitt made his New York debut this weekend, and it’s hard to imagine it having gone any better. He was strong in the air and self-possessed with the disc and — there’s no other way to put it — huge. There are other large players to be found on the PoNY roster: Jagt and Kevin Norton are both taller; Beau Kittredge3 and Mickle are approximately as beefy. But none of them — not even Mickle — exerted such an astronomical influence on the dimensions of the game as the former UMass and Dig stand-out. A throw hung anywhere in range became his disc. In the final, his nine catches produced 97 yards and one goal, but his presence felt even greater.
Still, when Babbitt plays defense, the other team can take the sensible measure of keeping the disc away from him. There is no corresponding program to check him when he’s playing offense — a fact Keegan remembered somewhere in the course of PoNY’s seemingly endless swinging on the game’s final point. With Graffy (himself no slouch in the air) slotted in at safety, Keegan fired from midfield for his big man. “I saw Keegan had the disc for a while, and I figured that he was going to put it up to me. I saw him give me eyes,” said Babbitt. “When it went up, I saw that it was going to be a little shallower than he wanted, that it was going to be low.”
Both men had a bead on the play and went up strong, but Babbitt’s jump was just fast enough to reach the disc before Graffy could get a hand to it.
“Graffy was in front. I was sitting behind him in the deep space. I think that that helped out me getting it, because he was kind of flat-footed, and I got to step into it, get in front of him, and elevate,” added Babbitt. “And then I just put my body in the way and clap-caught it. He made a nice play on the disc…but it’s a tough situation to be in. Sometimes those under throws are harder to get to than the really nice ones.”
“[Babbitt] made a great play, a phenomenal play,” said Graffy before running down a small list of regrets. “I put myself in all the right positions, but I second-guessed my jump. I jumped a second later than I should have. I should have attacked forward versus backpedaling and jumping… I’ll get him back.”
New York had the disc a few yards from the goal line, but the drama had only just begun. Machine scrambled to ensure that Babbitt did not have an easy continue for the goal, and then they tightened the screws again.
PoNY could not get any traction against the stingy redzone stand. Machine captain Walden Nelson was happy with the way the team held their ground. “We know they want to hit the really close, short cuts. We wanted to take those away, and let them go side to side…They all love to make that two-yard upline cut,” said Nelson. Chicago defenders, refusing to give up the score on the open side, fouled Mickle and Keegan on consecutive strike cuts, resulting in a TMF.
“They played good, physical defense, generally well within the guidelines,” said Keegan. “I thought as the pressure ramped up and the game got close to the end they crossed the line and got overly physical to the point where it wasn’t legal anymore — using their elbows a bit and hooking and grabbing.”
“It happens. It’s not a big deal. Got a blue card and moved on,” added Mickle.
Mickle and Keegan have a point. The level of Machine’s physicality was not, after all, so high: the stakes were high, and the fouls were only fouls. But they highlighted the almost impossibly thin line between staunch and illegal when offensive players are operating at such high speed in such small spaces. It’s an issue that is sure to rear its head again in the postseason.
When play resumed, Lindsley, who had already endured most of two stall counts when the fouls occurred, looked to center the disc to Mickle. The throw was a high release that showed a little too much of its belly to the wind, and it lifted well over Mickle’s head. He and Alanguilan went straight up for it; it brushed Mickle’s fingers and began to fall to the turf.
“I was pretty sure I was going to catch it. My hands were soaking wet, and it kind of popped off. I had seen [Alanguilan] poaching, so I knew I had to go up and get it, I couldn’t run it down,” said Mickle.
He landed, pirouetted, and bid for the deflection. With Alanguilan making a simultaneous second-effort bid and the disc dropping fast, Mickle made the miraculous catch. As he stood up, Keegan bolted across the front of the end zone to collect the game winning score.
Grueling and glorious, the last point was a fitting end for a PoNY team that had faced and passed more than their share of tests already over the long weekend. And it was a resounding reminder, after a tournament played somewhere below his usual standards, of Mickle’s overwhelming talent.
“I knew as soon as I tipped [the high pass from Lindsley] that it was still in the air and I had to catch it,” said Mickle. “So I kind of just went for it.”
Keegan never had a doubt: “When the disc is there to be gotten, I just trust that Jimmy’s going to make a play until I see it hit the ground or in somebody else’s hands.”
Technically the trouble didn’t start until ninety minutes after the point began, thanks to inclement weather that interrupted the game’s second point and Machine’s first possession. ↩
a WFDF-style +1 ↩
who was present but did not play at Pro Champs ↩