Mischief Prevails In Tight Final Before Polar Bears Shock Blackbird (Southwest Mixed Regionals 2019 Recap)

What looked like it would be a straightforward weekend for the favorites had a late twist.

San Francisco Polar Bears celebrate qualifying for Nationals at Southwest Mixed Regionals 2019. Photo: Rodney Chen -- UltiPhotos.com
San Francisco Polar Bears celebrate qualifying for Nationals at Southwest Mixed Regionals 2019. Photo: Rodney Chen — UltiPhotos.com

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NORCO, CA – Heading into Regionals weekend, the Southwest Mixed Division seemed all but neatly tied up. Bay Area rivals #11 San Francisco Mischief and #12 San Francisco Blackbird entered as the heavy favorites, and there was little debate that the two of them were going to qualify for Nationals. Luckily for those who prefer a little chaos, the mixed division is anything but predictable.

While Mischief held off Blackbird 13-11 in a very well-played final, #19 San Francisco Polar Bears stunned Blackbird in the second-place game, extending their season and sending the favorites home for the winter.

The Southwest’s Best Ride Easily Through Day One

The weekend started out as innocuously as one would expect. The top seed in each of the four pools comfortably advanced to the championship bracket, and upsets of any kind were few and far between. There was one close call in Pool A, where San Francisco Classy gave Mischief a run for their money in the final game of pool play. The two Bay Area teams traded holds for most of the game, and Mischief could not shake the upbeat, aggressive offense that Classy brought to the game. In the end, Mischief’s army of athletic defenders managed to do just enough for the veteran team to pull ahead, narrowly avoiding the upset.

Aside from Classy’s tight game with Mischief, pool play ended without much fanfare. Firefly managed to surprise both Donuts and American Barbecue in an exclusively Bay Area Pool C, but they didn’t stand much of a chance against the crushing Polar Bear defense. San Francisco Alchemy similarly managed to pull off an upset over fellow Chico Platypi to move up into bid contention after pool play, but couldn’t earn a win over Phoenix Pivot or Los Angeles Lotus.

By the time bracket play rolled around, the air was ripe for an upset, but it didn’t come in the first place bracket. Mischief handily picked apart the first-year Lotus in their semifinals match, using their size and athleticism to bully the Los Angeles team into mistakes. This was most noticeable in the backfield, where Lotus struggled to get off easy resets and rushed a few too many passes in an attempt to spark their offense. Mischief would take half 7-1, and there wasn’t much Lotus could do in the second half to recover from that. The final score was a 13-4 loss for Lotus that they’d sooner forget.

The second semifinal was much tighter, as Blackbird fended off the Polar Bears to earn their way to the final. While the Polar Bears tried their best to make Blackbird uncomfortable, the veteran team took an early lead and spent the rest of the game rotating between three lines as they marched up and down the length of the field. It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the Polar Bears, though. After going down early, their offensive cohesion grew as the game wore on. Nicholas Alexander roamed the middle of the field hunting for cracks in the Blackbird defense, which proved to be especially effective with 6’9 Jesse Buchsbaum as a release valve. Blackbird may have ended the game with a relatively comfortable win, but it gave the Polar Bears the confidence they needed for the upcoming rematch.

In the race for second place, it was Phoenix Rubix and Reno Cutthroat that surprised their competition to stay alive on Sunday. Rubix upset Sunnyvale BW Ultimate on double game point in the first round of the backdoor bracket, then clawed past Firefly on their way to playing Lotus. Cutthroat mirrored the Arizonans with a double game point win over Classy on Saturday afternoon before a gritty Sunday morning game against Pivot to earn the right to play on the Polar Bears. Unfortunately for both teams, Lotus and PBR were both too well-rested and too disciplined to allow either upstart to complete their Cinderella run, and the two semifinalists met in the backdoor for a spot in the game-to-go.

Polar Bears Outlast Lotus in Backdoor Semis

The game started tight, as Lotus showed team-wide chemistry that went beyond that of a standard first-year team. Their reset pattern was their truest strength, as the Polar Bears struggled to crack down on the unflappable dump-swing handler movement that Lotus patiently employed. For most of the first half, the two teams traded blows on offense, and it was Lotus that would draw first blood with a heads-up skying grab from Alex Drum that led to a break. That was the only break of the first half, as Lotus would take a 7-6 lead into the intermission.

The Polar Bears showed their strength out of half, though. They turned on the jets with their deep game, converting two breaks off of hucks early in the second half, and took a two-point lead which they’d carry until 12-10. Lotus patiently worked their way into the endzone, but the cap horn sounded during the point and Los Angeles never got their chance to play out the point to tie the game, allowing San Francisco to escape with a 12-11 win.

The on-field play does not tell the entire story, though. Before the game, the two teams had been under the impression that standard hard cap rules would not go into effect in their game, and both teams had shaken hands in agreement on that format. Lotus played the final few points under the belief that they’d have a chance to play all the way through one team scoring a 13th goal, taking their time working in their goals without worrying too much about the time. However, because this was not the game-to-go, the TD informed the two teams that the game should have ended earlier, and that the Polar Bears should have won the game 12-10.

Chris Mazur, one of the Lotus captains, was quick to point out that, while the outcome was discouraging for his team, it in no way took away from the Polar Bears win. “We made a couple crucial execution errors early in the second half and the Polar Bears earned those hard breaks,” he noted. “We made key mistakes when we had possession of the disc, and could easily have been on the other side of the exact same cap situation.”

Mischief Wins the ‘Battle of the Birds’ over Blackbird in the Final

In the same round, the final between Blackbird and Mischief was being played out in equally dramatic fashion. The two teams were no strangers to each other’s gameplan, and it showed in how well-contested every point was on the field. For the most part, the two teams were content to play matchup defense on each other early on, with only a few instances of zone defense despite the growing wind. Both teams tested their opponent’s defense at every turn, and turnovers were few and far between. It took five points of play before the first turnover was committed, and Blackbird converted the first break opportunity of the game to go up 3-2.

The turnovers remained infrequent throughout the rest of the half — Blackbird continued their string of smooth offensive holds, while Mischief had to work a little harder for theirs, bending but never breaking. It was only after a red zone miscue from Blackbird on the final point of the half that Mischief got their first look at a break chance, and they worked 70 yards up the sideline through a Blackbird zone to get back on serve with a 7-6 lead at half.

The game would remain tight, although Blackbird’s defense earned a few more break chances right out of half. More than once they’d work it right down to the goal line, only for a throw to sail past the receiver or a swing to travel just too wide. Mischief had their own chance at a break or two, but strong play from Ryo Kawaoka and Mac Taylor ensured they never converted.

The teams traded all the way to 12-11, as Blackbird continued to spurn valuable break opportunities. Mischief worked their offense though the pernicious play of Cody Kirkland and Mia Bladin, though special commendation should be made for Matt Crawford, who saved Mischief’s offense from being broken on multiple occasions in the second half. His layout point block of a Tim Gilligan huck was easily the highlight of the game, but was almost matched by a skying grab he made a few points later.

It was only on the final point of the game that Mischief was able to earn the half’s only break. With the cap on and Blackbird needing yet another hold to stay alive, they centered the disc to John Kolb, whose first pass upfield was sniped by Mischief’s Lexi Zalk, giving Mischief a short field for the break and the 13-11 win.

The game was a testament to the strength of the talent in the Bay Area and the balance of the game could have swung in either team’s favor the entire way through. There were big plays made by both teams, but Mischief came up with a couple more when they mattered in the second half, sending Blackbird down to fight for the second bid against the Polar Bears.

Polar Bears Overcome a Fatigued Blackbird to Steal the Second Bid

The lesson of the second-place game is an ancient sports adage: it’s hard to beat the same team twice. Blackbird held the edge over the Polar Bears in all their past matches this season, but the circumstances for this game could not have been more different. The Polar Bears were coming off the high of a tightly contested victory, while Blackbird had just spent so much of their emotional and physical energy trying to beat Mischief in the final. Blackbird came out the gate a bit flat, the offense that had been so clean during the Mischief game was suddenly nowhere to be found. An open huck overthrown. An unmarked centering pass turfed. Meanwhile, everything that could go right for Polar Bears did as they capitalized on the early turns thanks to diving saves and catching multiple passes that were tipped or sailed over the head of intended receivers. All of the sudden, the Bears found themselves up 4-1 despite starting the game on defense and their sideline was bursting with energy.

While Blackbird eventually settled in, Jesse Buschbaum continued to press Blackbird’s defenders into making uncomfortable decisions to mark him, and even drew Mac Taylor onto the defensive unit to try and shut him down. The two would trade blocks throughout the game, and were easily the most exciting matchup of the game. Forcing Taylor to overstretch by playing multiple consecutive points also allowed the Polar Bears’ defense to clamp down on Blackbird’s other stars. There were some early heroics from John Kolb and Shane Early but the blustery wind kept buffeting Blackbird’s advances.

On the point before half, with Polar Bears leading 6-4, Blackbird stacked an upwind line to try to steal a break back before the break; they got the turn they needed and worked it all the way to the upwind endzone line, but PBR’s O-line held with great marks. Taylor tried to force an around backhand past the long frame of Buschbaum and the wind did the rest; the disc hung in the endzone, allowing Stephen Chang to set himself and soar into the air to gobble it up. A few passes later, Nicholas Alexander ripped a big downwind IO backhand huck around Taylor jumping in the lane, only for Margot Stert to perfectly adjust to the difficult read and haul in the goal. As Taylor was left on his knees pounding the ground in frustration, Polar Bears went into the half up 7-4, receiving after the stoppage.

With a mountain to climb to get back into the contest, the veteran San Franciscan squad pulled out all the stops in the second half, frequently crossing their O-line over to run a zone that proved highly effective. Often trapped on the sideline, the Polar Bear offense was forced to throw a number of high-risk scoobers and hammers to work their way out of it. This led to some very messy offense from the Polar Bears, but with the wind raging, Blackbird had their own struggles converting on their break chances, despite earning multiple turns against the Polar Bears’ offensive line.

While the zone was effective in slowing the Polar Bears, it also chewed into the clock — and time wasn’t on Blackbird’s side. Soft cap went on amidst the longest point of the game, where it took Blackbird’s offensive unit eight possessions to convert downwind to close within two goals, including a confounding drop from a wide-open Shane Early in the endzone that had the crowd — which by this point had swelled a few people deep as other divisions finished up — gasping in shock. Blackbird got an upwinder via a sweet huck from Abby Van Muijen to bring the score to 10-9 in a game to 11, needing two straight breaks to complete their comeback and prevent the upset.

The Polar Bears now faced the daunting task of earning an upwind hold to punch their ticket for Nationals. Unsurprisingly, Blackbird came out in a zone once again, and this time the handler core of Alexander, Steven Chang, and Alex Pan were able to calmly work their way free of Blackbird’s giant cup defense, thanks in part to Blackbird’s core losing steam after playing several consecutive points. A smart pass from Alexander unlocked the zone with only a few yards to go, and Blackbird was unable to recover, allowing the Polar Bears to find a gap into the end zone, winning the game 11-9 to pull off the major upset and get back to Nationals.

It may have taken Polar Bears to their fourth meeting of the season, but they finally managed to beat Blackbird. Lucky for them, it was the one that mattered most.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Platypi as from San Francisco rather than Chico.

  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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