Sockeye added another trophy to the case, and Dylan Freechild nabbed his first USA Ultimate title.
October 28, 2019 by Patrick Stegemoeller in News, Recap with 0 comments
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SAN DIEGO — Seattle Sockeye captured their first national championship since 2007 after putting together a dominant first half and then surviving an inspired comeback from Chicago Machine to win 13-12 on double game point.
After the crackling energy of semifinal Saturday night, championship Sunday brought a murkier feel. The noon sun was hidden behind the thick haze of a cool steel sky. The heat of the tournament had dissipated and a chill set in over the stadium.
In retrospect, a hangover was inevitable for Chicago as the emotional fire that ignited their upset of PoNY in the semifinals had burned down to a low smolder by the time the first pull went up from Kurt Gibson. Dylan Freechild went deep up the breakside into more open space than Machine had afforded PoNY found all game on Saturday night, and Matt Rehder hit him on the door step with a fading flick huck from the force sideline. A few dishes later and Seattle was on the board.
Sockeye threw a zone on their first D point, with Ben Snell using his long frame to force upfield and three short deeps flexing between a cup and contain coverage. Duncan Linn came flying off the wing and absorbed contact from Pawel Janas while latching onto an upline throw on the sideline. Not missing a beat, Sockeye’s speedy defense smallballed their way into the endzone for the break and a 2-0 lead.
Seattle’s offense continued to attack Machine over the top. Simon Montague sent Rehder into space for a goal, and on the next Sockeye possession, it was Rehder distributing, dropping an edgy flick to Trent Dillon, who had caught Von Alanguilan playing too far underneath.
Sockeye continued to throw their zone look at Machine and held the shape the full field. Joe White snapped off a crossfield scoober from the trapside cone for a score, wowing the crowd and showing Sockeye that he wasn’t going to be intimidated by their rangy zone.
“We’ve been relying on Joe all season,” said Machine captain Walden Nelson. “We have a lot of trust and confidence in him. It’s not like we were ever surprised. Especially on that scoober, we know he has that.”
But while Machine didn’t appear to be afraid of the moment, they did not have the compulsion and icy execution they brought to their semifinal. At 4-2, Sockeye broke twice in a row off of two Machine mistakes in the dump space to open up their lead and put Machine in a serious hole. Sockeye’s D-line offense was running all over Machine off of the turn, and when Nathan Kwon sliced into the endzone and got the goal to make it 6-2, all Chicago could do was look on at his heels.
Sockeye’s O-line coughed up their first turn of the half at 6-3 when Nate Goff’s excellent positioning put Jacob Janin off his line on a huck from Montague. Machine’s D-line offense has serious pop with Gibson and Johnny Bansfield in the backfield, but Sockeye’s offense was ready. Freechild forced Bansfield away from power position and put a big mark on him when he collected the disc for losses. Preventing the big play, Sockeye got the disc back when Gibson’s attempt to get Bansfield into space was too low, and Seattle pinged 15 passes together in the attacking third before Rehder found Freechild for the hold.
After taking half 8-4, Sockeye put a kill line out on defense going downwind to start the second half. With the massive size of Rehder and Katz alongside the speed of Freechild and Dillon, Machine’s offense couldn’t find room to breathe, much less cut. After two turns, Rehder rotated onto a mismatch with Yiding Hou and Freechild put him into space with a flick for the break, one of his two assists on 143 yards throwing.
That should have been it. Trailing 9-4, Machine had every look of a team ready to play out the string on a defeat. But after a frustrating first half, Machine’s defense was ready to empty everything they had left while the season still had life in it.
“They played pretty close to a perfect first half,” said Gibson. “We said in the huddle, ‘look if they keep playing a perfect game then they deserve to win,’ but I said that if we keep putting the pressure on, they are eventually going to crack.”
Machine’s D-line made their move the first chance they got in the second half. A short field handler dish was batted away by Bansfield and Gibson went upline to the cone. What had looked like a blowout was now just a 9-6 lead. With the wind picking up, Machine sent out their zone line for a downwind point. Over a long grinding point, Sockeye’s offense probed for a weakness in the Chicago defense with a slow march upfield.
“The ability [of Machine] to sustain intensity really impressed me,” said Sockeye coach Mike Caldwell. “I don’t know how many passes we had to throw on that point, and they were fighting just has hard and just as energetically at the end as they were in the beginning.”
Machine was never able to generate a block, but the point sapped some vigor from the Seattle offense and activated Chicago’s killer instinct. After a parade of quick holds, Machine got to sink their teeth into a point and remember what it felt like to be in a fight.
While the defense was heating up for Chicago, the offense was still feeling the pressure from Sockeye’s rangy defense. White couldn’t get our far enough on an around backhand to keep his throw off the turf, and Sockeye’s pulling expert Christian Foster pitched in with some offense, weaving a backhand to Husayn Carnegie for a break to make it 11-6.
Once again, Machine could have rolled over. And once again, they responded, this time emphatically. White made up for his turn the previous point by coming down with a jump ball on the goal line then popping a scoober assist into the endzone with two players draped all over him. Fired up by White’s play, Machine’s defense got back on the field and refused to leave until the score was tied.
Four straight breaks that would reverse narratives, put legacies on the line, and turn a victory lap for Sockeye into one of the most tense finishes to a championship game the men’s division has seen in years. With victory seemingly within their grasp, Sockeye’s offense started to get sloppy, skipping steps as they tried to rush onto the winner’s podium.
A heedless turf one second by Montague and all of a sudden Gibson is lasering a flat huck to Nate Goff. 11-8. A drop from Murray and this time Gibson is on the receiving end of the score. 11-9. A naive pass into the kill zone of Machine’s defense gets snapped up easily by Alanguilan and it’s a short upwind break. 11-10. Now the crowd is going wild and the Machine defense is on fire and Sockeye needs to go upwind. Freechild fires a high stall bailout huck from the trap sideline to a crowd that is saved by a foul call, but, on the restart, Alanguilan comes out of nowhere to rob a seemingly wide open flip for the goal with an outrageous display of timing and athleticism. Kurt finds Walden Nelson at the cone. 11-11.
Machine had come all the way back and Seattle was two points away from an all time collapse.
“There’s always going to be a small fracture somewhere,” said Freechild. “They saw a little crack and they freaking pushed through it hard.”
With cap on, it became a game to 13. Sockeye’s offense was going downwind and still only two holds away from a title, but the pressure of the moment and Machine’s avalanche of momentum were undeniable.
“My mind was just fucking racing, racing, racing,” said Freechild. “I needed to slow down and recognize that these swings in the game are a give and take.”
Bryce Dixon ripped a huck to Dillon in a foot race with three chasing defenders straight down the middle of the field. Dillon had steps but Goff had the size, and Goff elevated from behind the Sockeye captain to take the disc into Machine’s hands. Chicago had the disc and 70 yards to go for their first lead of the game.
Gibson worked the disc to the breakside and Sam Kanner used the high side of the field to uncork a soaring backhand straight into the wind. White had his man beat by a step, and for a second it seemed like the young phenom was going to make the most important play of the season as he rose through the air reaching for what would be massive upwind catch. But the disc hung up for half a second too long, giving Seattle’s trailing defenders just enough time to break up White’s grab.
With more composure than they had shown for much of the second half, Seattle patiently worked the disc down the field. Matt Russell created space for a swing and chiseled a backhand to Dillon on the breakside. White was in hot pursuit and dove for the quick flip but, just as he had on the other end of the field moments before, missed a game-changing play by inches. After a feverish sequence of points, Sockeye was back in control of the game, leading 12-11 and one point away from glory.
Machine’s O-line came out for only its fifth point of the half. Despite the pressure of the moment and the long spell on the sideline, the unit maintained composure and executed with precision. Hou shook loose of Eli Friedman and Janas led him into the corner for the score. The game — and the season — was headed to double game point. Sockeye were either going to be wire-to-wire champions, the owners of one of the most dominant seasons in recent memory, or they were going to be chokers who blew a sure thing. Machine were either going to be the team who pulled off the greatest comeback of the decade or also rans, consigned to a footnote.
For all the drama involved, the point itself was fairly simple. For all the chaos that preceded it, the point itself was largely routine. Sockeye’s cutters won the battle down the force side as their handlers swung the disc from side to side. Rehder, who had a team-high 247 receiving yards along with three assists and two goals, used the cushion he was getting from Goff to eat yards under, and Freechild ran a classic give and go. Janin took one hard step to rock his defender then burst to the cone. But once he caught the caught the goal, the scene was anything but routine.
Sockeye’s sideline exploded, players embraced, yelling themselves hoarse and shedding hot tears. Freechild tore around the field, wild eyed, filled with the ecstatic happiness of someone feeling freed from a great weight.
“I’ve been in a lot of big games and slowly and slowly I’ve learned how to mentally prepare and perform,” said Freechild after winning his first-ever national championship. “There are a lot of people who win championships and a lot of people who don’t win championships…so it’s a lot of fucking pressure and I’m glad to get that off my shoulders.”
Machine was empty. They had put everything into the comeback, physically and emotionally. The look on the face of the players communicated how cruel it is to feel hope that blooms and then is extinguished by an almost comeback. Their efforts to bring the contest back to the brink will be deservedly lauded, but the pain of coming so close and coming up empty at the last gasp was written in expressions of despair.