Darkside Nearly Flawless Winning Carolina Kickoff (Tournament Recap)

UNC rolled as the top four distanced themselves from the field.

North Carolina’s Ander Juengst holds the disc during a stoppage in the Carolina Kickoff 2020 final. Photo: Brian Whittier.

Ultiworld’s 2020 college coverage is presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author(s). Find out how Spin can get you, and your team, looking your best this season.

UNC showed that they are still the team to beat in the Atlantic Coast this season after a resounding 14-10 victory over NC State to win Carolina Kickoff. While Alpha also showed off their potential to rewrite the script on Carolina later this season, Darkside made the most of the new and old faces on their roster and sent a very strong message that all roads to AC title go through Chapel Hill.

Undefeated Darkside Performance Highlights Their Strengths

Coming into this weekend, #3 North Carolina was at the top of the list of teams to watch. Darkside’s dominance throughout the weekend extended to multiple facets; none of the teams they played before the final could really counter the things UNC wanted to do on either offense or defense. But their tremendous defensive performance and very convincing (albeit early) win against NC State was a wall to wall dismantling of everything Alpha threw at them. Unlike last year, when UNC came into the final with a tiny active roster, they were at full strength with Liam Searles-Bohs cleating up for the last two games of the weekend. Together with Anders Juengst, Elijah Long, and DC Foggy Bottom Boys product Matt McKnight, UNC’s offense was the most efficient of any team’s this weekend.

Many of UNC’s holds in the final came from high-touch redzone possessions with Juengst, Long, McKnight, and Searles-Bohs trading off positions from the handler spots to the iso spot in the middle of the set. During the second half against NC State, Carolina got a lot of offensive production by having Searles-Bohs come back to handle and sending Juengst downfield. It helped to draw away Alpha’s bigger defenders and gave Juengst plenty of space to work with. Developing more depth and creative solutions with their offensive personnel is even more important now given the fact that Alex Davis, who returned this season for a fifth year, will not be playing with Darkside in 2020. He tore his ACL several weeks ago in a non-contact injury at practice.

“We emphasized not attacking really tight spaces in end zone offense and by the end of the tournament we were definitely attacking better space in the red zone,” said head coach David Allison.

Despite getting broken on the first point of the final, UNC punched back immediately notching one of many single possession holds and then capitalized on a turfed swing by Trevor Lynch to break back onto serve 2-1. Darkside and NC State traded until midway through the first half. Alpha’s Hunter Schumaker underthrew an outside-in flick and UNC’s Ben Dameron found sophomore Andrew Li streaking to the end zone to make it 6-4. A red zone turnover from Alpha the next point gave UNC another break and the edge they needed to ultimately take half 8-5.

NC State rallied to close the lead to 9-8 in the second half with some well executed throws over Darkside’s defense by Rhys Gretsch. But UNC continued to own their red zone possessions with Juengst and Searles-Bohs dominating the iso position. At 12-10, a low and fast backhand reset to Conor Chickos bounced off of his leg and UNC’s defense struck again as Elijah Long hopped in an easy goal. With the game capped at 14, Dylan Hawkins overthrew a long swing over the head of Avery Acierno and Darkside walked in their tournament winning goal as Thomas Williams shook free on a simple upline cut.

As much as UNC’s O-line should be praised for their rock steady performance this weekend, their D-line offense was deadly. Against NC State, all three of UNC’s breaks in the first half were scored in a single possession, as were the last two to take the the game. Elijah Long, Kai Marcus, Thomas Williams, and Suraj Madijaru were all offensive players last season, and the shift of so many strong veterans, in addition to the infusion of freshman Ben Dameron, made UNC very efficient after a turnover this weekend.

“It’s a huge advantage to have a defensive unit like that which can turn around and play great offense generating a turn,” said Allison. “Not many teams can sit a Kai Marcus or a Tommy Williams or Elijah Long off of their O-line, and it’s something to say about this program that we can do that.”

Darkside’s opening tournament look bodes well for the season ahead. While they will almost certainly be seeing a stronger NC State team again, their foundation is strong and even with Davis out of the picture, UNC is certainly capable of putting together an impressive 2020 run.

Alpha Shows Its Claws

Despite the loss in the final, #10 NC State’s weekend was reflective of the team’s strengths. They did not crumble easily to UNC. Their 13-10 win over UNC Wilmington was never really in any doubt, especially considering Wilmington’s own struggles adjusting to Alpha’s defense. They experienced some early season struggles, the type that look like they’ll get ironed out during the trials of the regular season. Against Wilmington, who had very serious problems executing their deep looks, NC State was able to largely out-shoot and outhustle the Seamen.

“I think our systems look good,” said captain Michael Lee. “I think we can challenge ourselves to think a little bit more. We come out on D and O thinking we’re going to be facing what we practice against.”

The return of fifth years Archer Gordon and David Jones was everything Alpha could have wanted and more. Gordon was a very effective multidimensional player for NC State’s D-line while Jones showed chemistry with fellow thrower Rhys Gretsch, hitting NC State’s athletes on aggressive hucks. His decision to sit out the final against UNC after getting a little banged up in the semis put a much greater throwing load on Gretsch’s shoulders. It’s worth speculating what more NC State could have done to push themselves past their two-break deficit late in the second half with Jones and a healthy Austin von Alten on the field. The semifinal against Wilmington showed that easing the throwing load on Grestch and having another true handler on the D-line maximizes what NC State can do after a turn.

“Both Archer [Gordon] and Davie realize this season is their chance,” said Lee. “That’s something Austin [von Alten] has been saying all season. We don’t want to look back on this year with regret. That goes for Archer and Davie, but it also is a mantra for the entire team. I’m very excited to have them back and I’m very excited for them to fit into roles on this team to make this team successful. I love individual talents and I love putting individuals in positions where they can use skills and facilitate. Both Archer and Davie have fit into those roles, as well if not better than we expected.”

Kickoff was not as complete a tournament as NC State may have wanted but they appear to be on the right trajectory. If they can polish up their offense and learn to adapt better against junk defense, they have a very realistic shot at overtaking UNC down the road.

“Straight up, person to person, no team in the country can match up with us,” said Lee. “So teams play junk on us and force us to do different things. People know they struggle to match up with us and so here we are playing against junk and that’s awesome because it means we have to be more dynamic from January on.”

Don’t Panic On Wilmington

One thing that demonstrated itself with blistering clarity this weekend is that #15 UNC Wilmington isn’t as far removed from their past performances as CCC might have suggested. In Athens this fall, Wilmington’s talent and offensive versatility announced itself loud and proud. In Chapel Hill, when tasked with the much-anticipated semifinal matchup against NC State, it was nowhere to be found until the second half. The offensive machine that we saw run a variety of different pull plays and weaves looked flustered against NC State’s defense. While Wilmington owned the deep space in the fall with their expansive throws, they threw five huck turnovers in the first half. NC State did a great job disrupting deep shots that came close to connecting with cutters downfield and UNCW’s handler core just looked out of sync. In the second half, Wilmington showed some life as Kevin Huerta and Ethan Ylizarde infused energy into the Seamen. But it was truly too little, too late, as the 8-3 cushion that NC State earned in the first half narrowed to a 13-10 final score.

“I think [the coaches] messed up. We started making adjustments in the second half that honestly we should have made earlier,” said coach Charlie Lian. “We got frantic in the first half once our turnovers started mounting. I think coming away from this loss it’ll keep us humble and with our hucking I think it help us with our decision making down the road.”

Having such a bad half to mark the first 2020 meeting against NC State is a big wake-up call for UNCW to figure out better offensive solutions against teams that will not let them rule the field with their deep game. Whether they can bounce back from this weekend will become clear at Queen City in just under two weeks. For now, they have a hard earned lesson about what can await them if they don’t figure out how to make the most of their talented personnel. Their double game point win over South Carolina in the third place game also served as another example; UNC Wilmington could be the most vulnerable of the top three North Carolina squads. How they respond in the coming weeks will determine whether they can finally write a new chapter after the brutal endings of the last two seasons.

Breakout Performance from Kentucky Highlights Program’s Growth

Pool play at Kickoff usually doesn’t lend itself to too many notable stories, but there was some excitement out of pool B as Kentucky Kult came in second behind UNC Wilmington, tearing apart Indiana and beating UNC Asheville in their Saturday crossover on DGP to earn a quarterfinals spot against UNC Darkside. Senior Jake Carrico logged 21 total assists on the weekend and Kentucky’s strong handler core of Carrico, junior Luke Huffman, and senior Zach Stambaugh guided the team’s fluid offense through the tournament.

Kentucky has been reaping the rewards of a rising tide of good youth programs from Lexington and Indianapolis, and the team’s overall ability to move the disc laterally when downfield cuts did not develop the right way was a huge difference maker compared to the other lower seeded squads. It gave the no. 15 seeded Kentucky a seventh place finish on the weekend and, while they were clearly overwhelmed against the elite UNC defense in quarters, Kentucky made a strong statement at Kickoff about the growing strength of their program.

“We have always been overshadowed by the more impressive Michigan, Purdue, Indiana, and Notre Dame; and rightfully so due to their success,” said head coach Michael Harr after the tournament. “But this year, we feel as if it is our year to break onto the scene, and we are playing each and every game with a huge chip on our shoulder to show the world how great a group of 23 guys from central Kentucky can be.”

It’s worth noting that Kentucky wasn’t the only lower seeded team to break into quarterfinals, but their performance in a vacuum probably has the highest implications for their region. Their dominant 11-8 performance against Indiana dissipated some of the buzz that was swirling around the other Great Lakes squad in attendance. While it will take time for Kentucky to move into the higher echelons of the Great Lakes, a few more strong youth pickups could really infuse more depth into the program and make them even more relevant in the overall Nationals conversation. They will be worth keeping an eye on at Huck Finn and in the series down the road.

D-III Teams Test The Waters

It was an up-and-down weekend for the D-III squads in attendance, but there was certainly some excitement coming out of the first round of pool play and in the Sunday consolation rounds. UNC Asheville and Carleton GoP had the biggest weekends out of the crop of D-III squads in attendance, with GoP solidly handling FSU 10-5 and Asheville 11-7. GoP adhered to many of the great offensive systems that have kept the team near the top of the division. While they missed having veteran Alex Rafkin on the field, they were able to get production elsewhere to get them key wins.

UNC Asheville also had a surprisingly strong weekend, notching a huge confidence building win over regional rival and reigning Atlantic Coast champion Richmond. It was their first win over the Spidermonkeys since 2013. Despite missing several big contributors on O and D, Asheville earned the victory behind veteran handlers Dean Merritt and Wilson Matthews.

Richmond, on the other hand, had a very similar performance to their previous Kickoff last season, with losses up and down the board to every team they played, minus Air Force. Of Richmond’s returners, Alex Pistolesi, Chris Cassella, and Daniel Scherzer looked great, with Cassella taking a lot of Richmond’s shots on their D-line. With five starters out for the weekend, Richmond will be much stronger down the road but they will need to keep an eye on the other contenders in the ever competitive Atlantic Coast.

Meanwhile, Air Force is truly in the midst of a rebuild following the loss of 2019 D-III Player of the Year Alan Villanueva and co. from their O-line. It’s going to be a long, slow learning curve as they try to build new handlers out of a very athletic core of new players. They struggled to an 0-6 result, only coming within three of Appalachian State during the tournament.

All-Tournament Line

  • Anders Juengst (North Carolina)
  • Archer Gordon (NC State)
  • Conor Chickos (NC State)
  • Lukas McClamrock (South Carolina)
  • Elijah Long (North Carolina)
  • Jake Carrico (Kentucky)
  • Michael Miller (South Carolina)
  1. Hugo Sowder
    Hugo Sowder

    A former player out of UNC Asheville and founder of Seven on the Line Productions LLC., Hugo has been involved in the North Carolina ultimate scene since 2010. As a freelance filmmaker and content creator he hopes to give back to the sport and community that's given so much to him. You can follow his adventures at https://twitter.com/Hugosowder

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