Commonwealth Cup 2020: Tournament Recap (Women’s)

North Carolina dominant as Pitt look resurgent in Axton.

Tyler Smith and Ella Juengst have helped North Carolina Pleiades get off to a flying start in 2020. Photo: Katie Cooper --
Tyler Smith and Ella Juengst have helped North Carolina Pleiades get off to a flying start in 2020. Photo: Katie Cooper —

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.

AXTON, VA – After a runner-up showing at Queen City earlier this month, #2 North Carolina Pleiades dominated the second weekend of Commonwealth Cup, claiming the title with a blowout win in the final over surprising Pittsburgh Danger.

Although the weather was as perfect as one could ask for — a welcome sight compared to last year’s soaked, miserable conditions — teams decided this was their chance to showcase zones they have been practicing. Offenses had to work hard to figure out all the new challenges that defenses presented. The weekend provided plenty of upsets for mid-level teams that will shake up the rankings, as only one pool finished according to seed. When the dust settles, this weekend could go a long way in deciding bid allocations for several regions, including the Ohio Valley, Atlantic Coast, Southeast, and New England.

UNC in a Different Class, Despite Injuries and Absences

North Carolina started their weekend strong by capturing big wins in power pool games against #14 Northeastern and #21 Northwestern, but it wasn’t entirely smooth sailing for the Pleiades on Day One. While clashing with Pitt for the first time during a crossover game in the final round on Saturday, two of UNC’s starting D-line players went down: one with a dislocated shoulder and one with a sprained ankle. These injuries added to an already depleted starting lineup that was still missing All-American Anne Worth, who was in Florida at tryouts for the US National Team.

To compensate, North Carolina’s depth players really stepped up. Senior Connie Cui provided a dangerous mark that produced gobs of hand-blocks, then was also a major player in the offense after the turn. Olivia Monroe was able to take opposing teams’ top matchups for UNC and Florence Brooks, a team captain, was a secure option for the Pleiades to rely on during both offensive and defensive points. There was also Meg Van Horn, an offensive cutter who stepped up to soak up targets during the tough stretches of North Carolina’s Sunday bracket games.

UNC played like a team that genuinely did not care who else was on the field with them. Every throw was calculated and calmly executed, and the Pleiades looked like a team that had been playing together for years instead of months, keenly attuned to each other’s strengths and weaknesses. With that mindset came a large amount of trust in both experienced and younger players that demonstrated they were well ahead of all the other teams present in Axton.

It’s safe to say the final was not the tough test the Pleiades might have expected after a weekend of large margin victories. In a rematch of an 11-9 crossover victory over Pitt from Saturday afternoon, North Carolina put the final to bed early. They went up 8-1 at half against Danger and cruised to a tournament-clinching 15-8 win.

“Using our depth to come out and win a championship game was huge for us; not just for this year but for the next three years,” explained coach Jessi Jones. The general consensus from the start has been that UNC, along with Carleton, is in a different tier from the rest of the division and are poised to improve upon last year’s semifinal showing at the College Championships. So far, they certainly look the part.

Pitt Proves They Are Still a Danger

Pittsburgh seemed to enter this weekend with a chip on their shoulder. They were here to prove that Danger is a top-level program that demands to be taken seriously, even in a rebuilding year. In some ways echoing UNC’s calm demeanor and execution, Pitt plays an offensive style that is unafraid to grind out long points, waiting for the right opportunity to attack. When the offensive line takes the field, you can hear coach Lauren Boyle from the sideline yelling, “As many as it takes!” to remind her players that there is no need for heroes when they have the skills to work it into the end zone. Pitt players often stuck to this advice until a particularly tantalizing deep or middle distance opportunity in a zone would arise, then they took their shot. Generally, those shots were good shots.

The amount of throws in Pitt’s handlers’ arsenal is wildly fun to watch. Handlers were throwing 90-degree blades, 40-yard hammers, over-the-top scoobers, off-hand backhands, and huge deep shots, while their cutters were snagging these tough-to-read catches as comfortably as if they were a pancake at the chest. Annelise Peters hit some dimes, with Linn Bjanes and Celeste Picone scooping up her throws. Helen Wu had amazing hucks and catches as she steadily ran the offensive line.

When asked what the team needs to work on moving forward, coach Boyle answered, “holding ourselves to a higher standard with possession.”

Pitt’s D-line was just as effective as their O-line, with players making fantastic layout bids and limiting the most important playmakers on the opponent’s roster. Once a turn occurred, the D-line wasted no time in converting their opportunity into a score. Jessie Sun had huge bids and immediately turned to deliver beautiful, shaped throws into the end zone for teammates including Maddi Pisone, Morgan Johnson, and Ari Bhatia.

But perhaps the most visible representation of Danger’s improved play this weekend was their sideline. Pitt’s sideline was loud and proud and followed the disc everywhere it went on the field. In between points, teammates were excitedly celebrating each other; they lifted players up both metaphorically and physically, gave huge high-fives, screamed loud cheers — and louder up calls.

“We are really focused on our team culture and support,” says Boyle. Building those strong team bonds and an even stronger skill set make for a dangerous combination from Pitt as we speed forward toward the postseason. No one should be underestimating them anymore.

Northeastern Holds Strong

Northeastern Valkyries put together a strong showing this weekend with their only two losses being suffered at the hands of the tournament finalists. In contrast to Pitt’s boisterous energy, the Valks cut a stoic presence both on and off the field. Their demeanor exemplified the way they played: a team confident in their players and able to trust the process.

Northeastern’s offense looked clean and efficient, making textbook fakes and utilizing the break side at a frequency that would make any coach proud. The offense is simple: take the open throw, don’t force anything, go by the books. It is almost relaxing to watch their players move down the field.

A modified four-person wall from the D-line stifled Northeastern’s opponents and gave the Valkyries opportunities to convert turnovers to breaks throughout their march through the bracket. It’s a defensive look not many teams have seen before and therefore it is very effective.

While Northeastern were outclassed by North Carolina on Saturday and came up short in the semifinal to Pitt, they leave Axton having racked up two wins over Ohio State. The key for Northeastern moving forward this spring is consistency. Two tournaments in, their ledger is spotted with both impressive wins — over Stanford, UCLA, and the double on OSU — as well as losses to other teams in the same tier of potentially fighting to make the bracket at Nationals — Vermont, Washington, Pittsburgh. With star power on their roster in the form of Ari Nelson and Clara Stewart and an experienced coach in Jason Adams, the Valkyries certainly have the potential to start turning those Ls into wins.

Ohio State Keeps on Grinding

For a team ranked inside the Top 10 all season, #6 Ohio State Fever delivered an uninspiring performance this weekend, dropping four games, including a double game point loss to regional rival Pitt. The results certainly do not align with we expected from Fever at the start of the season, but you can see signs of a great team percolating under the surface.

As should be expected from a Deanna Ball coached squad, Ohio State looked like a team that knows what they are doing and how to deploy their resources effectively. Fever utilized quick handler movement and short gains to sell their offensive flow until strong receivers could get open in the deep space. Beautiful hucks from Grace Conerly and Cara Seiber were tracked by the indomitable Emily Barrett all weekend — precisely the strategy and combination we knew could be effective for Fever from the start. Funing Zhang provided a consistent option in the reset space that afforded throwers plenty of opportunities to look for these monster throws.

When things were clicking, Fever looked good. They raced out to a 10-7 lead against Pittsburgh in the opening game of the weekend, before things took a turn. Poor decisions and execution mistakes gave up the disc too easily and Fever capitulated, giving up a four-point run to their regional rival to lose on double game point. The same issues surfaced again when facing Northeastern, as they never figured out the Valks zone in two games of trying. The Saturday crossover loss to Northeastern shoved Ohio State onto the same side of the bracket as UNC, a team that was firing on all cylinders this weekend and a tough draw in the semis. It was too tall a task for the inconsistent OSU, though they did manage to post the highest score total against the tournament champs on the weekend.

After the loss that knocked them out of contention, Ohio State coach Deanna Ball put the weekend in context, saying the team’s goal is “to maintain our focus on the bigger picture — looking at the entire season as a whole.” There’s certainly enough talent on this roster and time left in the season for Fever to develop into a Nationals semifinals contender once again, but with the success of Pittsburgh this weekend, they may need to get there sooner than later if they want to build some momentum heading toward the postseason and defend their Regional crown.

Quick Hits:

  • Virginia had a fantastic weekend that was kicked off by absolutely demolishing their pool. While banished to one of the lower pools instead of competing with the tournament’s elite, no opponent put up more than five goals on Hydra on Saturday. On Sunday, they knocked off Georgia in the prequarters before playing North Carolina closer than any other opponent all weekend. They easily handled in-region foe NC State as well as #12 Vermont in consolation to finish an impressive fifth. Watching Virginia, it is immediately apparent how deep their roster is. “We are a team that prides ourselves on being strong from top to bottom,” says coach Henry Frost, who is joined by Brittany Taylor and Emma Colavincenzo on the sideline. The coaching staff played every athlete on their roster and had no trouble trusting individuals with shifting between on-field roles. Captains Erin Flores and Blaise Sevier describe how “every player knows every role” and discuss the importance of their team chemistry. Their versatility and cohesion presented difficulty for opposing defenses because every player on the field for Hydra had throwing and cutting potential. Their offense is laid back and relaxed as if they have all the time in the world to score each point. After a couple of down year for the traditional Atlantic Coast powerhouse, the region should once again be scared knowing how deep Virginia can go.
  • It was tough sledding for Vermont Ruckus this weekend, as they were playing at less than full strength with Emma Massey, Maya Fein-Cole, and (notably) Kennedy McCarthy out through injury. Bethany Eldridge did her level best to hold downt the fort, running both defense and offense for Vermont as she produced huge blocks and then skied the largest defenders opponents could throw at her to score goals for Ruckus. Defensively, a junk, poachy zone was very effective and hard to work around which kept Vermont moving as they produced turnovers and converted them to scores with the athleticism up and down their roster. Still, it wasn’t enough to prevent losses to Pitt and Ohio State on Saturday. In the quarterfinals, New England competitor Northeastern earned revenge for a Vermont win at Santa Barbara Invite, then Ruckus ended the weekend with a disappointing four-point loss to Virginia in consolation. Despite the tough results, the team dynamic within Ruckus was incredible to watch, as the team adjusted their celebrations for each individual teammate. Just as endearing, the team brought a large group of supporters out to Virginia which is a great indicator of how much this growing program means to people. Expect that positivity to produce better returns in the future once McCarthy & Co. are back on the field and healthy.
  • For all the zone defense being played this weekend, NC State was one of the few offenses that looked comfortable, able to work around the multiple zone looks with their patient offense. They have great handler movement that slowly moves the disc up the field until there is an opportunity for a shot through the cup or wall. On the other side of the disc, their defense does not rely on waiting for a team to turn it over themselves, but rather generating blocks and turns. Those traits were enough to carry Jaga Monsta out of a lower pool and past Northwestern in the prequarters before they crashed out against Ohio State. This is a feisty team that should only be getting better from here, so watch out Atlantic Coast.
  • #20 Florida could be forgiven for believing they got a raw deal this weekend. Despite owning a victory over Georgia and playing within one of Dartmouth earlier this spring, FUEL came in seeded no.10, outside the power pools. All they did from there was handily defeat every college team they faced all weekend. After drawing the dangerous Triangle Tourists youth team in their first game of the bracket, they dropped a double game point prequarter and ended the weekend basically where they started: tied for ninth and without a chance to play the tournament’s top tier of competition. But make no mistake, this is a good team that looks every bit like they could win the Southeast this spring.
  1. Kelly Rusin
    Kelly Rusin

    Kelly began playing competitive ultimate in 2012 at the high school level. Although she no longer participates on the field, Kelly loves spending her weekends filming and coaching. She began working part time for Ultiworld as a camera operator in 2019 and moved to a full time position in 2024.

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