Could the underdogs who survive pool play reach the top 8?
June 8, 2020 by Graham Gerhart and Daniel Prentice in Opinion, Recap with 0 comments
The simulation engine used for this article was built by guest contributors Alex Trahey and Daniel Walton. This article would not have been possible without their effort and expertise.
The college postseason is perhaps the most exciting set of events in ultimate. A plethora of teams come together with equal opportunity to reach the same championship. While favorites make up the primary ingredient of the dish, the upsets, double game points, and comebacks add the seasoning that makes for a flavorful and satisfying meal. There’s not quite another event like it in our sport.
We didn’t want to live in a world with no college postseason, so we sat down and asked, “How could the 2020 College Series have gone down?” We took the rankings algorithm, adjusted slightly to reflect our staff’s opinion of teams, and added a pinch of randomness that comes with life, and simulated how each and every regional event could play out. There were some creative liberties and constraints applied (see “Methodology”) before we sent our writers to imagine the sets of events that could have led to our simulation’s results.
Previously, we shared the top five finishers in both the D-I men’s and D-I women’s divisions from each regional championship, along with a narrative story of how things might have played out, and every game from every regional championship. We followed up with the pool play games of the D-I College Championships from both the women’s and men’s division.
With plenty of upsets to shuffle around pool play, we shift our attention to the prequarters matchups to kick off bracket play.
To simulate an ultimate game, we determined the outcome of successive points by flipping a weighted coin. One coin is used for when Team A starts the point on offense and a second coin (with a different weight) is used for when Team B starts the point on offense. If the coin comes up heads, Team A scores the point; if it comes up tails, Team B scores.
For simplicity, games were played hard to 15 points — no timed round constraints, no win by two.1 The probability of heads for each coin is determined by the power rating difference between the two teams. We created a model based on results from the 2019 college postseason — and some minor human input from our staff at the start of the process — to assume how likely a team is to win a game and what the expected score is based on their power rating differential with their opponent. We use this empirical relationship to translate power rating differential — teams’ power ratings are based on 2020 regular season results with some small adjustments given the shortened season — into probabilities for the weighted coins. This approach was used previously to simulate the outcome of the 2019 College Championships. For more background on how games are simulated, check out this article.
To simplify: using past postseason data, we calculated how likely a team is to win a game against an opponent with a different rating. Then we took this season’s data and rolled the dice to see which teams would win.
There are some additional elements to note:
- BYU is included because we thought that’d be more interesting.
- We tuned our model to account for how teams behave during blowouts, decreasing the likelihood of massive margins.
- Writers did not influence the simulation’s results.
- Power Rankings are from our final update of the regular season and do not reflect any simulated results since.
Defensively-Minded Pittsburgh Continues Strong Nationals in Win over Northeastern
Every coach dreams of seeing their team peak at the exact right time in their season, and for coaches Lauren Boyle, Lauren Franke, and Molly Moore, that happened right before their eyes in Pittsburgh’s prequarters win over Northeastern. Everything fell into place for Danger, as their defensive system worked to perfection while their offense remained fluid, and adapted to every scheme Northeastern threw out to slow them down.
From the outset, it was clear neither team was going down without a fight. In fact, there wasn’t a single turnover for five straight points as the two programs traded clean holds. Pittsburgh did a fantastic job at containing Ari Nelson in the first few points, but Northeastern was well-equipped to work without her, and much of their downfield movement centered around Lamia Farah, who shook off defenders in flow. Northeastern appeared to have the upper hand on offense during this time, using the lateral space well and executing high-powered upline cuts for quick yardage gains. The Valkyries were also the first team to earn a turn, with Ellen Harsha making a desperate run-through block to give her team a break chance, which they converted on quickly.
Dropping a point only served to wake Pittsburgh’s defense up, as their offense converted the next point and allowed a newly motivated defensive line to take the field. It was during that point that Pittsburgh’s efficient switching defense finally panned out, as Northeastern’s handlers spotted an open cutter, who was actually set up to be defended by Jessie Sun. With the trap set, Sun snagged the disc and Pittsburgh earned a break of their own, with a second soon to follow off a similar play, this time with Madison Pisone closing in on the switch trap that the team had set. Just like that, the momentum swung firmly in favor of Pittsburgh.
Northeastern wasn’t done yet, though. Sofia Horan and Clara Stewart showed excellent chemistry on the next few points to rack up two assists and a goal between them as Northeastern kept the game close, down only by a break at half, with Pitt leading 7-6.
The second half belonged to Pitt’s offensive line, as Linn Bjanes, Annelise Peters, and Celeste Picone played about as clean a game as their coaches could have hoped. Northeastern did their best to throw Danger’s offense out of step, including a stifling zone that forced a few dicey scoobers out of Peters, but Pittsburgh was playing with house money at this point and was determined to finish out their hot streak.
The turning point of the game was a sequence of three straight breaks from Pitt’s defense, where their smart poaching got the better of Northeastern and broke their spirit. After the first break — a layout block from Beth Manturuk that turned into bookends — the Valkyries offense became a little too erratic with their deep shots, feeling pressured to end points quickly. They overshot a couple of hucks, and while Pittsburgh wasn’t perfect on offense when they got possession, they wore out the Northeastern offense enough that they could grind out two more breaks from there, giving Pitt a 12-7 lead.
After stopping the bleeding with a hold, Northeastern earned a break of their own thanks to heroics from Nelson, who skied two Pitt players to steal possession. Still, the climb from being down 12-9 was too much, and Pittsburgh dug their heels in enough to engineer two holds, taking a 14-11 lead.
With the game on the line, Northeastern tried a sidestack that deteriorated after Sun placed herself in the middle of the throwing lane, daring the handlers to make a pass. They wilted, and eventually coughed up a wide swing that allowed Pitt to punch in the quick goal, ending the game on a perfectly executed defensive play, which punctuated a strong defensive performance from the team all game.
Gnolek and Northwestern March Past UCSD to Quarterfinals
Northwestern pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the history of college Nationals by seed, shocking defending champions UC San Diego and tying 2016 Dartmouth’s record as the lowest-seeded team to ever make quarterfinals with a narrow 15-13 win.
Turnovers were rare in the first half, and breaks even rarer as Northwestern’s Sarah Gnolek continued her impressive rise up the assist leader board and UCSD’s balanced offensive attack maintained their impressive level of performance from pool play.
Northwestern was able to convert two of their five break chances in the first half; UCSD, one of their four. Painfully for UCSD, one of those two Northwestern breaks came right at the half. After a massive layout goal from Pin-Hsuan Chen got the game back on serve for D-Co, they immediately surrendered a quick Gnolek huck hold and then a break off a dropped pull to go into half trailing 8-6.
To make matters worse, the reigning champions were broken again on the first point of the second half, thanks to an impressive set of bookends from Sydney Stelzer. But twins Ava and Lauren Hanna were stellar for UCSD in response, one of them scoring or assisting on every goal as the team went on a 4-1 run to draw the score level at 10-10.
The offenses dominated once again to 13-13. Gnolek hucked to Talia Willmert for the hold for 14-13, and then quarterbacked the offense from her own red zone after a huck turn from UCSD to get the break to win it. It’s the first time Northwestern has advanced to quarterfinals since 2007, only lending more energy to the shock run of the tournament.
Vermont Pushes the Pace in Spectacular Comeback Against UCLA
After Vermont and UCLA upended their respective pools, they ensured one of them would make the top eight, despite their seeds, in their prequarter clash. With no previous matchups, each team looked to impose their style of play against an unfamiliar opponent. While UCLA seemed stronger for much of the contest, a late push from Vermont, led by star Kennedy McCarthy, sent them deeper into the bracket with a 15-13 victory.
The game was close on the scoreboard for the first half, but it felt like BLU was in control. Vermont, in such a high-pressure environment at their first Nationals, fumbled some possessions away against zones that became easy UCLA scores. The playmaking of McCarthy, Emily Bridgers, and Bethany Eldridge helped keep the margin narrow, making difficult saves on errant throws that could have easily been turnovers. UCLA broke to begin the game, Vermont broke back two points later, but the half ended with BLU leading 8-7, having seized one more break.
The two teams finally found moments of back and forth separation in the second half. After a string of four holds with only a single turnover between them made it 10-9, UCLA’s Erin Doyle got a pair of blocks as the deep in the zone, with Diana Zhang slickly breaking the mark to find Doyle for the bookends. BLU tapped in another break, taking their largest lead at 12-9. Two holds later, with the score 13-10 in favor of UCLA, Vermont replied with a more patient offensive approach, showing a willingness to walk the disc backwards and a resistance to giving Doyle any more juicy jump balls. A high inside break from Charlotte Laseter landed in the hands of Sarah VonDoepp for the hold.
After a lot of clean offensive play from UCLA in the second half, Vermont ratcheted up the reset pressure and the pace. With faster transitions after turnovers, Ruckus was able to eat up yardage as UCLA tried to transition into their zone looks. McCarthy found Bridgers with a long forehand for a one-throw break for 13-12. Emma Massey got a massive point block on a high-stall Cameron Jewitt huck attempt, and Vermont converted another for a tie. A timeout did not offer a salve, as UCLA turned over a hammer once play resumed. While they managed to triage the initial fast break, Vermont worked the disc back and around for what felt like an eternity. But a UCLA injury allowed Vermont to sub in Bridgers, and once play restarted, she almost immediately broke free deep for another break.
Just one goal away from the surging upset, Vermont continued to press on the gas pedal. They missed a couple of times, but UCLA simply couldn’t connect on offense, underthrowing hucks to Stephanie Yen and Malia Smith and dropping a deflected reset. The disc had barely hit the ground before it was up in the air to McCarthy for an uncontested break score to close the game at 15-13. Vermont’s 5-0 run to save their season will be one of the most memorable moments of this tournament.
Underdog Ohio State Scores Epic Comeback Upset Against Washington
In the last game of the day to finish, Ohio State Fever added one more upset to the ledger by edging Washington Element 15-14 in an absolute classic. The underdogs overcame a three-goal deficit on three different occasions and broke Washington on the final point of the game to earn their second straight quarterfinals appearance.
Washington dominated in the early stages. Ikran Elmi applied sweltering pressure to Ohio State’s Cara Sieber, while Grace Young was able to minimize Fever’s Emily Barrett’s downfield. Abby Hecko was instrumental off of turns and Washington turned their strong defensive showing into three early breaks and a 6-3 lead.
Ohio State pulled freshman Grace Conerly onto the offense and she acted as a release valve for Sieber and Barrett. Fever then quickly brought the game back level at 7-7, but when Steph Phillips hit Alexa Yadama on a half field huck for half, it meant that Ohio State was still down a break at the intermission.
After grinding their way to a hold to start the second half, the offensive errors that defined their lackluster pool play performance returned for Washington. Sieber exploded for a layout block on Yadama and when Fever punched in the break for 9-8, it was clear the team was feeding off the energy generated by their star player’s big play. They rode the momentum into their first lead at 10-9.
The pendulum swung back in the favor of Washington as Hecko and Phillips began to play every point together, adding an impenetrable calm to Washington’s backfield. They stormed right back with a 5-1 run to put themselves on the cusp of a quarters berth, up 14-11.
But Barrett finally solved the riddle of Young’s matchup defense and commanded the field in the game’s final stretch. She skied a mass of defenders to make it 14-12, assisted to Sheridan Cleave for 14-13 after an impressive block deep, and reeled in the goal for 14-14 with a big layout grab. It was the third time of the game Ohio State had leveled the game after trailing by three goals, this time to force double game point. After Hecko was forced to punt on a high stall, Sieber and Barrett worked the disc into the end zone. Sieber swung to Conerly, who bladed a forehand to Maddie Fleming for the game-winner to keep Fever’s season alive and send Washington home with broken hearts.