After an upset-filled prequarters run, could anyone upend the bracket by beating a pool winner?
June 9, 2020 by Keith Raynor 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 and the prequarters round.
Three of the lower seeds advanced through prequarters, but now have to face the bye-holding pool winners. Time to find out if anyone can keep the momentum going in the quarterfinals.
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.
Depth of Carleton Powers Mid-Game Run in Win Over Pitt
Top seed and title favorite Carleton Syzygy advanced to the semifinals with an ultimately comfortable 15-9 win over Pittsburgh Danger in their quarterfinal matchup. After the two teams looked evenly matched through the first third of the game, Syzygy took over the middle frame and strode through the finish line. As has been their modus operandi all weekend (and season), Carleton’s army of capable contributors overwhelmed Danger.
There was every reason to expect Carleton to move on. After a season of establishing themselves as #1, Carleton hasn’t been involved in any game at Nationals with a close final score thus far. Last year, they were eliminated on double game point in their now-legendary quarterfinal against future champion, UC San Diego. With another year of development from their young all-star squad, anything less than a semifinal berth this season would have been viewed as a disappointment for Syzygy. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh had already blasted by their Nationals expectations and were playing with house money this far into the bracket.
But none of that seemed to matter through the game’s beginnings. Carleton’s offense had at times looked inconsistent through the first two days at Nationals and Pittsburgh’s staunch defense had been their calling card, so when the first few points were gritty, there was a lot of optimism for Danger. They were dragging a more skilled and experienced opponent into the mud, playing with gusto and physicality. But despite generating plenty of turns, Pittsburgh was broken first, losing a five-turnover point with a timeout that made it even longer. Danger refused to be taken out of the game, however, breaking back on their third D-line point, with Beth Manturuk hitting Madison Pisone just inside the back cone to tie the game at 3-3.
The offenses started to assert themselves as they adapted to the defense they were seeing. Syzygy got a bit more aggressive on offense, attacking deep with Carly Campana, Nariah Sims, and Karen Ehrhardt. Pittsburgh’s offense flowed directly through Annelise Peters, who dominated the team’s touches. That workload came with turnovers — Peters had a game-high eight turns — but also six assists, including on five of Pittsburgh’s O-line scores. But both teams earned holds as things neared halftime. Peters crossed over for a D-line point and was there to help earn Pitt a break to take a 6-5 lead after a red zone turn by Carleton.
The game turned on the next few points, as the top seed forced Pittsburgh into long possessions while scoring quickly on their side. Lauren Carothers-Liske, Kate Lanier, Maya Powell, and Karen Ehrhardt were all critical for Syzygy as they went on a 6-0 run to blow the game open. But the spark came from Isabel Arevalo, who blitzed Pittsburgh with blocks on back-to-back points that both became Carleton breaks; the first of those was a dramatic diving effort to thwart an around to space where she slammed the window shut.
Carleton would never relent from that 11-6 lead, as they revved up while Pittsburgh wound down. Danger’s handlers could find little breathing room when Carleton went matchup and were boxed in by some trap zone looks in the second half. Despite the strong cutting of Linn Bjanes and Celeste Picone, the handlers couldn’t always get in position to distribute the disc as their reset systems were strained. While they managed one break in the second half, with just two holds, they never mounted a comeback.
Carleton returns to the semifinals for the first time since 2015, and will face the same opponent: Stanford Superfly. Syzygy have all the pieces necessary to win a title, but at this point, their inability to put together a complete game could be cause for concern. None of their rough patches against Ohio State, UC Santa Barbara, or Pittsburgh has put them in a spot too difficult for their powerful roster to overcome, but it does feel a bit like they are playing with fire as they enter the tournament’s final rounds to face their stiffest competition.
Stanford Comes Back from Early Hole To End Northwestern’s Run
After going down 4-0 and looking like they might get blown out, Stanford Superfly bounced back and seized a lead they’d never give back, defeating Northwestern 15-11 in their quarterfinal. It ends a historic run for Gung Ho, while sending Stanford to their second semifinal in three years. As we’ve come to expect, Stanford’s innovative defensive playbook and strong handler play allowed them to put the breaks on Northwestern’s athletic offense.
No one expected the no. 17 seed Northwestern to ambush no. 5 Stanford, but then again, nobody even expected Northwestern to be here. Gung Ho came out on fire offensively, and while Sarah Gnolek had been in the leading role throughout the tournament, it was the Corinne Burger show once the curtain was drawn on this one. She caught a huck from Gnolek as an iso cut out of side stack that set up their first hold, got a run through block on the following break, and threw an offhand backhand assist to Gnolek for the third break. Burger was excellent in maintaining possession through Stanford’s poach sets that they tried to fall back on after turns. While Northwestern was the underdog, it was Superfly whose inexperience seemed to be overtaking them.
Stanford found the end zone for the first time after Gung Ho tried to mix it up with a zone look of their own. Star handler Hallie Dunham, in a role remarkably similar to Gnolek’s, got a standout performance from one her teammates: Xinzhi Zou. The Stanford handler put on a clinic penetrating Northwestern’s cup on the way to back-to-back Superfly holds, making it 5-2. The Great Lakes champs scored a slow hold of their own, giving it away a couple of times against a Stanford wall zone before finding pay dirt, and Stanford responded in kind on a quick strike from Dunham to Bridget Connor for 6-3.
The Gung Ho offense deteriorated as Superfly finally found the right tool in their toolkit: a compressed cup zone that took advantage of Northwestern’s propensity to throw over the top. With a fourth body denying easy resets, Northwestern’s handlers were tempted to find downfield release valves. Connor and her cast of wings were opportunistic downfield attacking any attempts to skip past their cup, and forced turnovers with timely rushes. On the turn, Stanford’s handlers dutifully worked the disc around with resets and small gains until one of their cutters could bust open for greater yardage. They continued this pattern as they cashed in four breaks in a row. That gave them a 7-6 lead and put them a break, a context that held until halftime.
There was still life in Northwestern, with Talia Willmert swatting away a huck to start the second half, and Burger slinging the disc to Catherine Chen for the game-tying break. Gung Ho was able to coax a short field from the Southwest champs on the next point, and took a timeout to set up a red zone play. It was blown up by a smart poach for Maiko Isogawa, and Stanford bull-rushed the other way with a numbers advantage for a critical hold that kept them in the driver’s seat. Northwestern missed two straight hucks on the next point, and Stanford walked in a break to take a 10-8 lead.
From there, Stanford began to outpace Northwestern with higher quality play. Zou continued a tremendous performance, adding two second-half assists and a goal to her pair of first-half assists. Northwestern’s defense began to look a step slow, freeing up Sarah Kratzer and Sesha McMinn to each score a pair of goals. Gung Ho was never truly able to threaten to break again, as their isolation sets got clogged up by the Superfly defense and they were often forced into less desirable second or third options. A scoober from Dunham to Connor set up an easy continue to McMinn for the game-ending goal.
It’s a remarkable story for Stanford, who returns to semifinals in the same season they return to Nationals. One of the most decorated programs in ultimate, Superfly failed to qualify last season, just a year removed from a semifinals appearance. Their return to form has been an impressive feat, another feather in the cap of their revered coaching staff.
Meanwhile, Northwestern’s run certainly earned them a lot of respect and provided some of the most exciting action to be found in Milwaukee.
Tufts Edges Vermont in Back-and-Forth Rematch
The game may have been less difficult for Tufts than the double game point victory when the two sides last met in late April, but Ruckus was still a tough out this time around. In particular, Ewo struggled to slow down Vermont’s Kennedy McCarthy in the game’s early going. McCarthy was a problem for Tufts in the New England final as well, but her play all weekend long in Milwaukee has been at an elevated level and that continued in Vermont’s first quarterfinal appearance in modern history.
But it was a block from Greta Pellerin that set up Vermont’s first goal, a break score via McCarthy. In the early stages of the game, Tufts elected to not stick Margo Urheim on McCarthy in an apparent attempt to keep their star player fresher for her offensive responsibilities. That meant that McCarthy had a fairly easy time scoring and then assisting on Vermont’s next two goals, but the decision paid off for Tufts when Urheim went every other after a Bethany Eldridge turn to get Tufts their break back for 4-3.
Tufts also switched into a 3-3-1 zone, which drastically limited McCarthy’s impact downfield as Urheim patrolled the deep space. While Tufts did a better job generating turns, they weren’t able to capitalize on a handful of chances to add to their lead until the final point of the half. April Weintraub got a point block on Emily Bridgers and Claire Dunn picked up and hit Julia Lober to capitalize on a line stacked to take half 8-6.
Holds were traded out of the intermission as Hannah Wells and Molly Lipman played rocksteady in the Tufts backfield and Bridgers created a couple of nice connections with Sarah VonDoepp for Vermont. But it was Tufts who grabbed the next break, increasing their lead at 11-8 when Urheim got the better of Eldridge in the air and Jordan Bricknell immediately took off deep for a big Urheim backhand.
The third Tufts break signified the end of the offensive nature of the game as both teams began to falter and look a little tired. Vermont struck back with a break of their own on a lengthy point for 11-10 as McCarthy scored her first goal since it was 7-6. Tufts then immediately re-established the three-goal lead at 13-10 thanks to back-to-back layout goals from Hazel Ostrowski and Emily Decker.
The breaks were traded furiously until the final point of the game, as Vermont fought back to within one again at 13-12, before giving up the final two goals of the game to Tufts. Fittingly it was Urheim who scored the final goal, just beating McCarthy to a pass from Ostrowski.
Vermont showed the type of tenacity against Tufts that led them all the way to quarterfinals as a no.17 seed making their first Nationals appearance since 1987. But ultimately Tufts’ experience and depth of playmaking were enough to see them safely through a back-and-forth final stretch, and in the process, locking up the program’s first semifinals appearance since 2012.
Pleiades Depth Too Much for Ohio State
North Carolina Pleiades are headed back to their second straight semifinals appearance after a dominant 15-9 victory over Ohio State Fever, who were looking to perform the same feat. North Carolina, though, was simply too deep for Fever. The Pleiades avoided any real hitches offensively, getting broken just twice, and mounted endless defensive pressure from the very start of the game.
Not only did North Carolina look deeper than Ohio State out of the gates, they looked fresher as well, reaping the benefits of their bye during the prequarters round. Pleiades broke on the first point of the game on a huck to Dawn Culton after a miscommunication between Fever’s Cara Sieber and Funing Zhang.
That first point set the tone for the entire first half. Sieber and Emily Barrett struggled to make the impact they had earlier in the weekend as North Carolina was able to rotate athletes like Culton, Anne Worth, and Bridget Mizener onto the star pair.
When Ohio State did manage to work in a hold, their defense wasn’t able to do much to slow down the North Carolina offense. They earned a break to get within 5-3 after an unforced Worth throwaway led to a Grace Conerly huck to Sieber, but otherwise could not slow down Pleiades’ offensive core of Worth, Mizener, Tyler Smith, and Ella Juengst. North Carolina went into the break up 8-4.
The second half was more of the same. Ohio State tried to vary their defensive looks, but they mostly came off of O-line turnovers. North Carolina never looked especially bothered as they pushed their lead to its largest margin at 13-6.
Conerly did inject a bit of life into her side with a massive layout block on a throw from Smith to Juengst. Fever subsequently got their only break of the second half to make it 13-8, but they simply didn’t have enough answers to North Carolina’s defensive pressure or offensive balance to successfully stage a true comeback.
A few anticlimactic holds were traded into the end of the game, giving North Carolina the lopsided 15-9 victory. North Carolina’s well-balanced, complete performance was a continuation of most of the pool play games. They continue to look sharp and locked in while their depth has still been far too large a hurdle for any of their opponents thus far. As a result of their comfortable win against Ohio State, they’ll get to put these strengths to the test at least once more against Tufts in semifinals.