A look back at some of the most memorable and influential games of last decade.
September 17, 2020 by Kyle Weisbrod in Opinion with 0 comments
Ten years ago, I made a list of the top ten games for the first decade of the century. This time around, it is much harder. With the explosion in international talent, more venues for ultimate like beach and the semi-pro leagues, and more divisions and competition, there were just many, many more good games than ever before. With that said, USAU College and Club divisions are still the most prestigious and highest-profile games on the ultimate calendar — at very least, from an American perspective — and late rounds of those events still occupy most of the spots on this top ten list.
Obviously, any such list is subjective and there were over 50 games on an initial list of candidates I considered. For me, the key criteria include:
- Quality of play: Was the game played at a high level? Were the turns in the game driven more by outstanding play than by mistakes?
- Excitement: Was it close through the whole game? Did it feel like anyone could win? Every game that ultimately made the list finished with a margin of three points or fewer; most were decided on double game point.
- Impact on the story of the season: Did the outcome of the game change who won the eventual title? Fair or not, a very exciting semi where the winner loses the final is less impactful than where the semi winner goes on to win.
- Impact on the story of the sport: Did the game change the arc of the sport in some way? Was the sport showcased in a new way? Was there a new strategy on full display? Did the game lead to rule changes? Games that rewrite the long-term script for me are often the most interesting.
On that note, here we go!
10a. 2012 WFDF World Ultimate & Guts Championships Men’s Power Pool Play: Japan 14 – Canada 13 (Watch, lowlights)
10b. 2010 USAU D-I College Championships Men’s Final: Florida 15 – Carleton 12 (Watch Part 1, Part 2)
While not the most exciting or well-played pair of games, these two contests had potentially the largest impact on the modernization of the sport and how it is now played and officiated. Both games are infamous for dirty plays and acrimony. Both games demonstrated what happens if teams approach the sport with no intent to demonstrate mutual respect or even basic safety. Both games caused minor crises within their respective governing bodies about how to adapt the officiating processes and culture to allow for the sport to progress and be both playable and watchable while staying true to its founding values.
Ultimately, both organizations made fundamental changes to the role of third-party officials in their competitions. For WFDF, they began a long review process that eventually resulted in the adoption of Game Advisors, while USAU updated its training of observers to better address persistent violations of the rules and reduce stoppages. While not every problem was solved with these changes, as a result of these two games, the sport looked different in the 2010s than it did in the decade prior and the role of third-party arbiters has been increasingly normalized.
9a. 2012 USAU D-I College Championships Men’s Semifinal: Pittsburgh 14 – Carleton 12 (Watch)
9b. 2014 USAU D-I College Championships Men’s Quarterfinal: UNCW 14 – Pittsburgh 13
Pittsburgh’s run atop the College Men’s division last decade was bookended by two classic games, each against a Pitt rival.
Pitt ascended to the top of the division after going down 8-3 in a game that looked like it was going to be just another entry into the story of Carleton dominating Pittsburgh in elimination games at college nationals. CUT was the perennial contender, Pittsburgh had been an up-and-comer but now was just a team at a plateau in a division that is hard to break through. But the second half of their 2012 semifinal was for my money the best comeback of the decade and changed the narrative of not only the rivalry but of the division as Pittsburgh would go on to roll Wisconsin in the final and then go back-to-back the next year to establish themselves as the new standard in men’s college ultimate.
Pittsburgh was loaded with talent in 2012, including masterful thrower Alex Thorne and dominant playmaker Tyler Degiralamo, but it was captain Julian Hausman who Pitt coach Nick Kaczmarek pointed to as the difference-maker. According to Kaczmarek, “halftime hits and Julian Hausman brings the whole D-line in and says, ‘We will do this. It’s going to be done. It’s been on us all season to beat this team. We know that we can win every matchup, but we cannot let them bring their defense on the field.’”
The second half featured extraordinary handler pressure from the Pitt D-line and, on video, you can watch the difference in mental games on the faces and body postures of Pittsburgh and Carleton. Watching this game is the equivalent of taking a sports psychology 101 class.
Two years later, Pittsburgh’s run atop the division ended in the quarterfinals against UNCW. Pittsburgh – UNCW was one of the most electric rivalries in the sport during the decade. The two teams always brought intensity to the field and when they met each other, the emotions heightened the energy of the game. In 2013, this led to a physical altercation between UNCW’s Alan Gruntz and Pittsburgh’s Isaac Saul at the college championships, which cemented the rivalry.
But the 2014 College Championships entry into the rivalry is undoubtedly the peak. UNCW had started the weekend 0-2 and even getting to the quarterfinals was a remarkable surprise. In the quarterfinals, neither team could buy a break and the game went to 13-13 on serve. It wasn’t a clean game — at 10-9 alone each team had four turns. The only break of the game would be the clincher for UNCW after Pitt’s Max Thorne came up short on a layout catch in the red zone and Xavier Maxstadt launched a breakmark, cross-field forehand to just outside the endzone for UNCW. Two passes later, Maxstadt would find Austin McGrayne for the score marking one of the biggest upsets in the decade, in one of the biggest rivalries of the decade, and ending Pitt’s quest for the three-peat.
8. 2016 USAU Club Championships Women’s Semifinal: Riot 15 – Fury 14 (Watch)
The Riot vs Fury semifinal of 2016 was not only excellent in a vacuum, it managed to be one of the high points of one of the greatest rivalries in the sport while also serving as an exclamation point in one of the most important narratives of the decade — the movement for gender equity in ultimate.
In the fall of 2016, the gender equity movement was nearing a crescendo as both players and endemic media partners were pushing for more equitable coverage of the divisions. A cohort of player leaders hosted a series of discussions on the topic at the field site after the opening day of games, while Fulcrum media launched a crowdfunded ‘Equity Through Visibility’ project to provide coverage of every women’s team at the tournament. Still, USAU’s contract with ESPN and the unequal showcasing of the divisions on the governing bodies’ main media partner remained a central focus of the movement.
On that Saturday in Rockford, both men’s semifinals were being broadcast on ESPN3 while only the Molly Brown/Brute Squad semifinal made the big stage on the women’s side. Riot and Fury found themselves playing outside the stadium like a sideshow and captured by Ultiworld instead of “The Worldwide Leader in Sports.” The game started an hour after the showcased Ring of Fire/Revolver semi next door in the stadium. But by the end of the men’s game, fans had turned around in the stands to watch Riot and Fury demonstrate why shorting the women’s division wasn’t just bad for gender equity, but also bad for the sport.
Fury, who had a massive edge in USAU Championship elimination games against Riot, jumped out to a 4-1 lead, but Riot played gritty ultimate both against Fury and history to draw level and even earn a one-break lead before the half. The game wasn’t clean but it was close and full of huge plays. As the game reached its thrilling end, fans began crowding the sidelines — in some places four or six rows deep — raising the energy of the game and giving everyone who was watching one last taste of what semifinals used to feel like in the pre-ESPN days on the friendly fields of Sarasota.
At double game point, Riot would play perfect vert stack offense to advance to the final 15-14 throwing off history and emphasizing that it was unacceptable to have the women’s division serve as an undercard for the men’s.1
Honorable Mention Riot vs Fury rivalry game:
- 2014 WFDF World Ultimate Club Championships Women’s Final: Riot 17 – Fury 15
7. 2016 USAU Club Championships Men’s Final: Ironside 14 – Revolver 13 (Watch)
This game is responsible for the ending of one narrative (“Boston is always the bridesmaid and never the bride”) and fueling another (“Kurt Gibson is the best male player of the decade”), both critical storylines of the decade. Boston had last won a men’s title in 2000, the end of a long run at the top by DoG. After that, there were 15 years of the city’s top team being a contender but coming up short under three different monikers — DoG, Boston Ultimate, and then Ironside — often with a second team nipping at their heels competing at a national level and splintering talent somewhat. During that stretch, Boston men’s ultimate felt cursed — unable to define an identity and perpetually running up against the greatest team of a generation in Revolver.
By 2016, Ironside had legends playing key roles toward the ends of their careers with Jeff Graham (35), Jared Inselmenn (35), and Josh “Cricket” Markette (37), trying to return a championship to Boston. They also brought back Kurt Gibson, who had played for Boston Ultimate for one year in 2008 before building a championship legacy elsewhere. Yet Revolver seemed as unstoppable as ever, having stolen away former Ironside and World Games captain George Stubbs while strengthening a title-winning side up-and-down their roster. In the 2016 final, San Francisco displayed their championship mentality, mounting an 8-6 lead at halftime with nary a turnover, and appearing for all the world like they would once again prove too much for Boston.
But the second half of the game opened with a three-point run by Ironside to put them in control. The two teams battled point-for-point until Revolver got a break on a Nathan White point block and score to lead 12-11. Ironside tied it up on 12s on a crazy catch by Markette off of another Revolver point block. Ironside would go on to get a break and take a 13-12 lead, again with Revolver getting a piece of the disc, this time it was Simon Higgins.
At 13s and at double-game point Revolver almost kept the old narratives alive as Tyler Chan and Gibson miscommunicated on a reset pass, but a turf from Beau Kittredge gave new life to Ironside. Gibson wound up with the assist on his 21st point of the game to finally give Ironside their title. This game was full of close plays and perhaps the highest level of play seen at the club level all decade; the result could have swung either way very easily, but the fact that Ironside prevailed rewrote the legacy for a program that had at that point made eight consecutive semifinals without ever having tasted glory.
6. 2019 USAU D-I College Championships Women’s Final: UCSD 12 – Dartmouth 11 (Watch)
Final of a major tournament? Check. One team seeking a three-peat while another team trying to put a cap on a historic season? Check. Two stars at the peak of the game? Check. Double game point? Check. Wild plays? Check.
This game had it all. Dena Elimelech and UCSD were the clear crowd favorites trying to knock Jack Verzuh, Claire Trop, and Caitlyn Lee off of their Death-Starian perch atop the women’s college game. All of the stars lived up to their billing, with the Dartmouth trio ruthlessly delivering on both sides of the disc, while Elimelech won her fair share of the battles against the Callahan winner, including a massive kick block on a Verzuh huck attempt. The strong upwind/downwind nature of the game increased the tension as each team scored upwind only one time in the first 22 points leading to a double game point at 11-11. UCSD in particular had been beset with missed upwind scoring opportunities throughout the second half and now they were faced with a single do-or-die upwind defensive point with a championship on the line.
Dartmouth just had to receive and score downwind to complete an epic three-year run atop the division. They opted for their most common and successful play right away — a Lee huck to Verzuh — but the throw came up short and UCSD had an opportunity to work it up nearly the full 70. The final possession had the crowd cheering with each UCSD completion up the field and featured two incredible, iconic plays from Elimelech. First came the “mermaid” catch, somehow trapping a low throw between her shins as both she and the disc fell toward the ground. Then came another possession-saving layout catch near the goal line before throwing the score to Iwamoto to earn the title and earn herself a Player of the Year award.
5. 2012 WFDF World Ultimate Championships Women’s Final: Japan 16 – USA 13 (Watch)
The USA didn’t lose many games in international competition over the decade and almost every one of those losses is notable. But this one is the most important because the US team here was a Fury squad at the absolute top of the game, in the midst of a historic seven-year title run atop the women’s division.
Japan had sent a warning shot across the bow of US dominance two years prior, as UNO played Fury to 16-15 in an incredible WUCC final in Prague. It was clear that the Japanese were on the doorstep of finally challenging the US in a national team setting, and the 2012 WUGC final didn’t disappoint. Led by All-Decade level stars Eri Hirai and Ayumi Fujioka, the Japanese team out-played and out-strategized the Americans at every turn.
The level of play in the game was through the roof in front of a huge hometown crowd in Sakai, Japan. It was Fury’s first loss in a national or world championship event since 2005. And they didn’t lose the game so much as Japan won it.
Honorable Mention upsets of US teams in international competition:
- 2017 World Games Pool Play: Colombia 13 – USA 12
- 2017 World Championships of Beach Ultimate Women’s Final: Russia 11 – USA 10
4. 2019 Premier Ultimate League Semifinal: Medellín Revolution 27 – Atlanta Soul 26 (Double OT) (Watch)
If you watched this game you might say that while the AUDL created the semi-professional ultimate structure, it wasn’t until the Premier Ultimate League stepped in that it was perfected. The PUL took the best aspects from USAU ultimate (field size, observers) and the AUDL (spectator-friendly, showcased, timed game), tweaked the rules on final possessions of the quarter, and created a beautiful spectacle that held true to the core values of the sport.
The concern though was that by adding Revolution — already the most exciting and talented team on the planet before adding a few US stars from cities that didn’t have a PUL team to that roster — the competitive balance of the league would suffer. But the semifinals on Championship Weekend showed that not to be the case. Both semis were thrilling one-point games, but Revolution being seriously challenged by the hometown Atlanta Soul was a surprise few saw coming.
In that semifinal, Atlanta’s Robyn Fennig made the case that she was the best player in the world while PUL president Maddie Frey, Erynn Schroeder, and the rest of the Soul roster went punch-for-punch with the juggernauts from South America and league MVP Elizabeth Mosquera. Revolution barely edged out Soul in a thrilling double OT game before knocking off the Raleigh Radiance for the inaugural PUL title.
Honorable Mention spectator-focused games:
- 2016 AUDL Semifinal: Seattle Cascades 26 – Madison Radicals 25
- 2019 Color of Ultimate Showcase: Team Tuba 19 – Team Simpson 18
3. 2014 USAU Club Championships Men’s Semifinal: Ironside 13 – Ring of Fire 12 (Watch Part 1, Part 2)
What can you say about this game that hasn’t already been said? The game was the final semi of the day, being played under the lights, lending it a prime-time atmosphere. Ring of Fire, long the bad boys of the division, had jokingly embraced the role and were all-in on ironically booing themselves. Ironside, long the contenders that had fallen short of the title, had built an 11-6 lead and looked like they’d comfortably waltz into another final, with perhaps their best chance yet of capturing a title, having seen favorites Revolver shockingly knocked out in the quarterfinals. But as Ring ran off five straight to tie the game, it looked like Ironside was indeed cursed as the cap went on to 13. Ironside righted the ship to make it 12-11 and Ring responded to make it double game point.
By this point, the large, rowdy late-night crowd was all in. If you were watching this game, you could not help but have an emotional investment in who won. And that’s why the final point was 21 minutes and 22 seconds of emotional turmoil for everyone that has left the community with PTSD. Big blocks, controversial foul calls, devastating mistakes of exhaustion, even a streaker — this point had it all. And when it was all said and done, Danny Clark caught the game-winner off a deflection and drop by Ironside captain George Stubbs, allowing Boston to advance to the final.
2. 2017 US Open Women’s Final: Revolution 15 – Molly Brown 13 (Watch)
At this point on this list, I mustache you some questions. When was the first time you remember seeing the names Cardenas, Mosquera, Ospina, Torres, and Cartegena? When was the last time you watched a style of play that was different enough that it was like watching the sport for the first time?
For many people, it was the 2017 US Open final and the revelation that was Revolution. Now, to be fair, Revolution was not an overnight success. Coach Mauricio Moore had been building the program since the previous decade and the growth was marked by wins by Colombia in the girls divisions of the 2012 and 2014 World Junior Ultimate Championships. But this game marked the moment when Revolution would be the first club team ever from outside North America or Japan to make a legitimate claim as “Best in the world.”
Molly Brown, their opponents, was chock-full of highlight level players themselves in Jesse Shofner, Lisa Pitcaithly, Liza Minor, Lisi Lohre, and, arguably the best North American player at that moment, Claire Chastain. But with their unrelenting, exciting, and energetic play, Revolution won the biggest event of the year that they could attend and Yina Cartegena made it clear that she was the best player in the game.
Honorable Mention excellently played international eye-opener:
- 2016 WFDF World Ultimate & Guts Championships Men’s Final: USA 15 – Japan 11
1. 2016 USAU D-I College Championships Men’s Semifinal: Minnesota 14- Pittsburgh 13 (Watch)
Is there a word for when a game somehow both reaches the essence of the sport and also transcends it to become something beyond sport? That’s what the 2016 game between Minnesota and Pittsburgh was. It was a game in which everyone who played, watched in person, or followed online will always remember for the pure joy and spectacle of the moment.
The day had already been something special. Two of the previous three semifinals had been worthy of being considered for this list. In the second women’s semifinal, Stanford edged a stacked Oregon squad that had been looking for a repeat title, 15-13. The first men’s semi saw underdog Harvard edge UNC 13-11 and featured a heroic performance from John Stubbs that would earn him the Callahan award the following year.
Thunderstorms delayed the start of the day’s last game to past 10 PM and had given everyone in the crowd time to start partying — including a raucous Pitt alumni section led by Isaac Saul on a bull horn. And then there was Hank Womble of Auburn on the trombone leading the rest of the crowd that was enthusiastically behind Minnesota. The energy in the stands and on the fields was so electric that you could feel it while watching online.
The two teams had already met earlier in the event with Minnesota blowing a 13-11 lead to Pittsburgh in a 15-13 loss. Since that pool play matchup, Minnesota had knocked off tournament favorites Massachusetts but also suffered a rash of injuries, including team leader Ryan Osgar going down. The semifinal was a game of runs. Minnesota looked to have the game in hand at 9-5, but Pittsburgh came back to tie it at 10s. Minnesota scored and broke to make it 12-10 and Pitt responded to bring it to 12s with the cap at 14. Pitt had the disc to take the 13-12 lead but Minnesota earned it back and scored. Pitt tied it at 13s — double game point. It only took one possession for Minnesota to win. It was after 12:30 AM and while everyone in Raleigh tried to catch their breath and come down from the high of the game, the venue’s security guards pushed to get the celebration off the field following the most electric game of the decade.
This game would have made the top 3 of this list if Riot could have gone on to win the title, but they were foiled by Brute Squad 12-11 in another excellent game. ↩