PUL Championship Series 2021: East Recap

After DC crushed on Saturday, Raleigh got revenge in the final.

The Radiance's Ashley Powell stabs a diving catch during the Premier Ultimate League's 2021 East Championship Series of women's frisbee.
The Radiance’s Ashley Powell stabs a diving catch during the PUL’s 2021 East Championship Series. Photo: Kevin Leclaire — Ultiphotos.com

BAYONNE, NJ – By the time Bridget Mizener took the final pull into her hands, there was already a sense of celebration for the Raleigh Radiance‘s crowning win in the Premier Ultimate League Championship Series’ East final. Raleigh had bounced back from a poor showing in their first game the day prior, and despite missing some of their biggest names, confidently took down a DC Shadow team that had ambushed all comers on Saturday, by a score of 20-18.

But the celebration was for more than just Raleigh: it was a league, teams, athletes, and fans who had journeyed through a difficult year to reach this point.

Raleigh Redeemed with Final Win

Raleigh is a team with great athletes, some big throwers, and some tough defenders, but of all of the characteristics that defined their weekend, their ability to adjust stood out the most. How else would a team flip a 10-goal loss one day to a two-goal win against the same opponent the next? The team, coached by David Allison, not only identified areas ripe for improvement, but implemented their changes effectively and immediately. It was a new game on Sunday, and one Raleigh was ready to take.

That readiness was on display from the game’s first point. Brisk holds were few and far between for the Radiance offense on Saturday and away shots frequently wound up as turnovers. But they opened the game with a four-pass string that bullied its way up the open sideline and concluded with Mizener slinging a forehand over the head of DC Shadow star Sarah Meckstroth to Raleigh’s Lindsay Soo for a hold. The Radiance defense tacked on a pair of breaks to seize a 3-0 lead.

“Radiance did a great job coming out with a lot of intensity,” said Shadow head coach Allison Maddux to Ultiworld’s Patrick Stegemoeller at halftime. “…They kind of caught us on our heels.”

It was a far cry from how they had performed Saturday, when they were frequently broken to begin quarters, including falling down 5-2 in both of their games. Taking the first two points of each quarter they played on Saturday,1 they were broken seven times across those sixteen points. But Raleigh emerged for Sunday’s final with an assertiveness that hadn’t been present for most of their brief time in New Jersey. This time, they broke on four of eight quarter-opening points.

How they began quarters wasn’t the only improvement. In their first two games, DC’s side stack-based offense carved defenses up with a combination of forceful isolation cutting and coordinated flooding against poaches. With an evening to prepare, Raleigh found poaches and switches to contain the Shadow’s isos and predicted their floods. And the Radiance zone defense, which found its stride Saturday evening in the second half against New York, looked balanced and patient as they put DC’s offense in the mud.

The win, however, did not come easy just because of some Carolinian tweaks. The three-goal margin Raleigh built to begin the game was the largest they’d ever have, with DC nipping at their heels for the rest of the game, even briefly taking the lead to start the second quarter and keeping the game tied at 9-9 by halftime.

But that ability to start quarters well paid off to start the second half. Raleigh punched in the hold with nice red zone offense on their first possession. Then their zone pushed DC’s handlers to swing, and Michelle Landis turfed a crossfield swing, giving the Radiance exceptional field position. They took advantage for a snappy break and an 11-9 lead. After both teams traded to the fourth quarter, the Radiance defense struck again. Dawn Culton went fully horizontal for a block near midfield and the Radiance patiently marched in a break, earning a 16-13 lead. DC never got back within one.

Much of DC’s success came from an unbelievable individual performance on the part of handler Erica Baken. The 2019 second runner-up for the Club Mixed Player of the Year showed off her ability to take control of a game, racking up two goals, six assists, and a block in the loss. Her ability to bulldoze the defense with an array of followthrough cuts and long bomb hucks was the tentpole supporting Shadow. And somehow, despite her high level of involvement, she seemed to rarely tire, playing both ways and chunks of points when her team needed it.

The Radiance redemption story was encapsulated by rookie handler Tyler Smith. The team was without a number of talented players due to injury, including Anne Worth, Jenny Wei, and central handler Jessi Jones. Smith was handed a huge role as the team’s primary thrower, and the size and scope of that ask seemed too much for her as she struggled on Saturday. Her day one stats reflect the challenges she faced: 13 turnovers to just one goal and two assists. While some of that can be attributed to being the team’s shot-taker and windy conditions, her performance was the weakest link in the Radiance offense.

That was not true come the final. A revved-up Smith looked unbothered by how her game had been trending. She tallied one goal, five assists, and went turnover-free. But even more than just the stats, her smart decisions in the backfield, particularly in the red zone, enhanced her offense’s efficiency. She darted up the line with proper aggressiveness and got off that same line wrapping backhands around her mark to free her offense. She and fellow rookie Karen Ehrhardt were pivotal for replacing the production of their injured veterans. For such young players to show that type of resilience was impressive.

“Our O-line had not had a practice together,” said Smith to Stegemoeller after the game. “Today, we trusted [our] systems, we hit open hands, and it was just flowing.”

And for Raleigh, who was run off the turf by the Shadow on day one and was one goal from being eliminated altogether by the hometown Gridlock, coming back on Sunday and showing they had plenty left to give was a testament to their collective willpower. Even without some of their biggest names, the team showed the same ability to show up when it mattered, just as they did in 2019 in their semifinal overtime win to reach the title match.

DC Dominates Day One

For a moment, the Shadow looked like one of the most successful franchises in the sports world. They were not only 2-0 in franchise history, but they had run roughshod over two highly touted teams from programs that were some of the most successful in the league. It’s a lot of small sample sizes, but that’s part of the fun.

DC got great contributions from both big names and lesser-known ones. Baken’s Sunday tour de force was preceded by her club teammate from Minneapolis Drag’N Thrust, Sarah Meckstroth, teaming up with Claire Trop to form a peerless downfield duo in Bayonne. On Saturday, Meckstroth led the team with eight goals, while adding three assists and four blocks. Trop tallied six goals, four assists, and one block in the same span. The length provided by Kelly Ross and Verena Woloson proved valuable around the end zone, with Woloson making some particularly difficult aerial catches. Allie Wallace’s mark frustrated throwers while Michelle Landis’ around throws frustrated markers.

Some core strategies also emerged for the Shadow, and their adherence and execution of their tactics perhaps served to level the playing field against two teams more familiar with PUL play. Their side stack was devastating on Saturday, setting up isolations for athletic weapons like Meckstroth and Ashleigh Buch. When defenses over-committed to helping against the primary looks, the stack would flood across the field, leaving a single cutter open on the break side. Meanwhile, on defense, some of the handler poaching that has been a staple of DC Scandal was effective in shutting off first looks and upfield options.

It was a heck of a debut for the DC franchise. The esoteric might even argue they still ‘won’ the weekend, as they finished with the best goal differential and their highs were the best in Bayonne. They had a lot of traveling talent and that will be key to maintain if they want to make this a regular occurrence come next season.

Gridlock Talent Struggles to Coalesce

It makes sense how the New York Gridlock hype built coming into the weekend. They were one of the league’s best teams in 2019 and most of their core was back. Stazi Tangherlini, Dre DeSabato, Becca Tucker, and Tulsa Douglas returned to hold down the backfield, while Kelly Hyland, Amy Zhou, and Linda Morse all returned after successful first seasons. D-line stalwart Lindsay McKenna was back on the field. And they added superstars Angela Zhu, Kami Groom, and Raha Mozaffari to that mix. And to top it all off, they were playing in front of a home crowd and mostly sleeping in their own beds.

But all of these separate parts never quite connected. Their offense felt disjointed and struggled to get to secondary looks. They opened the weekend with just four first-half goals against DC, suffering an 8-1 run on the way to a 13-4 halftime deficit. Morse, who tied for the team lead in goals in 2019, was held to just one goal as New York’s deep game was quelled. They played a more balanced second half, but could never get out of the hole and lost 20-13.

Their matchup against Raleigh was much more even, though in part because neither team was as punishing as DC. The wind picked up in this one, too, slowing things down further. They failed to hold on to a 6-3 lead, letting Raleigh level things out in the fourth quarter. But they still pulled to the Radiance with a 10-9 lead with :40 seconds remaining, conceded a one-possession hold with :07 left, and failed to score in overtime. In an almost three-minute span that covered two possessions to close the game, the Gridlock zone offense lacked urgency and never generated a threatening look as the game got away from them.

On the one hand, expectations for the team were high and there was plenty of blame to go around, from poor chemistry to execution errors to coaching decisions. But on the other hand, this team was very close to beating Raleigh, reaching the final, and getting a chance to put a better foot forward in front of their home crowd in the final. But there’s no way not to walk away from this event feeling disappointed with their showing.

All-Tournament Line

  • Erika Baken (DC Shadow)
  • Karen Ehrhardt (Raleigh Radiance)
  • Sarah Meckstroth (DC Shadow)
  • Lindsay Soo (Raleigh Radiance)
  • Kelly Hyland (New York Gridlock)
  • Tulsa Douglas (New York Gridlock)
  • Claire Trop (DC Shadow)

All of the Series games can be watched — or rewatched! — on the Premier Ultimate League’s YouTube channel.

  1. Excluding their OT against New York. 

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