Club Championships 2021: Ring Break Semis Heartbreak Streak (Men’s Semifinal)

Raleigh earn their way back to the final for the first time in twenty years.

Ring of Fire celebrate their semifinal victory over Rhino Slam at the 2021 CLub Championships. Photo: Kristina Geddert -- UltiPhotos.com
Ring of Fire celebrate their semifinal victory over Rhino Slam at the 2021 CLub Championships. Photo: Kristina Geddert — UltiPhotos.com

Ultiworld’s 2021 coverage of the club men’s division 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.

It’s a new kind of feeling today for #3 Raleigh Ring of Fire, who followed up four straight semifinal exits — and six of the last eight — with a decisive 15-8 victory over #6 Portland Rhino Slam! 2021 newcomer Ryan Osgar led Raleigh’s offense with two goals and three assists. Raphy Hayes (2G, 2A) led the effort for Rhino.

It was a complete team victory for Raleigh. Their offensive line barely blinked against Rhino’s best efforts to take the disc away, and the D-line wreaked absolute havoc. Depth proved to be the key difference. Rhino played their stars both ways for much of the game, but they could not match the continually refreshed energy of more than three full lines of contributors for Ring.

“The best thing about playing for a team that is so deep and so talented is that it empowers you to trust a lot,” said captain Eric Taylor. “It’s part of our identity. We know we’re deep, and it’s something we try to play a lot of leverage on.”

Ring of Fire had no trouble bouncing the disc through the gaps in the Rhino Slam! defense for an opening hold. Rhino’s first offensive point, on the other hand, was rife with tension. Jacob Fairfax took the Raphy Hayes matchup. He came close to forcing a turnover, but Hayes endured heroically. The point ended when Hayes fell over to get off a backhand to Trevor Smith — a phenomenal effort, but it said a lot about how difficult the game would be for Portland if their tentpole player was bullied to the brink of his talent on the team’s first hold.

Owen Murphy, another member of Rhino’s top seven who would spend a lot of time on the field in the semifinal, notched a footblock on the ensuing point. Without hesitating, he then sent a perfect forehand to David Sealand at the back of the end zone for the game’s first break.

That, for the most part, is where the good news ended for Rhino. Ring’s offense essentially refused to acknowledge the mistake; they played out the rest of the half as if it had never happened. Jack Williams, Allen Laviolette, and Anders Juengst continued to create throwing opportunities by getting wide open on their receptions, while Ryan Osgar and Henry Fisher stood ready to burst deep for the goal.

But Raleigh made their bones on defense, where Fairfax was just the tip of the arrow. Quick rotations ensured that Hayes rarely had a good look at a deep shot. When Rhino did get a big throw off, Alex Davis and Eric Taylor had downfield coverage under control. Turnovers were costlier for Rhino in this matchup than they had been earlier in the tournament because of the concentration of disc skills on the Ring D-line.

“Our D-line O is really the difference,” said Noah Saul. “We knew they were going to throw a lot of fun stuff and probably turn it over a lot. And we knew that if we could just score with our defense then we’d have a good shot to win the game.”

Jon Nethercutt, Elijah Long, and Saul have all been the Raleigh center handler in years past. Throw in Ethan Bloodworth — who has been their equal in the backfield this tournament — and a high-octane shooter in Taylor, and regaining possession was going to be a tall order for Rhino. Too tall, as it turned out. Raleigh kept the pressure tight enough to tally three consecutive breaks. By the time Juengst bent his knees low to place a touch forehand into Osgar’s waiting arms, Ring had turned a 2-1 hole into an 8-5 halftime lead.

Rhino had their share of great moments as the game wore on. Eli Friedman slotted an excellent huck across the field to put Leandro Marx in position to make a play — and he did, despite the defender draped across his shoulder. And Hayes, as he is wont to do, simultaneously outran his mark and the over-the-top help to get clear for a goal early in the second half. But those moments were islands in a tumultuous sea.

Ted Sither, who until the semifinal had played a very good weekend as Rhino’s center handler but couldn’t find his comfort zone between the dual threats of the Raleigh defense and intermittent crosswind gusts, tried a long flick to an under cut that proved easy pickings for Taylor. Following another Sither miss and Rhino break, Connor Russell sprung from a stand-still to stop a Hayes shot-on-goal mid-flight, then tracked down a huck to finish off a second three-break run for Ring. Ring had opened up a 13-6 lead, and the outcome was no longer in doubt.

A few holds later, Williams placed a swing forehand to space on the front cone, and Matt Gouchoe-Hanas ran onto it to secure the win for Raleigh. He turned toward the Ring sideline to meet the players rushing the field with a huge smile.

Rhino coach Mike Payne was of two minds in his post-game assessment of the offense. “There were no strategic problems with how we played today in terms of why we lost. It literally was the offense [having problems with] throwing and catching the frisbee, and standing there when they should be cutting to open spaces. We have the strategy, we have the talent, we have the skill. We’re just not executing on it in a confident way. And that’s all about big-game experience. These guys have never been on this stage before.” The implication for the future of the Rhino program was crystal clear. Payne intends for them to return. Soon.

“This is a stepwise process, and you gotta let it burn a little bit, and you gotta learn from it. And it doesn’t feel awesome,” Payne said. That path to excellence probably sounds all-too-familiar to the men from Raleigh who have spent the better part of a decade looking ahead to next season.

But for Ring of Fire, finally, that long-tantalizing future is now. With their dominant win today, years of accumulated heartbreak have dissipated like the morning fog in sunny Southern California.

  1. Edward Stephens
    Edward Stephens

    Edward Stephens has an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. He writes and plays ultimate in Athens, Georgia.

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