Can this game live up the narrative heft of the teams' recent history against each other?
October 23, 2021 by Patrick Stegemoeller in Preview with 0 comments
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.
Top-seeded Seattle Sockeye faceoff against no.9 seed New York PoNY in a clash of arguably the two definitive men’s teams of the post-Revolver dominance era.1 PoNY ushered in the current status quo with their upset of Revolver in 2018 that marked an epochal moment in the history of the sport. For the past three seasons, PoNY have been a star-studded — arguably star-bloated — team that attracts big headlines for their success and failures, and have now made three straight semifinals. Sockeye have probably been the best team overall during that time period, winning a championship in 2019, and are currently on track for a historically great season in 2021 if they can complete their season sweep of tournaments. They’ve lost a total of eight games over the past three seasons and have won every tournament they’ve entered since 2018 Nationals, plus have rostered several truly iconic players from this generation of stars and the next.
Record vs. Rhino Slam!: 1-1
Statistical Leaders: Matthew Rehder (8G, 8A, 1D), Dylan Freechild (7G, 6A), Mac Hecht (3G, 9A), Matt Russell (3G, 3A, 4D)
Path to Semis: 3-0 in Pool A (defeated Temper, Lotus, Rhino Slam!) → bye to quarters → 14-12 over Johnny Bravo in quarters
Record vs. Ring of Fire: 1-1
Statistical Leaders: Jimmy Mickle (2G, 12A, 1D), Sam Little (8G, 2A), Chris Kocher (7G, 7A, 1D), Jack Hatchett (1G, 3A, 3D)
Path to Semis: 3-0 in Pool D (defeated Sub Zero, Chain Lightning, Killjoys) → bye to quarters → 13-9 over Machine in quarters
The series between these two teams over the past three seasons is tied at 2-2, but the most impactful win over that stretch goes to PoNY, who won a “law-of-club-and-fang” semifinal in 2018. A game that, while marred somewhat by numerous calls and fouls, was so transcendently competitive that it escaped the context of the tournament and became about something more primal.
Sockeye enter this semifinal a bit battered and bruised, but still holding onto their status as favorites. Do-everything playmaker Trent Dillon has yet to cleat up this weekend after being ruled out with hamstring issues. D-Line cornerstone Ben Snell injured his shoulder against Rhino in Pool Play and did not play against Johnny Bravo in quarterfinals on Friday. Julian Childs-Walker and Julian Housman are both dealing with injuries. We know Christian Foster is out, and the status of the rest for weekend is in doubt. But this Sockeye team has done so much winning over the past several years that even if the gas gauge is starting to creep closer to empty, there is still a reserve of experience and confidence that can carry the day.
This entire season Sockeye have been tested and emerged victorious, winning every tournament they have played. They’ve been tested this weekend and responded, getting pushed to 8-7 with Rhino before going up a level and winning 15-9. There is a sense that Sockeye can see the finish line and just need to get there before injuries and burnout catch up with them. They’ve got two more games to win to cement themselves as the only team to ever win all three of the biggest TCT events and Nationals in one season. But those two games loom large, including one against a PoNY team that has their own legacy on the line.
Making the semifinals is an accomplishment of sorts for PoNY after a tough regular season where the team played short-handed and sputtered to some mediocre results. In fact, if they win on Saturday to reach the final, it will be the first tournament final they have played in outside of Sectionals and Regionals this season. But just redeeming a bad regular season and proving some doubters wrong wasn’t the goal of the season for New York.
“We’ve had championship expectations from day one,” said PoNY handler Sean Keegan. “We knew we could win the pool, we know we can beat any team in the world.”
We can forget how seismic the top talent is on this PoNY team because they have been together for a few seasons now. And we can also forget how short championship windows are for teams reliant on star power. The New York youth scene and talent pipeline are still nascent when compared to Seattle and other historic hotbeds; who knows how many more seasons this team can compete at a championship level before hitting a hard reset.
Tactically, the major fault seems to be how Seattle will find ways to make life difficult for New York’s star-studded offense. Last season Machine managed to stymie PoNY’s direct attack with a flexible zone look, but New York has worked on their approach against such defensive looks and overcame Machine in quarterfinals.
“We have made a focus to be more dynamic against zone defenses,” said Keegan. “Before we would try to pick it apart with precision throws, with Jimmy and Harper who are obviously incredible, but that is hard to do against the top four defenses in the world. [Top defenders] are going to make plays if it’s not perfect. So we are working to be a bit more dynamic, and have guys like myself and Sam Little run a bit more to give Jimmy and Harper the shots in a better position.”
For their part, Sockeye’s offense looked a little troubled by some windy conditions on Friday, and with the semifinal slated for the windiest part of the day, it could be a factor again. Dylan Freechild, Sockeye’s reigning Player of the Year, doesn’t believe it should slow them down too much.
“A lot of the decisions in the wind came down to execution errors, not recognizing that we have to adjust a little bit,” said Freechild. “But I don’t think it’s something we are too worried about.”
Sockeye’s immense success has been as prevalent this season as PoNY’s puzzling struggles. Those narrative streams will cross on Saturday, either propagating or reversing course. It is fitting that we get this crucible of narrative from the two teams whose fortunes have determined so much of the men’s division for the past several years. Hopefully, the game itself matches the narrative heft.
Footnote: Apologies to the still-in-existence Revolver, who deserved better this weekend than going out in prequarters after losing two heartbreaking DGP games to the #2 and #3 teams in the country. ↩