Club Championships 2021: Brute Squad Defense Denies Molly Brown, Again (Women’s Semifinal)

Prime additions to Molly Brown's roster and a strong performance at Pro Champs didn't stop history from repeating itself under the lights in San Diego.

Boston Brute Squad vs. Denver Molly Brown in the second women's semifinal of the 2021 Club Championships. Photo: Sam Hotaling -- UltiPhotos.com
Boston Brute Squad vs. Denver Molly Brown in the second women’s semifinal of the 2021 Club Championships. Photo: Sam Hotaling — UltiPhotos.com

Ultiworld’s 2021 coverage of the club women’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 was a vintage performance from #3 Boston Brute Squad against #2 Denver Molly Brown as Boston made their sixth final in as many seasons. Trade out a few names on each roster and the story of this game would fit fairly seamlessly into any number of those seasons, too: the lethal efficiency of Brute Squad’s defensive unit after the turn was Molly Brown’s kryptonite, just as we’ve seen before. Denver didn’t lack for talent or structure, but Boston was just too effective at setting up an impressive block, then swiftly closing out the point once they had the disc in hand; for all that the Pro Champs final hinted that this Molly Brown team might have unlocked something to change the narrative this year, their Nationals match looked like another day at the office for Brute, with Molly left to regroup and retool once more.

Brute Squad set the tone for the game within the first few points, snapping off an early break that immediately sapped Molly Brown’s spirit. Denver had elected to start on offense, intending to give their O-line some confidence with a quick hold. Instead, they got a grueling point with multiple turns from both sides that would have shifted the game into Boston’s territory regardless of who scores; their defense stretched Molly Brown to their breaking point, forcing them to play a level up just to stay in the first few minutes. Eventually, the inexhaustible endurance of Kami Groom powered her to get open in the end zone for Brute Squad and secure them a break, but the point was already made: Brute Squad’s defense was going to cause massive problems for Denver all game.

It didn’t all crumble down around Molly Brown yet, though. In fact, a few points later, the Colorado team showed remarkable resilience to take back a break on Brute Squad. By then, both sides had mixed in quick-fire O-line points with wearying back-and-forth battles that had the crowd’s emotions on a tilt-a-whirl despite the teams eventually trading holds. It was only at 3-3 that Molly Brown’s defense really took the opportunity to show off their facility with the disc, capitalizing on a missed reset pass from Yuge Xiao to slowly but surely deliver the disc 60 yards the other way, fending off fouls and injuries to punch in their first break of the game.

As Molly Brown brought the game back on serve, the throughline of this semifinal became clear. It wasn’t going to be a game of perfect offensive efficiency from either team; instead, this would be won on defensive might and who could score after the turn, and both teams knew it.

While Molly’s defense had proven they were up to the task, again and again, their work on offense impeded them from truly bringing the pressure down on Brute. Denver’s initiating cutters were a little too trigger-happy with the disc — a little too talented, a little too confident in what this kind of shooting could do when it worked, like Top Gun pilots if everyone was trying to be Maverick — and reaped the consequences. Bold throws yielded a few connections (particularly if it was Manuela Cardenas looking for Lisa Pitcaithley), but also unforced errors that Brute Squad were all too happy to capitalize on. Time and again Brute Squad matched the fieriness of Denver’s offense with intensity on defense and quick, sharp execution after the turn. By contrast, the balancing act of confidence vs. cockiness was proving a difficult one for Molly Brown, and soon the score was 7-4 on the back of a string of Boston breaks.

Cardenas stopped the free-fall with a wily backhand that arced past Boston’s defense for a hold, but the team was still down 7-5, and hadn’t had their D-line on the field in four consecutive points. Even so, Molly Brown’s offense clearly had the tools to stay competitive, particularly when they reeled in their downfield shot-shooting. On the discipline of their handler set, Yuge Xiao commented, “They’re a team who will stick with their reset for all ten stall seconds. I think that is pretty unique to Molly Brown, and makes it really hard to defend, because you have to win your matchup one-on-one for all ten seconds.”

Following that hold, Molly Brown seemed all set up to finally play a real D-line point. Instead, they opted to throw a hybrid line, one mostly consisting of O-line players despite the sheer number of points they’d just played. While it did pay off in the short term with a Pitcaithley handblock, a Cardenas run-through block, and an eventual second Molly Brown break of the game, the cumulative fatigue would only become a greater liability for their key players as the match wore on.

Brute Squad scored immediately afterward to take half 8-6, and while it felt dangerous to count Molly Brown out after a tournament full of upsets, comebacks, and inexplicable collapses, an air of inevitability was beginning to settle over the showcase field. We’d all seen this play out before. Both of these teams had been in this exact same game, and everyone knew the expected outcome, especially once Boston held a commanding lead. A Denver comeback was theoretically possible, but the history of these teams had no precedent for it. Still, there were reasons to hope: coming out of the first half, Molly Brown were two for two on goals from their defensive unit’s offense. If they could just get Brute Squad’s O-line to make a few more mistakes, they could turn this game around.

Unfortunately, in the second half, Brute Squad would never give them the chance.

Not only did Boston’s offense not give up a turn in the second half, they hardly ever saw the field. This was largely due to the quality of Brute Squad’s defense, which O-line players Lien Hoffmann and Yuge Xiao were happy to compliment after the game. “We put a lot of value and responsibility on our D-line,” said Xiao. “They’re just a break machine. It’s really nice to have that buffer built for us [on O-line] with our D-line. We know that if we mess up, our D-line has our backs.”

As Brute Squad’s defense wore away at Molly Brown, all the effort of the first half took its toll on the Coloradans, and they let off another string of breaks to find themselves in a 12-7 hole with the clock winding down. Once again, the team turned to Cardenas for an answer, and she finessed a backhand around her defender to give Denver a last-ditch opportunity to see how much their own defense could do to change the tide of this game.

Of course, it did little against Brute Squad. A quick Boston hold led to a Boston break, and then another Boston break, and suddenly Molly Brown was down 14-8, one Brute Squad hold away from their season ending as it has so many times before. Again it was Cardenas and Pitcaithley who came up big, giving Denver at least a prayer of making a run of breaks to claw their way to the final. With everything resting on a heroic play from their defense, Molly Brown committed to a zone in an attempt to force Brute Squad out of their comfortable offensive structure.

Instead, this was exactly the opportunity Brute Squad was waiting for. “At Pro Champs, we saw their trap cup. A lot,” noted Lien Hofffmann with a smile. “We knew it was coming this game, so we spent some time reviewing film, working through it at practice a bit to try to be ready for that when they came out with it today.” The Boston team picked apart the zone bit by bit, with all their small movements adding up to a massive yardage gain before Hoffmann got open upline with altogether too much room to operate. Werffeli made a committed strike cut, and just like that, Brute Squad were in the final again.

Molly Brown’s disappointment was palpable. This matchup seems to come every year — after 2018 marked four consecutive seasons of losses to Boston in this game, it felt like only a mercy knockout in quarters from Portland Schwa held it off in 2019 — but the Denver squad has never been able to put the pieces together to look like the favorites going in, even as they’ve outgrown the underdog status that might make losing less of a letdown. They’re too good a team to be forced into a true rebuild after a game like this, but Brute Squad aren’t going anywhere, either. As long as they’re the team to beat — and they will be for a while — they’ll always be Molly Brown’s final boss on the quest for a title.

As for Boston, this is just one more entry in a long, long file of supporting evidence for their co-ownership of the division with fellow finalists San Francisco Fury. Up until this weekend, Fury have looked nigh-invincible, but their real scare in a much (much) closer semi with the kids on Raleigh Phoenix suggests they may have it in them to lose a game at Nationals — and they’ve yet to meet Brute Squad this year. Even with no 2021 record between them, these two teams are all too familiar with each other’s players and strategies, and Boston seems set on repeating their 2019 title run. With only one game left before the champions are crowned, it feels like San Diego might fast becoming Brute Squad’s home turf.

  1. Graham Gerhart
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    Graham Gerhart is a Senior Staff Writer at Ultiworld, focusing primarily on the Women's and Mixed divisions. Graham graduated from the University of Cape Town in South Africa after playing 4 years with the UCT Flying Tigers. He now lives and works full time in San Diego. Follow him on twitter @JustGrahamG

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