Club Championships 2021: Fury Nearly Felled, Survive Against Fabulous Phoenix (Women’s Semifinal)

Veteran leaders came up big for San Francisco, but Raleigh emphatically announced their arrival amongst the division's title contenders.

Phoenix's Karen Ehrhardt makes the catch in front of a bidding Marika Austin of San Francisco Fury. Photo: Kristina Geddert -- UltiPhotos.com
Phoenix’s Karen Ehrhardt makes the catch in front of a bidding Marika Austin of San Francisco Fury. Photo: Kristina Geddert — 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.

In an instant classic under the lights, #1 San Francisco Fury held off #4 Raleigh Phoenix in the first women’s division semifinal on Saturday night 13-12. While the favorites advanced, the result cemented Phoenix’s status as legitimate contenders for years to come.

Fury gave up an early break, and then went on a run that hinted at yet another blowout victory for San Francisco before the fire and energy of the young North Carolina team brought it all the way back, setting up a scintillating finish. It was the result that everyone expected in a manner that no one saw coming, and we can only hope we see this battle play out for years to come.

During the pregame warm-up, Phoenix took a worrying knock as Austin Prucha picked up a right-hand injury on a layout bid, and ahead of the opening pull she had her ring and pinky fingers taped together, but looked mostly unaffected during the game. And so, with the sun setting into their eyes, Fury started on offense, and had their first of a number of uncharacteristic unforced errors during the game as Carolyn Finney and Anna Thompson couldn’t connect on a reset pass. Opi Payne bailed them out with a quick block, though, to deny Phoenix the first point break, and Finney put it deep with a Phoenix defender getting a hand on the disc in the end zone before Dena Elimelech had a short layout for the hold and initial Fury lead.

It took another layout catch to preserve possession for Raleigh on the next point, with Phoenix rookie and emerging superstar Karen Ehrhardt digging it out for the save. The Raleigh handlers then worked it between themselves before Bridget Mizener found Ella Juengst for the Phoenix score, and both teams started to settle in. But the next point disaster struck for Fury, and put a damper on the early game energy.

Back on defense, Phoenix appeared to throw a butterfly mark, going straight up in the middle and forcing toward the sidelines, on Fury. It worked for them, with a throw ending up just too low for Maggie Ruden to come up with and Raleigh had a quick break opportunity. They worked the disc toward the end zone but before they could score, Fury’s Julia Butterfield let out a yell of pain and crumpled to the ground clutching her knee. In her matchup against Prucha, Butterfield had landed awkwardly shifting positions and it did not look good. A hush fell over the crowd as Butterfield lay on the turf and the wait for the cart seemed interminable.

Fury’s veterans including captain Sarah Griffith did their best to console the dynamite player laid low, and Nancy Sun rode with Butterfield off the field as the game resumed, but with a very different tenor to it. Audrey Lyman started with the disc off the restart, and she ended up with the assist a few throws later to Ellie Cubrilovic. Phoenix and their fans celebrated the break, while Fury walked back to their sideline needing to regroup after just seeing one of their best young players go down. It was 2-1 Phoenix and Fury had to refocus, lest they give up even more breaks to the surging Raleigh.

In an exceedingly rare unforced error, Thompson floated a reset throw almost immediately off the pull, and Phoenix had another quick break chance and Alex Barnett took a timeout with 25 yards left to go for Raleigh. As was the case throughout the game, Fury’s biggest names and most veteran players stepped up to deny the young upstarts, as Griffith came up with a key layout block to get Fury the disc back. Thompson then redeemed her earlier mistake with a possession-saving layout grab and Maggie Ruden found Lisa Couper for the score and Fury tied the game at two-all.

The next two points saw both teams work it up the force side for holds as Phoenix maintained a slim advantage. Fury’s defensive pressure had been a hallmark for them throughout the weekend and the season, but Phoenix’s offense continued to be effective even in the face of it. “I was particularly impressed offensively how we were playing really tight [defense] and they would just hit tight window after tight window and keep possession of the disc,” praised Fury coach Matty Tsang after the game. At three-all, though, that defensive pressure did pay off as Anna Nazarov nearly came up with a huge layout block on a Phoenix around throw, and the Fury defensive intensity resulted in a Raleigh drop. San Francisco once again went to the well that is their veteran talent, and Finney floated a high release throw to Nazarov after Marika Austin came under for a huge gain. Fury had gotten their break back and the game was back on serve 4-3.

Having regrouped after the Butterfield injury and with a break in their pocket, Fury began to pile it on, coming up with big block after big block. Phoenix’s offense had to work hard as they did all game but Thompson laid out for the block on the sideline, and back the other way Thompson found Sharon Lin just past the sell-out block attempt by Lindsay Soo, and it was another point in San Francisco’s column. Fury’s ensuing pull was flagged for offsides by the observers, but the play proceeded and Barnett, Lyman, and Prucha all come up with possession-saving grabs. A turn each way later and an apparent run-through block by Shayla Harris on Mizener was ruled by the observers as a dangerous play and a blue card despite no foul being called. Harris seemed shaken up after the play and as the card was produced, seemingly not feeling like she had done anything wrong with the lack of a foul call and as a typically tough but disciplined defender. As confusion worked its way across her face, she put the disc back into play as the block stood and Nazarov eventually found Bree Cahn for the score and Fury took a timeout up 6-3.

On the sideline, the Phoenix players’ energy was at an ebb as they saw their team get broken on consecutive points, while Fury players had perhaps more muted celebrations than they would otherwise with Butterfield out with a seemingly severe injury and Harris recovering from being carded. The crowd and teams’ energies would pick up, but not before Fury broke again after Phoenix turfed a throw and Amel Awadelkarim found an open Payne in the end zone for a 7-3 lead. Now it was Raleigh’s turn for a timeout.

Whatever Phoenix coach David Allison said in the huddle worked as Phoenix were able to work it well up the field against the Fury zone, Ehrhardt providing the outlet and Keila Strick coming up with the sliding grab. Phoenix had stopped the Fury break train and now looked to go on one of their own.

Fury ran a pull play on the next point but turned it within a few throws and Phoenix had a break chance. The proud San Francisco vets wouldn’t make it that easy for the up-and-comers, and got the disc back back but then Barnett came up with a huge block that got the crowd engaged in the game. Mizener and Lyman were key for the D-line offense for Phoenix and ultimately Raleigh did end up with the break, going up the line to Amanda Murphy who threw up the line herself to Dawn Culton, Phoenix now within two to Fury down 7-5.

Lyman was everywhere for the Phoenix defensive line, coming up with a layout block on Finney and stepping in as the center handler on the turn. Nazarov generated a block of her own but a huck from Fury trailed out of bounds. It was Mizener’s turn at the center of it all for Raleigh, making a diving catch on a reset throw and then finding Mary Rippe in the end zone as the crowd was on their feet and roaring, Phoenix having drawn within one with yet another break. Fury’s offense was able to take half after a super short pull from Phoenix — an attempted roller out the side turned the wrong way and back toward the Phoenix end zone, coming to a stop in the middle of the field about 30 yards from where it started — although it took a Griffith layout catch to ensure that Raleigh wouldn’t get another break chance. Finney found Couper and we finally reached halftime, Fury holding a slim 8-6 lead. Between the Butterfield injury though, along with the numerous calls and back-and-forth nature of the game, halftime came well over halfway through the allotted time, which contributed to the fantastic and frantic finish.

Out of the halftime break, the two teams’ offenses went to work, exchanging holds that took the game to 10-9. Phoenix did throw a zone that briefly slowed, but did not stop, the Fury offense, while between them Soo and Ehrhardt scored all three of Phoenix’s goals and provided one of the assists. Fury’s offense came out holding that slim one-goal lead and looking to continue to hold the young guns from Raleigh off, but a throw early in the possession didn’t connect and trailed out-of-bounds, Phoenix with an opportunity to tie. It was Lyman again, this time putting a gorgeous cross-field throw to Prucha before scoring herself and Phoenix had brought it all the way back as the game was tied at 10.

At this point the crowd was fully into the game, with competing cheers of “FU-RY” and “Let’s Go Phoenix” echoing through the crisp San Diego evening air. Fury brought out a veteran line and they made it look easy, Jessie O’Connor putting it to Lin for the hold and an 11-10 advantage.

On the ensuing pull, though, Fury were flagged for offsides once again and this time play did not continue unabated; Phoenix let the disc land, accepted the offsides, and started with the disc at half-field. It only took one throw, a bombed huck from Tyler Smith connecting with a leaping Soo, who went over multiple Fury defenders for the score and the crowd was in full voice. Largely behind the young underdogs, the crowd roared along with every Phoenix block and score as the stadium sizzled with electricity. It was, as Fury’s Claire Desmond said afterward, “an amazing display of women’s ultimate and the athleticism and grit and the dynamic nature of women’s ultimate, and it was just top-tier.”

With the crowd behind them and feeling the energy in the stadium, Phoenix came out on defense running hard and Murphy got a run-through block on Ruden, Raleigh with all of the momentum. As Phoenix looked to punch it in, though, Couper came up with a heads-up block for Fury, coming across from the back of the end zone stack to prevent Murphy from scoring. Fury moved quickly and Ruden hucked to Desmond deep for the Fury offensive hold, and with the time having run down to cap, it was 12-11 to San Francisco in a game to 13.

Phoenix needed to hold and Claire Revere dug out a low throw to keep the disc as Phoenix worked it up the force side, but Austin came up with a point-block on Erhardt to give Fury the disc just needing to score. Finney and Nazarov dominated the disc for Fury on this point but Mizener was able to interrupt it with a block and Phoenix took a timeout with most of the field to go. Out of the break, Marisa Mead came up with a block to get possession back from Fury, and after Nazarov caught it under heavy pressure, she called a timeout with her toes on the goal line.

Fury set up their offense during the timeout for Finney to come back from the stack for a reset from Nazarov, but San Francisco still couldn’t put the game away as Austin just missed on a catch in the end zone. There was a brief stoppage of play as it was unclear if a foul was called, prompting an overheard Revere to say, “then why are we stopped?” in response to the lack of a foul call, exemplifying the fiery energy Phoenix brought all game. With 70 yards to go, Juengst put it to Soo who boosted it deep to Strick for the goal. It was universe point, game tied at 12 and the crowd on their feet.

Back on offense just needing to hold, Fury brought out a veteran offense line and Payne played a key role facilitating play in the middle of the field as San Francisco worked it quickly against a force middle defense. In the end, it was Fury’s youngest player, Thompson, who provided the assist to put away the youth revolution of Phoenix, as she found Couper on a cut to the end zone sideline for the 13-12 win. Fury celebrated as Phoenix walked off the field with their heads held high, having given the previously dominant veteran team all they could handle.

“I’m so proud of this team and I think we proved to ourselves that we deserve to be here,” shared Murphy. “I think a lot of teams sort of counted us out, and seeing us seeded fourth I think they maybe thought that we were ranked too high, but we proved that we were here to play.” Phoenix indeed came to play as they gave Fury easily their tightest game since 2019, and came so close to pulling it out in the end during that incredible finish.

“That was one of the craziest battles I’ve ever been a part of,” admitted Desmond. “Hats off to them, that could have been anyone in the end.” Along with Desmond, it was Payne, Finney, and Nazarov together with the rest of Fury’s highly experienced roster that helped them withstand the pressure that Phoenix piled on and they pulled out the result in the end.

In the years to come though, Phoenix will be a major threat to be reckoned with as their young roster continues to grow, and now with a point to prove after coming so close against Fury. “I think any team that plays us next is in for a hell of a game,” declared Phoenix’s Soo afterward. “I think everyone is really disappointed just because we know we could have won that game. We know what we did tonight and we’re ready for future years and getting a title under our belts.”

The title opportunity goes to Fury this time as they moved on to face Boston Brute Squad, but it may just be Phoenix’s turn the next time these two teams meet.

  1. Jenna Weiner
    Jenna Weiner

    Jenna Weiner is a reporter and contributing writer for Ultiworld, and considers herself a purveyor of all levels of ultimate. She's played mostly on the west coast but you're likely to find her at the nearest ultimate game available.

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