Ring of Fire summitted the men's division for the first time in their lengthy program history.
October 26, 2021 by Edward Stephens in Recap 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.
SAN DIEGO – Raleigh Ring of Fire won the 2021 National Championship with a 13-12 victory over New York PoNY in a low-turnover, high-tension final. Combined, the teams only earned two breaks — none in the second half — and the game finished on serve. For both New York and Raleigh, the final was an exceptional display of steady offense against relentless defense in the most important moments of the season.
Ring announced their offensive prerogatives on the first point. They swung the disc between their handlers until they cleared PoNY’s poaches out of the cutting lanes. Ryan Osgar gathered a pass underneath. Just as he was catching it, Anders Juengst set up a cut from the deepest reach of Ring’s downfield, where he had dragged a defender into one-on-one coverage. A shoulder fake and a skip backwards earned him enough separation for Osgar to curl an OI forehand over the top to the break side. That opening salvo was only the beginning of a remarkable game for the pair. Osgar (5A, 1G) and Juengst (1A, 5G) led the scoring effort for Raleigh.
PoNY’s John Randolph answered with anything-you-can-do aplomb, exploiting a similar moment of isolation coverage to score on a Jimmy Mickle deep strike. Mickle learned early that the Ring defense had keyed in on him as the player to shut down at all costs. Raleigh’s Jacob Fairfax took first watch, playing the kind of physical reset defense — shoulder-to-shoulder coverage, a bump or two on the mark — that Mickle has built a career weathering.
Raleigh blinked on the game’s third point. Dillon Lanier saw daylight in the end zone and put up a shot from midfield: it flew much too far. But, in what would become a trend for both teams, New York’s defense could not convert the break. They gave the disc back on their own goal line, and Ring quickly made amends for the earlier error. Chris Kocher, who may have been PoNY’s most impressive player in the final, burned his matchup deep to track down Harper Garvey’s sideline-riding backhand huck. Will Dean, following the play, was on hand to finish the drive.
Jack Williams, Sol Yanuck, and Matt Gouchoe-Hanas worked the disc past midfield on the next point in what had all the earmarks of another hold. Henry Fisher, however, could not maintain his grip on to a short Gouchoe-Hanas forehand thrown a touch behind him as he was crossing to the open side. PoNY did not waste their second chance at an early break. After they stormed into Ring’s red zone, a swing put Ben Spielman on the weak-side sideline. Rather than center the play or look for a potential score over the top of the defense to the strong side, he stepped left and squeezed a blading flick into his mark’s shadow, where Jack Hatchett completed the conversion.
Ring did not wait long to get back the lost break. New York dialed up a pull play for Randolph to catch an under and then target Mickle deep. Everything went according to plan until Randolph overthrew the huck. On the counter, Noah Saul lofted a forehand to the back cone for Ben Dameron. Entirely on his own after Randolph mistimed a leap, the young Dameron somehow let the disc bounce out of his hands. Luckily for Ring, Alex Davis had been backing up the play, and he secured the tipped disc to retake the lead at 4-3.
Neither team gave up another break for the remainder of the game.
For New York, the key to their success was an unstoppable reset system. It had been a mark of excellence for them all weekend. Even in an ultimately losing effort in the final, no one was able to crack it. Whenever they got into trouble, somebody gave them an out. Mickle would shimmy and push through contact to an open inch of turf; or Randolph would plant a foot and blast past his defender; or Garvey would glide toward one of the sidelines for a long swing; or Kocher, like drawing a bowstring, would settle deep behind the disc before launching himself up the line; or Sam Little would fly in to catch a one-yard pass before setting the offense back into motion with a scoober. It was only a matter of time until they fought their way into the red zone and, as if inevitably, scored.
Raleigh’s offense, on the other hand, were simply stubborn about what they would and wouldn’t throw. The mantra all weekend for Ring of Fire was “as many as it takes.” That phrase, however cliche, proved apt for a unit that seemed to measure their worth not in goals scored so much as by the number of open hands they could hit along the way. Yanuck was instrumental in that regard, both conductor and first chair violinist in a beautifully orchestrated cascade of careful little passes that would eventually yield a look at the end zone. With Gouchoe-Hanas matching Yanuck’s pace every step of the way and an army of Triangle Ultimate players steeped in the exact same systems to drop back for help, Raleigh had all the pieces necessary to keep the disc away from New York indefinitely.
“Matt [Gouchoe-Hanas] and I have taught five years of youth players how to run handler sets. We’ve done that dozens of times. We’re on the same page. We work on all of our touchy break throws constantly. And then you add Anders [Juengst] and Dillon [Lanier] and Jack [Williams] — and we are all just very comfortable throwing to each other. It is very simple. It’s just built on reps,” said Yanuck. “It doesn’t matter [in the game] if it’s 8-8, 9-9, 10-10, 11-11, 12-12… We’ve done it a million times before.”
The second half saw defensive adjustments from each side as it became clear that whoever earned the next break would stand a strong chance of winning. For PoNY, that meant overcommitting to Ring’s breakside unders with an eye on encouraging more deep shots to the open side, where Ring had made two mistakes in the first half. “The messaging was, ‘Let’s get tight, let’s force a huck look.’ [Ring] had been working it up all game long. We knew we had to force something deep,” said PoNY coach Bryan Jones.
Ring focused on dump positioning, changing angles to give themselves a better look at a block. It nearly paid dividends on the first point as Saul just missed the disc on a bid against Sean Keegan at the front cone.
Ring got the sought-after break chance on their next point. Garvey caught the disc on the sideline and had a look at Keegan for a long backhand, but the throw tailed out of bounds before Keegan could reach it. Justin Allen and Trevor Lynch got crossed up with each other on the counter, though, and PoNY cashed in the hold on their second attempt to tie the game at 9-9. Ring’s D-line offense had drawn praise from every corner heading into the game: seventy yards meant nothing to them this weekend. It was a different story in the final, however. Whether it was nerves, bad luck, or a PoNY O-line determined to regain possession, Ring were unable to string together completions in those rare moments.
Another chance came on PoNY’s next O-point. Elijah Long — who had earlier earned a yellow card with a horrendous bid on Mickle that looked more like an open-field tackle — turned his shoulders just in time to leap and knock away a short break-side pass to Garvey. It was the best defensive play of the game for about forty-five seconds. Ethan Bloodworth launched a huck to the back corner for Eric Taylor. Kocher, in hot pursuit, managed to close the gap and get a finger on the disc just ahead of him, saving New York’s chance at victory.
Desperate for a break and not making much headway against Ring’s offense with matchup schemes, New York deployed a sagging, handsy zone in an attempt to disrupt the pace. Raleigh were thrown off their game for the first few throws. Once they settled in, however, they put on a clinic.
“Tasty,” said Yanuck about PoNY’s zone after the game.. “Why give us a free goal at 11-11?” echoed Gouchoe-Hanas. “Zone offense, that’s easy mode for us. We could not be more comfortable in that setting,” he said. The only time they came close to losing their nerve was when the count began to climb at the goal line — but Yanuck iced the point with a stunningly imaginative high-trajectory hammer for Williams to run onto just inside the front of the box.
That score gave Ring a 12-11 lead. Usually, you would expect PoNY to have two or three more shots at a break at that stage in the game. However, the cap — notably short all weekend, up to and including the semis and finals — had come into play: game to 13. “My one gripe here, my one vent: 13-12. Come on. Let’s play to 15,” said Jones. “It’s too short of a game. I looked at halftime, and that cap was at 27 minutes to go — I couldn’t believe it. I think with a +1 [hard cap] this game could have been even better.”
The final score came via one of the finest examples of poetic justice you’re likely to see in a game of ultimate. Before the start of the season, PoNY leadership asked players to commit entirely to the club season, drawing a line1 at concurrent semi-pro commitments. That decision played a huge role in creating the cohesion and game readiness that had brought PoNY to the final. It also, however, kept Jack Williams and Ryan Osgar, both of whom live in New York and played for the AUDL’s Empire, from joining the team. They signed on with Ring of Fire instead.
Osgar caught an under at midfield on the forehand side and saw Williams in the lane with a step deep on two defenders. He put an outside-in edge on his flick and weighted it just enough to drop behind the defenders without catching the light tail wind and flying out of bounds. Williams jumped to meet it for the game-winning goal.
PoNY come away from the final without regrets. “I’m sad now, but we’ll look back on how good this game was at some point,” said Jones.
Kocher agreed. “I don’t know if there’s that much ‘Oh, we should have done this differently or that differently.’ At certain level, sometimes shit just doesn’t go your way,” he said. “That [Ring] team is very talented. There were not a lot of turns in that game. It was a really high-level game. Things didn’t go our way at the end, but I’m proud of the way we fought.”
The entire tournament was an unqualified success for New York, and after a bumpy regular season, they rank once again in the uppermost echelon of the division. They remain hungry and ready for another title, perhaps as soon as next year.
But right now, it’s Raleigh’s turn to wear the crown. “It feels really sweet. Amazing,” said Saul, one of the 2021 captains and the longest-tenured player on the team at 11 seasons. “I’ve been on this team a while and played with a lot of great players, and every year we’ve been right there. It feels great to get it… Ring Nation is strong and huge, and I’m glad to do it for all those guys who’ve worn this jersey.”
Ring of Fire have been burning for this moment for more than thirty years. In the post-game interview, the players pointed to the program’s legacy and the efforts of so many former players in bringing Raleigh the first club championship in its history.
With a young core, a thriving youth pipeline to refresh it, and decades of coordination and support behind them, it isn’t likely to be the last.
With, it must be noted, a couple of allowances ↩