A finish less than 1% of WUL fan fantasy entrants saw coming!
December 13, 2021 by Edward Stephens, Alex Rubin, Kelsey Hayden and Mags Colvett in Recap with 0 comments
After a canceled 2020 season, a one-game showcase event in July, and lots of anticipation, the six teams of the Western Ultimate League made their on-field debut at the 2021 Winter Cup in San Diego, CA. The event was a round robin in which each team played two games and an overall winner was determined through a combination of win-loss record, stat performance, and fan participation. Read our preview to learn more about the Winter Cup and each team’s approach to the weekend.
Day One Recap | Day Two Recap
Sunday Morning with Wild and Tempest Anything But Lazy
After a relatively low-scoring slate of games on Saturday, WUL fans were due for a shootout. Big cutting spaces and hard, confident throws to push quickly past midfield characterized the Wild offense on the first point. And why not, with Saturday standouts Makk Kestin and Paige Kercher zipping forehands well out of reach of the Tempest defenders? Kestin sent a dart inside to Sarah Staller to set up Cori Bigham for the game’s first score, establishing one of the round’s prevailing themes: Bigham and Staller taking control of the end zone.
From there, it was a mad dash through the first quarter as the teams combined for 11 total points. Seattle responded quickly to match Utah’s power and energy on offense. Steph Lim and Cheryl Hsu directed the point from the backfield; eventually, since one great inside flick deserves another, Lim rocketed a forehand up the middle to Aimie Kawai for a goal.
But the Tempest did not seem content to plod along with a mere bread-and-butter, swing-and-possession offense. With big throwers, athletic receivers, and perfect, flat-calm weather to set to work in, they embarked on an all-out air attack. Hsu hucked early to Kawai on their next offensive point, which would eventually – after a timely Shae Wallen block and a quick Wild turnover – lead to a second goal. The Tempest then tacked on a third when an open-field drop set up a deep backhand in transition (Alyssa Kelly to a sprawling Lexi Garrity) for the game’s first break.
The next four points, all of them holds, were a festival of gorgeous throws. Kercher curved an OI flick from midfield to hit Staller in stride. Hsu, catching every other pass against a Wild zone, drifted horizontally across the endzone line toward the place where a beautifully weighted Qxhna Titcomb forehand sat in space for her. Kestin initiated a weak-side away cut with a lolly of a hammer. But the finale was the best part. Lim, from midfield, saw the faintest hint of an Alexa Romersa curl-cut, and, anticipating the separation well before it was executed, sent a long forehand up the force side to the back cone. Romersa overtook her defender and laid out to make an unbelievable catch, just keeping her feet down in bounds before her torso landed across the line.
Seattle broke on the next point to take a 6-4 lead on the heels of another big throw, this time from Charlie Mercer to Jennifer Ricuarte. It looked as though the Tempest had taken control of the match, even as Megan Maxfield’s high-release flick on the goal line trimmed the lead to one as the first quarter came to a close.
That impression of control would prove fleeting, however, because the second quarter was all Utah. The Wild, obviously tiring of Seattle’s deep game, used the short pause to implement some defensive adjustments. The tight match defense that had not been able to contain Seattle’s handlers in the first quarter gave way to a full-blown sag look that constricted the downfield throwing lanes instead.
To say that the adjustment worked would be a criminal understatement: Utah broke Seattle five times in a row to start the quarter, giving themselves a 10-6 cushion. It was as though the defenders had only needed a little more time each point to tighten the vice. With the lanes effectively clogged, Seattle worked laterally and slowly, giving the defense better footing from which to create turnovers. And create them they did. Melinda Alvey blocked an errant hammer in the endzone. Chrissy Maruyama ran through a lazy swing pass at one point, and then straight outran her match to steal an upline pass on another. Megan Maxfield, who stood out this weekend as one of the Wild’s most athletic players, took position to leap up for a deep block.
Defense wasn’t the only difference. Utah, whose execution in the first quarter had lagged a degree or two behind Seattle’s, proved the more mentally resilient of the teams in the second. They stuck to their gameplan on defense, played to their strengths on offense, and won the battle of the little things: following the play for potential tipped discs, taking a second to scan for poaches before throwing, communicating clearly with their resets.
The Tempest, by contrast, looked lost. The mistakes seemed to build on one another, and as fatigue and frustration set in, they missed on far too many easy connections. They were able to right the ship for one clean point before the break, but Seattle ultimately went into the half facing a three-goal deficit against a supercharged Wild squad.
The high-octane promise of the first half fizzled somewhat in the third and fourth quarters: the pace of turnovers climbed as the pace of scores plummeted. Utah and Seattle combined for 17 goals in the first half; they would not even tally half of that sum in the second half. Seattle had a great look at a break in the third after a textbook Titcomb layout block set up a fast strike, but they were unable to convert. It was the kind of play that might have set off a string of breaks if they managed the first one – Utah’s offense played confidently throughout the game, but they were hardly mistake-free. But Seattle never truly recovered, and the Wild’s Staller and Bigham maintained enough energy to keep any serious challenges at bay.
The fourth quarter’s first point lasted almost seven minutes before Utah converted their sixth and final break on one last Kestin dime ball. At the attacking brick and forced backhand, Kestin pointed with her off-hand to the open-side of the end zone before quickly reaching around the mark to bend a flick to the weak-side cone for Staller. The worn-out Tempest, facing certain defeat, then marched the disc up the field for one final score before time ran out: Utah 14–11 Seattle in the last game of the weekend for either side.
And just like that, the Wild, despite having the least national recognition in the field, took down a name-brand Seattle squad, their second upset (at least by city reputation) on an undefeated weekend. Several Wild players — Kestin, Maxwell, and Bigham in particular — stood out for their individual performances. But credit Utah more as a team for coming together so quickly and resolutely for the Winter Cup, which, as they repeatedly emphasized, was the first time the various pods from the large Mountain West area had ever gathered in the same place. It was a sterling performance, and it bodes very well for the team’s chances in the inaugural season next year.
Stream replay: Seattle Tempest vs. Utah Wild
Sidewinders Surge in Close Match with Ferocious Falcons
In a tight battle between two teams looking to bounce back from Saturday losses, the San Francisco Falcons took down the Arizona Sidewinders 12-11. Arizona started off on the right foot, with Betsy Basch blocking a speculative Falcons shot and Helen Eifert tracking down a huck going the other way past a pile and two teammates. It wasn’t long before Eifert’s give-and-go work on the goal line opened the scoring with an exciting Sidewinders break.
Arizona’s junk defense successfully disrupted the other side and their high-variance offense did just enough, especially as Sidewinders continued to come down with improbable-looking hucks. They scored a second break early in the first quarter before San Francisco settled in and went on a small run of their own, highlighted by a long Marisa Mead huck to Magon Liu. By the end of the quarter, each team had three points on the board.
Kody Lippincott led the Sidewinders’ offensive efforts in the second quarter. Her skying goal kept Arizona in the lead to open the scoring, but soon, a cheeky away shot from the Falcons’ Patricia Anderson lofted its way past the Sidewinders’ zone, setting up another San Francisco run. Anderson’s backhand in flow to Sally Mimms gave the Falcons their first lead at 5-4 with about six minutes left in the half, and Sharon Lin came up with a remarkable trailing block on another Arizona huck to earn the Falcons the disc back. The Falcons scored to take a 6-4 lead, then broke a third time when Liu snagged a poach block and marshalled the end zone offense to the tune of a 7-4 lead.
Continuing the back-and-forth game of runs, Arizona dashed off a three-goal run of their own after a timeout. Lippincott tracked down a quickly-fired-off deep shot to bring the score within two, then reeled in a highlight huck to tie the game at seven as the quarter expired.
The Sidewinders were back to their high-flying ways in the second half. After the Falcons marched in a quick hold, Lindsey Doyle skied for a score, Dunn picked up a dropped Falcons reset and lofted a wide backhand for a goal to Eifert, and Jade McLaughlin boxed out the pressure and pulled down a helixing huck to go up 10-8 Arizona. The Falcons patiently held the disc for the last shot, and Mead threaded the needle on a forehand to Mimms through Arizona’s diamond zone to pull the Falcons within one at 10-9 entering the final quarter.
Connie Chan tracked down a huck to close out a back-and-forth, three-plus minute opening point to earn the Falcons a break and tie game at ten. Even as the game tightened up and legs grew more weary, the Sidewinders stuck to their strategy, hucking the disc every chance they had. Dunn bobbled a disc that got caught up in a pile, but recovered it and continued for a goal to put Arizona back up. San Francisco, meanwhile, preferred to work through their handlers, with Anderson, Han Chen, and Katie Swinnerton taking many of the backfield reps. Taking a page out of Arizona’s book, Sam Applegate went up high to bring the score level again at 11s with two minutes left.
When the pull went off, few would have expected it to be the final point of the game. Each team cagily worked the disc downfield before turning over their endzone shot, with Caity Winterbottom coming up with an impressive block on Liu. Kay Powell sent out a huck with just under a minute left that didn’t quite take shape, falling out of reach of her intended target. As the point developed into a helter-skelter affair of advantages won and lost that seemed emblematic of the game itself, San Francisco called a timeout. Out of the stoppage, Chen launched a huck that Dunn ripped out of the sky for what looked like a crucial block. But a few throws later, Arizona dropped the disc. The Falcons swung the disc around with a short field, and as time expired, Swinnerton found Chen for the game-winning goal.
Though they did not take home the win, Arizona may have found a strong strategy, and should take solace in their noticeable improvement between Saturday and Sunday’s games. San Francisco, meanwhile, will be happy to walk away with their first dub in program history and experience on both sides of the win/loss coin to build towards 2022. The Falcons are the only team to have already set their roster for next season, so they’ll have a leg up on the rest of the league, who will still be holding tryouts while the Falcons begin refining their plays and systems.
Stream replay: San Francisco Falcons vs. Arizona Sidewinders
Super Bloom Rattle Astra in the Showdown for SoCal
In the final matchup of the weekend, Los Angeles Astra faced San Diego Super Bloom: a fitting head-to-head as both teams had a win under their belts and led the overall Winter Cup scoreboard after day one thanks to strong social media and stat performances as well as favorable game records.
The Astra received to start, and their first point was the work of some familiar red zone presences, a give-and-go between Dena Elimelech and Stephanie Pritchard for the hold. San Diego wouldn’t give Los Angeles the lead for long, though, putting themselves on the board with a big backhand huck. Both teams used zone looks to challenge each other’s downfield movement, an effective but double-edged strategy as misthrows and drops from all sides led to long, messy points. With the help of Kaela Helton on offense, though, San Diego emerged with two breaks to take a 4-2 lead by the end of the quarter.
The second quarter would see that lead grow for the home team. Alex Diaz was another key contributor to the Super Bloom offense, with Helton continuing to produce for on both ends of the field despite the Astra’s best efforts. A possession-saving layout grab by Los Angeles’s Audrey Brown was the highlight of the quarter as well a vital shot of good fortune for the team, halting the other side’s 4-0 run to keep Astra in the game at 6-3 in Super Bloom’s favor. Kelli Iwamoto really found her flow this quarter, frequently going every other and leaving her Astra foes on their heels. The quarter finished as it started, with San Diego playing smart, effective offense and Los Angeles struggling to get enough completions, leaving them in an 8-3 hole going into the second half.
After halftime, Los Angeles finally figured out their offense with a clean hold. Elimelech kept her defender out of the play while O’Connor and Pritchard ran the offense to net a much-needed Astra point less than a minute into the quarter. While Astra continued to trail, their efforts did not waver. They kept up the pressure on San Diego, and it paid off when a smart Los Angeles poach yielded a promising turn, but lockdown endzone defense by Super Bloom prevented the Astra from cashing in the break. Things continued to go the way of San Diego, and despite having one of the smallest rosters at the cup (tied with Utah at just 17 players), the Super Bloom squad didn’t seem to get tired, maintaining their five-point lead.
A huge backhand huck from O’Connor to Elimelech felt like a potential momentum shift at the end of the third, but San Diego appeared to feel no pressure, holding then breaking to start the fourth. Late in the game, Los Angeles seemed to have more difficulty than San Diego finding an open receiver in time within the WUL’s seven-second stall. But despite the imposing gap between the teams, the Astra fought hard until the end.
The game ended 17-6 for the Super Bloom. It was an impressive performance by the entire team, but the contribution of Helton, Kristen Pojunis, Alex Diaz, and Kelli Iwamoto cannot be overstated.
The commanding performance capped off a triumphant weekend for San Diego both on and off the field, and at the end of Sunday’s games, they looked likely to hang on to their Winter Cup lead from the end of day one — but there were a few overall event points yet to be tallied.
Stream replay: Los Angeles Astra vs. San Diego Super Bloom
And Your Champions Are…
At the end of the second day, the Winter Cup’s unique scoring format came into play to determine the event’s overall winner, as undefeated teams and strong stat performers San Diego Super Bloom and Utah Wild were each in good position to seize the crown based on their play on the weekend. It was the Wild, however, who would finally emerge as the champions of the WUL’s first-ever competitive event — thanks in part to a small-but-mighty cadre of true believers who saw the Wild’s 2-0 showing coming from a Big Sky vista away.
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Before the tournament, spectators were invited to fill out a fan fantasy draft submission with predictions on overall records and individual stat categories. The most accurate entry would net 10 overall points for the submitter’s home team, two-thirds the value of winning a Winter Cup game outright.
According to the @WULInsider Twitter account, of 380 submissions, only three predicted undefeated weekends for both Utah and San Diego. The overall winner, a Utah supporter, also foresaw stat leadership from Wild standouts Megan Maxfield and Kendra Miller. The 10 points awarded helped put Utah over the top — an auspicious start for the new pro team from an ultimate scene on the rise.