UCSB and Pittsburgh will be looking to prove the list of title contenders extends beyond the top two seeds.
December 16, 2021 by Jenna Weiner and Edward Stephens in Preview with 0 comments
Our coverage of the 2021 College Series is presented by Spin Ultimate. You can get 15% off all college uniforms and swag right now at Spin Ultimate!
The 2021 College Championships are unusual in many ways: the quick ramp-up to a winter Nationals meant that qualifying Series events were the first tournaments some recruits ever played, while extended eligibility rules allowed teams to roster sixth- or seventh-year players and even alumni. Add one more point of distinction: for the first time, the D-I and D-III tournaments are being held as a single tournament event with four divisions.
The unique format of the 2021 Series as well as the long hiatus since sanctioned play make for lots of unknowns going into the weekend. In these previews, we’ll offer a snapshot of each team and the competition they’ll face when play begins on Friday, December 17. Watch ultiworld.com/live then for updates in all four college divisions!
Seeding: C1, no.3 overall
Power Ranking: #4
Path to Nationals: Def. UC San Diego 13-8 in Southwest final
Roster & Schedule
UC Santa Barbara burned bright during this short season to claim the crown in the always hotly contested Southwest Women’s region, and in the process earned themselves the top spot in Pool C. With a wealth of experienced talent and a roster some 20+ players deep, the Burning Skirts will be a force to be reckoned with, even as they contend with a strong suite of pool play opponents.
With five teams landing in the final pre-regionals power rankings, the Southwest region was always going to be a minefield with only three tickets to the dance to go around. Despite that stiff competition, UCSB were never particularly troubled, going undefeated with their closest game coming against fellow Nationals qualifiers UC Davis in pool play, which the Burning Skirts won 10-6. It was an impressive run and one that UCSB will look to carry into their play at Nationals a mere two-hour drive away from home.
The Burning Skirts ascendency to the peak of the Southwest region was led by their senior (and graduate) leadership. 2020 Callahan finalist Kaitlyn Weaver returns for one last hurrah with UCSB, while 2021 Callahan nominee Jasmine Childress will return home from her Fulbright Scholarship in Switzerland to helm the Burning Skirts once again. They’re joined by 2020 Breakout Player of the Year Elsa Winslow and a roster bursting with talented players hailing from across the state of California, including standout Vienna Lee, who joins UCSB from the Bay Area’s youth ultimate scene.
In addition to their talented players, the Burning Skirts also used some of the time away to hone their offensive systems to enable them to be more of a threat to the other top teams they’re likely to face at Nationals. “We have a lot of Skirts that we have developed into handler roles like Yu Ishii and Maria Sutherland who are really taking on leadership roles behind the disc,” said 2020 Offensive Player of the Year runner-up Weaver on Ultiworld’s Deep Look podcast after regionals. “I think that’s been such a huge thing for our program to finally have people who are great with the disc and we don’t need to just huck it every time and we can work it down the field, we can work it in zone O, and I think that’s where a lot of our success is coming from.”
With their renewed offensive firepower and efficiency, UCSB will be a force in the relative hometown comfort of Southern California, and between their veteran talent and big-play potential, they will put up a real challenge in the battle for a place in the final.
Seeding: C2, no.6 overall
Power Ranking: #7
Path to Nationals: Def. Pennsylvania 10-0 in Ohio Valley final
Roster & Schedule
Pittsburgh Danger dominated the Ohio Valley region as they rolled to the regional title, with no team able to put more than four points up against them. With two other teams from the region making Nationals — Pennsylvania for the first time in years, and true first-timer Ohio — it remains a question of how good this Danger team really is. However, with some top-shelf talent including 2021 Callahan nominee Jessie Sun, Danger reasonably can challenge the top teams in the division, but how far they’ll be able to break through is a different matter.
While Sun is the star award nominee for Pittsburgh, they aren’t lacking in talent or experience, especially with six of the Danger players competing at the 2021 club championships with newly formed Pittsburgh Parcha in the club women’s division. Those six include Annelise Peters — who some in the Pittsburgh scene claim is not talked about enough even as she racked 12 assists at club nationals — Celeste Picone, Linn Bjane, Madison Pisone, Beth Manturuk, and Morgan Johnson. They’ll bring in crucial elite club experience that could help steady Danger in tough moments down in Norco.
Alongside the Parcha-Danger crew are a host of up-and-coming players, including the Pittsburgh-area YCC powerhouse Kosowsky sisters, Miranda and Sophia, and Jessie Chan, a member of the 2020 USAU U20 team; they’re three members of a truly potent group of players looking to put their stamp on the 2021 national championships. “I could go on and name 26 people with complete confidence that they are going to do their job and they’re going to do it well,” declared Danger captain Peters, “but I don’t think that’s very helpful.”
With that deep roster and as the second seed in their pool, they’ll hope to reach what would be a fun quarterfinal matchup with one of the 4/5 seeds Colorado and Washington, which would provide a fair opportunity for Danger to once again reach the semifinal round. This is a team that made the final four only two seasons ago with the outstanding Carolyn Normile leading the way, and Sun, Peters, and company will aim to duplicate that success again this year.
Seeding: C3, no.10 overall
Power Ranking: #10
Path to Nationals: Lost to Colorado 12-11 in South Central final; def. Washington University 13-12 in second-place final
Roster & Schedule
Texas Melee made their sixth straight Nationals appearance this year, albeit just barely as they pulled out a universe point 13-12 win against Washington University of St. Louis in the game-to-go. Arguably they played better in just the game before, taking a lead before losing 12-11 to top seeds Colorado Quandry as Melee stretched their traditional rivals before falling just short. The contrasting performances and results present a dichotomous picture for a team that feels appropriately placed in the middle of the Nationals field, one dangerous enough to scare higher-seeded teams while fallible enough to be upset along the way.
Their roster similarly feels split when it comes to experienced players at the Nationals level and those much newer to the sport. Texas bring back eight players who have experience at college nationals, and nine rookies who are new to college ultimate entirely. As feels the norm this year, they’re joined by seven players with an assortment of college ultimate experience, ranging from the fall 2019-spring 2020 season to having played with other college teams before joining Melee.
Texas are led West to Norco by captains Mindy Radike and Caroline O’Connell, with Radike a fifth-year player after transferring from Texas State and O’Connell captaining Melee since 2018. “[O’Connell] was the beating heart keeping the program alive throughout the pandemic,” offered Radike. The two co-captains work together most often on the field as primary offensive line handlers, while returners Sanja Sojcic, Summer Wilson, and Emma Berrigan, who captained Melee in the 2020-2021 season, are key two-way players for Texas. “They’re the kind of players where they’re equally as effective on a D-line as on an O-line,” added Radike.
As a program that has consistently made Nationals in the past half-decade, Melee have the experience and talent to push through to the quarterfinals, with tough but manageable matchups against Western Washington or Georgia in a potential prequarters game. That being said, the dropoff from their game against Colorado to the game-to-go presents a worrying scenario in which this growing Texas team overextends themselves in a close loss only to lose out on a bracket spot in an upset. As one of the teams smack in the middle of the field, they will at least be a fun team to watch and will bring that classic big Texas swagger to the Southern California fields.
Seeding: C4, no.15 overall
Power Ranking: #22
Path to Nationals: Def. Purdue 10-8 in Great Lakes second-place game
Roster & Schedule
Michigan Flywheel make their return to Nationals after a season away, having battled their way in through the Great Lakes backdoor bracket and sealing their spot with a tight 10-8 win over Purdue in the game-to-go. Flywheel bring a solid, sizable roster to Southern California, which will help them grind through points over the long Nationals weekend while contending with a tricky set of pool play opponents.
In even making it to Nationals, Michigan needed the skills of each and every one of their players. Having lost out on the opportunity to make the first place bracket due to a lower point differential than Chicago and Purdue, Flywheel had to win out in order to earn that crucial second bid. It was tough sledding to get there, but they were able to pull out one- and two-point wins over Notre Dame and Illinois respectively to reach the game-to-go and then closed it out with that slim 10-8 margin against Purdue. Michigan’s sideline energy helped propel them through that challenging series of games, especially their trademark cowbells. “You’ll know from anyone who plays Great Lakes that cowbells from Flywheel are the best thing ever on the sideline,” said coach Aakar Mehra wryly.
It wasn’t just energy and enthusiasm that drove Michigan to victory, as the team out of Ann Arbor had a deep and skilled roster to call upon in those games. Katrina McGuire and Riely Kuznicki were among the standout returners and graduated players, with McGuire getting significant playtime with Chicago Nemesis and Kuznicki contributing to Ann Arbor Hybrid’s unexpected run to the club mixed division championship game. Both bring that ever-useful club experience to their play with Flywheel, who are helmed by a trio of talented captains in Claire Blazewicz, Miranda Baltaxe, and Madison Nightingale.
It took an entire team effort to get Michigan into Nationals through close game after close game, which should serve them well as they battle through an excellent Pool C. “To get through a tight game you have to be able to know that every single person that you’re putting on a line is really going to get the job done,” observed Flywheel returner Emily Evans, “I think ultimately that’s what made the difference.” For Flywheel to pull an upset or two to make the bracket, though, they’ll need that team cohesion and close game experience to carry them forward and make the difference once again.
Seeding: C5, no.19 overall
Power Ranking: Unranked
Path to Nationals: Lost to Tufts 15-4 in New England second-place game, but Tufts declined Nationals bid
Roster & Schedule
Bringing up the rear in Pool C are first-time Nationals qualifiers Boston University Uprising. Realistically, it took a whirlwind of circumstances to get them here with one of New England’s two bids. First, Dartmouth and Northeastern declined to participate in the fall Series at all; then Tufts, who did participate, were not allowed to travel for Nationals. Thus, in spite of a 15-4 loss to Tufts in the game-to-go, Uprising find themselves in the field at Norco.
While good fortune may have put the opportunity in their path, let’s not forget that Boston still had to take care of business against the rest of New England to make the most of it, working their way from the sixth seed to a third-place finish, beating MIT and Brown soundly. It takes a team pulling with all its weight to play up when the season is on the line.
A more pronounced underdog now than then, they’ll need a similar enterprising spirit to get past any of their pool opponents this go-round. Top players Iris Zhou, Olivia Tom, and Bev Liu have their work cut out for them, as Uprising don’t have the track record and experience of their peers, or even any alumni to lean on.1 “We know we are the oddball team in the mix, so our goal is to show up firey and have some fun,” says coach Sam Farnsworth.
Among their strengths is the element of surprise. With little film and virtually no reporting to go on, they’ll be impossible to scout. A few big plays early could put enough pressure on Michigan or Texas to pull off an upset. “I’ve said it to our women a million times: We may not be the best team on the field, but we are always the hungriest. When you stay hungry, you can surprise almost any team,” enthuses Farnsworth.
It would be a massive upset, however, if that were to happen. If history is any indication, Boston do not have much of a chance to break seed by more than one or two places. (That modest feat would at least win a bet, though.) Just to be at this tournament, however it goes, is a strong enough debut. And if they learn enough, who knows what they might be able to do with the experience come spring?
According to Farnsworth, “Nationals for us is the ignition, sparking our spring season… We want to be back in that game-to-go, and we want to show that we can be a genuine threat, not just a team that gets in on a technicality.”
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