A top-heavy pool sees a pair of legitimate semifinals contenders paired with a trio of teams thin on national experience.
December 17, 2021 by Olivia Alongi and Steve Sullivan in Preview with 0 comments
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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!
Washington Element secured their lone national title back in 2012, but it’s been a while since they were in the mix at the top end of this tournament, having failed to qualify for the quarterfinals since 2014. But with the powerful Seattle youth pipeline finally coming good for the local university and Element looking dangerous in the shortened 2020 campaign, this year may see the return to those halcyon days of a decade ago.
Washington is heading back to the nationals stage in back-to-back years for the first time since 2016, after sweeping their regional competition this fall. Picking up where they left off last spring, Element have blitzed the Series so far, securing three convincing wins over fellow top 10 team Western Washington across Conferences and Regionals and giving up a total of six points across four other games against Northwest competition.
“While it felt like a relatively quick season, it was also a way to get some closure from 2020,” Element leadership noted. “When that season was cut short, there was a lot of disappointment, so it was nice to get to finish what we started. This will be a special trip.”
Element’s roster is 29 deep, more than half of whom hail from inside the Seattle city limits. Captain Abby Hecko was edged out by fellow Seattle product Hazel Ostrowski of Tufts for Rookie of the Year in 2020, but her star has continued to skyrocket over the past few years and she landed a Second Team All-Club nod for her work with Mixtape this fall. Expect to see her providing plenty of assists on both lines this weekend. Hecko may be the headliner, but she’s sharing the marquee with plenty of other big names. Penny Nguyen was among the breakout stars of the club division with Riot this season alongside Ikran Elmi and Steph Phillips – joint-top assist throwers for Element at 2019 Nationals – and Alexa Yadama, the team’s leading goal scorer in Round Rock. Amy Nguyen was a USA U20 National Team selection in 2018 and will also have a key role to play in driving Washington’s success. The talent doesn’t stop there and with disc skills up and down the roster, Element remains a terrifyingly clinical offensive juggernaut.
Few teams in this pool have the talent to go toe-to-toe with Washington, either at the top end or in their depth. It’s possible that the lack of challenge they’ve faced so far this season could prove to be a factor in their play in California, but 2021 could be the year Washington prevail and find themselves among the last teams left standing at Nationals.
Seeding: D2, no.5 overall
Power Ranking: #8
Path to Nationals: Def. Texas 12-11 in South Central final
Roster & Schedule
Colorado Quandary is one of the most successful programs in the division’s history, with their 16 college championships fourth all-time amongst women’s teams. For the last half decade, they’ve taken up residence inside the Top 10 in the country, reaching the quarterfinals in four of the last five Nationals. In 2018, Quandary was the closest they’ve ever been to a title as a surprise finalist in Milwaukee but came up short against Dartmouth. Plenty has changed about the program in the ensuing years — not least the name — but eight players who were part of that silver medal side return for one last run at a championship.
Leading the way are a trio of powerhouse athletes that typify the team’s defensive-minded intensity in the past two Callahan nominees, Emma Capra and Rachel Wilmoth, as well as Saioa Lostra. All three often land near the top of the team leaderboard in both goals and blocks, and all of them could find themsleves in the DPOTY conversation at the end of the weekend with another typically outstanding performance. Bailey Shigley is a star running the offense, Sarah Nadler does a great job handling after the turn, and we’ve yet to really see the best from more recent prize recruits Skye Fernandez and Clil Phillips on the college stage. The talent on this team is for real, and deep.
The larger question for Quandary is if Stacy Gaskill be making an appearance in Norco. Originally unsure if she’d play at all this fall, the near Olympic level snowboarder was at Regionals but is nursing an injured shoulder and chances are low that we’ll see her in action this weekend. If that’s the case, the team will sorely iss her presence patroling the downfield space.
In typical South Central fashion, Colorado met Texas in a tight regional final, needing a three-goal run at the end to close out a double-game point victory for the top spot. It may not have been the dominant performance Quandary may have wanted to put the rest of the division on notice about their title aspirations, but those two rivals always play each other close. With a steady coaching staff, a raft of experienced graduate students, and a stable of talented younger players, Colorado is as primed as they can be for another deep bracket run.
Seeding: D3, no.9 overall
Power Ranking: #17
Path to Nationals: Lost to North Carolina 13-5 in Atlantic Coast final; def. Appalachian State 15-6 in second-place game
Roster & Schedule
After a five-year quarterfinals streak in the middle of last decade, Virginia failed to qualify for the past two Nationals. Now they’re back to the big show, but it’s a first for almost all of the players on their roster this season and it’s not lost on them how difficult of a challenge it will be. Without a competitive season to build throughout the year, a relatively younger team like Hyrdra is left with a lot of unknowns.
Over the last two years, they’ve focused on redeveloping their program as a whole and now feel more confident in the depth of their team and its culture. Facing teams like Washington and Colorado, that development will be put to the test but Hydra remain upbeat coming in and are determined to carry that positive mindset into each game.
“Our positive team culture of caring for one another has made us a solid unit,” said Jane Frankel, one out of Hydra’s three captains. “Our teammates are willing to work and play for each other because of how deeply we respect one another as individuals. We rely a lot less on individual talent, and much more on playing as a unit,” said Bryn Kabiri and Elena Lensink, the other side of leadership.
This season is a full-circle moment for six of Virginia’s alum players: Blaise Sevier, Caroline Bereuter, Chandler Smith, Erin Flores, Shuchi Amin, and Megan Kenny. Each of these players was able to get a sense for what playing a national-level game felt like in their first year with the team back in 2017. Once Hydra got word that their 2021 season was a go and that the university would allow the grads to play — a luxury not all schools were afforded and that Hydra very much recognize they are lucky to have — the team was more focused than ever but even more appreciative of the time they would get back with their alumni after the sudden ending to their journey last spring. Now those players are finally back on the Nationals stage and gifted with one final tournament in their last season.
Seeding: D4, no.16 overall
Power Ranking: Unranked
Path to Nationals: Lost to Pittsburgh 10-0 in Ohio Valley final; def. Ohio 8-68 in front-door semifinals to finish second
Roster & Schedule
For a long-standing program that found great success in the 1990s, UPenn has had a rough go of it since the turn of the millennium. Aside from a fifth place finish in 2009 during the Opi Payne era, Venus has failed to qualify for Nationals any other year since 1996, despite churning out some world class players like Raha Mozaffari and, more recently, Anna Thompson. It’s a shame neither ever got the chance on college’s biggest stage, but at least the latter is now able to root on some former teammates who have returned the program to Nationals.
Venus’s strengths lie on the defensive side of the disc, specifically with their zone which they will pull out a few different variations this weekend. Captains Shannon Lin and Julia “Huey” Lasater are both strong defenders, with the former dominating downfield after the turn while the latter is the team’s main handler. The team also picked up Ashika Mani, formerly of Pitt but has since fit into her new team’s dynamic effortlessly and helped their flow.
“We’ve got 11 seniors and a handful of grad students so it’s hard to pick just a few standout players,” says coach Kelly “Pockets” Skewis, part of a new coaching staff replacing longtime signal-caller Patrick Sherlock. “But Dagny Lott is a sophomore and someone to look out for at this tournament and in future years.”
Don’t read too much into the shutout loss to Pitt in the Regional final; having already qualified for Nationals in a hard-fought semifinal against Ohio in the driving snow of Ohio Valley Regionals, Venus opened up their lines a lot to get their younger players some more reps.
As a team with zero experience on this stage, their plan for the weekend is to play every game to their best ability and make it a point to show the younger players why an experience like Nationals is something to strive for.
Seeding: D5, no.20 overall
Power Ranking: Unranked
Path to Nationals: Def. Yale 11-8 in Metro East final
Roster & Schedule
Coming out of the Metro East region this year is SUNY Binghamton Big Bear.
“It was our team’s first year even having a bid to Regionals, so the win that sent us to Nationals was the most exciting of our career at Binghamton,” said Big Bear captain Danielle Dattler.
There’s an understatement. Believe it or not, this is actually the school’s second appearance at Nationals, though the first dates back to 1989. This year’s team hardly even expected to be competing this season. After a setback or two from the pandemic the team was only expecting to get some tossing in this season but with the luck of their school’s mask mandate protocols, it allowed them to practice and get back on track. SUNY Binghamton’s last Regionals trip was four years ago in 2017; since then, the team’s been rebuilding. Quite the rebuild is has been, as the team made a statement at Regionals with a win over the region’s other top contender Yale and earned the region’s only bid, helping to send the team packing for a trip to the West Coast.
“Our alumni and families have been instrumental in providing donations to get us to California,” says Dattler.
Big Bear will have the smallest roster in Norco at just 13 players, including several graduate students sticking around to lend some guidance like captain Dattler and Anchilla Inocencio. Samantha Gonzalez will be the team’s main offensive threat, but they are more than a one-trick pony. SUNY Binghamton plans to hone in on their skills and gain experience facing teams across the nation.