Two of our reporters sum up the good and the bad of day one at the D-III College Championships.
December 18, 2021 by Michael Ball and Zakk Mabrey in Analysis with 0 comments
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Every Friday, ESPN senior writer Zach Lowe publishes an article he calls “Lowe’s 10 Things” in which he breaks down ten things he likes and doesn’t like about the past week in the NBA. In honor of the D-III College Championships being played on a Friday for the first time, we decided to steal this format to recap day one and set the stage for Saturday in the D-III Men’s division. We present…
Mike and Zakk’s 10 Things
1. Berry’s Potential
Berry played three games on day one, and all of them showed flashes of brilliance. They gave Middlebury their closest game of the day (15-10), lost a close game to Whitman (12-11), and narrowly took down Wesleyan (12-10). Collin Hill was a standout player in the handler space, and Berry had a number of good pieces surrounding him. As a whole, though, the team, struggled to put games away, and silly mistakes became costly. The 15-10 loss against Middlebury felt like it should have been a 15-13 loss. Berry led Whitman 11-8 before giving up a four-goal run to lose — and they nearly did it again in the Wesleyan matchup, leading 11-7 before it became an 11-10 game they would win in cap. For Berry, it’s a good day when you can come away with such close matchups against Middlebury and Whitman, but knowing how those results could have differed has to sting a little.
2. Colorado College’s Faceless Army
Yes, Colorado College has some standout players at the top of their roster (Bergen Hoff and Lincoln Grench were both great), but it was the depth — and the willingness to use their depth — that was most impressive. Throughout their first two games today, it felt like contributions were coming from all across the field. In their first two games of the day, after close first halves, Colorado College pulled away to a 15-10 victory over Rochester and a 15-7 victory over North Park.
“When it comes down the stretch and people are getting tired, I feel like we have more people we can go to than our opponents,” says captain Joe Keat. “We have a lot of cutters downfield who gain a lot of yards from us, and we have people on the sideline who can fill in and take on those roles.” Colorado College has a big roster, they trust their players, and they’re willing to use everyone to pull out wins.
3. Point Differential From Top 3
In a typical year, the thing that makes college ultimate more fun than club is the stronger sense that anything could happen. In club, there’s a sense of inevitability about the top teams. The Furys, Ring of Fires, and Mixtapes of the world are always going to be present deep into the weekend of Nationals. But in college — and especially in D-III — there’s typically hope at the beginning of the tournament for every team.
That didn’t feel like the case on Friday. The top three seeds in D-III men’s looked untouchable in their first games. Richmond finished pool play with a point differential of +31. St. Olaf got a good battle out of Colorado College, but were barely pushed in their other two games. Middlebury finished with a point differential of +26, including a game where they took half against Wesleyan in 25 minutes. A lot of factors could contribute to this unusual dominance: weird fall season, readjusting from a year-plus off, graduated players making the rich even richer, etc. But that trend isn’t necessarily the best thing for the division, and it’s something to keep an eye on through the rest of this tournament as well as into the spring.
4. Richmond’s Depth
We knew about plenty of the star players coming back to play for the top overall seed in the tournament. The Spidermonkeys have many recognizable names: Hunter Lang, Chris Cassella, Alex Pistolesi, etc etc. However, what makes Richmond the powerhouse that they are is their incredible depth. 25 of the 27 players who stepped on the field today for the Spidermonkeys recorded either a goal or assist. Supporting players like Brett Schoppert, Casey Hepburn, and Emmett Rice are stars in their roles, complimenting the big names on the roster perfectly.
“We don’t rely on stars as much as other teams,” said Lang after today’s games. “This team is just unbelievably deep.” Richmond’s star power may be what makes them a contender for semis, but it’s the rest of their roster that makes them a contender for a title.
5. Oklahoma Christian’s Margins of Victory
While the other three pool winners bested their Friday competition easily, the Oklahoma Christian Eagles had to grind out all three of their wins, finishing pool play with a measly +5 point differential. Believe it or not, this was partially the game plan.
“We just wanted to, in a way, survive pool play. We didn’t feel like we needed to necessarily crush everybody,” said OC’s Kyle Henke. His teammate Michael Paniagua agreed, adding that the team “really wanted to use their depth, getting everybody on the team playing time and making sure they know they’re a part of the team.”
The Eagles are a top-heavy team, and the format for the rest of the tournament caters to that, with only one game per day for the next three days. On top of that, OC will be bolstered by the addition of Jonathan Costello, who had to miss today’s games for a wedding. Even still, it’s concerning that the Eagles were incapable of even one comfortable win today. If you play with fire enough times, you’ll eventually get burnt.
6. Rookies Immediately Contributing
Despite only having a few months to get integrated into their teams, it felt like everywhere you looked, rookies were making major contributions. For Whitman, it was Leo Dungan-Seaver and Kai Kirsch, just a couple of new guys (albeit with WJUC tryout invites) making big impact plays all over the field. Carleton CHOP started freshman Charlie Bushman on their O-line as their primary deep cutter and crossed him over for key defensive points. Oklahoma Christian rookies Sam Roberts and Emmanuel Kameri were crucial elements of the Eagles’ D-line, with Kameri taking the best opposing cutter and Roberts leading the line after a turn.
Claremont was another team that relied on a handful of rookies on Friday. “We saw a lot of our rookies play really well today,” said captain Logan Stouse. “Wally Bargeron stepped up in some nice places, Cianan Gamble is a monster, and we’ve got a whole backlog of people who are ready to make a sick bid or two.”
Coming out of a year-and-a-half hiatus during a pandemic, it was a valid concern that teams might struggle with recruiting and that the future of the division might be in question. Based on what we saw today, it’s in good hands.
7. Fall Season Results in Reliance on Deep Ball
Everyone knows the fall season is focused primarily on player development. Every team moves at different paces, but the general beats are the same: spend the fall recruiting and developing skills, then use the spring season to implement and fine tune systems and sets. This is the first time we’ve had fall-semester ultimate with championship stakes, and while teams did their best to expedite the learning curve, it’s clear that there was only so much that could be accomplished before making the trip to Norco.
All over the field site, the deficits were most visible in the handler space, where timing, rhythm, and chemistry matter the most. Two teams in particular that struggled with this were Franciscan and Kenyon. Both teams were hobbled by short-field turnovers on handler resets, giving easy breaks to their opponents. Once that happened a few times, both teams became overly reliant on the deep shot. In a way, it makes sense: if you are concerned about turning the disc over anyway, you might as well do it on the other end of the field instead of mere yards outside your own end zone. However, this isn’t the way to play reliable, consistent offense. If both teams falter tomorrow, expect their reset struggles and reliance on the deep ball to be major reasons why.
8. Whitman’s Offense
It seemed like every time you came to the Whitman sideline on Friday, they were doing something different. They showed a variety of sets and looks — we saw some split stack, vertical stack, and horizontal stack as different sets. But more important than any of that, Whitman was impressive with their resets: positioning their bodies, placing their throws, and being able to reset the disc effectively, efficiently, and consistently. Outside of their reset abilities, they also had well timed deep shots that kept defenses on their toes. Junior Tyler Shanahan was elite in the deep space throughout the day, able to get open and bring down deep shots with ease almost any time he was looked for.
9. Poorly-Used Timeouts
One of the strangest sequences of timeouts we’ve ever seen came in the matchup between Rochester and North Park. On double game point, Rochester reached the red zone, looking to hold and finish off the game. They used a timeout initially, advanced the disc toward the goal line, and used a second timeout in the same possession, before punching in what would be the game-winning score. We saw a lot of timeouts immediately following hucks or fast breaks as well — not the best strategy. Throughout the day, the play coming out of timeouts was lackluster to say the least. Many times, timeouts were quickly followed by first- or second-throw turnovers.
10. Star Power in Division Continues to Grow
Have we ever had this many superstars in D-III ultimate before? It used to be that, when we looked around the division, it was exciting to see one or two top players competing on an elite club or AUDL team. This year, it’s outrageous how many top-level players we have. Leo Sovell-Fernandez, Middlebury and (formerly) Minneapolis Drag’n Thrust. Kyle Henke and Elliott Moore, Oklahoma Christian and Austin Doublewide. Will Brandt, Drew Otterlei, and Luke Bleers, St. Olaf and Minneapolis Sub Zero. Hunter Lang, Richmond and Boston Slow. And that list doesn’t even include the players already on the path for a bright future in the elite game: Whitman’s Kai Kirsch and Leo Dungan-Seaver each have WJUC tryouts upcoming, and there are tons of other rookies across the division making a real impact. In terms of top-end talent, D-III is in as good a spot as it’s ever been.