D-I College Championships 2021: Stars Align for Washington to Knock Off Syzygy (Women’s Semifinal Recap)

A star-studded cast on both sides produced the most exciting game of the semifinal round.

Washington's Abby Hecko skies for a goal in the semifinals of the 2021 College Championships. Photo: Rodney Chen -- UltiPhotos.com
Washington’s Abby Hecko skies for a goal in the semifinals of the 2021 College Championships. Photo: Rodney Chen — UltiPhotos.com

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!

#3 Washington Element picked up a Penny in the semifinal matchup against #1 Carleton Syzygy, but the team’s 15-13 win on Sunday night and the fact they made it to the national final, had nothing to do with luck and something to do with a player named Penny Nguyen.

In the evening’s final semifinal, the stands were packed with strong rooting contingents on both sides, vocal presences from the other teams at Nationals from these schools.

Washington started on offense and put up a quick huck against the Syzygy matchup defense for an efficient game-opening hold to Spirit nominee Robyn Gamboa. Carleton was just as efficient with their first offensive point, cruising up the field with Nariah Sims and company before Carly Campana put it out for Maya Powell in the back of the end zone to tie it up.

Carleton changed up their tactics early, throwing zone off of a big Lauren Yamasaki-Liske pull. But Element were as patient in this point as they were efficient with the first, comfortably swinging the disc up the field until Maddy Grassy found Sophia Palmer with an inside throw into the goal. Washington responded with a zone of their own, though Syzygy attacked over the top with a huck to Sims, who was fouled on her catch attempt. A few through later, it was knotted at 2-2.

We saw the first break chance of the game on point five, as the Syzygy D-line got a block and immediately shot deep the other way, Victoria Gray’s huck reaching Nora Mertz to capture the first break, 3-2. Abby Hecko helped Element get back on track, making a diving, possession-saving grab before sending it to Nicki Chan in the end zone to tie it up again 3s.

Washington got their first look at a break on the next point courtesy of a wayward Emma Chin huck that traveled out of bounds and never came back in. But Carleton quickly got it back to save their center handler’s blushes and Aria Kischner hauled in her second goal of the game to maintain the Syzygy lead.

Tied at 4-4, Campana bobbled a catch near the end zone but eventually secured it and Kischner turned distributor, picking up an assist. Element work a tidy move up the line from Nicole Chan to Stephanie Phillips to Amy Nguyen. Both offenses look mostly clean through the first half, an indication that both teams are keeping the disc safe in the big game, nerves need not apply.

Coming out of a timeout, Washington returned to their zone but Carleton moved through it well with over-the-top hammers and scoobers from Kate Lanier and Emma Chin. The latter eventually hit Carly Campana, count it, 6-5, then Element’s Steph Phillips skied a pile to peg right back.

With the first half winding down, Abby Hecko decided it was time to put her first real stamp on the game. As Carleton worked against an Element zone, they put one deep over the top, only to see it gobbled up by Hecko. Despite strong work from Penny Nguyen on the D-line offense, Washington turn it, only for Hecko to produce another block, streak deep, get up huge for a sky on the goal line and then dish into the end zone for the UW break. game back on serve at 7-6.

After Carleton’s Anika Thomas-Toth brought it back to even with one of her four goals on the game, Syzygy came down in a zone to try to coax another turn before the half. Hecko obliged a huck attempt and Carleton took over on their own goal line, but Element’s Phillips read the around throw to pull it in for the callahan. Washington took half 8-7.

Washington started the second half with person defense where Alexa Yadama owned her matchup and got a run-through block before finding Hecko for the break out of the break, up 9-7.

“I think we really elevated our person defense,” said Washington’s coach Kelley Hall. “Especially taking advantage of the fact they play a vert stack with no dump, and really putting pressure on what they count on as easy resets making them work for every possession.”

The lead wouldn’t last long. Carleton pick up their hold via good work from Lanier, Campana, and Anna Stubbs, though Thomas-Toth is the ultimate beneficiary. Syzygy then get their break back on a long point with turns back and forth as Mertz picked out Victoria Gray. It’s odd, but even at 9-9. Gray is back in the mix on the next point, earning a block, only to see her team give it back. Element steady themselves and pick up the tempo, as Penny Nguyen puts her defender on skates while racing to the endzone to regain the lead.

Both teams were absolutely grinding, trading blocks and big plays, as their stars shine. Campana found Stubbs for the Syzygy hold. Hecko bladed a forehand that Phillips scooped up, only to have a poaching Victoria Gray ram into her from downfield. It stayed a goal and Gray walked off under her own power, 11-10 Washington. On the next point, Sims won a block back for her O-line, Campana to Lanier for the goal. Hecko went every other for Element before Phillips found Palmer.

As the game inched toward the finish, the Carleton crowd was on edge, knowing their team needed to find a break. Instead, they give up another as a dropped pull gave Washington a short-field opportunity, which Phillips hauled in to go up 13-11.

For as dire as the situation was for Carleton, they don’t show it, as Campana rocketed a flick down the sideline to meet Nariah-Belle Sims for a hold. There is hope for Syzygy as Hecko drops one, but the Washington star atoned for her mistake and gets it back with a huge block. Element call their final time out to regroup before Penny Nguyen collected the eventual score to get to the doorstep of victory up 14-12. 

An out-of-bounds pull allowed Lanier to pick up at midfield and get it to Sims who fights a high stall count leading to a prayer pass that Thomas-Toth answers with height in the end zone. Carleton hold but still need two breaks to complete a comeback.

Washington need one final hold and they start closer than anticipated with a short pull by Carleton. Syzygy’s reigning DPOTY Sims watched the final defensive point from the sideline as the team maintained their strategic line structure throughout the game. Element move up cautiously, now five yards out from the goal line. Game point, the adrenaline started to take over Sophia Palmer.

“I remembered my last two throws gave my teammates some highlights for sure,” said Palmer. “The disc was going to get in the end zone somehow.” And it did, the stall was rounding up and Palmer threw a floaty blade to Alexa Yadama, who came down with a falling catch in the endzone. Kick spike!

It was a tough end for Syzygy, who returned 23 of 25 players from their 2020 roster, but most certainly wished they could have had the Ehrhardt sisters to call upon this weekend, but who were absent through a family emergency. Still, Sims was all love after the game after her career came to end at Carleton after more than four solid years. “We were leaving everything out on the field,” said Sims. “Even when we were down I don’t think we were ever nervous or scared it was just about the joy to be together again.”

As fans, we were robbed for the second year in a row of a much-ballyhooed Carleton vs North Carolina matchup, but Washington absolutely earned and deserved their spot in the final instead having knocked off the tournament’s top seed. Looking forward to the final, coach Hall had words to share about her team.“Before the 2020 season, we were on an arc and we weren’t trying to peak at the first tournament or at Regionals,” said Hall. “I did not think Nationals would be in two years, but this has always been our goal.”

  1. Olivia Alongi
    Olivia Alongi

    Olivia Alongi is a part of our Female Writers Development program (FWD). She's a Temple alumna with a BA in Journalism. She started playing ulti in high school and played on TUF through college. She works as a News Associate at CBS Sports in New York. You can reach her through Twitter @Olivia_Alongi.

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