Pleiades finish the Nationals bracket unbroken in three straight games en route to a dominant title.
December 24, 2021 by Jenna Weiner in Recap with 0 comments
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This game was over almost before it began. #2 North Carolina Pleiades exploded to first-half leads of 7-1 and 8-2 over #3 Washington Element before cruising to a dominant 15-6 win, giving the Pleiades program their first-ever national championship.
With a +25 point differential in just three bracket games, the UNC women’s team more than matched their men’s team counterparts UNC Darkside, who also won a championship earlier in the evening, although not in nearly such comprehensive fashion. The Pleiades stars shined brightly time and again at the college championships, and did so one last time in stellar fashion in the final.
UNC’s first program title comes after several years on the upswing, going from missing Nationals in 2016 to semifinalists in 2019 to champions this season. It is a remarkably rapid rise, supported both by the growth of the Triangle ultimate scene in North Carolina and the belief of players in the program.
“We have a teammate, Alex Barnett, when she joined the team five years ago — we were at the beginning of the season, and we said, ‘let’s set some goals’— and she said ‘I want to win Nationals’ and I think four, five years later, we finally did it,” shared UNC veteran Florence Brooks. Barnett, alongside five others who played with club semifinalists Raleigh Phoenix this year, helped power the Pleiades to a comprehensive win over an Element squad with their own star power as well.
Abby Hecko is the name that most will immediately recognize, a superstar player this season with Seattle Mixtape and the youngest member on the gold-medal-winning USA U24 team in 2019, who often made the crucial difference for UW in their close games throughout the weekend. Her Mixtape teammate, Sophia Palmer, frequently joined Hecko on the Element offensive line and the two wreaked havoc in the downfield space.
In more backfield roles, Ikky Elmi, Penny Nguyen, and Stephanie Phillips helped run the show for UW, all three teammates this year on Seattle Riot. The starpower from both teams set-up what should have been a fairly even matchup, and while the opening exchanges did offer that, Element quickly found themselves outmatched on the field, not helped by the losses of some of their star players.
UNC’s Defense Erupts Early
For how lopsided the final margin was, the first few points did go about as expected. UNC picked up a quick break, Grace Conerly throwing an off-hand backhand to Barnett, who finished with four goals and an assist, while Bridget Mizener threw two assists to Ella Juengst for two holds as the Pleiades took an initial 3-1 lead.
UW’s score came off an assist from Penny Nguyen to Amy Nguyen,1 although not before Element star Palmer went off with an injury after what seemed to be a clean layout block from UNC’s Olivia Monroe. The loss of Palmer, a dynamic downfield threat and 2020 Team USA U20 player, was a tough blow for UW in the early stages of the final, and they proceeded to give up four straight breaks after the second Mizener-Juengst point, Conerly playing a particularly significant role for UNC.
At 3-1, Conerly came up with an enormous layout block and then caught the goal from Barnett, while on the next point her defensive pressure helped ensure a low throw from UW wasn’t completed, enabling Dawn Culton — who saved possession for UNC with a layout snag — to throw a touchy, bladed forehand to Barnett.
Another beautifully angled Culton assist to a bidding Conerly later, and it was suddenly 6-1 to the Pleiades, and with Mizener crossing over the next point it didn’t take too long until she picked up another assist, this time to Emily Przykucki, for the 7-1 lead. It was an incredibly hot start for North Carolina, and one that Washington could never recover from.
“They’re an efficient team. They are able to punish mistakes and take advantage of the opportunities that we gave them,” recognized Element head coach Kelley Hall. “They’re a great team and we made some uncharacteristic mistakes, which is a tough combination to have in a final. They put a lot of pressure on our downfield cutters that we weren’t used to, and we just played a little tight today.”
Star Injuries Dim UW’s Hopes
The loss of Palmer in the first half certainly didn’t help UW’s case, and it didn’t get much better in the second half for Element as they tried to make up the 8-2 halftime deficit. Washington started on offense, and after a turn for each team, Amy Nguyen picked up the disc on the far sideline and looked to put it back into play.
She found Hecko, guarded loosely by Culton, but as the UW superstar made a last-second adjustment towards the disc she was drilled by UNC’s Alana Holder, who had made a strong move into the space to try and get a poach block. The impact could be felt from the sidelines, and a hush fell over the crowd as Hecko lay flat, face down on the ground, clearly in a world of hurt as Holder realized the extent of the collision.
The nearest observer brandished a blue card toward Holder for the blind-side hit, which the Pleiades player accepted with a nod of understanding, as Hecko unsteadily got to her feet. She stayed on the field, but only momentarily, throwing high across the field for a turnover before going off for an injury substitution.
Hecko would not return to the field, clearly shaken up on the sidelines as she processed the aftereffects of the impact, and was assessed for a concussion by staff on the sideline. Suddenly, Element were down not only 8-2 but down their best player, putting a huge dent into any hope of making a comeback.
There were questions during and after the game of whether the shot from Holder warranted a stiffer punishment than a blue card, given the severity of both the poach block attempt and the injury to Hecko. While it seemed clear that Holder had no ill intent to harm Hecko, her attempt at the block did result in a nasty injury and was, at a minimum, a little reckless.
It remains to be seen how ultimate engages with plays such as these that can present such a clear danger to player safety, and how it goes about legislating different levels of contact in a sport supposed to be, at its core, non-contact. In this instance, a team’s star player was grievously injured by an opponent, who, by all accounts, was simply overaggressive and not head-hunting, but Holder still took Hecko out of the game, and UW had to somehow find a way to play on.
With impressive resiliency, Element were able to score on that same point that Hecko was injured, holding after a UNC turn on a throw from Amy Nguyen to Phillips. That still only made it 8-3, and while Element were able to hold again on their next possession, it still left them at 10-4 down, still down two of their top players. “Losing both Sophia and Abby is basically taking out half our O-line cutters,” said Hall. “We’ve come to rely on their consistency with the disc and generating offense, so that was really tough.”
In Palmer and Hecko’s places, Element were able to get step-up performances from some of their other key players, Alexa Yadama and Penny Nguyen getting particular praise from Hall after the game. Yadama and Nguyen tended to play on the UW defensive line, but with the two Mixtape teammates out injured, the pair from Riot were able to come through for Element as the team managed to play cleaner and with a bit more of their trademark swagger than they did in the first half. Against the might of UNC though, it simply wouldn’t be enough.
University of National Champions
The Pleiades were simply too good, too star-powered, too deep, in the end, for Element, and for every other team they faced. Their defensive line picked up three more breaks, adding on to their five-spot in the first half, and outscored the offensive line 8-7 for the second game in a row. Mizener, Juengst, Tyler Smith, and the rest of the offensive line once again went unbroken, this for the third game in a row, as UNC closed out the game on a 4-1 run.
It was impressive how consistent the Pleiades were throughout Nationals, even when they were blowing out team after team. That consistency can be attributed to a number of different factors, but an outstanding coaching staff definitely helps. Multiple UNC players I spoke to over the course of the weekend had nothing but praise for Jessi Jones and the rest of her coaching crew, highlighting the impact great coaching can have on even the best of players.
“Jessi Jones, our coach, is incredible,” gushed first-year Pleiades player Kailyn Lowder after the final. “She’s so kind to all of us and instructive, and all you want is Jessie Jones to just high five you and say what you’re doing is great, and I think I got a high five today.” Jones and her co-coaches ensured that UNC used the full depth of their roster in both their semifinal and final wins, with each and every player for the Pleiades seeing time on the field in those two games.
With the 2022 College Championships seemingly right around the corner, slated to be held in Milwaukee in just about five months, both teams will look to regroup in the new year to gear up for the next Nationals. UW will only lose five players from this group of finalists, and the pasting put to them by UNC will have the team plenty motivated with the short turnaround. “There’s nothing like getting sucker-punched in a final to make you hungry for the next Nationals,” stated Hall. “We’ve invited UNC to Northwest Challenge, so we welcome the competition, welcome the fire, and we’re looking for revenge next nationals.”
As for UNC, while they will lose a number of their older star players, captains Culton, Juengst, and Rehder are all seniors who should be available come the spring, joined by much of that deep roster that all now have National final experience. They’ll be a tough team to unseat, although Carleton Syzygy will still want their shot at the Pleiades, and have a real possibility of completing the once-in-a-lifetime six-month college championships double. “We’re going to do everything in our power to get on the grind and come back out here in a few months,” declared Lowder.
Before the final, UNC came to the near sideline by the media tent to set their things down and start getting ready for the game. They put on some pump-up music, as most teams do, including “The Champion” by Carrie Underwood, which the Pleiades seemed to get particularly hyped for as they hoped to make the lyric of “I am the champion” come true. The song appeared to help fuel their energy going into the game, and afterward it was on again, blasting, as the Pleiades celebrated their win. “I am invincible, unbreakable, unstoppable, unshakeable…I am the champion!” And indeed they were.
Updating coverage from earlier in the weekend, the two are unrelated. ↩