Northwest Challenge 2022: Tournament Recap (Women’s)

The final major event of the women's division feature elite teams and surprise scores.

Colorado's Liana Bradley eyes throwing options at Presidents' Day Invite 2022.
Colorado and Liana Bradley nearly took down the tournament with an impressive and surprising performance. Photo: William ‘Brody’ Brotman —

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SEATTLE — Another tournament, another UNC Pleiades win. Ho-hum, right? Not quite. The main storylines were what other teams made the semis and final and who didn’t (Carleton) and the tough road UNC had to ride to get there. The Northwest Challenge was a coming-out party for several teams, including finalist Colorado Quandary, who only lost to UNC due to a controversial block on double game point. Vermont Ruckus put up notable results, also recieving on double game point vs. Pleiades in semifinal, as did UBC Thunderbirds, who impressed in their first stateside action for over two years, falling to UNC in quarters.

Win or lose, a great time was had by all at the 2022 Northwest Challenge. The mantra I heard over and over was how nice the playing conditions were and how great it was to be competing against such strong teams. Wind was light throughout the weekend, temperatures were exceedingly comfortable for playing ultimate (mostly high-50s, reaching low 60s on Sunday), and while there were some showers on Saturday afternoon, they were light, and the sun shone for much of Sunday’s play.

Favorable conditions made for a very high standard of play throughout the weekend, particularly favoring cutter-dominated teams such as UNC, Colorado and Vermont. On every field in every game, Nationals-level play was on display. With two hour rounds and games to 15, NWC also mimics Nationals in the stresses it puts on teams. Conditions were more ideal than at Stanford Invite, where most of these teams last played, but across the board it seemed teams had significantly sharpened their offenses. Turns had to be earned, and earned they were, as defenses were also more sophisticated and bodies were flying freely (occasionally a little too freely).

There were too many great games on both Saturday and Sunday to recount here, but, fortunately, much of that action was filmed. On Saturday, all but one of the closest pool play games were filmed,1 as well as half of the prequarters. With the staggered quarterfinals, and two cameras on-site, all four quarterfinals, both semis and the final were filmed for your viewing pleasure.

UNC Undefeated, But Not Unbeatable

#1 North Carolina Pleiades won the Northwest Challenge and remains undefeated on the year, but their aura of inevitability  dimmed a bit, as they had to break on double game point in both their semifinal versus Vermont and in final against Colorado. Ella Juengst and Dawn Culton led the way for Pleiades, as they have all year. Culton continues to make the big plays on defense that UNC needs (such as the controversial layout block on DGP against Stacy Gaskill), while Juengst remains nearly unguardable in small spaces and has added a throwing prowess not seen in previous years that makes her much more dangerous when forced under.

In the weekend’s calm conditions, Alex Barnett took on the center handler role, allowing Maya Powell to fill a hybrid role, moving between being a tall target downfield or release valve handler. Joining Barnett in the backfield was Theresa Yu, who worked seamlessly with Barnett and occasionally released to receive critical scores. On defense, Grace Conerly ignited the quick-strike response to opposing turns.

But beyond that group and veteran D-line handler Sydney Rehder, the team has a lot of unfamiliar names. Pleaides was forced to run Culton out on offense with concerning frequency, although she and Juengst are perhaps the division’s most dangerous 1-2 cutting punch.

“This was a great win for us, but obviously we still have work to do. We played two universe point games,” said Juengst. “We got a lot of stuff to work on before we get to Nationals, so we’re definitely going to be grinding at our practices, always up and up.”

They may be the best club, but right now they aren’t the no doubt title team some might have thought coming into the season.

Ferocious Defense Leads Colorado to Banner Weekend

Everyone has been wondering if Colorado Quandary would ever manifest the potential that their stacked roster would suggest. We have the answer to that question now: an emphatic yes!

“What we told the team at the start of the weekend was that they had the potential for greatness and now was the time to show it,” said coach Christina Mickle. More than any other team this past weekend, Quandary absolutely dominated strong teams. They ran #2 Carleton off the field in a shocking 15-4 blowout in quarterfinals, and followed that up by steamrolling #5 Washington 15-7 in semifinals. That’s after beating the likes of UCLA and Virginia by 10 goals a piece.

The one exception was UNC. In their first game of the weekend against the reigning champions, they lost 15-9, but they went blow for blow in a game-of-the-year-level final that could have easily gone either way.

The key players were evident up and down the roster. Clil Phillips is having a breakout year, adding elite throwing to her big play defensive and cutting chops. Everyone knows about this week’s Deep Look guest, Stacy Gaskill of Olympic and World Cup snowboard cross fame. On Saturday, it seemed she was still working out the transition from snow to turf, but Gaskill was huge in Colorado’s Sunday bracket run, with a playstyle reminiscent of Julia Butterfield, with with big skies, big pulls, and big throws. Akane Kleinkopf continued her excellence as hub handler, while Rachel Wilmoth’s determination and athleticism helped make tough plays.

But a couple of new additions were key to Colorado’s success. At the Stanford Invite, it seemed that Quandary hadn’t figured out how to utilize grad student Kristen Reed effectively, but all that changed this weekend. She was Colorado’s lockdown defender, getting blocks against big name ace matchups (e.g., Abby Hecko, Dawn Culton, Carly Campana), and outrunning and/or outjumping defenders on offense. The other key spring season addition was freshman Abbie Gillach. Playing well beyond her years, she was a preternaturally composed handler while also making life anything but easy for Ella Juengst as her defensive matchup. She announced herself as a Rookie of the Year threat in going toe to toe with some of the division’s best.

Visiting Vermont Solidifies Contender Status

We didn’t get to see what could have been an epic matchup with Colorado, but Vermont Ruckus similarly stepped into the big time this weekend. Again, it was a story of a new addition turning a good team into a great one. In this case, it was Emily Pozzy in her college debut who connected all the pieces for UVM. The central core of Vermont’s prowess is a tall, fast, and skilled set of cutters. Kennedy McCarthy has built her reputation successfully, but this weekend, Lylah Bannister broke out as a force downfield, winning battles with top defenders such as Culton. With Marina Godley-Fisher and Maya Fein-Cole sharing the cutting space, few teams can deal with all the threats. “Who are you going to cover?” asked coach Daron Byerly rhetorically.

As usual, Sarah VonDoepp, ably aided by the towering Allie Huresky, reliably distributed the disc. Added to all of this, Emily Pozzy was the Swiss army knife ready to excel in any role that was needed: an additional handler with piercing break throws vs. a zone or marshalling the D-line on a turn, an initiating cutter coming under and firing on-target deep, or a lockdown defender on the ground or in the air.

The 3-2 record does not do Ruckus justice. On paper, they walk away with a split result against Washington and a narrow loss to North Carolina. Those are not bad trophies, but the on-field product far surpassed that. Don’t forget that when Nationals rolls around and we are considering their W-L record.

Still an Incomplete Picture for Semifinalist Washington

Washington Element quietly broke seed by securing third place on their home turf. Hub handler Steph Phillips was actually 4-0 on the weekend, limited by nursing injuries; she skipped their pool play loss to Vermont to focus on their elimination bracket game, a showcase game in front of hometown fans. She returned to help UW beat UCSD in quarters before tweaking a previous injury and sitting out the rest of the weekend. According to coach Kelly Hall, the team delivered on all their top priorities: winning a NWC showcase game for the first time ever (15-13 over UCLA) and getting revenge on UCSD for loss at Stanford Invite.

The bonus was a universe point win over Vermont to seal third without stars Phillips or Abby Hecko. Ikky Elmi was back in action alongside Amy Nguyen, both looking sharp as primary distributors all weekend. Sophia Palmer and Nikki Chan continued to have downfield success. With a full 28-person roster getting playing time, there’s always someone new making plays. This weekend, Mae Browning excelled as main D-line handler and Megan Louie made put together a nice mini-highlight reel in the finale against Ruckus.

We have yet to really see Washington operate at full capacity, making their mixed results hard to judge. A victory over UC San Diego becomes their best win, if you consider their split with Vermont mostly a wash. Perhaps their deep run in the fall took a bit out of them, but we await a potential ramp up.

Subscribe to read more about other teams at Northwest Challenge and the All-Tournament team.

  1. Missing only Stanford’s near-upset of Carleton 

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  1. Scott Dunham

    Scott Dunham (also known as @Hallies_Dad) is a professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle. He recalls playing a game that resembled ultimate on the Stanford CroMem lawn in the early 80's and took it up again around 2001 after moving to Seattle. These days, he plays pick-up around town and cheers on his daughter's teams (and those of her former teammates)

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