D-III College Championships 2022: Middlebury Beats Regional Rival Wellesley To Go Back-to-Back (Women’s Final Recap)

The Pranksters capped an incredible season with another big win.

Claire Babbott-Bryan had a monster game in the final for Middlebury. Photo: William 'Brody' Brotman -- UltiPhotos.com
Claire Babbott-Bryan had a monster game in the final for Middlebury. Photo: William ‘Brody’ Brotman — UltiPhotos.com

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MILWAUKEE, Wisc. — In a rematch of the New England women’s regional final, the #1 Middlebury Pranksters defeated the #4 Wellesley Whiptails 15-10 to win their second consecutive national title.

Though nothing is guaranteed in sports, especially at the D-III college level, Middlebury looked destined for a repeat all spring. Heading into the College Championships, the defending champs were riding an 18-game winning streak that stretched back to their first game of the season. In Milwaukee, they made short work of their opponents in pool play, quarters, and semis. Even the five-point margin in the final doesn’t necessarily qualify as a close game, though it was the closest that the Pranksters played throughout the weekend.

Many of the teams Middlebury played this weekend rolled over early, allowing the tournament’s top seed to utilize their incredible depth. Unfortunately for the Pranksters, Wellesley proved to be a different type of opponent, having fought tooth and nail for their wins in Milwaukee after being the only top seed to drop a game in pool play. That level of intensity throughout the bracket paid dividends early in the final, as the Whiptails came out hot.

Wellesley played an unbelievable first half, impressively recording three first-half breaks against a Middlebury O-line that had only been broken once during the entire rest of the tournament leading into the final. They were not phased by the star power of their opponents, citing their familiarity with their foe as a major reason for confidence.

“We know they’re an amazing team, but so are we,” the Wellesley captains said. “We beat two 2021 semifinals teams in quarters and semis, so why not us?”

Heading into this tournament, many thought that Wellesley was overseeded as the no.4 seed. The captains cited a poll on r/ultimate, where the results showed that the majority of respondents indicated that the Whiptails would not make semis. And their loss in the first round of pool play to no.9 seed St. Olaf Vortex surely did not help with that impression. But their performance in Milwaukee certainly proved the doubters wrong, as captain Savannah Cary said the team “bought into the underdog mentality, [keeping that] attitude all weekend long.” The showing from this underdog team is something that they should be immensely proud of. While their finals opponent was winning a title in the fall, the Whiptails were barred from playing tournaments by their school due to COVID concerns. The amount of work that they put in, not only on the field but in setting up the culture of love, trust, and community that all the captains, along with coach Marshall Goff, gushed over is a true testament to what the D-III level is all about.

In the early going, the Wellesley defense was tenacious, varying the looks they showed to the stacked Middlebury offense, with many players making great individual plays to generate blocks. Annalise Paul was a force in the first half, recording a goal and an assist. With Josie “Butter” Ku hampered by an injury she picked up in the semifinal, Bella Steedly was the centerpiece of the Whiptails offense. Steedly was making plays all over the field, both as a receiver and as a thrower. Though Ku was clearly hurting, she still was her usual self, controlling the pace of play and being the emotional leader of the Whiptails — the latter thankfully not requiring any additional stress on her legs.

Said Ku, “I popped a few Ibuprofen throughout the game, but I wasn’t going to not play this game. As a graduating senior, this was it.”

It was an absolutely heroic effort from Ku, and the team certainly wouldn’t have played as well in the first half if not for her. Another injured standout for the Whiptails was Tess “Roo” Dolan. The undersized Wellesley star battled through a variety of injuries, most of which were the result of playing tons of points over the tournament’s two days. She looked as explosive as ever, making multiple bouncy, acrobatic catches and showing off some great throws as well.

After going down 7-5 — trailing by more than one point for the first time since 2019 — and staring a potential three-break halftime deficit in the face, Middlebury got to work. After their O-line turned it again, they staved off another break, secured their hold, then picked up a break right before half, ensuring that the game was on serve heading into halftime. Still, down 8-7 at the break, it was the first time in a long while that the Pranksters were trailing at halftime.

During the intermission, not only were the Pranksters not feeling stressed, captain Jennie Bob Bizal-Clark said that the team was energized by their first close game, with captain and star player Claire Babbott-Bryan bouncing around, continually asking the team “ISN’T THIS FUN, Y’ALL?” Entering the second half, the Middlebury offense showed that they were, in fact, having fun, recording a hold on a Keziah Wilde to Babbott-Bryan connection, one of many in the game.

For as efficient as their O-line was all weekend, the Pranksters’ success ultimately came on the back of their defense. Middlebury’s defense, led by 2021 Defensive Player of the Year Kamryn You Mak, forced turns at an incredible rate. The D-line was fairly inefficient at converting their chances throughout the weekend, including in the Wellesley final — they managed eight breaks, but with 31 opportunities. Unfortunately for their opponents, with as many turns as they produced, their low break percentage still resulted in bunches of breaks every game. And when your offense only gets broken four times over the course of a tournament, you don’t need much more than a break or two per game.

They got that and then some in the second half. After the teams traded holds to make it a 9-9 game, Middlebury put up five straight breaks, blowing the game wide open and all but ensuring that they would secure another national title.

The biggest difference in the second half for the Pranksters was their willingness to cross over O-line stars Babbott-Bryan and Wilde. For much of the tournament, Middlebury opted to keep their two best players exclusively on offense but stated after their semifinal game that if the time should come where they needed to eschew depth for talent and experience, they would do so.

CBB and Wilde were instrumental in forcing turns in the second half and then ran the show for the D-line offense on turns. As a duo, they were lethal whenever they were put together. With every D-line point essentially becoming an O-line, Wellesley was not able to get the disc back after they lost possession. The second half was a clear message to the rest of the division that as big as Middlebury’s winning margins had been in their previous games, they could have won by more if they wanted to.

But this decision to liberally play their depth for much of the season was not only a tactic to save legs, it also served as a low-pressure environment for their younger players to play in games against nationally competitive teams. This strategy paid dividends this weekend, as seen by freshman Liz Crawford — the only freshman on their deep roster — scoring the championship-clinching goal for the Pranksters.

Although 2021 Player of the Year Claire Babbott-Bryan, who was playing with a broken finger on her throwing hand (though you wouldn’t know it from watching her play) rightfully grabs a lot of the headlines, there were so many other Middlebury players that contributed to this championship season. Madelyn Lander was a defensive menace, generating blocks in the deep space and playing a hybrid role on a turn. Niamh Carty was an instrumental piece on the O-line, often playing fourth fiddle but reliably filling in any role that she needed to. Sarah Rifkin was a significant distributor on offense, getting the disc to her playmakers.

At the end of the day though, as every Middlebury Prankster would tell you, this was a team win.

After winning the title, the Middlebury captains said, “there is nothing we love more than having fun together, and usually that fun thing is playing our game on the field! Every single player knows the systems and we have trust in all of them — our stat sheet from the weekend speaks to that… Ultiworld got it right last fall when they called us one big program; it’s a special team to be a part of.”

This program truly is special, and now they’re back-to-back champions.

  1. Hunter Lang
    Hunter Lang

    Hunter Lang is from Winchester, MA, and has been playing ultimate since his junior year of high school. In college, he played for the University of Richmond Spidermonkeys, winning two High Tide titles and the 2021 Donovan Award. He currently plays for Boston Slow and Boston Glory.

  2. Laura Osterlund
    Laura Osterlund

    Laura Osterlund is a freelance journalist living in Minneapolis.

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