UNC’s Clinical Offense Eases Champs Past UBC (Women’s Quarterfinal Recap)

Polished Pleiades show their level, hold off tremendous Thunderbirds

UNC’s Ella Juengst. Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

MILWAUKEE, Wisc. — The defending champions UNC Pleiades remain undefeated, another usurper dispatched, led by their seemingly ageless superstars who make every aspect of the game look easy. What will it take to dethrone the indefatigable team out of the Triangle? That answer will have to wait until the next round: for now, they remain unblemished and unflappable, ready for whoever they face next.

Although this exaggerated telling of the tale may not really capture the reality of how the UNC eliminated the UBC Thunderbirds 15-12 in the quarterfinal round, the Pleiades felt almost inevitable at times, with Ella Juengst, Alex Barnett, and rest of the deep and talented UNC roster periodically making it look like a walk in the park against a UBC team that rightfully came into the weekend as the sixth overall seed. While the top-seeded UNC didn’t blow the Thunderbirds away, after UNC picked up two breaks in the first half and took an 8-6 lead into halftime, the result seemed all but preordained.

UBC started the game on offense, and their standout players stepped up immediately as the Thunderbirds held on their first three offensive possessions. Mika Kurahashi played a key role for UBC as they pushed Carleton Syzygy to the limit in pool play, and she contributed directly to all of the Thunderbirds’ first three points with a goal and two assists. She was joined by Madison Ong, UBC’s handler rock, who picked up a goal and an assist of her own in the opening exchanges. Throughout the game, the Thunderbirds offense played quite cleanly, but their inability to generate blocks against UNC meant that while they did convert on one break chance in the second half, the comeback never fully materialized.

Much like Stanford in the opening round of pool play against UNC, UBC offered an initial strategy to slow the roll of the Carolina offense by running out zone defensive looks, aiming to reduce the impact of UNC’s star cutters including Juengst, former Carleton veteran Maya Powell, and 2020 Callahan winner Anne Worth. Despite the Thunderbirds’ best efforts, though, UNC was able to pick apart the zones that UBC put out, perfectly content to throw as many 3-5 yard passes as they needed to work it in for the goal.

Once it was clear that the zones weren’t having their desired effect after the first couple of points, the Canadians switched to person defense, which UNC was also more than happy to play against with a deep split stack. With their teammates operating from further down the field and leaving the middle of the field open, Barnett, Juengst, and Theresa Yu were able to play a dominator-style offense, and together they weaved the disc horizontally down the field themselves or found open cutters for continuation throws. It was an incredibly effective strategy and one that paid off with straightforward goals, especially in the second half.

Juengst was a goal scoring machine for UNC all morning, with the phrase “meet me at the front cone” relevant point after point as the lightning-fast cutter scored a whopping seven goals to go along with an assist and two crucial blocks. Grace Conerly, the Pleiades’ designated puller and all-around defensive stalwart, showed that she can layout just as well on offense too, bidding with textbook form to snag an angled throw from Sydney Rehder for UNC’s second break of the game to take the score to 6-4.

Not to be outdone, just a few points later UBC’s Anna Goddu (3G/1A) somehow dug out what appeared to be a fantastic poach block by ​​Kailyn Lowder, popped right back up, and threw a perfectly weighted assist to Jessica Liu (3G) to narrow the margin to one. One more pass from Barnett, who put up a scintillating 2G/4A performance, to Juengst at–guess where–the front cone, and it was halftime with plenty of action to come.

Out of the intermission, the teams exchanged pairs of clean holds, as both were content to work it downwind. Neither defensive line was able to create much pressure. That changed with the score at 10-8, as UBC was able to take advantage of a low throw from Barnett to get their first and only break of the game. Goddu played a pivotal role, receiving a visionary cross-field throw from Ong and then boosting it to Andrea Moir who got the better of Worth to bring down the huck in traffic. Moir found a reset option in the trailing Ong, who once again threaded a pass to Goddu for the score. It was back within one at 10-9.

There continued to be no shortage of spectacular plays after the UBC break, including a ridiculous grab from Dawn Culton that required her to have the preternatural body awareness to get her toe down in-bounds while having some 99% of her body out of bounds that gave UNC their next point to go up 11-9. The game remained mostly even from there, with just one more break after Conerly got an apparent layout block against Ong and then put it deep to Culton after a timeout for a decisive 13-10 lead. As much of the rest of the game had transpired, it ended with a clean UNC hold. Juengst met the disc at the front cone for a final time with one last layout catch on a throw from Powell.

With UBC giving UNC their toughest test of the tournament and in such a clean offensive game, too, with only four breaks in total, it’s no surprise that the UNC coaching staff recognized the capability of this Thunderbirds side after the game. “UBC is probably the closest team to how we operate at this [tournament] that we ever faced,” said UNC head coach Jessi Jones. “Facing a team that played in a similar way to us was going to be hard all day.”

Even with the mirror match, though, Carolina had too much in the end for UBC. UNC’s depth showed through while UBC had to rely on the same players to both convert holds and generate break chances. “The thing that kept us out in front was, for them to really push it all on defense they had to cross over their best players,” said Jones. “Versus our depth and strength allowed us to basically play our full strength O and D lines the whole game. So for us to get breaks, we didn’t have to amp up our D-line at all in what was two teams playing the same style of ultimate the whole game. So that’s really how I would view playing UBC, that this is just a really well coached, really high fundamentals, disciplined team.”

Given that UBC played an abbreviated season, only playing at Northwest Challenge and in the series, pushing UNC as far as they did while earning the sixth overall seed has to be seen as a success. With a young and growing team, they’ll continue to be a force in the division for years to come. For UNC, they set their sights on defending their title. Even with their superstar veteran-laden roster, it still feels as if the best may be yet to come.

  1. Jenna Weiner
    Jenna Weiner

    Jenna Weiner is a Senior Staff Writer, a co-host of Ultiworld's Double Overtime podcast, and considers herself a purveyor of all levels of ultimate. She's played mostly on the west coast but you're likely to find her at the nearest ultimate game available.

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