A courageous Australian comeback was thwarted by the US, who yet again won gold.
July 18, 2022 by Edward Stephens in News, Recap with 0 comments
Ultiworld’s written coverage of the 2022 World Games is presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author(s). Find out how Spin can get you, and your team, looking your best this season.
BIRMINGHAM, AL —The United States are the World Games champions once again.
The gold medal, their fifth in a row, did not come easily. They faced an enormously talented and resilient Australian side who came back from a large deficit and nearly came away with the game. The 13-11 victory was made possible only by a maximization of effort and self-belief.
If there were any doubts about Australia’s ferocity, Sally Yu dispelled them with an explosive bid toward Jack Williams on the Americans’ first pass of the game. A hair sooner would have earned her the block – but as it was, her aggressive attempt yielded only a brief stoppage on the completion. She would have to settle for planting the fear of such a statement block in the minds of the US O-line. Alex Ladomatos was just as close with another layout in the red zone. Williams and Dylan Freechild pranced around it, though, and dribbled the disc into the end zone.
Not to be outdone, Kaela Helton availed herself of a chance to make her presence felt at the first possible moment. “Our instructions from our defensive coach Miranda [Knowles] were to try to front-pocket challenge the unders, and then to try to contest the deeps,” said Helton. She flew inside Cat Phillips’ shoulder in the lane in search of a block, but, like Yu and Ladomatos, could not manage the last inch. Unsuccessful in terms of direct consequences, Helton’s bid communicated to the Aussies that the American defense would make every throw difficult. The remainder of the possession bore out that promise: progress for the Crocs was as laborious as hacking a fresh trail through jungle.
“Since our loss [to Germany], we’ve been trying to come out really strong on defense. In these types of games, it [comes down to] a difference of a couple points. And that [defense] is really what has made the difference,” said head coach Matty Tsang.
The sense of anxiety nagged at even open connections. Indeed, when Cat Phillips finally had a clean look at the goal box and tossed a forehand into the soft space behind two sagging US defenders, Sam McGuckin dropped it. After a US turnover, Phillips mushed the Crocs offense to a hold, working give-and-go passes to midfield and then reeling in a high Tulett hammer. It was part of her game-leading 376 total yard performance, with a remarkable 297 receiving. “She’s an amazing athlete and can just get free at the drop of a hat,” said Tulett. “To play on an O-line together all week is pretty amazing.”
The US scored a second goal when Nate Goff put Ladomatos on an island in the end zone, a mismatch Carolyn Finney instantly exploited with a high forehand. Then the Australia O-line blinked again: Alex Prentice failed to notice Opi Payne lurking just behind the front of the stack, and Payne sprung forward for a poach block. This time, the mistake carried a consequence. As Freechild motored ahead of Tulett and caught a long upline pass, Claire Trop drove a cut into Cat Phillips’ back shoulder to open a tight window to the front cone. Tumbling from contact during Phillips’ last-second effort at regaining the position, she held on to Freechild’s continue with one hand pressed awkwardly against her chest to secure the break for the US.
The US offense had truly begun to mesh for the first time in their semifinal victory over Colombia. Their play in the final continued in that vein. You could see it in the way Khalif El-Salaam stepped confidently into an outside-in break forehand to Sarah Meckstroth1, in the way Jimmy Mickle trusted Claire Chastain to run down a wide swing, in the way Finney read her receivers in the deep space, in the way the entire team seemed to anticipate Freechild’s frenetic changes of direction. It was a genuinely united process to work the disc thirteen times into the goal.
Even so, one individual performance cries out for acknowledgment: Jack Williams. He had played a somewhat quiet tournament, with the possible exception of Friday’s semifinal. But, playing entirely within the role allocated to him, Williams featured everywhere for the US in the final. There was not a tricky pass he could not handle, a mark he could not render moot, a defender who had an answer for his combination of speed and field sense. When he turns it on, no one in the world makes the game look easier than Williams. With the US on offense leading 3-2, he elevated seemingly without effort to bring down an errant throw in the lane, and later fell around his mark to deposit a backhand at the break-side cone for Mickle. He finished with four goals, two assists, and 219 yards of offense, second on the team, including leading the US with 149 receiving yards.
McGuckin atoned for his earlier miscue with a spectacular second-effort layout catch on his own tip to bring Australia back to within a point. But Australia did not score again in the first half. Unforced throwing errors on consecutive possessions by Alex Gan and Cat Phillips gave the US excellent field position for breaks. The Americans capitalized on both chances. The heavily pro-United States crowd roared as El-Salaam knifed a forehand to Meckstroth to take half; his backflip celebration sent them into hysterics.
The raucous, largely pro-American home crowd was an extra treat for Team USA. “We don’t usually get anyone cheering for us,” said Tsang. “Usually we get cheered against. So to me walking out [and hearing it] was like a new feeling.”
“The crowd was phenomenal,” said Helton.
Australia were daunted neither by the fans nor the deficit. “It comes from a belief that we’re here to win the game, and we’re going to win the game. If you don’t believe that from the get-go and you get in to a hole like that, you’ll just roll over,” said Tulett. “[Having] a couple of mistakes early if you believe that you’re going to get those scores back on the board.” Still, the second half would be the hardest test yet of their considerable resilience.
Tulett kicked off the second half with one of his four assists, a forehand after the centering pass that – with a little help from a Cat Phillips jump-in – whizzed all the way to the end zone on a rope. The long shot contributed to his game-leading 335 throwing yards; no other player one either side even approached 200. The quick score put the D-line on the field to try to chip away at the three-break deficit.
Australia came down in a junk set with two pull chasers, a look they relied on throughout the match to prevent the United States from earning quick holds on early deep throws. “We never wanted the US to get comfortable enough to open up and start taking their shots,” said head coach Anna Rogacki.
“We were prepared for [the junk look] but not prepared,” said Tsang. “We knew they were going to come out in it if we open the second half on O. We scouted it, but still it took us out of rhythm.”
Ready or not, the US could not stop Rob Andrews from knocking away a pass on the sideline. Caro Ma picked up the disc and, just as she had done during the Friday’s semifinal, hung a throw over the goal box for Andrews. As he has done for the entire week, Andrews made the play, going over Goff to secure a break for the Crocs. “He’s a beast,” said Goff. “In terms of getting up, I am not on his level.” Two holds later, Trop turfed a backhand. Ma’s hammer to the middle of the end zone found Andrews again to narrow the US lead to 8-7. Australia’s first half nightmare had evaporated in the span of five points.
Team USA turned to Grant Lindsley to stop the skid. Australia settled into their saggy zone once more, and the US could not find a good path down the field. After a few tentative looks ended in resets, Chastain re-centered the disc to Lindsley just ahead of the defending goal line. The veteran had played a relatively quiet game until that point – one might argue he was due for an eruption. A breathtaking sequence followed. Lindsley ran a full-field give-and-go drill. He was on either the throwing or receiving end of 11 consecutive passes, the last a cool backhand out ahead of a patented Mickle power cut to the end zone.
The two sides traded three more clean holds, and the tension was as thick as the humid Alabama air. The US offense looked set to add a fourth. Suddenly, after a swing, Chastain missed Lindsley up the sideline – giving Australia their first chance to tie the game since 1-1. Andrews saw Alex Shepherd in the lane more than ten yards downfield of Mickle. Though he had done most of his work on the receiving end of big throws, Andrews’ booming pulls had stood as testimony to the power of his backhand. He wound up and threw one 65 yards for a strike.
After 20 points – 7-3 to the US in the first half, 7-3 to Australia to start the second – the score was dead level. The gold medal game had transformed into that old practice standby: game to three.
It looked for a moment as if Australia would tack on another break. The first throw of the 21st point was to Finney up the line, and it bounced off her palm.
“We got [the score] to 10-10 and had the frisbee. The game is in our own hands at that point,” said Tulett.
But it wasn’t to be. Ladomatos picked up the disc thirty yards from the goal. The US offered nothing but yard-losing resets down the forehand sideline – one of which Gan hung like a plum for Freechild to pick. The interception put the United States in excellent field position. Freechild hopped his way through a give-and-go sequence to put them even closer, and Williams put a soft backhand ahead of Finney to finish the hold.
Australia did not get another opportunity for a break. The US, on the other hand, found one straight away. Prentice tossed a forehand a little high and tight for Georgia Egan-Griffiths. With Meckstroth pounding the turf just a step behind her, she did not have enough time or room to adjust to its trajectory and could only tip it. Team USA marched down the field with the inevitability of a rising tide, and Carolyn Normile beautifully spaced a cut from the front of the stack to give Williams a wide window for an inside flick. The United States were on the brink of a fifth consecutive gold medal.
Though they were nearly out of points to work with, the Crocs had plenty of fight left in them. Cat Phillips caught an under and went back to the well – a long shot for Andrews. This time, Goff did not let him win. He stuck a hand out just in time to break up the pass. But Liv Carr chased the the tailing disc to the back line. She took a final step, pressed her cleat against the turf just inside the back line, and held on to the disc as she went horizontal. It was a showstopper of a catch. Unsuccessful in spite of his tremendous defensive maneuver, Goff could only raise two hands to signal the goal.
That’s when Williams decided to end it. As Lindsley collected an under on the sideline just about even with the attacking brick, Williams lowered his shoulder in the lane and darted deep, fading his cut toward the break side as he cleared the back of the stack. Gan stuck with him and went up for the disc with one hand. Williams, however, had the better position to set his feet and get a stronger jump. He rose with two hands to meet it. The clamor of the home crowd rose with him, and it reached a crescendo as he landed with the golden goal in his grasp. El-Salaam lifted him toward the sky in celebration.
But although they shared their moment of glory with the world on a public stage, the key to victory was came from an interior source that lived somewhere between the fifteen individuals2. They all had the phrase ‘JUST US’ written on their forearms in wide-tip marker during the final as a visible reminder of where to place their collective focus. “There was a lot going on at this tournament, things that are out of our control, having to do a lot of managing of the team and dealing with Covid. But at the end of the day, it’s just really the fifteen of us that were here,” said Helton. “It was like, ‘We can control our own destiny,’ and we just hung on to that in our small group.”
The Crocs’ performance at the World Games, even in a losing effort, reflected nothing less than a world championship-level ultimate team. The margin between first- and second-place this cycle was infinitesimal.
“I feel really proud of them. All we asked of them for this game was to answer to no one’s reputation and be free to go and play their best. And I really believe that every player gave everything they had to that game,” said Rogacki. “And what more can you ask?”
“A silver medal is really tough,” she continued. “It’s like a fine line between pain and glory on a silver medal. It feels painful to start with, but very quickly you’re pretty honored…Very quickly the players are going to realize that a silver medal at World Games when you brought your best is pretty great.”
It must be said that the United States did not bring their best at the start of the tournament. They were uneven against Great Britain, and a poor showing in a loss to Germany revealed a worrying disunity. Credit goes to the players, who gathered for more than two hours in a small dorm room after that game to, for the way they were able to gel into something cohesive and larger than themselves in the tournament’s last stages.
The Team USA who emerged from that meeting, who took the field in the final – the team who ultimately wore gold – now take their place as yet another unique chapter in the ongoing story of the winningest national program in the history of the sport.
That particular score ultimately came back on an offensive foul call. ↩
the fourteen players on the roster and Anna Nazarov, who had traveled with them in case an alternate was necessary at the last minute ↩