Thursday's results show that the gap between American mixed clubs and the rest of the world is undeniably shrinking.
July 29, 2022 by Lorcan Murray and Laura Osterlund in Recap with 0 comments
LEBANON, OH – History is a fickle thing, traditionally written by the victors, and frequently misremembered by those who seem destined to repeat it. In ultimate, it seems we are cursed with the inverse of that old adage, as the dominance of American teams in the quarterfinals of the Mixed division is a lesson all players learn during their education on the past successes of our sport at the highest level. Once the going gets tough, the established powerhouses of the United States draw upon the depth of their squads, and the standard of their domestic experience to dispatch the dreams ventured forward by any non-American teams who dared to reach for the opportunity this great land offers.
However, following tumultuous domestic qualifying season in the US and the unexpected heroics of Santo Domingo Meclao (DOM) in the pool stage disrupting the standard seeding, only three American outfits made the elite eight, battling an Australian, Canadian, and European each, along with an inaugural all Europe affair.
European History in Real Time
WUCC is a place for legacy building. The opportunity to write your name large in the history of not just your own club, but the county you represent. In the quarterfinal between Finland’s PuTi and Great Britain’s Reading Ultimate, teams battled it out to become the first European club to make the semifinals of WUCC, and set a new high water-mark for mixed ultimate from the continent.
Helsinki Pussin Tiristäjät (FIN) came to Cincinnati with the weight of expectation around their necks, seeded eighth and expecting big things from themselves. They had several close calls on their way to the quarterfinal stage, including two universe point victories over Bogotá D-CRASH (COL) in the pool and Montreal LAB (CAN) in the prequarter. This experience served them well as they battled back from multiple deficits against Reading Ultimate (GBR), who came into WUCC with an internal belief in the potential of their ability on their best days, and have spent the past week slowly converting their opponents and fans alike. Especially after they secured underdog victories over both Winnipeg PBHG (CAN) and Meclao in the previous two rounds.
In a game that was dominated largely by tight match defense, well-established internal trust, and a handful of truly breathtaking plays, the Finns ran out the winners 14-12.
Despite both clubs being from Europe, and established powers in the Mixed division there, these two teams have never met on a competition field before.
“We have always wanted to play them, like in Windmill, but we just never met,” explained Captain Jarno Sihvo. “So we were waiting for it, we were looking forward to it.”
PuTi struck into an early 4-2 lead thanks to solid offense and a heads up block by Mariia Martus.
“Nothing special,” said Sihvo. “Just do our thing. We have played so many years with the offensive line it doesn’t matter who it is. We just play our thing.”
However that anticipation soon turned to consternation as tight exchanges in the first half mostly went the way of the Brits. Reading also have a long history of playing together, and back home in England they are supported by the largest player base for a UK club. Rallying behind their leaders Rebecca Palmer, Mark Bignal, Andrew Lewis, and Sam Wilson, they broke off a series of two point runs to take half 8-6.
“We were trying to put a really hard force around defensively,” detailed Reading captain Rebecca Palmer. “Especially when their women were on disc, we were trying to put that hard around, [and] see what they could do, see if they could break the mark, and try and stop their guys from going deep.”
An admirable and understandable endeavor for Reading to embark upon, but PuTi were able to lean on their unity and work through the shoulder-tight match defense.1 Vappu Reunanen, Eerika Kauppinen, and Utah import Kendra Miller proved equal to the task and helped PuTi steady the ship on offense, while their D-line ratcheted up the pressure.
“You’ve just got to believe [in] anything you do,” said self-appointed defensive coordinator Roni Hotari.2 “We’ve been mentally tough with a never-give-up attitude. We have such good players, everybody believes that we are going to get the breaks, because we have in the earlier games.”
And the breaks did come, first through a combined defensive effort forcing a tight inside break into PuTi’s match defense, followed up with concise unders ending in Saastamoinen popping a pass into Hotari. On the following point Maria Noponen got a monstrous hand block to give the Finns a chance to pull away.
In our most intense moments we return to our truest forms, and in keeping with this maxim, PuTi looked to their tried-and-true deep game to secure their place in the semifinal. First through Hotari and Saastamoinen to make it 13-11 and then Hytönen from a bricked pull to the nigh undeniable Niini to secure the 14-12 victory.3
A tight contest, worthy of the stage and the players on both teams who earned their place there.
Speaking to Brisbane Lunch Box Ultimate (AUS) at the start of the tournament I asked them what their aspirations for the event were. When one player responded, “We’re here to win it,” I was politely taken aback, but unconvinced. After their 15-13 victory over Ann Arbor Hybrid (USA) I find myself well fed on past assumptions.
Assumptions are dangerous things, and Lunch Box played with them throughout this game, a fact that was not lost on Hybrid’s coach Dan Donovan. “Lunch Box plays a little bit different than most teams in the US, they do some things that are pretty creative.”
One standout strategy was putting Saelea Muduioa on a male-matching player.
“Saelea Muduioa was phenomenal,” said Lunch Box Coach Anson Chun. “We put a defensive strategy up there to have her guarding a male-matching player. We realized that they had a primary deep girl4 that they kept looking [to] for a huck. We were able to put a male-matching player on them to give them a bit more freedom to roam in the strong side space and then provide lockdown on the handler defense set. Then we can create a bit of chaos because the perceived gender mismatch will make them want to get the disc and create a bit of chaos in the pocket space. That’s where we got some of the turns today.”
This unorthodox approach on defense is built on the trust and love that defines Lunch Box. They combined it with an offensive commitment to running hard against the various defensive shapes Hybrid threw at them.
“Defensively, we put good pressure on them,” said Donovan. “We have a lot of players who are doing a lot of good things defensively that maybe don’t show up in the stat sheets for blocks. They’re jumping in lanes and disrupting offenses.”
Established players like Axel Agami Contreras and Tracey Lo were crucial in Hybrid’s effort along with Riely Kuznicki giving everything she had to break down Lunch Box’s attack. It seemed to work as Hybrid ran out to an 8-5 halftime lead. A potentially deadly result for the Aussie ambitions.
“Our strategy on offense was just to play through it,” explained Lunch Box coach Bree Edgar. “We knew that we would be able to change our cutting angles and work together as a team. I think friendship rules all and we just trusted that we would be able to work through whatever they throw at us.”
A teamwide focus on team effort, and a full mental, physical, and emotional commitment to each other enabled the Brisbanites to continue to find answers and ramp up right when Hybrid began to feel the effects of the week-long tournament.
“As the game dragged on, I think we lost a little bit [of] legs,” admitted Donovan. “We made a few mistakes and they capitalized.”
Ann Arbor’s fatigue from battling the well-tuned and toned Australians allowed Lunch Box to take over the second half and book their place in the semifinal with an emphatic 10-5 run. Kya Wiya, Nis-Julius Sontag, and rookie Adrienne Fleming5 were key figures, but ultimately the reason Lunch Box are the first Australian team in the semifinal of the Mixed division at WUCC comes down to the family atmosphere they have built over the past season.
“We’ve really been focusing on providing unconditional love and support to our teammates,” said captain Max Halden. “When we’re up, when we’re down, regardless of the outcome. So I think if we continue to hold that line, the rest will take care of itself. We’re just going to love and trust our teammates all the way through to the end.”
Halden believes their best game is yet to come, and based on their increasingly impressive performances,6 it’s hard to disagree with him.
Until this point, both teams had seen measurable success in their first time attending WUCC. In bracket play, NOISE comfortably won against Singapore Otters (SGP) and Tokyo IKU! (JPN), gaining an early lead in both games and continuing momentum through the end of the game. Red Flag claimed a massive 15-2 victory against Vienna W.Underteam (AUT) and a tighter win against Grenoble Monkeys (FRA) where they won by trading breaks until the end, 15-13.
In the first few points of the quarter, NOISE was hardly able to get their first few throws off before they turned the disc over and they quickly found themselves down 3-0. Both sides were looking to shoot deep and seemed to be okay with taking risks with possession to establish the huck game leading to a game of turns in the early going. Several tight calls and contentious discussions were another feature of these opening points, pushing the Americans to call for a spirit timeout to clear the air, the first one that NOISE had ever called.
“This was a big game. Both teams came out firing. So, we needed to recalibrate,” said NOISE captain, Katy Stanton. “We called the spirit timeout, they were very receptive. We discussed, we had an actionable thing to take into the rest of the game, and I’d say we did a better job.”
Whether it was the time out or just finally waking up, NOISE looked renewed coming out of the stoppage as they fought to get back in the game, finally matching the energy of their opponents. Once they got on the scoreboard, the ball started rolling and they methodically plotted their course for their comeback. After a hold from Red Flag that stretched the lead to 6-2, the Americans went on a run of their own to get back within one, the closest they had been since the opening point.
The first half of the game saw quite a few changes of possession, a result of both the tight defense played by each D-line as well as by the wind. Throughout the game, teams engaged in what can only be called a Wild West-style shootout. There was at least one huck per point, more if they didn’t connect on the first attempt.
Red Flag applied pressure with their defense, pushing NOISE more than they’d been pushed all tournament. Yet, Madison rose to the occasion and learned how to work through the pressure to keep them in the game. Victor Luo helped out with this bringing a calming presence to the field, whilst also making stellar plays on the disc, and led the team in stats. Other NOISE standouts include Sadie Reding, who played aggressively, worked hard, and made smart decisions, as well as Robyn Fennig and Dylan DeClerck who made big plays.
“We have a team motto: JAGS — joy, accountability, grace, and selflessness,” said Stanton. “We really leaned into that and leaned into the deep trust that we had last season and extended into this season to make sure that when we were on the field, we trusted every single person out there.”
But Red Flag also had stars making plays. Gagan Chatha and Peter Yu constantly found each other in the end zone. Zellema Mot was a nuisance on defense, locking up her matchups and picking her spots to poach into lanes to stop a throw or snag an unsuspecting block. UBC sophomore Mika Kurahashi was also all over the field and took her team to half, catching the goal to go up 8-6. She was the Canadians strongest female-matching player throughout the game, finishing with three goals and an assist.
The start of the second half saw a much cleaner offense from both teams, even as NOISE pressed a little bit more to close the gap. Sydney French was hungry on defense for NOISE, smothering opposing cutters and forcing Red Flag into tighter spots. Madison tried a female poach that rattled Red Flag a little bit and earning the Americans a few more break chances, but Vancouver’s O-line defense refused to surrender their lead as they adjusted to the new look from NOISE. At one point, they hung a huck up in the end zone a bit too long, giving two NOISE defenders an opportunity to chase it down and surround the intended receiver, only to see the disc tail over all their heads and into the waiting arms of a Red Flagger backing up the play.
NOISE were bringing the heat on defense and looking more comfortable on offense than they had all day. They finally scraped together a run to get back to even at 13-13, highlighted by a gorgeous IO backhand huck down the force side from Fennig into the path of an open teammate for a NOISE goal.
Whether nerves creeping in or just the impudence a young Canadian side never needing to be asked twice to get into a hucking battle, Vancouver kept shooting despite simply needing a couple clean holds to secure their victory. Yu shot one out in front of Kurahashi, who chased it down for a full extension snag in the end zone to get within one point of victory at 14-13.
A final NOISE hold largely orchestrated by the indefatigable motion of Luo brought the game to universe point, before which Madison took a timeout to give their top seven as much of a breather as they could. They still needed another break to win, and they would have their chances.
Perhaps predictable given the style that has characterized their offense all week, Vancouver almost refused to play prudently with the game on the line. William Vu uncorked a massive 50-yard hammer out in front of a teammate streaking deep, but it knifed in at too sharp and angle to give his receiver a chance. NOISE blew their chance but their top defender, Dylan DeClerk, got a block on the ensuing Red Flag scoring attempt to earn a second bite at the apple. As she had all game, Zel Mot came up big for her team, sneaking in to snag a block on a slightly overthrown Madison pass, giving the Canadians their third look at a game-winning possession. Vancouver worked the disc into the red zone, and with the stall count rising, Peter Yu shot an ambitious offhand scoober helixing across the width of the field to open space, where it was hauled in by Chatha for the game-winner. Yu dropped to his knees on the turf as his teammates swarmed the goal scorer in the end zone to celebrate a trip to the semis in their first WUCC.
“We came into this feeling like the underdogs and feeling like we have nothing to lose,” admitted Red Flag coach Alex Lam after the game. “Going forward, we’re just going to keep doing what we’ve been doing and really do our best to get as far as we can in the tournament…”
Asked what exactly the Canadians have been doing to achieve this success to this point, Lam was clear: “We guzzled some maple syrup and put the puck in the net!”
X Marks the Last Great American Dynasty
In a day that could be remembered as a changing of the guard, there remained one last American titan standing at four o’clock in the afternoon.
Seattle Mixtape (USA) are an institution in ultimate. A team who have written large their name on trophies across America, the only mixed team to have ever achieved the USAU Triple Crown. Veterans of multiple WUCC campaigns, even if 2018 left them with an unsatisfied taste in their mouth after being spilled out in quarters as the tournament’s top seed.
Looking up at them defiantly, the young upstarts Amsterdam GRUT (NED). A team harboring ambitions a half decade in the making, and armed with fresh weapons and hard won experience from their own previous campaign in Cincinnati. In the end, for all their insubordination against the established order, the flying Dutchfolk fell short once more, losing 15-12 to the relentless positivity of the Northwestern authority on audacity.
The key difference between the sides is the simple fact that there aren’t two players in the European Mixed division who can match the caliber of Khalif El-Salaam and Kelly Johnson .7
“They did not back me,” explained El-Salaam. “They just fronted me. As long as the throw’s out in front of me, which Vegas [Kelly Johnson] and Billy [Katz] did a phenomenal job of, it’s really hard for them to make a play on the ball. I’m not doing anything special other than driving hard underneath, planting really hard, and then going out.”
“Our game plan was to send them deep, at least for the first half of the field” confirmed GRUT captain Walt Jansen. “So we took away those easy resets quite hard and made [them] force [it] deep. But they got away with it. So we put down the pressure, but just couldn’t handle those deep throws that were perfect. They just played exceptionally well.”
Uncharacteristically, Khalif was perhaps selling himself short in explaining how he kept getting free. Frequently starting in the handler position, he demanded a level of attention that GRUT are not accustomed to having to deal with from a deep threat of his ability. Each time either of the key defenders — Foeke Schaap and Walt Jansen, two of the best deep defenders in Europe’s Mixed division — came with him to cover the easy under he took advantage and burned deep for consistently pitch-perfect hucks, and the Dutch simply had no effective response. A fact epitomized by El-Salaam’s involvement in both the opening and closing scores of the game.
That’s not to say GRUT were bereft of brilliance themselves. Down 7-4 and staring at a near insurmountable halftime deficit, they found inspiration. First with a hold, and then immediately capitalizing on two consecutive Mixtape turnovers8 to score two quick breaks and tie the game up 7-7. The latter of which was a sensational scoober from Ben Oort to Lola Dam that made us all believe that they might just deny America any representation in the semis.
Billy Katz was quick to silence the growing dissent, going from a chest-high layout to save possession into a picturesque huck as quick as a hiccup to find Paige Kercher for the score and the 8-7 halftime lead.
“We knew GRUT was going to be the hardest team we’ve played so far by a long shot,” admitted longtime D-line star Jen Cogburn. “There was a lot of adversity but we hold on to adversity, we don’t run away from it, we treasure it. That’s what makes us come together harder. We knew that they were going to come for us. This is what we came here for is to play games like this.”
And boy did they play. The second half started with a triplet of trades to ten.
“We knew that their men were big shooters, and they were looking specifically for #119 for a lot of goals,” said Mixtape coach Bryson Fox. “We traded off putting our best athletes on [Keulartz] downfield to try and neutralize that threat and make them do something a little bit different than they had been doing this tournament. We thought if we could get them to their second or third option, that would work in our favor.
“Honestly, they play a very unique game. It’s not something I see in the USAU circuit,” continued Fox. “They play the lines very well, very accurate throws, really big athletic plays. We love to see their different sets, lots of split stack, vert stack, ho stack. We did try to throw some junk at them. So we played around with that a little bit when in the end, we found just straight person defense was the answer.”
The depth and power of Mixtape proved too much for GRUT as their offense stumbled in the final third of the match and Seattle ran out 5-2 to close the game, a testament to the team unity and experience the Seattleites have honed over nearly a decade at the highest level of Mixed ultimate.
“The level in Europe has been a tough challenge,” acknowledged Jansen. “This was our first game of the whole season. [Americans] have been beating us for the past I don’t know how many decades, but we’re finally crawling up to their level. I hope that the teams in Europe will take ultimate a bit more seriously. Go to the gym more often, get to work, show some grit, and get to our level so we get beaten in the season. That’s my hope.”10
While GRUT’s second WUCC campaign ends at the same stage as the first, it is far from the same scenario. Their rebuild has been effective, and as noted by the increase in representation of non-American clubs throughout the upper echelon of this tournament, they’re far from the only ones coming at the crown. Meanwhile, Mixtape carry the last chance for an American championship retention.
A Truly Global Final Four
Spanning four countries, three continents, and enough airmiles to get Greenpeace after you, the semifinals of WUCC 2022 speaks to a future where the certainties of the past no longer hang over the heads of players plying their trade outside of the birthplace of ultimate. Though there remains a solitary member of the old guard standing in the way, wielding well worn weapons in calloused hands, and daring the rising tide to try and drown them.
Plus a single point of zone that took five flawless minutes of patient handler movement for PuTi to score against. ↩
His description of his role on the team, not mine. ↩
In between, Andy Lewis sent his own huck to Mark Bignal for what must be close to the 1,000th time those two have connected in their careers. ↩
Madlyn Simko ↩
Who we will be watching for a long time to come. ↩
And my reluctance to look foolish by underestimating their potential again ↩
The unfortunate loss of Wiebe van den Brink, Niels Bloom, and D-line captain Daniel Eppstein also proved a savage blow to GRUT’s depth. ↩
Seriously, they picked the disc up within a second of the turn both times. ↩
Floor Keulartz, who scored GRUT’s first two points of the half. ↩
Kelly ‘Vegas’ Johnson has generously offered to pass on her experience and insight to any up-and-coming players who reach out to her, which you should definitely do if you’re looking to learn the skills and mindset to compete at the highest level. ↩