National Championships 2022: Pool C Preview (Women’s)

Denver Molly Brown's Valeria Cardenas against Seattle Riot at the 2022 Bay Area Tournament. Photo: Rodney Chen -- UltiPhotos.com
Denver Molly Brown’s Valeria Cardenas against Seattle Riot at the 2022 Bay Area Tournament. Photo: Rodney Chen — UltiPhotos.com

Ultiworld’s coverage of the 2022 Club National Championships 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.

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Not even five years ago, there would have been a protest in the streets to see all four of the teams in Pool C duking it out on day one of Nationals. We aren’t that far removed from a time where all these teams made semis or higher. These are some of the most storied programs in the entire women’s division and they’re all playing in the same pool! It seems unbelievable that this isn’t more of a story, considering the lore surrounding all these teams.

A lot has changed in the past few years, though. For both Seattle Riot and Atlanta Ozone, many of their best players retired, moved, or joined other teams, leaving an opening for other up-and-coming teams to also play their way through to semis and beyond. Boston Brute Squad and Molly Brown are both still among the nation’s best, but the division has never seen as much parity between teams as there is now, and there aren’t any assurances that either of them will end the tournament as a top four team. For all the teams in Pool C, their placement at this tournament has nothing to do with their past, and has everything to do with their future.

Denver Molly Brown

Seeding: Overall No. 3, C1
Power Ranking: #3
Regional Finish: South Central 1
Overall 2022 Record: 20-2
Against the Nationals Field: 6-2
Against the Pool: 1-0

There’s so much to like about the 2022 version of Denver Molly Brown, especially when taking their season into context. The team has retooled with a roster of young, capable, defensive-minded players that also have been soul-crushingly lethal with the disc in hand. Despite their truncated regular season, which was compressed into the space of back-to-back weekends, Molly Brown looked like a refined, disciplined team that had good chemistry and — more importantly — knew how to win ball games. Were it not for stiff competition from the Californians at the Bay Area Tournament, Molly Brown would be the presumptive favorites at Nationals.

It’s still not clear that they shouldn’t be the favorites, either. Denver stormed into Pro Champs without any time to recalibrate or strategize after their tournament in San Francisco, and immediately turned around and trounced the best teams on the east coast. This mental toughness is exactly what the leadership honed in on as a strength of this Molly Brown team: “The defining moment of our season was the team’s willingness to buy into and implement strategic changes between tournaments without any on field practice time in between,” said head coach Joaquin Nagle.

That focus will serve the team well, as they are now well past the ‘laissez-faire’ moniker that had dogged previous iterations of the team. Denver has made a point of emphasizing adaptability as a tenant of their game. They’re more than capable of beating teams a number of different ways. The many defensive schemes they’ve run have only gone to show that they’re not locked into any one game plan, but will throw everything but the kitchen sink at their opponents to keep them guessing.

Molly Brown has also benefited from the growth of new players taking on sizeable roles on the team, and veterans stepping into different roles to better serve the team. Giving Claire Chastain the space to roam downfield instead of in the backfield has expanded her game considerably, but it’s been the play of veterans like Alika Johnston, Sam Peletier, and Megan Cousins that have helped take the heat off Chastain by being equally lethal downfield. The team’s also seen a heightened impact from Nhi Nguyen, who Nagle pointed to as a player whose role on the team has grown over the past three years.

The boulder in Molly Brown’s path is their tough road to the final. If all goes according to plan, they’ll have to face Flipside in semis and Fury for the title, the two teams they’ve lost to this season. Before they can even look that far ahead, though, they’ll have to deal with the ghosts of their Nationals past by beating Brute Squad in pool play. No one has kicked Denver out of contention at Nationals more than Brute Squad. Over the course of the last seven years, Denver has lost to Boston five times. This is the first year they’ll have a chance to meet their most dangerous opponent before bracket play, something that the team has to be happy about. They have not yet had the opportunity to play this season, so there is more room for variance, which increases the stakes tenfold.

It’s not life or death for Molly Brown to win their pool, but if we’re to believe this is the version of the team that can win a National title, emphatically winning their pool would go a long way in proving that. Either way, the game between Denver and Boston is the most unmissable game in pool play, so get a full subscription, turn on Field Pass access, and be ready at 3:45 PM PT.

Likely Ceiling: National Champions
Likely Floor: Semis

Boston Brute Squad

Seeding: Overall No. 6, C2
Power Ranking: #6
Regional Finish: Northeast 1
Overall 2022 Record: 15-4
Against the Nationals Field: 6-4
Against the Pool: N/A

Boston has to be feeling good about their placement in Pool C. They have not played any of the teams in their pool yet this season, but as we’ve already noted, they have a history with Molly Brown that leans in their favor, and both Riot and Ozone are young teams that are building towards future glory, rather than at the peak of their powers currently. This might not be the same Brute Squad that had an indomitable force comparable to Andre the Giant, but they’re still more than capable of earning a national title.

If there’s a knock against Brute Squad, it’s that they’ve been fractured throughout the season and didn’t fully coalesce as a team until Regionals. With it being a WUCC year, the roster that Boston took to Worlds looked fairly different from the one that’s headed to San Diego, and re-amalgamating players into any team takes time. For that reason, Brute Squad hasn’t had the same volume of reps as a team as some of the others in the elite tier of teams at Nationals.

That same weakness might also be their strength, though. The losses the team suffered in the regular season were without a strong contingent of their team, and they’re a different team with those players in the lineup. Just ask their captains. “Regionals was the first time we had the entire roster playing together and performing as one full unit,” said Yuge Xiao. “We felt super energized and excited as we could finally and successfully put together all the pieces.”

It wasn’t just energy and excitement that Boston brought to Regionals. They also won the tournament outright and beat Toronto 6ixers in the process, a team that they had lost to handily in the regular season. It was a warning to the rest of the division: the Brute Squad you saw in the regular season was just the warmup rotation.

Even without their full roster, Boston looked formidable. At Nationals, it’ll be hard to find a weak link, especially as they balance their lines so carefully. “We have a deep roster and an incredibly wide skill set within the team,” said Xiao. “We are not dependent on that one star player or a specific set play or whatever it may be, our strengths are distributed throughout the entire team.”

For those that have followed Brute Squad over the years, their style of play will be familiar. They continue to run three equal lines, with powerful throwers like Samiya Ismail, Angela Zhu, and Tulsa Douglas commanding the backfield. As a team, though, it’s their do-it-all players on both offense and defense that have been bolstering them all year. Caroline Tornquist and Leija Helling have both seen an increased role from 2021, and are players that the leadership feel exemplify the team ethos of Brute Squad.

This might not be the year to pencil in Boston as the title favorites, but they stand every chance of winning their pool and making it as far as the team has in the past. They might not have the same roster of household names like they did in the past, but as a team, they believe they’re more than the sum of their parts. If history is anything to go off, they might just be right.

Likely Ceiling: Semis
Likely Floor: Quarters

Seattle Riot

Seeding: Overall No. 10, C3
Power Ranking: #10
Regional Finish: Northwest 3
Overall 2022 Record: 16-8
Against the Nationals Field: 2-8
Against the Pool: 0-1 vs. Molly Brown

By virtue of being in the Northwest, Riot’s faced more stiff competition this season than most teams at their skill level. Their 2-8 record against the Nationals field does little to recognize how close those games were. There are no easy wins against Seattle. More importantly, Riot’s proven that they’re on the cusp of building back into the institution that won three nationals titles and was a perennial semis team. They’re not quite there yet, but Nationals might be a coming out party for a roster that’s underseeded no.11.

The team is an unusual blend of seasoned veterans and rising stars, which they’ve split up to give their younger players a chance to grow and learn together as the future of the program. The reins of the offense is being handed to the likes of Abby Hecko, Lani Nguyen, and Jamie Eriksson, but it’s still Julia Snyder, Alyssa Weatherford, and Shira Stern who put the team back on pace when they’re down a break or two.

Riot has had to come to terms with their new-look offense over the course of the season. This isn’t the team of yore that would run through teams without letting off a break. Now, unforced errors are as common as one would expect in a growing team, but at the core of their team, their system is still of the highest quality. This is a team that can win games without gimmicks. They have a system, and while they aren’t always perfect, the system still looks good.

Their combination of talent, veteran-savvy, and youth does put them in an interesting position at Nationals this year. While they likely aren’t in a position to challenge for the title, they’re simply too good to not make the bracket, and no team is going to want to play them in prequarters, or even beyond that.

Likely Ceiling: Prequarters
Likely Floor: Out on Day One

Atlanta Ozone

Seeding: Overall No. 15, C4
Power Ranking: #17
Regional Finish: Southeast 2
Overall 2022 Record: 16-4
Against the Nationals Field: 0-4
Against the Pool: N/A

It’s been a while since we’ve seen the women’s division most tenured team at Nationals, and its a welcome return. Ozone might not have the same aspirations as they did half a decade ago, but are still just as deserving of their place at Nationals, which they proved with a win over Florida Tabby Rosa at Regionals. To get out of pool play, though, they’ll need to rediscover some of the same magic that carried their 2017 squad to a semis berth, as Pool C is fairly top-heavy, giving Ozone an uphill battle.

Trying to compare this Ozone to their 2017 team is unfair to this group. Only five players from that roster remain on the team. In fact, most of Ozone’s roster are first-time Nationals attendees. Sixteen players are playing in their inaugural club championship tournament, one of the largest totals of any team at the tournament. They’re firmly in a rebuild, and the experience this team will gain just by taking the field in San Diego will already be crucial. “We’re here to gain experience competing at the highest level for our young players and we’re coming out and fighting no matter who we’re up against,” said the captains.

That fighting spirit will have to do a lot of the heavy lifting for them if they’re to make it out of pool play. While that’s not a focus of the team at the tournament, they can’t be counted out just yet. Southeast teams have a history of getting farther than expected at Nationals; just ask Tabby Rosa what happened last year.

Unlike Tabby, though, this isn’t a small team filled with veterans who are happy to grind out points. This is a team that’s focused on their future. “We’re developing a lot of young talent this year and focusing on individual growth,” explained the captains. “There are a lot of names on this roster that you may not recognize right now, but trust us, you will in a couple years.”

Of the names you should start watching out for, Sam Li is poised for a breakout performance at Nationals, as is Grace Marshall and Lanie O’Neill. The captains also highlighted Chupzi Lema and Liz Leon, two players with experience in elite mixed ultimate who are bringing their talents to the team. Finally, it should be noted that Meredith Leahy has returned after an eight year hiatus, and the team has been very excited to have her back.

At the end of the day, Ozone’s already proven everything they needed to by making it out of Regionals. Atlanta has a decorated history at Nationals and while they’re not yet ready to take on the top teams at the tournament, they’re still a fun team to follow and we’ll likely have plenty more to say about them in seasons to come.

Likely Ceiling: Prequarters
Likely Floor: Out on Day One

  1. Graham Gerhart
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    Graham Gerhart is a Senior Staff Writer at Ultiworld, focusing primarily on the Women's and Mixed divisions. Graham graduated from the University of Cape Town in South Africa after playing 4 years with the UCT Flying Tigers. He now lives and works full time in San Diego. Follow him on twitter @JustGrahamG

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