National Championships 2022: Rhino Slams Its Way Into Semis (Men’s Quarterfinal)

Getting the better of a back-and-forth slugfest with Doublewide, Rhino Slam! returns to the semifinal round for the second straight season. This year, they have their sights on advancing even further.

Rhino Slam's Itay Chang makes the winning catch in the quarterfinals at the 2022 Club National Championships. Photo: Sam Hotaling --
Rhino Slam’s Itay Chang makes the winning catch in the quarterfinals at the 2022 Club National Championships. Photo: Sam Hotaling —

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.

Weathering a furious Austin Doublewide comeback toward the end of the game, Portland Rhino Slam! took down the South Central region winners and advanced to the semifinal round. In 2019, Rhino Slam! gave New York PoNY all it could handle in a riveting quarterfinal before bowing out to the favored team. In 2021, Rhino Slam! took down Washington DC Truck Stop in quarters before getting blown out by eventual champions Raleigh Ring of Fire. After upsetting Ring earlier in the tournament and displaying some serious mettle to hold off Doublewide, Rhino Slam! is expecting its trend of incremental improvement to continue this season.

“​​I think the first thing that helps is experience,” Rhino Slam! captain Sam Franer said after the game. “We’ve been in these situations before, we tend to get ourselves into them a fair amount. If you look back from, you know, 2019, that PoNY game, all the way through ‘21, you can look at our quarters finish there. And even some pretty exciting games in the Pro Champs I think, and then this season. So experience really helps us.”

Though Rhino Slam! won the game, it was actually Doublewide who got off to the hot start in this one. After earning a turnover but not converting on their first defensive point, Doublewide scored an early break when Kyle Henke — the hero of their prequarter win over Toronto GOAT — blocked a set play look to Leandro Marx. He then hustled upline and fired a flick huck to college teammate Elliott Moore for an early 2-1 lead. It didn’t last too long. Rhino Slam! took advantage of a suddenly gusty wind and strongly contested Doublewide’s unders. On back-to-back points, Raphy Hayes and Daniel Lee notched blocks on unders that led to Rhino Slam! scores. They built a 3-2 lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.

Doublewide started to falter in the wind, throwing resets too hard or inside shots just a hair too quickly. Two unforced turnovers gave Rhino Slam! short field break opportunities and they managed to convert both thanks to an Owen Murphy hammer and a classic David Sealand poster. With an 8-4 lead, Rhino Slam! coasted into halftime up by four.

Using the break to make adjustments, Doublewide began mounting a comeback in the second half. Switching up their personnel to account for the wind, Jason Hustad stepped into a prominent throwing role and Mark Evans worked his way into the backfield more often than he typically would under calm conditions.

“We haven’t played much in wind this year,” Doublewide stalwart Kevin Richardson said. “I think one of our changes we started going upwind and downwind with with our lines, and putting some people upwind that we know have throws and cuts upwind and putting some people downwind that if we can pull ‘em deep in this downwind we know we can have some different defenders on there…it’s fun crossing over with some people I don’t normally get to play with.”

Richardson did everything he could as a featured player on the upwind line, including blocking two potential break-scoring hucks aimed at World Games alternate Jack Hatchett.

“I told the team after the timeout, ‘don’t get beat under and don’t get beat deep. If you do, it’s your fault,’” Richardson said after the game. “And Jack took me deep and I just kept thinking ‘oh crap, it’s my fault.’ I got lucky. I think it just hung up a little bit for me to get one on Jack. I think it’s a fight my entire club life on defense and I knew I was gonna have to make a mark on defense this game. Offense is easy; defense, you have to work for it. So it’s fun to be back on the D-line and grind for points with those guys.”

There were few clean holds as Rhino Slam! shifted their defensive strategy. A diamond zone look stifled the Doublewide attack for a few moments, and despite Itay Chang’s layout block, Doublewide managed to hang around just close enough to mount a comeback. With the score 11-8 in Rhino Slam!’s favor, Doublewide made their first move. Leandro Marx, who earlier hit a nearly identical look, saw a quick-release flick aimed for Hayes catch the wind and fly out of bounds. Going the other direction, Chase Cunningham’s bending backhand huck found its target and Doublewide started to inch back, bringing the game within two.

Rhino Slam! recovered to hold — Franer caught the second of his three scores this game with a textbook box-out — but Doublewide wasn’t done yet. Joey Wylie peeled off of his assignment to block Hayes’ touch backhand for a wide open Marx. Evans then unloaded a full-field backhand to breakout star Alec Wilson Holliday and Doublewide brought the score within one at 12-11. They tied the game a few points later when Hayes tried a high-release flick for a cross-field reset, but it fell short of its target. Doublewide worked the disc into the red zone set and Evan Swiatek hit an around backhand to Kaplan Maurer to tie the game at 13 apiece.

“Our big message, when that happens, is that we have to keep trusting each other,” Franer said. “We have to be pumped up on the sidelines, and it’s the little things—we can’t hang our heads. So we really just kind of started to love each other. And that’s what helped.”

With all of the momentum, Doublewide brought heavy pressure, but Rhino Slam! went to its tried-and-true scoring method: a Raphy Hayes huck to Leandro Marx. Marx absorbed a bit of contact from Henke and adjusted to lay out and secure a tough catch right on the goal line before popping right up and releasing a backhand to Sealand for the late lead.

Tensions rose as fans filtered to the sideline when nearby games finished. Rhino Slam! kept Hayes and Marx on the sideline in anticipation of a potential double game point. Their services wouldn’t be needed. Two Doublewide cutters moved to the same shallow spot just behind the mark—and both were open! Jake Radack put a backhand just to the space they were moving to, but they were entering from different directions and collided just as the throw arrived. With neither receiver able to grab it, the disc fell into the waiting hands of Rhino Slam!’s trailing defender who immediately started a fast break attacking the other direction. Jack Hatchett caught an under on the forehand sideline and spotted a wide open Chang cruising up the break side. His blade over the tangle of cutters setting up an endzone set connected with Chang with no defender around.

Rhino Slam! has a reputation as a team built around Marx and Hayes, but this quarterfinal win truly highlighted their depth. Unlike other top teams, Rhino Slam! doesn’t exactly play with set lines, preferring to sub in and out its players as the pace of the game dictates. Sure, there are some players who fit nicely into specified roles. You will likely see ace defenders Hatchett and Lee on most defensive points, and the handler duo of Trevor Smith and Joe Marmerstein has more than capably held down the Rhino Slam! backfield. However, with players like Marx and Hayes and Lee and Vinh Bui and Owen Murphy and Dave Sealand able to play both ways, setting matchups and predicting outcomes for this Rhino Slam! team is almost a pointless exercise. More than probably any other team in the division, they truly use the entirety of their roster and trust even their youngest players to take tough matchups and play key minutes.

“You can’t win a tournament with, you know, this level of talent in this sort of format with seven guys,” Franer said. “So our whole strategy going into the season at this point is to develop that depth. So we have multiple lines, multiple pieces that we can sub in and out.”

While Hayes and Marx certainly deserve their name recognition, the play of Hatchett, Smith, Marmerstein, Lee, and Bui has been just as vital to Rhino Slam!’s success. It’s not just that group either. At various points in this game, Chang, Mica Glass, and Felix Moren could have made their case as the best U24 eligible player on the roster, and each played important minutes. With Rhino Slam! getting solid contributions up and down the roster, they will be a tough team for opponents to plan for.

Rhino Slam! will face off against Denver Johnny Bravo in Saturday morning’s semifinal. These two teams played a double game point consolation game at Pro Champs—a Rhino Slam! win—back in September, but it’s fair to say that this game will be different given the stakes.

“This time around, we know what to expect,” Franer said. “We’ve been there before, and we know Bravo. We know them well. So we’re looking forward to that game. And honestly, winning our pool gives us a little bit more legs as well. So we’re really excited. We feel good.”

Despite the loss, for Doublewide this game was a validating showcase of their ascending talent. As most teams aim to do, Doublewide truly structured their season to peak in the playoffs, highlighted by their upset regional championship over Johnny Bravo and their double game point takedown of Toronto GOAT to push their way into the quarterfinal. With a core of young talent led by Henke, Moore, and Breakout Player of the Year candidate Zach Slayton, Doublewide can take the momentum from the last month of play and carry it into 2023.

“I think when we started the year, we didn’t know what our ceiling was,” Richardson said. “It was fun just to kind of figure that out through the season, through practices, mini-camps, track workouts to early season tournaments. It was fun to realize what our potential was. And I think even at the same tournament, we got into some halves and some points we were like, ‘dang, we were really good.’ We have a ceiling we know where we can get to. We fell short in this game. I think that we can look forward to Doublewide in the future and know that we’ve got the talent and the young people to keep building on that.”

  1. Alex Rubin
    Alex Rubin

    Alex Rubin started writing for Ultiworld in 2018. He is a graduate of Northwestern University where he played for four years. After a stint in Los Angeles coaching high school and college teams, they moved to Chicago to experience real seasons and eat deep dish pizza. You can reach Alex through e-mail ([email protected]) or Twitter (@arubes14).




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