National Championships 2022: Bravo Blasts Off to the Final (Men’s Semifinal)

With a second half defensive surge, Johnny Bravo muscled past Rhino Slam! in a windy game that was closer than the final margin indicated.

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.

Denver Johnny Bravo outlasted Portland Rhino Slam! 13-9 in a back-and-forth game to advance to their first national final in eight seasons. As one of the early morning semifinals that took place at the regular field site rather than the stadium, the game had a throwback feel with players from eliminated teams filtering over to the sidelines to watch at the conclusion of their consolation games.

“The game started as like a normal game,” Bravo’s Alex Tatum said after the win. “It didn’t feel like too much pressure. And as people start to crowd the sidelines, you get that energy, you get that hype, and then you just enjoy the moment.”

The first few points set the chaotic tone of the game. Rhino started the game on offense and quickly went to one of their go-to options: a set-play huck to Leandro Marx. Though that throw was too far, Marx was able to get the block back for an opening hold. On the next point, Daniel Lee and Alex Atkins traded catch blocks before Bravo held, but both defenses proved that they could generate turnovers, and both offenses proved that there would be plenty of opportunities to go around. There was a steady crosswind that made throwing just a touch more difficult.

Bravo made the first move with an impressive goal line stand early in the first half. Alex Tatum stepped in front of a goal line flip and went every other with Cody Spicer the other way as Bravo looked for a full-field break conversion. Tatum released a centering reset that caught the wind and floated over everybody, but Chance Cochran tracked its flight and laid out for the goal and the 3-1 Bravo lead.

“I think the D-line — it’s a blessing and a curse, having a lot of people that can do a lot of things,” Tatum said, reflecting on his team’s ability to convert its break chances into points. “You know, it’s hard to figure out roles for everyone. But I think we just try to trust each other and cycle through quick and empower each other to make the throws we know we can make and not force anything.”

They extended that lead to 4-1 on the next point, but were lucky to do so. Sandy Brown bobbled an in-cut that was thrown just inside the sideline, but his foot was clearly out of bounds by the time the catch was secured. The trailing observer called it in despite the entire sideline–Bravo and Rhino players alike–agreeing that the call should have been out. A few throws later, Denny Bechis focused to corral a tipped catch on a stellar defensive bid from Dave Sealand, and Connor Tabor found Matt Bristol in the end zone.

“From the start of the game, they did a really good job with their marks and handler poachers,” Rhino Slam! captain Trevor Smith said after the game. “Kind of clogging up the cutting lanes that we like to look for. And doing handler switches. So we were going to try to take advantage of their loose defense, but they were able to keep in pretty good position. I think, you know, we were able to retain possession pretty well and keep it moving, but our handlers and cutters kind of got out of sync with our timing a little bit, because they were giving us different loads that we weren’t really used to.”

With early contributions from players all over the roster, Bravo appeared to be running away with the game, but Rhino called a timeout to refocus. The Oregonians managed to hold and survived a nine minute point to crawl back into the game. The point featured every kind of turnover you might see in an entire game: hucks out the back, turfed inside flicks, run-through blocks, and a coverage sack. Itay Chang’s visionary cross-field flick to Chris Strub mercifully ended the point and converted Rhino’s first break of the game to inch back to 4-3.

Rhino continued their run to close out the first half. First, a diamond zone look changed the pace of the game. Bravo was forced out of their set play and ended up firing a flick blade to an open Will Lohre. The throw was a bit too high, though, and Lohre couldn’t reel in the catch. Rhino Slam! took advantage right away and Lee’s around flick to Vinh Bui tied the game at 6-6. Because so many points were protracted affairs and each team had taken both of its timeouts, the halftime cap went on during the point, setting up a crucial point with a significant advantage looming for the first team to reach seven.

Bravo suffered through two turnovers on low flicks to the end zone, and a third on an over-the-stack huck. While Rhino gave those turnovers right back to Bravo, their enthusiastic defense locked in on and overloaded Bravo’s open side in cuts, forcing Denver to look to less advantageous options.

With legs growing tired, it took every ounce of energy to get in position to score. Sealand made an impressive, focused catch after slipping on his cut, crawling forward a bit, and laying out to secure a grab near the sideline. After a timeout to simply get a breather, Owen Murphy worked the disc slowly to the end zone, going every other before picking up the hockey assist on a Lee to Marx connection.

“From the very beginning of the season, we knew that we had the ability to have the best D-line in the country,” Smith said. “And, you know, we’ve had ups and downs throughout the season, trying to figure things out, I think in that game, especially in the first half, it started really clicking, where we had all the pieces fitting together. We were winning individual matchups and also seeing really well connected switching. It felt like we’re smothering their offense for large portions of the game. So definitely proud of that.”

At halftime, both teams looked tired but focused to finish out the tough game. Each team confidently held out of halftime, with Danny Landesman and Raphy Hayes trading deep goals. Hayes had a fairly quiet game by his standards thanks to the tireless work of Cody Spicer and Felix Pronove backing him and taking away one of Rhino Slam!’s most dangerous weapons–that huck was his most significant play of the game.

In need of a spark, Tatum stepped up for Bravo. His first throw footblock on Trevor Smith–one of his three blocks in the game–gave Denver a short field and Spicer’s backhand to Justin Abel gave Bravo its first lead of the second half. With their foot on the gas, Tatum was the recipient of Bravo’s next score break as well. A deep pull pinned Rhino in their own end zone, and Smith’s pressure-relieving huck fell too short for Hayes to make a play on. Bravo didn’t blink going the other way. With all of the momentum, Bravo poured on two more scores, ultimately scoring five in a row to build an unassailable 12-8 lead.

“Just pressure, just keeping the pressure up,” Tatum said, reflecting on Bravo’s second half run. “Our coach [Tim Kefalas] has got this ‘AP’ set that we run, and it just, you know, the pressure builds. And as long as we stay locked, we know we’re gonna get our chances. So we’re just banking on that and make sure we make the most of them.”

Between the time Rhino scored its eighth goal to go up 8-7 and its ninth goal to close their deficit to 12-9, twenty-five minutes had elapsed. The inability of either team to consistently score quickly speaks to the level of defensive intensity both teams showed, but it also brought on soft cap before Rhino had a chance to mount another comeback. With just one more point needed to secure the win, Cole Wallin carefully marched the Bravo offense down the field. Atkins lofted a backhand that Stoughton reeled in for his third goal of the game, the game winner.

“That’s been the stingiest defense, I think that we’ve seen at this tournament so far,” Rhino Slam! captain Vinh Bui recounted after the game. “And credit to them, because they’re long, and they’re athletic, and they’re smart, and they do a really, really good job.”

Rhino Slam! is certainly disappointed by its exit, but after advancing to its second straight semifinal, it is hard to be anything but encouraged by the trajectory Rhino Slam! is ascending.

“Every team here is really good,” Smith said. “You know, anybody can beat anybody else. That’s something that we’ve been saying to ourselves all weekend long. I think from the beginning of the season, we were a little bit more ambitious internally setting expectations for ourselves and naming that we want to be a championship team. Whereas the last few years, we’ve been, you know, starting from a team that had lower expectations and trying to kind of usurp the top dogs. I think what we need to do now is learn what it means to be one of those top dogs. And that that doesn’t mean that you expect to beat teams by being better than them, right? Because every team out here is extremely talented…We’ve got the talent to be one of the best teams but we need to be able to keep working and playing like we need to win it with blood and dirt just like we have the past few years.”

One additional factor in Rhino Slam! continued growth: their coach, Angela Tocchi. “Angela, I think is a super underrated coach in the division,” Bui said. “She’s a really great tactical mind. Really engaging player’s coach. Everybody loves her on the team and I don’t think she gets enough recognition and you know the national scene as being one of the top coaches in the division.”

With a top coach, a roster filled with contributors about to hit their prime, and the competitive experience of back-to-back semifinal losses under their belts, Rhino Slam! has plenty of reason to be proud of their season and excited looking ahead to future seasons.

Meanwhile, Johnny Bravo is on to their third appearance in a national final and for the first time since their 2014 title run. Through that time, there’s been the highs like making a semifinal in 2016 and lows like missing the bracket completely in 2019. “Ever since we won last, I’ve been trying to rebuild this team to a point where we can be a dynasty,” captain Denny Bechis said after the win. “And we have such a young and talented squad that like, I think this is a time that we can start building this program. And, really, maybe not get to the finals every year. But hopefully the contender in those games.”

After the game, Denver Molly Brown, the local women’s division team that had won their semifinal over Toronto 6ixers one field over, came to join in celebration.

“The whole Colorado region is really just like, there’s so many opportunities that we get together,” Bechis said after the game. “Even if it’s not just Bravo, we have the other other teams kind of join in and we play together. And I think that’s really special for our community.”

Both Molly Brown and Johnny Bravo will be playing for titles on Sunday. Bravo will be facing off against Washington DC Truck Stop, a team they lost to 15-12 back in pool play. Bravo does have a win over Truck Stop back at the US Open in August, and both teams are looking forward to the rematch.

“I think no matter what we’re gonna have to bring it for both those teams,” Bechis said, before the other semifinal informed Bravo of their opponent. “They’re both incredibly talented. I would really want to play Truck Stop just because they’d be in so many times this year. And that’s a team that I think we really need to bring it to.”

  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 Philadelphia to experience real seasons and eat soft pretzels. You can reach Alex through e-mail (rubin.alex14@gmail.com) or Twitter (@arubes14).

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