National Championships 2022: Bravo Brilliance Outshines Machine (Men’s Quarterfinal)

Denver assembled the various pieces of their team at exactly the right time.

Alex Atkins celebrates after catching the winning goal for Bravo in their stunning 15-10 upset over Machine in the Nationals quarterfinal. Photo: Sam Hotaling - Ultiphotos.com
Alex Atkins celebrates after catching the winning goal for Bravo in their stunning 15-10 upset over Machine in the Nationals quarterfinal. Photo: Sam Hotaling – 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.

Denver Johnny Bravo put together the best game of their season to date in a confident 15-10 quarterfinal victory over Chicago Machine. They went five for six on break chances and registered only three total turnovers for the game. The win sets up the team’s first semifinal appearance since 2016.

The D-line made their presence known on the first point of the game, jumping all over a Joe White drop to put Machine on the defensive. Cody Spicer picked up to push the pace, Alex Tatum tossed a stall-0 shot to the end zone, and Chance Cochran crashed the back-end of the play to collect the sailing disc, setting up a break before Machine had remotely settled into form. It was not an unexpected sequence for a unit that have been among the division’s best for months.

“One of the things we’ve focused on from the beginning of the year until now is like, it doesn’t matter if you get turns of blocks – you’ve got to complete it. You’ve got to complete it,” said Johnny Bravo coach Tim Kefalas about his D-line’s penchant for converting break chances.

For just a moment, it looked as though Bravo would have to lean on them the whole way. Machine’s first defensive point was a master class in coordination and strategy, and they quickly put the game back on serve. After they pushed Bravo into the break sideline, Johnny Bansfield swooped in to pick off the centering reset. That play and a timely Bravo injury that allowed Machine to bring White on for the counter set up a dazzling red zone dance between Bansfield and White. It ended with a stupendous backhand that air-bounced up from chest level from its release next to the mark’s ankles.

That was the last time Bravo would fall into Machine’s various intricately laid traps. The offense was simply stupendous the rest of the way out. Cole Wallin, who featured heavily in the team’s game-winning final possession against Sockeye earlier in the day, continued his streak of excellence in the quarterfinal. He hit every difficult throw asked of him throughout the game – the finest of which was a visionary turn-and-shoot touch IO forehand that sat just inside the sideline in the end zone for Ben Lohre – and ground through dozens of minute reset cuts to stay available through intermittently intense Machine pressure.

Wallin’s magnificent performance only stood out by degree: in kind, he was only one among many. Quinn Finer’s mix of power-cutting and power-throwing was as dangerous as we’ve seen from him, Ben Lohre was composed and intense and stingy, Alex Atkins executed clutch throws late, and Calvin Stoughton’s athleticism was unanswerable down the stretch. The effort presented a stark contrast to some of that line’s efforts earlier in the tournament when they had stretches that were mistake-ridden, utterly stagnant, or both.

Bravo have been looking for that sort of complete game all season. “We’ve had games where our O-line has played super great, and then games where our D has played super great. We’ve had trouble aligning them. It kind of goes one way or the other, so we have a lot of really close [games], but [today] both groups played awesome. And it showed,” said Kefalas.

Machine fell behind again when Mathieu Agee took the measure of a speculative, low, cross-field shot and pounced. He finished the break with a massive sky to bring down a Cochran huck and bring on the entire Bravo sidelines to the end zone en masse in celebration.

Cochran, who finished the first half with three assists from the D-line, struck again after Paul Arters inexplicably turfed an open-side forehand to a stationary open receiver. Machine clogged the backhand side with two defenders, but Cochran saw a miniscule window he liked between them to sneak a score to Justin Abel and extend the lead to 7-4. Patience would be a theme to which they returned in the second half.

In spite of three or four lapses, Machine played a decent offensive game on the whole. Mixed in with that small handful of errors was the steady play of Pawel Janas. Janas was Machine’s engine. He followed countless unders to reset stall counts early, and, when the situation called for it, he powered a couple of fine hucks. “Pawel had a great tournament,” said Machine captain Walden Nelson. “He was just getting open, quarterbacking the offense extremely well. He wasn’t forcing the issue downfield at all. This was the best Nationals by far he has ever had for us.”

Janas was coolly excellent – and White was red-hot. Perhaps emboldened by his early success in the red zone, or perhaps because he is always consummately himself on the field, he started to cook. One soft OI forehand to Jordan Kerr would have made for a textbook example deep throw. Later in the game, he personally shut down an open under from Nate Goff and demanded an away look instead. The four-story-high backhand – that is not hyperbole – somehow still descended to ground level with enough pace to beat Bravo’s defenders and such a careful shape that it struck Goff in stride.

For their helpings of highlights, however, Machine trailed Bravo in both consistency and sheer stubbornness. Bravo would need both in the second half, as Machine settled into new defensive sets. One zone point completely stopped Bravo’s progress once they reached the red zone. But careful work to sniff out the flashing defenders kept possession, and one extremely adept Wallin soft backhand around the shoulder of a face-guard hit paydirt and push the lead to 10-6.

“We were pretty happy the second half with our junkier and zone looks. We thought that slowed them down. But it was just too little, too late. They were already up by plenty,” said Nelson.

The nail in the coffin came on the next point with Bravo’s final break. Kerr saw a free reset at midfield. Cochran noticed it at the same time, and he swiftly left his matchup with the far-side handler to slap away the attempt. After a timeout, Bravo could not find a way to move ahead against a reinvigorated O-line making a desperate stand. And so they abandoned the thought of moving ahead, instead dishing two dozen resets and swings around the end zone like a college team running drills. Finally, Cody Spicer saw daylight on the backhand sideline to zip in a scoring pass.

The teams traded out the rest of the way, and not without highlights. Will Lohre and Atkins both targeted Stoughton for delicious deep throws. White and Walt Jansen made impressive catches on consecutive Machine holds. But at that point, the outcome was no longer in doubt: Bravo were the inevitable victors. By the time Danny Landesman reached wide to his right to fling an inside forehand to Atkins for the final score, the shock of the upset had long since set in; it had already worn away and become the new normal.

Machine were glum about the loss, but they recognized and appreciated their opponent’s performance. “Bravo played a fantastic game,” said Nelson. “And we didn’t rise to meet the challenge.”

For Bravo, the win was an intangible idea that, having presented itself in hints and sudden glimpses throughout the year, manifested in a solid form for the first time exactly when they needed it. “Our belief in each other has never wavered, and we knew we were going to get it together on all phases of the ball at some point this weekend. It’s just been really cool that it’s happening at the opportune moments,” said Kefalas.

  1. Edward Stephens
    Edward Stephens

    Edward Stephens has an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. He writes and plays ultimate in Athens, Georgia.

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