National Championships 2022: Molly Brown Reaches Their First National Final With Comeback Vs. 6ixers (Women’s Semifinal)

Molly finally makes the final.

Molly Brown’s Manuela Cardenas rises up for the disc. Photo: Sam Hotaling — UltiPhotos.com

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SAN DIEGO — Denver Molly Brown had to play through a tight game against Scandal in the quarterfinals and a sudden death win against Boston Brute Squad in pool play, neither of which were easy feats. Still, the hardest challenge they had to overcome was the ghosts of semis past. In their 11 seasons as a program, Molly Brown has made semis in half of them. Not once had they ever won one. Until this year.

Molly came back from an 8-5 deficit against the Toronto 6ixers to win 15-13, sending them to their first-ever National final. While it seemed at the start of the game that they were destined to fall prey to the semifinals curse that has plagued them since 2015, the team had a breakthrough in the second half, scoring five breaks on their way to a win.

At the start of the game, it looked as if we were seeing the same old Molly Brown. Despite the preparations they had made to get their mental game in check for a semis appearance, which included a showcase game in a stadium to simulate the experience of playing with fans on the sideline, old habits were dying hard. Rushed throws, undisciplined hucks, and uncommunicative defense were slowly burying them under the relentless pressure of the 6ixers.

On the first point of the game, Denver underthrew a pass that was swallowed by Toronto’s D-line. It took a monstrous effort from Manuela Cardenas to get it back, and the team did eventually score thanks to the Valeria Cardenas – Kristen Reed connection that had been working all tournament.

“We knew that Molly Brown was a very energy-dependent team,” said Toronto’s Britt Dos Santos. “If their energy is low, they might not be playing very well, so our game plan was to beat their energy level and get in their heads.”

Even with their initial shakiness, Molly Brown’s system carried them for the first handful of points. They were looking off open passes, sure, but they still had additional options that gave them outlets despite the high stall count. At 3-3, Manuela Cardenas attempted a deep shot that sailed well beyond her intended receiver. Toronto’s defense took control at that point, using the slight slump of Molly Brown after the turn to get an advantage with their open side attack. After making it to half field, Molly Wedge found Krystal Dos Santos for the go-ahead break.

6ixers used that tactic repeatedly in the first half. If Molly Brown didn’t set themselves, Toronto would easily get 4-5 passes on the open side before their opponent could recover. Molly Brown hold a lot of pride in their defense this season, so they were caught off guard by the speed at which Toronto’s D-line offense were moving the disc.

While the 6ixers defense was heating up, it was their offense that was rock steady throughout the first half. The trifecta of Lauren Kimura, Cindy Truong, and Britt Dos Santos were nigh untouchable on offense — and arguably better on defense if they did make a mistake. Thanks to their composure in the backfield, Toronto’s downfield cutters could take the time they needed to get their cuts perfect, knowing their handlers were not ever in too much trouble. “We wanted to play fearlessly in the first half,” said Toronto’s Laura Kinoshita. “Our handlers looked good and we took a lot of shots to our cutters that opened up the game really well.”

Molly Brown, for their part, had no such assurances. Despite the hard work the offense was putting in, they were clearly in their own heads about the game and started tightening their stack, looking off open cutters, and letting the stall count rise. This resulted in a streak of three breaks that started with the Dos Santos goal and ended with a soul-rending goal from Hannah Dawson, who was blocked by Valeria Cardenas in the endzone only for the disc to pop up into the air and allow Dawson a second chance goal to put 6ixers up 6-3.

There were signs of life in Denver’s offense before half, though. Reed, a rookie on the team, played with a “been there” attitude and never seemed overwhelmed by the moment. Call it mental toughness or not having been there for all the previous heartbreaks, but she made play after play to keep her team alive. The Cardenas sisters also had their moments, and while they were directly responsible for a few of the breaks that had gone against them, they were also the solution that led to a number of holds when the team needed it most.

“We knew we just had to throw multiple defenders at them,” said Dos Santos about the Cardenas sisters. “Just keep pressuring them and hope that they get tired.”

Down 8-5 at half, Molly Brown’s leadership came together and had some very serious introspection on their performance. Whatever they said, it led to the best half of ultimate Molly Brown has ever had in all their semifinals appearances.

Toronto was up three breaks, coming out on offense. Molly Brown needed at least four breaks of their own to win the game. That’s not what happened, though. Molly Brown didn’t get four breaks, they got five. Here’s how they did it.

Molly Brown’s first break came directly out of half. Nhi Nguyen got an amazing block off a huck, but a call on the field sent the disc back. Toronto still was a little unsettled after the play and turned it over immediately. The short turn gave Molly Brown a chance to score off a fast break. Alika Johnston attacked to just outside the endzone, and Sara Taggart’s strike was strong enough that she was well in front of her defender to get the disc in stride. Break #1.

The teams traded holds for a few points, but Molly Brown found their second break after setting up their endzone zone defense on the goal line, leading to a rushed scoober that Rachel Wilmoth picked off. With the full length of the field to go, Molly Brown’s cutters put their heads down and attacked the open side. Four quick passes got them to the goal line, and a fifth from Liza Minor to Cassie Swafford got them the goal, getting Molly within one at 10-9.

It might not have been obvious immediately, but as the game wore on, it was clear that Molly Brown was starting to win the energy battle. Toronto’s offense had lost some depth amid some injuries, and the additional offensive points were starting to tax their stars. “It’s been such a long season for us, with Worlds and World Games,” said Dos Santos, adding,“It definitely wore down on us, the intensity of this year.” Molly Brown, on the other hand, was able to keep their intensity and send wave after wave of capable defenders.

No one wanted it more than Claire Chastain, though. Chastain was having a solid game, per usual, but hadn’t had an explosive moment to remind everyone why she’s one of the best players in the world. She got that moment with Molly Brown down 11-10. Her defensive pressure helped contribute to a Toronto turnover in the shortfield, and the killer instincts that have given her multiple WUGC and World Games titles kicked in. She picked apart their beleaguered offense to conduct a break after Sam Peletier got open on the break side.

Just like that, Molly Brown had tied it, but Toronto still held the advantage of their O-line receiving. An easy hold put the pressure back on Molly Brown offense, but this time the Cardenas sisters had regained their mojo and didn’t have any trouble scoring. Britt Dos Santos responded in kind for 6ixers, but Toronto’s celebrations were short, as once again the Cardenas sisters executed at the highest level to secure a hold of their own.

In a flash, it was 13-13 with the game on the brink. Toronto still clung to the lead, but it was clear that they were playing not to lose, while Molly Brown was playing to win.

Molly Brown had learned their lessons from the first half: rather than trying to stack a D-line, they went with a standing lineup that had been playing with each other all weekend. That trust in their defensive system was rewarded with a break after Toronto’s handlers threw a pass too low to be saved. Ronnie Eder called her shot and got a pass deep in the open side corner as Molly Brown took the lead for the first time.

They weren’t done there, though. On the next point, Toronto’s offense brought the disc all the way to the endzone, only to be thwarted by Molly Brown’s defensive scheme. Nhi Nguyen immediately struck deep, receiving a trust huck well beyond most of the 6ixers defenders. With so much room to operate, Molly Brown had an easy time getting the disc to the front of the endzone, and Toronto’s offense was still trying to recover into a coherent defensive system. Molly Brown moved the disc around until they got it to Chastain. Sure enough, she delivered. Clil Phillips found the smallest possible amount of separation, but it was all Chastain needed to hit her in the chest for the goal.

With that goal, Molly Brown not only delivered on a dream the team had coveted since 2015, but also did it while overcoming a deficit that previous iterations of the team had never been able to.

The team is named after a famous Denver suffragette, the “Unsinkable Molly Brown.” For the first time in over seven years of fighting as a semis contender, they’ve earned that moniker.

  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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