Presidents’ Day Invite 2023: the A to Zs of Reshuffled Pool Play (Women’s)

Day two of Presidents' Day Invite gave us a whole alphabet of things to cover

UCSD's Abbi Shilts at the 2021 College Championships. Photo: Paul Rutherford - UltiPhotos.com
UCSD’s Abbi Shilts at the 2021 College Championships. Photo: Paul Rutherford – UltiPhotos.com

Ultiworld’s coverage of the 2023 college ultimate season are 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.

SAN DIEGO — With day two of the Presidents’ Day Invite coming to a close, there’s a lot of ground to cover. It’s far to much to cover in an ordinary recap, so we’ve included the full alphabet of Sunday’s performance to keep you up-to-date on what has gone down in the tournament so far. With semis clearly in our sights, here are the As, Bs, and Cs of Sunday’s games.

A is for – Abbi Shilts

There’s no two ways around it: UCSD struggled on day two of the Presidents’ Day Invite. A 2-2 record isn’t exactly turning heads, and their wins weren’t overly convincing, either. The team’s throwing depth is not there as of yet, and it’s forcing the wrong players to try and take shots they don’t have. None of that applies to Abbi Shilts, though. It’s a good thing UCSD’s star is a do-it-all player, because that’s exactly what she’s being asked to do.

Shilts has the explosive energy to be the best defender on the field at all times, the field IQ to make the right plays with the disc in hand, and the throwing prowess to huck it deep when her team needs a shot like that. UCSD have still not figured out their timing for her, but when they do, it’ll unlock so much of the field for them, just on the back of Shilts playing her game.

B is for – Bracket

With two days done and dusted, semis is set. On the one side of the bracket we have the two best Southwest teams at the tournament in UCSB and Stanford, on the other side of the bracket are the dominating forces of Oregon and Colorado. UCSB, Stanford, and Colorado have not lost a game yet all tournament, and Oregon’s sole loss was on universe point against Stanford. It’s clear that these are the best four teams, which makes Monday’s matchups all the more meaningful. The new tournament format discarded power pools in exchange for reseeded pools, which meant that we haven’t seen the crossover that we were hoping for earlier. Semis is for all the marbles, and we’re finally getting the best teams playing each other with the stakes at their highest.

C is for – Coaches

The difference that good coaching can provide is astounding. Oregon had a number of tight games throughout the course of the weekend, but always seemed to pull away after their first timeout or at half time. Stanford’s never been shy about giving their coaches the limelight, either, and it’s well deserved.

In general, coaching staffs have grown considerably over the years. Where once a single coach or coaching duo was common, now teams are having full committees of coaches to help players in any instance, whether it would be going over previous defensive points while another coach tackles the on-field play, or working with specific players on how to adjust their throws, field sense, or footwork. It takes a village to raise a college team, and the coaches at this tournament are proving their worth time and again.

D is for – Duke

There hasn’t really been a Cinderella story at this tournament, and for the most part, Saturday’s results were largely consistent with Sunday’s. The giant, monolithic, so-noticeable-you-can’t-miss-it exception is with Duke. For a team that went 1-3 in pool play, Duke came out of nowhere on Sunday to win two of their games and advance to quarters. Yeah, Duke! Duke did that! The reseeded pools saw them facing off against Stanford, Utah, and Cal Poly SLO, and while they were blown out by Stanford, they handily beat both Cal Poly SLO and Utah. After Saturday, no one would have seen this coming, so props to Swerve for beating the odds. Ashley Talwar is a real talent, as are Syndey Neal and Hannah Scanlon.

E is for – Eight (points)

Eight points. That’s the most any team has scored on Stanford, Colorado or UCSB. For both Stanford and Colorado, their average margin of victory is also eight points. They’re not just beating teams, they’re blowing them out.

We knew that there was going to be a talent disparity heading into this tournament, and we mused whether a team would be able to make it to double digits against Colorado. Well, now Stanford and UCSB have to be added to that musing. Granted, they’re all positioned now to face each other in some way or another, so the likelihood is that we’ll see far closer games on Monday, but that not a given. Eight points is the standard now, they have to somehow beat it.

F is for – Fugue

Of all the teams that have made it to semis, Oregon Fugue have had the hardest path. In pool play they were in a tough group that forced them to play deep into their bench, and it didn’t get any easier on Sunday. Oregon had to face a gauntlet of Californian teams including UCSD, Cal, and UCLA. To top it all off, they had Carleton Eclipse in quarters, a team that they had already faced in pool play and had already been given the chance to understand their system and players.

Still, Oregon stuck it out, never flinched, and closed out games with precision and persistent energy. They relied a lot on their rookies to deliver, and it paid off. Oregon’s a good team, and they’ll only get better as the season goes along.

G is for – Gatorade

This one’s a no-brainer. Sidelines were littered with the US’ favorite energy drink, and the teams needed it, too. With most players’ conditioning not being at their peak levels this early in the year, cramping was not uncommon towards the end of Sunday, and execution errors were also creeping in as fatigue rose. It’s a three day tournament, which means games are spaced fairly well over the course of the weekend, but it’s also still a ton of games, and these long weekends just mean more money going to Gatorade.

H is for – Hucks

Hucks. Not good ones, either. Sunday saw a lot of bad hucks. It was almost more rare to see really good hucks. Most teams at the Santa Barbara Invite played fairly conservatively with the disc, but that has switched completely in San Diego. It was open season for hucks no matter the position of the cutter or the capabilities of the thrower. Even in the instances where the right player got into the right position to make the throw, it was bungled with rushed movements and a focus on power over technique. This will improve over the course of the year, but it was still painful to watch on Sunday.

I is for – Injuries

Unfortunately, Sunday was missing some of the very best players at the tournament thanks to injuries. Players like Betsy Siegal, Julia Hasbrook, and Ava Jones were sidelined from the action, forcing their teams to put other players in the crucial positions that they would have otherwise filled. We were also missing other stars with pre-known injuries like Liana Bradley and Bailey Shigley. Even for the teams performing well despite the injuries, it was apparent that they were trying to fit round pieces into square holes. It’s possible, but it’s not as fulfilling as the perfect shape would be. Here’s hoping we see a fast recovery from all the players who weren’t able to take the field.

J is for – Jumps

It’s a shame that “jumps” doesn’t have the same connotation as “hops” because H was already taken and thus couldn’t be used for this highlight of the weekend. There were some amazing skying grabs over the course of Sunday. Hardly a game went by where the sideline didn’t erupt in cheers or spastic twirls and whispers from what they witnessed. The list is too long for every great play to be recounted, but of the players with the best skying grabs, Allyn Suzuki, Willow Purvis, Georgia Cardosa, Ezra Weybright, and Esther Filipek come to mind. When it comes to impressiveness of the poster, Suzuki wins the cup for posterizing her defender despite a noticeable size mismatch in favor of the opponent.

K is for – Karma

This isn’t quite as juicy as one might think. There was no particular team that got their comeuppance on Sunday or were robbed previously and had a significant role reversal. What did happen, though, is that a lot of bad calls did still end up as turnovers that led to breaks. There’s no reason to name names because it was an issue across the tournament, but sketchy calls abounded. College players already aren’t exactly known for their knowledge of the rules, and many of the calls being made were head scratchers. Thankfully, the cosmic order was often restored with a turnover that swung the odds back in favor of the wrongly accused, thus righting a wrong that may or may not have been intentional.

L is for – Laura Blume

With Julia Hasbrook out, someone had to step up for UCSB to remain in the top tier of teams at the tournament. That player was Laura Blume. While not as gifted a thrower as Hasbrook, Blume was still able to find the right passes as they came, and made up for what she lacked in throwing power with hustle. Blume played a step ahead of her defenders at all times because she was moving faster and with more purpose. Despite missing their center handler, UCSB went 4-0 over the course of Sunday, and while that’s a team effort, Blume stood out from the rest in what she was able to give.

M is for – Margo Donahue

UC Davis might not have made it past Stanford in their quarters matchup, but before that game they were looking every bit like a team on the cusp of joining the elite tier of Southwest Nationals contenders. The best case to be made for them is how polished their offense looks. The team runs plays to get the right players open in the right positions of the field, and they know what to do when play breaks down. However, when things go sideways, it’s Margo Donahue who bails them out. She’s the one who was making plays across the field to keep her team in contention, laying out left and right if that’s what was required. Donahue had reaggravated an injury on Saturday, but witnessing her playing on Sunday, it’s as if nothing had happened. Donahue doesn’t have the same takeover energy as Rogue alum Jules Madigan, but she’s proof that the team knows how to foster talent in the best way possible.

N is for – Numbers

Gold stars for all the teams that have their uniforms sorted out this early in the season! I’m pleading for the rest of the division to get it sorted soon. It’s immensely difficult to track which player had an exemplary play or performance when you’re not certain who it is — nicknames aren’t helpful, either. All we need is a number and the roster will do the rest. Without numbers, it’s confusing for those watching the streamed games and it’s tough for us reporters. We want to give players the credit they deserve. Numbers help with that!

O is for – Officiating

For as much as everyone likes to pile on observers, the difference in flow between an officiated game and a non-officiated game is night and day. Too many times teams would get stuck arguing calls or not knowing the ruling and needing clarification, grinding the game to a halt. Here’s a take that might not even be a take: this almost always benefits the offense, as it gives them time to recover their breath, reset, and see how the defense is set. With observers, the games run smoothly for the most part and calls are not missed half as often as people like to pretend. Club ultimate might be a little different, but college ultimate needs observers.

P is for – Pulls

This has already been written about so it won’t take long, but pulling has taken a massive dive in 2023. It’s easy to see why. In 2022, there were a lot of holdover seniors who dominated game time and could pull very well, so they took over all the duties for their team. With those players gone and the younger players not having had any time to develop their pulls, the quality has diminished immensely. Look no further than UCSD to see the importance of a good pull. The team frequently pulled so short that the offense set up well past half field, needing no more than two to three passes to make it into the end zone. Pulls are so important, and hopefully the lack of quality pulls at this tournament will encourage teams to put more training into it.

Q is for – Quarters

Let’s be clear, the quarters matchups weren’t exactly close. The cream has risen to the top in the women’s division, and it’s very apparent who is a contender and who is not. That being said, there were a lot of impressive teams that made it to quarters that deserve some praise, even if they made a swift exit once they made it to the bracket.

Carleton Eclipse are a D-III program competing in a D-I tournament and looked every bit the part of a bracket-ready team. Between Tess Barton, Frankie Saraniti, Maya Kalmus, and Claire James, Carleton has proved that they’re going to be a problem all year long. We currently have them ranked #3 in our D-III power rankings. That might have to change for the better after this weekend.

Duke has already received their time in the spotlight, but UC San Diego and UC Davis deserve some credit for their path to quarters. Davis is still trying to find their footing after losing the core of their defense in 2022. They have a real star in Allyn Suzuki to help anchor the line, but the rest of their best players generally play offense. Still, when they’re firing on all cylinders, they’re able to stay in lock step with the best that the tournament has to offer. If the rest of the defensive unit can catch up to the speed of Suzuki, they’ll be more than a quarters team by the time the postseason rolls around.

UCSD are a few throwers shy of a complete roster, but throwing can be taught! What they’re doing well is making mistakes that are a part of their system. They’re trying to hit tight margins that the D-Co of old might have made, but isn’t a great fit for the current team. A lot of pressure is placed upon their throwers to make passes that aren’t yet in their arsenal and it’s hurting them as a team. They need better pulling and more importantly, they need a real hucker who can give Shilts and Catherine Lindeman the option to go deep whenever they want. All that’s to say UCSD is still really good despite their obvious flaws. The team is working towards a future where they’ll be back in contention for the top spots at Regionals and have to be taken seriously, even when they’re down.

R is for – Rookies

We’re entering a new generation of college ultimate. Most, but not all, of the COVID seniors graduated in 2022, which left a giant opening in the college division. We knew rookies were going to have to fill that role, and they’ve delivered. Not every rookie is completely game ready, and the ones that are starting offensive players are few and far between, but they’re contributing in major ways. If anything, this weekend has been a coming out party for rookies in general. When considering Sunday alone, there are some that deserve a distinction of their own, perhaps even an all-rookie line by the end of the weekend. For now, it’s safe to say that we should all be keeping our eye on the freshmen of 2023, especially if your sights are set on the future of the women’s division.

S is for – Syris Linkfield

Yes. We just talked about how good the rookies of 2023 are. Syris Linkfield deserves her own spot, though. It’s rare when you have to question whether a rookie might actually be the best player at a tournament, so when you do, that rookie deserves their own paragraph. Linkfield is something special. It’s a mystery how Oregon Fugue continues to find generational talents but they’ve struck gold again. In only a few games as a player, Linkfield is already a leader on her team when she takes the field. Oregon’s offense doesn’t fully revolve around her, not yet. Somehow, though, her gravity is enough that she has to be respected and kept in focus for every defense, opening up the rest of the field if she’s trying to be contained or an assist magnet if she’s not. Her best games weren’t even streamed, which means she’s even more than what you’d expect from the eye test.

T is for – Turnovers

No one wants to talk about turnovers. When they’re unforced, they’re the least fun part of ultimate, and there were a lot of unforced errors. Instead, let’s talk about the forced turnovers. It will shock no one to say that the deep in zone sets had a field day with blocks, especially with how gung-ho most of the teams playing at the tournament were being with their hucks. Still, the most impressive blocks came from on-mark defense. At this point in the season, mark defense is less of an art form and more of a “force.” The expectation is not that players will earn turns with their mark, rather that they will channel throws to a space in the field where blocks can occur. This was not the case. Smart defenders were able to get multiple blocks with their person defense, especially when the thrower turned to look for the reset pass. Players like Clil Phillips, Hannah Scanlon, and Elena Kamas excelled at seeing what the thrower wanted, and putting themselves in the way of that pass. It was a thing of beauty this tournament, and something that often only develops later in the year.

U is for – Universe Point

Or rather, the lack thereof. Sunday saw exactly one universe point game. Thanks to the reseeded pools, and a little bit of added fatigue, it was fairly clear which team held the distinction over the other, and meant that most games weren’t close by the end. The average margin for victory across all of Sunday was just under five, which meant that close games were few and far between.

Utah and Cal Poly SLO managed to pull off the only double game point feature of the day, and that one was a grueling game where turnovers abounded and neither team could pull an edge because both were so exhausted by the end that they were running on fumes. We were spoilt with the tight games we saw on Saturday. If Sunday’s anything to go off, it’s unlikely to be replicated.

V is for – Vert Stack

It appears that the default for college ultimate is now firmly horizontal offense. Hardly anyone outside of UCSD and Stanford consistently ran a vertical stack as a set play, and they often were stymied by the defense if they did. The inactivity of the vert stack, a sign of discipline at the highest levels and barely ever actually inactive, is simply inactivity in the college game, leaving very few options for handlers. College teams already have a problem finding an open cutter in a horizontal, so vertical stacks just furthered the worst trends of that to the nth degree.

Vert stack did see a lot of use in the end zone, so its not entirely dead! The consensus in the Southwest for endzone offense is very standardized, though, so even good endzone offense is often predictable. Still, vert stacks might be on the rebound in the coming months as teams learn how to use the simplicity of the stack to their advantage.

W is for – Weather

Lest we forget, Saturday’s weather was picturesque! No complaints can be levied at the tournament in that regard! In fact, most of Sunday was idyllic, too. It was only towards the end of the day, as the games started to matter, that the weather turned for the worse. Cold winds blew in and rain fell in heavy drops as bracket play rounded into form. Sunday provided the full spectrum in a few short hours, and allowed teams to try different options thanks to the heel turn made by the weather denizens. Still, it would have been nice if the sunshine continued.

X is for – Denies

When it comes to signals and even body language, X is a universal NO in almost every instance. For ultimate, this is doubly true. There were plenty of moments where defenders outplayed their offensive opponents, especially in the end zone. There was not a single team outside of Colorado that looked really good with endzone offense, and that’s a fact. Endzone offense can be very predictable, and it also is when throwers start to lose all their semblance of sanity when it comes to shot selection. This is a prime opportunity for defenders, and a large reason there were so many blocks despite short-field turns. Too many times the disc would work its way to the end zone, only to be denied by a heads-up defender.

Y is for – Yelling

Sidelines are underrated. Parents who cheer are underrated. Coaches who lose their voices are underrated. In all instances, teams benefit from these elements, especially the sideline presence. Communication is key for a college player to know their role on the field, especially with how often teams run a zone that requires heads-up defense. Without good vocal assistance, many of the teams who succeeded on Sunday wouldn’t have made it as far as they did. Oregon’s sideline is loud. Same can be said for Santa Barbara and UC Davis. Stanford’s not quite as loud, but they’re very good at yelling the correct information to their players on the field. This all adds up, and when the margins are as small as they are in college ultimate, sometimes yelling is that missing link between making the bracket or missing out entirely.

Z is for – Zones

Death, taxes, and zones in college ultimate. No team is complete unless they have a somewhat competent zone, and most programs that excel do so on the back of their zone defense. It’s easy to put up points when you have a system made to force short turns. Considering the work put into their zone defense, it’s not surprising that teams like UCSB, Stanford, and UCSD got as far as they did. Zone defense works at this early juncture of the college season. Most teams have barely had a chance to figure out their normal offensive flow, why would they move on to zone offense? This leads to a lot of turns, which is exactly the reason why teams employ it. It also allows for cutters who were in the cup to immediately press downfield after the turn, and get the handlers some forward momentum for hucks as they move to pick up the disc.

  1. Graham Gerhart
    Graham Gerhart

    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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