The strongest men's division field yet yielded thrilling results.
March 8, 2023 by Edward Stephens in Recap with 0 comments
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Knoxville, TN — A deep field at Smoky Mountain Invite meant a lot to see for fans, media, and players alike. It also meant basically no rounds off for the competitors, most of whom are planning on big postseason presences. The ultimate was tough, but those challenges proved informative as many of the division’s top contenders clashed with the season’s urgency increasing.
Zoodisc Claims the Top Spot
Out with the past, in with the present: the hill has a new king – for now. #3 Massachusetts Zoodisc harried #1 North Carolina Darkside into making error after error in the second half as they pulled away for a 15-12 victory to win the Smoky Mountain Invite. The win solidifies the championship potential that the team showed at last month’s Warm Up. Their season record now stands at an imposing 15-0, and their average margin of victory on the season is greater than five goals.
“We are so unapologetically ourselves,” said Wyatt Kellman. “Every time we go to a practice, every time we go to a game. We want to be silly. We want to have fun. So, yeah, we’ve won a lot of games. But that’s not really what we care about. We care about getting challenged, we care about getting pushed, and maintaining our identity through that.”
If the constant irreverent cheering coming from their sidelines throughout the most harrowing moments of the semifinal and final are any indication, they managed to do just that.
Both sides carried undefeated seasons into the final; they had looked like the best two units at the tournament running away. Darkside, boasting the most star-studded top end in the division, had mostly cruised until that point. They do such a fine job putting their formidable trio of hybrids – Ben Dameron, Josh Singleton, Dylan Hawkins – into motion with one another that a huge percentage of their offensive points end within five throws. When they have to work a little harder – after losing momentum in the last few yards of play, say, or against a stickier zone look – handlers John McDonnell and Rutledge Smith simply use their throws to regain an advantage. Not to be outdone by the quick-strike offense, a D-line chaired by Kevin Pignone, Andrew Li, and Matthew McKnight often demoralize opponents with their own factory-grade efficiency. ‘Put the disc in the end zone’ is the winningest formula in ultimate, and Darkside have had their hands on the most reliable recipe to produce it.
Zoodisc have not quite blitzed opponents at the same blinding rate as UNC this season, save for a number of pull plays calling for Luca Harwood to huck out of an under cut. They may, however, be the cannier side. The cutting corps are as good as this reporter has ever seen in creating space for one another as a point develops, particularly Noel Sierra and Gavin Abrahamsson, and the teamwide level of throwing polish is remarkable. With Caelan McSweeney both conducting and serving as the team’s fallback jam jar opener – he is seemingly always able to make the cut to loosen whatever tight spot UMass find themselves in – they have shown they can more than handle any defensive look thrown their way. But the real advantage for Zoodisc has been their defense: they have been trotting out by far the deepest stable of playmakers of the season, at least two full lines of excellence. And they play like they share a hive mind, to boot.
In spite of their respective high levels of talent, both teams faced difficult tests on the way to the final. UNC had to come back from second-half in two elimination games: against Georgia in prequarters and Colorado in semis. Both times they earned the crucial late breaks when Dameron crossed over to the D-line to join forces with Pignone and McKnight. After two relatively easy tournament victories at Carolina Kickoff and Queen City, though, UNC were hoping to find themselves in trickier straits.
“We really cherish that challenge,” said Pignone. “We don’t show up [to these tournaments] just expecting to do our thing and stay in whatever Plan A and operate – we show up wanting the challenge and wanting to get taken out of the comfort zone… Show up, and get challenged, and have to respond.”
UMass did not have much trouble all the way through the first half of their semi, when they led intraregional rivals Vermont Chill by a seemingly comfortable 8-4 score. The cushion was false security, though, as Chill came out of half on fire, tying the game before Zoodisc could score another goal. The action seesawed all the way to universe point, where Sierra, Kellman, and Abrahamsson stayed both cool and one step ahead of the Vermont defense.
“Honestly, that was the biggest test we’ve had all season. I’m proud of the way we showed resolve,” said Kellman.
As is often the case when two great teams meet, the final saw both UNC and UMass successfully establish their offensive priorities early. McSweeney popped all over the field on Zoodisc’s first two possessions like an electrical spark, continuing the reign of terror he had enjoyed over handler defenders all weekend. UNC worked pull plays into two quick hucks without much in the way: Hawkins to Singleton, then Dameron to Hawkins.
UMass made the first mistake of the game at 2-2 when Harwood put too much float underneath a huck, leading to a Darkside block. McKnight was ready for his assignment on the counter. He gave-and-went to take power position and hit Grayson Trowbridge deep for the break. Unfazed, Mass called for another Harwood pull play on the next point, this time it was a hit. Not backing away from their game has been one of the hallmarks of this UMass team so far. “We get broken – we’re not going to get sad. We’re not going to get frustrated. We’re not going to get angry. We’re going to get even sillier. And we’re going to keep working,” said Kellman.
Another hallmark has been the consistent effort and heads-up play of the defense. It finally paid dividends near the end of the half, as UNC passes near the end zone found the hands of Zoo’s Sam Green and Isaac Kaplan on successive possessions. That set up what would be the fiercest battle of the game: between the Zoodisc D-line handling corps (Kellman, Kaplan, Jonah Stang-Osborne, Artie Aucoin) and Darkside’s phenomenal post-turn defense. Smith, Dameron, and Hawkins as a rule don’t give any ground in the backfield, and possessions could be excruciating. But the second time around Tobias Paperno managed to move the defense just long enough to open a window to Aucoin for the goal to put the game back on serve.
It remained on serve for the next six points as the teams mostly stayed clean on offense. UNC had been under more pressure, however, and the dam broke. Multiple Darkside turnovers on successive offensive points gave Zoodisc a pair of breaks. Strangely, it was the (typically) trusty McDonnell who, by overthrowing two touch throws to the back of the goal box set up the UMass scores. These two points, which gave UMass a 12-9 lead, were a testament to the defense’s ability to force teams out of their comfort zone, as well as to the unit’s determination and depth after generating turnovers.
Darkside were in a hole, but they weren’t finished. When Lyle Berkley dropped an open scoring pass at 12-10, it gave a chance for one of their new recruits to shine. Lucien Noël, a member of the Australian youth National team and making his UNC debut at SMI after having been injured to start the year, made an excellent read on a low huck and went up strong to make a catch with his cast-hand. His immediate impact bodes well for a pipeline that is also getting significant contributions from Max Goetz and Daniel Zhu – to name another pair of players who were not necessarily featured players on last year’s championship team. But that bright spot drawing the deficit back down to one was as close as UNC would get to a comeback. Echoing the trust they placed in Harwood to atone for his mistake in the first half, UMass held with Berkley playing with poise in the red zone on the next point.
With the offense back in good form, the defense showed why UMass have been such an impossible out this season. Zoodisc’s D-line players deserve a mountain of praise for the way they closed out the tournament. UNC had not played mistake-free ultimate up to this point in the season, but they had been generally clean. UMass, though, made them downright sloppy in the final. There were at least two Darkside turnovers on each of their last five offensive points, including three in the final point of the game – the break to give Zoodisc the emphatic 15-12 victory. “When you keep applying pressure, teams are going to struggle. And we kept applying pressure, and they struggled, and we capitalized on that,” said Kellman.
The win is another confirmation that Zoodisc are the real deal as championship contenders – a welcome far cry from an off-kilter 2022 whose ghosts, at this point, may well be exorcised. For UNC, the loss does not diminish them so much as provide valuable bulletin board material for the run they hope to mount at Nationals where it will not be a surprise to anyone if these two sides meet deep in the bracket for a rematch.
“We grow so much at these kinds of tournaments because we figure out a.) where we’re weak; and b.) how to improve our strengths,” said Pignone.
Vermont: Darn Tough
Although Darkside were Smoky Mountain Invite’s official runners-up, it’s an open question whether or not they were actually the second-best team at the tournament. That honor might well belong to a Vermont Chill, who were a single point from taking Zoodisc’s place in the final across from the defending champions. In fact, they played UMass two points closer than did Darkside. However you answer the hypothetical question of who was better, though, the main takeaway is that Chill are not a side to be trifled with.
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