Stanford Invite 2023: Tournament Recap (Women’s)

UNC is in a tier of their own.

North Carolina’s Erica Birdsong goes up for a disc at the 2023 Stanford Invite. Photo: Rodney Chen — UltiPhotos.com

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A weekend that promised wild weather out in Stevinson, CA, offered some wild results instead at Stanford Invite as the rain mostly stayed away. The beasts of the East made their cases against the best of the West, with scintillating matchups rife with postseason implications playing out all across those Central Valley fields.

The Champs Stay Champs

It was the matchup we all anticipated; it was a thrashing that surely no one saw coming. It was reigning national champions UNC Pleiades and it was last season’s national runner-ups Colorado Quandary, and it was a dominant 13-3 UNC win that was over before it started.

Where to begin then?

Let’s focus first on UNC, the undefeated top seed piling up an incredible 71-27 margin over the course of their six weekend games, with an average goal difference of more than seven a game. That included a 12-5 win over fourth place finishers Washington Element in their tournament opener, an 11-4 win over BYU CHI in the showcase game Saturday afternoon, and a 13-3 win over Oregon Fugue in quarters. The Pleiades’ semifinal game against bronze medalists Tufts Ewo proved to be their closest of the weekend, and still finished with a 12-8 margin in UNC’s favor.

“I think it was really great,” said Pleiades second year Dhara Buebel about that Tufts game. “Just to see some of the things that we talked about after our game at Queen City [Tune Up] being grown upon today was great, and also it gives us an idea of what we need to work on going into the postseason.”

There was confidence in abundance for UNC, then, ahead of the final and it carried them to an incredible 7-0 first half lead, which left Colorado stunned and searching for answers. Most of the usual suspects chipped in for the Pleiades in that striking first half as UNC built their lead. Sydney Rehder picked up three assists in the first four points along with a decisive point block, while Dawn Culton won a two-on-one matchup on a throw she had no business getting to as UNC went up 4-0.

Meanwhile, Culton’s longtime teammate Grace Conerly continued to show why she’s one of the best deep throwers in the division with pinpoint hucks and back-of-the-end zone pulls, and Jessica Wu scored a pair of goals, including one with a second-effort layout catch that made it 6-0 to UNC. One final first half score from Kailyn Lowder to Erica Birdsong later, and Colorado welcomed the halftime break with open arms.

Before that gut-punch of a first half, Quandary had been having a solid tournament despite missing two of their best players in Stacy Gaskill and Clil Phillips. After topping their pool courtesy of a 10-7 win over Oregon, Colorado rolled over the surprise quarterfinalists California Pie Queens before holding off Washington 13-12 on universe point in the game of the weekend.

Given the absences of Gaskill and Phillips, Quandary had to rely on more of their depth of talent throughout the weekend, and players up and down the roster stepped up when called upon. Bailey Shigley made her return to action this weekend after losing the better part of the last two years to injury, and she threw the game-winning assist against Washington to Emma Cortright as the pair combined for three goals and two assists on Quandary’s final four scores against Element.

Kenny also came up big for Colorado, catching their first ever Callahan for an early Quandary hold in that semifinal matchup, and Emma Williamson chimed in with a goal, two assists, and a run-through block in the second half as Colorado withstood multiple late pushes from Washington. Against UNC, Quandary’s rookies showed no fear after the halftime reset, Faye Burdick scoring Colorado’s lone break of the game to bring the score to 7-2 and Jamilah Toure getting Quandary’s final goal of the tournament on a pass from Burdick.

“We had some really inspired performances by folks who nobody ever really sees do that,” said Colorado coach Claire Chastain about Quandary’s second-half goals. “That was a really cool thing that came out of the second half, like who’s out there not caring who the team is that we’re playing and who their matchup is and just focusing on them.”

Even as Colorado got a bit of a reprieve in those opening points of the second half, UNC came right back to reestablish their lead. Erica Birdsong got up for a huck from Culton to make it 8-2 before Rehder added a goal to her assist tally on a pass from Sarah Combs as the Pleiades immediately erased the Quandary break.

From there it wasn’t long until UNC had officially wrapped up the title, Combs picking up a pair of goals before Culton ripped down a floaty huck from Rehder for the 13-3 win. It was a whole team effort from the Pleiades as they reaffirmed their place as decisive favorites to take down what would be a third straight national championship.

“It’s been amazing, I’d never played frisbee before and just this entire community that I didn’t know existed has just become like a family to me and I couldn’t ask for anything better for a freshman year,” said Catherine Fradenburg, one of only six UNC rookies.

As for Colorado, while the result wasn’t what they were hoping for against UNC of course, the final loss remains their lone one of the season so far. That’ll serve Quandary well heading into Northwest Challenge in a week’s time, where they’ll face another stacked field of competitors, albeit without the Pleiades to serve as the de facto favorites.

“I think obviously this is a matchup we were hoping to get there and then I think we got there and at halftime we had to recenter and be like, we want to be here, we want to be in this moment,” said Colorado’s Annie Geoghegan. “But [it’s] a good place to be in the middle of the season, so we’re working on it, brutal [game] but only better.”

Talented Tufts Tough It Out

The second of two East Coast representatives at Stanford Invite, Tufts Ewo joined UNC in demonstrating the strength of those regions east of the Mississippi with another impressive third place finish. After falling to the Pleiades in the semifinals of Queen City Tune Up before beating Carleton in the third place game, Ewo replicated that performance but with arguably even more aplomb.

Although Tufts did take a pool play loss to UBC, it didn’t slow them down as Ewo rolled through a gauntlet of California colleges. First UCLA 11-3 in the opening round of pool play, then UC Davis 10-5 in the second, before dispatching UC San Diego in prequarters by another 10-5 margin.

In quarters, Tufts faced off against zone defense savants Stanford, but Ewo was equal to it. The New Englanders brought their own zone to slow Superfly down while their star players, including Leija Helling, Lia Yamamoto Schwartz, and Hazel Ostrowski, converted break chances with regularity en route to an eventual 13-7 win.

Then, facing UNC once again in the semifinals, Tufts played the undefeated champs closer than any of their competitors, only losing by a 12-8 margin as they improved on their February showing.

“We love coming to this tournament and getting to see UNC again was great experience,” said Ewo veteran standout Olivia Goss. “We felt like we hung with them a bit better this time around, and just played confidently and trusted our matchups and our players.”

While Goss and Emily Kemp and company tend to draw most of the headlines, Megan Lam and Dorothy DiMascio-Donohue also stood out for a deep Ewo roster out in Stevinson. With only three losses on the season, Tufts seem well-positioned to contend for a semifinal spot come Nationals for only the second time in program history — as long as they don’t run into UNC for a third time this season before then, that is.

Washington Northwest’s Best

At their first sanctioned tournament of the year, Washington Element had perhaps the most volatile weekend of the entire field. After going winless in pool play with losses to UNC and UC Santa Barbara, Washington bounced back with back-to-back wins over Northwest rivals Western Washington and UBC.

Element’s 13-10 victory against the Thunderbirds in quarters was a remarkable turnaround from the 13-2 margin that went UBC’s way at Bellingham Invite, and from there Element nearly toppled Colorado in semis, falling just short on universe, before dropping the third place game to Tufts. That left the Seattle-ites with one of the better 2-4 weekends you’re likely to see, and left those of us watching to wonder where Washington actually sits in the divisional pecking order.

To hear the team explain it, though, it all came down to their mindset and being comfortable facing off against their familiar Northwest foes.

“I think it’s all a mental game,” said Element’s Emma Pua’a. “We rely a lot on it and I think sometimes we get in our heads, but we came out of yesterday knowing that we didn’t play our best, but it was our unforced errors, so changing those, improving those, means we can win against any other team we come against.”

With some of their promising rookies out injured, including Anna Pettis and Jessica Luu, Washington needed others to step up and Lucy Tanner was one of their best players on the weekend. Just a freshman, Tanner was Element’s center handler when she was on the field, and connected with some of Washington’s more established stars in Abby Hecko and Sophia Palmer to great success.

Alongside Tanner, Hecko, and Palmer, Savanna Tucker and Anna Cauchy were reliable outlets for Washington, both able to frequently get free without much issue for simple resets for the Element offense. That quintet led the way for a Washington that mostly seemed to get better throughout the weekend, an encouraging sign ahead of Northwest Challenge and potentially a third straight deep run at Nationals.

Thunderbirds Take the Stage

It wasn’t quite the opening performance that the UBC Thunderbirds were hoping for to start their sanctioned season, but they weren’t far off it. Their 13-10 quarterfinal loss to Washington meant that they fell short of their intended goal of making the semifinals, however that was UBC’s only loss on the weekend as they beat Tufts, Stanford, and Oregon on their way to a fifth place finish.

After a series of impressive games on Saturday, in that game against Element the Thunderbirds fell victim to a series of self-inflicted errors that Washington mostly took advantage of.

“Their resets were quite good, they have some really big targets which is really nice because they can get around our marks quite well,” observed UBC coach Danie Proby after the quarterfinal loss. “And so even though we were putting some pressure on downfield, the fact that they were always able to get those resets off made it so that the blocks we’re used to getting didn’t happen as much. Offensively, we just really were forcing things because I think yesterday we had a bit more separation so the little bit more pressure that UW put on us definitely challenged that.”

Still, this UBC team has one of the most talented rosters in the division and, even with the loss to Washington, find themselves sitting second in the latest USAU rankings. Superstar handler Madison Ong put her name into the POTY hat with an incredible all-around showing on Saturday, and Mika Kurahashi leads a stacked cutter corps for the Thunderbirds.

With the likes of Anna Goddu, Andrea Moir, Julie Lee, and more, UBC will have confidence heading into Northwest Challenge where they’ll relish the chance to potentially get one back on Washington before the series kicks off next month.

Ultiworld Subscribers, read on for Quick Hits and the All-Tournament Line!

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  1. Jenna Weiner
    Jenna Weiner

    Jenna Weiner is a Senior Staff Writer, a co-host of Ultiworld's Double Overtime podcast, and considers herself a purveyor of all levels of ultimate. She's played mostly on the west coast but you're likely to find her at the nearest ultimate game available.

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