Who will emerge as the #1 challenger to UNC?
March 23, 2023 by Keith Raynor and Jenna Weiner in Preview with 0 comments
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.
Much has happened already with regards to the Northwest Challenge and the first hand hasn’t gone up to signal readiness yet. The initial format — match play, with predetermined matchups, no conclusive elimination play or winner, and five scheduled games per team — was met with public resistance from teams and was eventually scrapped for a more traditional pool play and bracket format, though with some oddities. Then, a late drop from Pittsburgh (COVID outbreak) forced the schedule to change once again.
But once the disc gets in the air, the quality of competition at the Northwest Challenge should be enough to wipe away any worries about formatting. With many of the division’s top teams outside of repeat title favorites and #1 UNC, the field at Northwest Challenge brings together challengers from both coasts in what should be a telling tournament and a good opportunity for steel to sharpen steel.
- Date: March 24-26
- Location: Seattle, WA
- Weather: Highs in the upper 40s to mid-50s, chances of scattered rain or thunderstorms
- Top 25 teams: #2 Vermont, #3 Colorado, #4 British Columbia, #7 Washington, #8 Stanford, #9 BYU, #10 Oregon, #14 Victoria, #19 Western Washington
- Schedule and Results
All games can be found on our Northwest Challenge event page and will be available both live and immediately following the games on-demand.
Friday, March 24
Saturday, March 25
- 11:00 AM: Stanford vs. Victoria (Women’s Pool Play)
- 12:45 PM: Carleton vs. Washington (Women’s Pool Play)
- 2:30 PM: Colorado vs. Stanford (Women’s Pool Play)
- 4:30 PM: Women’s Prequarterfinal
Sunday, March 26
Ruckus Rolls West
#2 Vermont Ruckus is the elite team we know perhaps the least about. They’ve played just a single event thus far in the season, attending Queen City Tune Up over a month ago, and impressed against UNC and the other teams in attendance on their way to a second place finish. The names are already plenty familiar, with so much of 2022’s cast returning to reprise their roles, but the progress is much less so. Last year, Vermont were a bit of a surprise as they broke into the division’s top tiers. Now though, there are expectations, and elite clubs view them as equals before the pull goes up. In addition, a returner-heavy roster has allowed for a lot of refinement and advanced development, none of which has been slowed by their strong rookie class.
Northwest Challenge was the setting for Ruckus’ 2022 breakout performance — a run to semifinals where they very nearly capsized the otherwise unblemished UNC. They then played evenly in the third place game with a Washington team that had just come off a run to the national championship game. It was a show of not only Vermont’s athleticism, but their ability to play up to strong competition.
Kennedy McCarthy’s jaw-dropping plays can sometimes dominate the conversation around Vermont, but she’s far from their only difference-making athlete. Ruckus is a tall team with good speed that is happy to bowl teams over in the deep space if left unchecked. Sarah Von Doepp is an All-American caliber field general, while Emily Pozzy can spark things in a hurry with her aggressive maneuvers. What Vermont’s defensive sets look like, and how well executed they are, will be critical to watch for them this weekend.
Did Stanford Invite Establish New Floors for UBC and Colorado?
Part of what allowed Vermont to subvert the #2 spot in the Power Rankings were the lows for Colorado and British Columbia that we saw at Stanford Invite. Colorado was run over by a determined UNC in the final, blanked in the first half, and UBC found themselves upended by Washington in quarterfinals, knocked out early after a strong Saturday.
You can’t ignore that Quandary was without All-Americans and U24 selections Clil Phillips and Stacy Gaskill in Stevinson, but even that asterisk can’t scrub off how jarring the gap was between them and the Pleiades in that final. Prior to that, Colorado was undefeated, though close calls against Washington the round prior and against Oregon earlier in the weekend left some room for doubt. However, there’s still room to discover what Quandary is capable of, for better and for worse. Bailey Shigley is back and looking like a dangerous offensive weapon, while Emma Cortright and Emma Williamson have taken steps forward into bigger roles.
The Thunderbirds’ results, aside from their foible against Washington, confirm preseason punditry about their powerhouse status. Wins against Tufts and Stanford, plus crushing Oregon, showed that even in their debut UBC were not to be trifled with. But what to do with that quarterfinal performance? The offense short-circuited and the team couldn’t rebound, and the Thunderbirds were missing some coaches, which might have exacerbated the issues. Was it first tournament jitters or are some of the nagging inconsistencies that have plagued UBC in years past still present? Madison Ong was fantastic, Mika Kurahashi remains a tough matchup, and they have a strong roster to count on. Anna Goddu might be one of the breakout names of the year come Nationals.
The Contender Class
The other top portion of the field could put themselves into real contender status with a win over that trio of top-seeded teams.
As mentioned, Washington has already done it with their win over UBC, but a loss to UC Santa Barbara makes their candidacy less definitive. Lucy Tanner did a strong Steph Phillips cover during the team’s Stanford Invite performance, helping activate established cutter Sophia Palmer and star Abby Hecko. With a rejuvenated roster at home and their first reps out of the way, it is easy to imagine Element walking away from the weekend with a top four Power Ranking.
Carleton actually enters the tournament at the no.2 seed, and the case is there. They were exceptional at Santa Barbara Invite, looking out of reach against most of the tournament’s field, but fell back to Earth a bit in close losses to Vermont and Tufts at QCTU. Still, a few things break their way there and Syzygy is getting the same hype that Ruckus and Quandary are. A strong rookie class has them looking deep behind three potential All-Americans in Tori Gray, Alyssa Ehrhardt, and a leveled-up Mia Beeman-Weber.
After finals appearances at both SBI and PDI, Stanford laid a real egg at Stanford Invite with [checks notes] two losses? Granted, losing by six to Tufts is their worst showing of the season, but their results still have a lot of the markers of a semifinal quality team. However, they are still lacking that marquee win versus someone in the top cohort, though Superfly have lived up to their reputation as a devastating zone team.
Close losses have been the brightest sign for Oregon Fugue’s contention, indicating there is work to still be done. But with a team this young, it is hard not to get starry eyed dreaming of their future season. This current iteration, however, has proven to be a tough customer, coming within just a few goals of teams like Colorado and Stanford.
Finally, even though they won’t contend for a title, BYU merits mention. They have four matchups, facing Northwest foes Victoria, Washington, and UBC, as well as the visiting Texas. CHI is fast and is at its best playing aggressive. Their handlers, however, have shown alternative angles, although not with quite the same aplomb and flare of their deep game.