Taking stock of another epic Easterns.
April 7, 2023 by Edward Stephens in Recap with 0 comments
Ultiworld’s coverage of the 2023 college ultimate season is 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.
LITTLE RIVER, SC – Easterns 2023 delivered on all its promises: exciting semifinals between title contenders, shake-ups in the regional races, and a thrilling finish to the race for the last strength bid made for the best weekend of the year in the D-I men’s division. The headline story is the triumphant return of UNC to the top of the division, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Read on for a full recap of a tournament brimming with action.
Pool Play Results
Champions, not Curses
With a convincing 15-10 win over #4 Vermont Chill in the final to cap an undefeated weekend, #2 North Carolina Darkside have thrown off the weight of a decades-old drought1 and re-established themselves as the top team in the division heading into the post-season. It was far from their only impressive result. Their path through the Easterns bracket also included wins over #1 Massachusetts ZooDisc and #8 Cal Poly-SLO SLOCORE. Now, in spite of a brief stumble at last month’s Smoky Mountain Invite, there is no doubt that UNC have the inside track for the 2023 College Championship.
The final was like the abstract to a research paper, providing a succinct encapsulation of everything Darkside did well all weekend. The O-line steamrolled through every defensive look they faced at the tournament – and, unlike at SMI, they stayed focused enough not falter under the weight of their own mistakes. This time around Ben Dameron, Dylan Hawkins, and Josh Singleton were not only dangerous as they took turns throwing deep to one another from motion, they were also very consistent. The upshot was a ruthless, fine-tuned attack that challenged Chill’s defenders to find the rare opportunities for takeaways.
While those opportunities were rare in Darkside’s downfield flow, they were non-existent in the red zone set, where UNC, as they have for many years, pushed through reset progressions, cuts, and clears with terrifying efficiency. Handler John McDonnell, who was sidelined with an injury and got to take in the spectacle from a more removed vantage, explained what separates the UNC offense from so many others in the division.
“On a lot of O-lines, you have two or three guys that you need to work through, and if they’re not near the disc, you’re going to struggle. But with us, we have so many guys that are comfortable around the disc, especially in the endzone set, that we can be content if we’re not open to get out and make space for someone else,” he said.
All of that success comes with a disclaimer, though. Darkside’s O-line, as good as they were, didn’t often have to play under pressure. That’s because the D-line often staked them to a big early lead. In the final, Darkside scored four goals before Vermont got on the board. “In an ideal world [a big lead] doesn’t affect anything, you play the same offense as normal… but in reality people are humans… And so after a couple of breaks it lets you settle into the moment and not think about, ‘Oh, I better not mess up,’” said McDonnell.
The Darkside D-line don’t play with quite the same panache as the O-line – particularly with Andrew Li and Eli Fried sidelined and Matt McKnight filling in for McDonnell on offense – but they may be the more imposing unit. They often came down in a junk set: switch-ready matchups on two handlers, a triangle of defenders in the secondary facing the downfield receivers and shifting left and right to pick them up, and a pair of deeps to disrupt the early phases of cuts or act as safeties. Opponents had trouble finding any spaces to challenge other than risking a deep look which, though sometimes successful – especially to Vermont’s Carl Crawford in the final or Cal Poly SLO’s Anton Orme in semis – started a UNC possession as often as not.
Even without McKnight’s creative throwing and the sparkplug energy of Li, the D-line offense converted break chances at an excellent clip. Kevin Pignone, continuing a fine season, shouldered much of the throwing load, especially when it came to taking shots to the end zone. But Daniel Zhu made his fair share of tricky connections, sophomore Grayson Trowbridge ran the backfield sets with veteran savvy, and freshman Lucien Noël continues to show tremendous promise downfield.
The final was not particularly competitive, even as Vermont’s offense found a rhythm in the second half. The highly anticipated rematch against UMass, which took place in quarters thanks to ZooDisc’s end-of-Saturday flinch against Pittsburgh, was not particularly competitive. None of their pool play games were particularly competitive. An ascendant SLOCORE gave them a little bit of a test in semis, but Darkside maintained a two-break lead through the second half to keep them at arm’s length.
All-in-all, UNC at Easterns gave the impression of cat sharpening its claws against a scratch post. The other teams were competing – but Darkside were just sparring at the gym right through to the end. ““We got to play a lot of depth throughout a lot of the games, including the final. Everyone on the team played in the final, and that doesn’t happen in a lot of big games,” said McDonnell.
And that should put a scare into the rest of the division.
Green Mountain Highs and Lows
Truth be told, the other finalist, Vermont, had a mixed weekend – right in line with their season trajectory, which has seen its share of both staggering wins and head-scratching losses. At their worst – the four- and five-goal losses to Cal Poly SLO and UNC – they were off-kilter on offense and generally toothless on defense. Playing closer to their ceiling, however, as they did in close games versus resurgent blue-blood programs #12 Pittsburgh En Sabah Nur and #14 Brown Brownian Motion in the bracket and in commanding Saturday victories against #15 Tufts E-Men and #22 Georgia Jojah, they were adaptable on offense and played the staunchest pure matchup defense at the tournament.
It’s hard to hang an overall judgment on their performance, and not only because of the game-to-game inconsistencies. The O-line that had so much trouble cracking UNC’s junk set in the final missed their two most creative throwers: sophomore Declan Kervick and freshman Casey Thornton. (Kervick, having re-injured himself at Smoky Mountain Invite, was out for the entire weekend; Thornton hurt himself against UNC on Vermont’s first offensive point.) Without them, the offensive sets often devolved into towering deep looks from Johnny Sickles to Carl Crawford. Crawford, the team’s best performer in the final, made it a viable strategy – to a point. But having dug themselves into an early hole, Chill needed more from the D-line than they were able to muster in the moment.
That underperformance, though, was the exception for a line that had been among the sharpest on the weekend. Until the final, the hallmark of Chill was their ability to take possession by force. CJ Kiepert, Ben Payson, and Ryan Bliss were simply outstanding as they hassled the opposition. “We had a lot of guys step up and play really hard in our quarters and semis games to get us here. The defense was phenomenal,” said Kiepert.
Not to be outdone, the O-line were equally stingy – if not always when they had possession, then certainly after they lost it. Sickles, Thornton, and Turner Allen (who had been playing D-line but was filling in for the injured Kervick at Easterns) made opponents’ break chances tricky. Sophomore Zack Watson-Stevens often shut them down entirely, pushing toward the disc with elite-level explosiveness. “Zack Watson-Stevens has to be one of the best defenders I’ve ever seen,” said Kiepert. “[Even though] he plays on the O-line [he] might have led our team in blocks.” He stopped a pair of Pitt counters cold with blocks to keep Vermont ahead in semis. And just like in the third-place game against Colorado at Smoky Mountain, Watson-Stevens crossed over to the D-line for universe point in the quarterfinal against Brown and earned a run-through block to set up the game-winning score.
Vermont, stumbling as the weekend came to a close, will want another chance to pass the UNC test. For the rest, they can walk away secure in their position among the rest of the division’s best. “We’re tough, man. We’re really, really good… If we play our game, no matter who we’re playing, it’s up to us if we want to win. I genuinely believe that we can decide our fate, and we can decide how far we want to go this season,” said Kiepert.
Hitting their Stride: Pitt, SLO
We have reported in the past that they had never won Easterns. This was not quite correct: they won the event in 2004. ↩
Bonus Content for Easterns 2023: Tournament Recap (Men’s) is only available to Ultiworld Subscribers
Already have a subscription? Log in
Whether you visit Ultiworld for our reporting, our podcasts, or our video coverage, you can help us continue to provide high quality content with a subscription. By becoming a subscriber, not only do you receive benefits like bonus content and full article RSS feeds, you also help fund all of Ultiworld's coverage in general. We appreciate your support!