How Carnegie Mellon shocked the world to win the Ohio Valley.
May 25, 2023 by Jenna Weiner and Bridget Mizener in Coverage, Interview, Profile with 0 comments
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“I’m not going to say, ‘I can’t believe Ultiworld didn’t write more about us,’ because it’s fair. We didn’t have a track record of making Nationals and nobody really saw this game coming. Neither did we.” — Vic Chen, Carnegie Mellon Money Mellons captain
By all rights, they shouldn’t have even been there. But they were.
The Carnegie Mellon Money Mellons were in the game to go to Nationals against their neighborhood Ohio Valley regional giants Pittsburgh Danger, and the Money Mellons were winning.
They were winning after breaking on the opening point, and they were winning after breaking on that final climactic point, and in a back-and-forth game that finished 11-9, Carnegie Mellon only ever trailed twice. After they had lost to Pittsburgh in blowout fashion 10-3 at Conferences, it was a stunning display of team buy-in and belief, and something the Money Mellons’ Callahan finalist Sara Liang noted was a specific focus for the CMU captains ahead of the regional final.
“I think that first point where we were able to break was absolutely huge for us,” said Liang. “Before the game, I think a lot of our focus as captains was really making the team believe that…we had a shot at this game because it’s easy to think Pitt should win this game. They’ve won the region for so many years. And so it was really about for us, or at least for me, making sure that the team believed in us, and that if we really laid it all out there, we would have a good shot at this game. I think that breaking on the first point was really big because it sort of solidified that belief in everyone’s minds that this is a game that we can absolutely go out and win and be competitive in.”
It’s obviously much easier to say you’re going to instill a sense of belief than to actually do it, but Liang, Chen, and their final co-captain Bella Krisky found a way. As a result, the Money Mellons played fearlessly against Danger, and pulled off the upset of the postseason.1
While self-belief was key for CMU off the field, it was Liang and graduate student Rosa Vitiello who were key for the Money Mellons on the field. In the regional final, either one or both of Liang and Vitiello contributed directly to 10 of CMU’s 11 goals with a goal or an assist, an astounding tally from the Money Mellons’ two leading lights.
“Our big thing [in the final] was just keep the defensive intensity at a maximum,” said one of the CMU coaches, Matt Duffy. “And then offensively, we were like, ‘no notes,’ just like: ‘Sara, Rosa, keep doing your thing.’”
Let’s be clear, though: the confluence of Liang and Vitiello’s excellence on this Money Mellons team wasn’t preordained by any means. Liang is a fourth year senior captain who joined CMU after already standing out as a YCC player in Pittsburgh, while Vitiello is finishing her sixth and final year of eligibility as a graduate transfer from Tufts, where she previously played with Ewo before the pandemic.
“It’s been really lovely and a huge pleasure, really,” said Vitiello about joining CMU the past two seasons. “The Money Mellons like to joke that I’m super old but…it’s been special to see the growth over the last two years, and I hope that I’ve imparted some of my small amount of wisdom to the team over the last couple of years as well.”
Although Liang and Vitiello played both ways in that regional final, they each took on somewhat unofficial roles as leaders for the CMU offensive and defensive lines, respectively. On offense, Liang regularly connected with her co-captain Chen who primarily played as a cutter, while Vitiello and Krisky helmed the defense alongside club president Karen Li. From the coaches’ perspective, the decision to have Liang and Vitiello each take charge of a line wasn’t intentional but worked out well all the same.
“When I walked in, it was pretty much — Sara was the O-line captain and Rosa was one of the D-line captains,” said Duffy’s co-coach Jed Farber. “Not in name, but in leadership qualities and their activeness to teach and help others.”
That same sentiment was echoed by both Chen and Krisky, who spoke to the incredible off-field impact Liang and Vitiello have had on this Money Mellons program.
“When you’re watching these people that have such great skills give everything they have, it just makes you want to give a million percent to the team and to the game,” offered Krisky. “Getting to share the field with them unlocked a deeper passion for the sport, a part of me that I didn’t think I could have on the field.”
“I think it’s been so great playing with them because they’re such excellent players, but also [I’m] so glad to see them finally getting the spotlight that everybody on this team thinks that they deserve,” said Chen. “I think their effect on the team has been so immense and we’re just really glad to see them be able to shine.”
With how inspirational and central Liang and Vitiello have seemed to be for CMU, it’s hard not to think of other superstar players in other sports whose teams similarly rallied around them in dramatic fashion. It’s like Argentina’s men’s soccer team all working to support Lionel Messi in his quest to finally win the men’s World Cup, or Candace Parker leading her hometown Chicago Sky to the 2021 WNBA title in her first season with the team. That is the level of the impact that Liang and Vitiello have had for CMU, and now they’ll get one final ride at the D-I College Championships.
This actually won’t be the first time CMU will be represented in the D-I Women’s division at Nationals. Over three decades ago, CMU made it to Nationals in back-to-back years in 1990 and 1991. According to the Money Mellons’ team website, that CMU team of old was known as “Red Emma” and they finished tied for fifth in 1990 and tied for ninth in 1991 before fading away into obscurity. Until now.
The history of ultimate at Carnegie Mellon certainly isn’t what one might call typical. From their two Nationals showings in the early 1990s, to the creation in 1998 of a combined team with players from Pitt, CMU, and Duquesne, to the current iteration of the Money Mellons, there simply hasn’t been the same kind of programmatic consistency at CMU as might be found at, say, a Pittsburgh.
Speaking of Danger, not only do CMU and Pitt share a city, but they’re practically down the street from each other, and the Money Mellons and Danger share an amicable relationship.
“Really nothing but love and respect between the two teams,” said Chen. “We’ve shared a friendly relationship for a while, having showcase games and just generally being right down the street. Sometimes we reserve fields for them or [scrimmage] with each other so yeah, nothing but the best really.”
Still, this is a Pittsburgh team that, until this year, had made it to Nationals seven straight times, while CMU was stuck in the mire of a historically volatile regional chasing pack.
“The relationship definitely felt like an older sister-younger sister relationship for a long time, especially when Pitt made Nationals for so many years,” admitted Liang.
Coming into this season, that feeling may have felt doubly so for the Money Mellons, as they took an unusual approach for a Nationals-qualifying team and combined their A and B teams into one.
“This past fall we had tournaments that we had labeled as developmental and tournaments that we had labeled as competitive,” explained Krisky. “We would make a roster for every tournament and send that roster based on who we thought needed the work on what, or who wanted to play as a handler or cutter or whatever.”
That approach continued into the spring, as CMU balanced both development as a larger team and competitiveness for those players that would eventually play in the series.
“This year it was a big focus of just like, ‘We’re not splitting, we’ll do some closed practices, but mostly open practices for anyone’,” said Duffy. “And it was just like, we [want to] keep cultivating this good culture where everyone feels welcome to show up and everything.”
As evidenced by their attendance this weekend, that approach paid off for the Money Mellons, helped by their top players such as Liang, Vitiello, Chen, and Krisky all buying into the developmental process even with their abundance of elite level experience.
“I think that the biggest, most helpful thing was our experienced players just continuing to put the work in,” noted Farber. “So that was much easier to manage than it could have been because of how the players handled the practices and the leadership core on the Money Mellons were all bought in completely to the system that we were doing.”
Notably, for all of CMU’s talk of development and process, they actually had few opportunities to put it into action in sanctioned competition this season. By the end of the regular season, the Money Mellons were unranked, having played in just one sanctioned tournament at Commonwealth Cup after what would have been their second regular season tournament at Case Western got canceled.
What that meant for the series was simply more development, and CMU entered Conferences with the simple goal of getting reps in with their postseason roster. They exited Conferences having beaten everyone they had played with the exception of Pitt in that 10-3 game.
“I think that we had gone into [Conferences] thinking like, this is really going to be about growth and getting everyone on this roster playing time,” said Liang. “And so we felt really good about the momentum that we took out of [Conferences], because it really was our first tournament with this roster.”
From there it was on to Regionals, where the Money Mellons took two losses on day one, though both were on universe, and finished third in their pool. Even with those losses, though, there was confidence that CMU could make good on Sunday.
“I’d want to highlight the point that we were only two points away,” stated Vitiello. “It was something that Duffy, our coach, said a lot. We were two points away from being undefeated in the Ohio Valley region, which on paper being 2-2 on Saturday seems a little shocking to come out of the region with the bid, but it didn’t totally feel like a losing day, I guess, on Saturday. And in fact, that night I texted my family who usually tunes into these things … and said, ‘hey, we played really well on Saturday, like maybe tune in tomorrow.’ So if that’s any indication of how well Saturday went, you know, it should be telling.”
Indeed the Money Mellons did make Vitiello’s texts seem prescient with their amazing run to the regional title, including an as-yet-not-mentioned universe point win over Penn State in the quarterfinals.
“Playing those types of universe [point] games, it was incredible to see the grind that the Mellons had through those games,” continued Vitiello. “We fought through all those games really hard. And that was the kind of game that we were expecting to see from Pitt. And so having that kind of experience of, ‘hey, we’re tired, it’s really close at half,’ or ‘they’re coming back, but we’re still fighting and we’re still holding on.’ I think the lessons we took from Saturday, and then also our Penn State game on Sunday was just like. games are still going, like you fight until the very end, and without that kind of mentality being learned, I don’t know, we come out of the region with the bid.”
After CMU’s win, the support started to flood in from the surrounding Pittsburgh Ultimate community, and despite not previously budgeting for a trip to Nationals,2, the Money Mellons raised the 10k they had asked for in their GoFundMe and then some.
“I mean, it’s incredible,” said Farber. “I think the CMU alumni have a group chat [where] they were talking about financial support before we [even] got in the car to leave regionals.”
Since it’s certainly not a long trip to Mason, Ohio from Pittsburgh, the Money Mellons are bound to have plenty of support as they represent CMU at Nationals.
“I think it really demonstrates how tight knit this community is, and how proud people are to have played at CMU,” said Liang. “Even if we don’t necessarily have the caliber or the status of some of these legacy programs that make Nationals every year, there is a ton of pride.”
As the bottom seed at the D-I College Championships, expectations certainly won’t be high for CMU, but if they’ve shown us anything in simply getting here, it’s that anything is possible if you believe in the magic of the Money Mellons.