Can UNC go back-to-back-to-back?
May 29, 2023 by Bridget Mizener and Jenna Weiner in Preview 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.
Editor’s Note: In 2022, Jenna Weiner published a preview for a North Carolina / Colorado finals matchup that reminds us a whole lot of this one. This year, Bridget Mizener took that piece and annotated it to reflect today’s game; some things have changed for these two finalists, but a whole lot more has stayed the same.
MILWAUKEE, Wisc. MASON, Ohio — #1 vs. #2. Tiki-taka small ball takes on aggressive long ball. Two Callahan winners One Callahan winner and one finalist face off against an Olympian. It’s Carolina versus Colorado, and it’s gonna be fun.
The UNC Pleiades come into their matchup with Colorado Quandary as
reigning back-to-back champions, the program picking up their first-ever title with a dominant run in the bracket in 2021 punctuated by a 15-6 final win over Washington Element a repeat title against this very Quandary team on universe point last year. Although their wins haven’t been as comprehensive this season,1 the top seeded team from the Triangle remains unbeaten and showed off their incredible ceiling in a comfortable 15-8 semifinal win against the UCSB Burning Skirts first-time semifinalists Vermont Ruckus. With this year’s Callahan winner Dawn Culton Callahan finalist Alex Barnett leading a UNC defense offense that is one of the best in the business and 2020 Callahan winner Anne Worth returning from an ACL tear to supplement a stacked Pleiades offensive line,2 there’s no shortage of reasons to think UNC will join Dartmouth and Stanford to go back-to-back-to-back since the turn of the century to be the second program in division history to ever do so.
What’s the case for Colorado, then? Who, or what, will propel Quandary to follow Pleiades in earning the storied program’s first title? Let’s start with their aforementioned Olympian, Stacy Gaskill, who has put up a monster
8G/17A/10B 12G/10A/5B statline, proving pivotal to Colorado’s success with her size and throwing ability. Gaskill will be a matchup problem for whoever has to mark up on her, even Culton, and if Quandary are to pull off the upset they’ll need Gaskill to come up big. Of course, this isn’t a one-person team, and Gaskill’s downfield targets include Kristen Reed and Emma Cortright, both recent experienced additions that have enabled Colorado to air the disc out, a key part of their dynamic offense teammates have proven that much and more this weekend. Callahan nominee Bailey Shigley (10G/15A/7B), back on the field after much too long on the sideline with injury, has jumped right back into elite ultimate. High school teammates Clil Phillips and Emma Williamson work together as well now as they did then.
While Quandary’s path to the championship game wasn’t nearly as clean as UNC’s, they’ve shown remarkable growth throughout the season. They took
some an unexpected loss es early in the season at Presidents’ Day Invite and3 Stanford Invite out in California, laying a 13-3 egg against Pleiades sans Gaskill and Phillips, but then put together a solid winning performance at Northwest Challenge , their only losses up in Seattle coming to UNC. They followed that up by rolling through the South Central region in the series. Over the course of this weekend, Quandary topped a tough Pool B, before roaring back with a 10 4-0 run against Vermont a hungry Stanford team after being down 13-10 8-5 in the quarterfinal pool play and beat out Carleton UBC in the semifinals 15-11 14-10. Colorado has been tested this weekend, there’s no doubt about that, and if they’re going to pull off the win over UNC on the third second try this season, they’ll need to lean on that resilience they’ve shown throughout these Nationals.
As for Pleiades, the plan will be to just keep on keepin’ on: their disciplined approach makes most offensive possessions all but assured of ending in a UNC score, while Culton, Grace Conerly, and Sydney Rehder marshal a defensive line whose offensive execution at times rivals their O-line counterparts. Those O-line players are no slouches, though. Alex Barnett, who has a team co-leading
14 15 assists; Ella Juengst, who leads the Pleiades with 11 16 goals; and Theresa Yu, with eight 15 assists of her own, direct a dominator offensive set which is able to cruise calmly up the field regardless of whether they face a person or zone defense. That combination of offensive efficiency and defensive intensity has kept UNC in control and undefeated throughout their first full season in three years for over 1200 days, including tight clear wins against Stanford and UBC Washington in the quarterfinal round and the semifinal first game of pool play, respectively. Ask the Pleiades coaches, though, what the key to their success has been, and they’ll more than likely point to the team’s depth, with the robust Triangle youth scene continuing to add to UNC’s treasure trove of talent as five true rookies are set to become next up.
With the difference in offensive styles – UNC’s patient approach contrasting sharply with Colorado’s inclination to shoot it deep – and the lengthy list of star players for both teams, this title game should make for a fantastic watch. If you’re in
Milwaukee Ohio be sure to catch it live at 3pm CT/ 4pm ET, and if not, you can find it live on ESPNU and ESPN3.
Standards remain ridiculously high for this team ↩
Anne Worth is (somehow) out of eligibility ↩
Quandary won Prez Day this year ↩