D-I College Championship 2023: UMass and Cal Poly SLO Semifinal Shows Us What Greatness Takes

Playing at a championship level can be fleeting.

UMass at the 2023 College Championships. Photo: Sam Hotaling — UltiPhotos.com

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What makes a team worthy of a championship?

There’s one rather tidy way to answer that question: winning one. Open and shut case Watson, let’s retire to Baker St. for the evening to play sad songs on the violin and read the London Journal of Criminology.

But if you watched the men’s division semifinal between UMass Zoodisc and Cal Poly SLO, maybe you’ll indulge a slightly more expansive frame of mind, the idea that there are often several teams each season that would be worthy champions. Several teams that cross some threshold in your mind, where you nod along in agreement when their name is carved on a trophy instead of tasting some sour note of dissatisfaction. What that threshold looks like is hard to put in a box — a “know it when you see it” emanation that comes off a team when they crack a certain alchemy of skill, scheme, and cohesion — but there is room for more than one team a season to reach it.

The cruelty, then, is that no matter how many teams are worthy, only one of them actually wins a title. What exactly it is that separates teams of this caliber is at the root of how we think about success in sport. There is something that leads to some teams playing their best, playing at that championship level they are capable of but don’t always reach, that determines who history remembers.

In Saturday night’s semifinal, only one of the two teams found that level. Both Zoodisc and SLO had demonstrated the ability to be elite teams, both had secured successful seasons before the pull went up in the semifinal, but only one left the game feeling like they touched that potential.

From the beginning, UMass was all lightness and Cal Poly was all tightness. The hard work looked easy for one team and laborious for the other. Every time a Zoodisc player need to layout to secure a swing, chase down a long huck, or get into position to deny a scoring chance they zipped around field with a freedom and ease that belied the intensity of their effort and the moment. Luca Harwood’s flick hucks followed arcs of perfect symmetry to their destination and Wyatt Kellman just existed in a metaphysical state of “being open in space.” It looked like there was little conscious thought involved. There didn’t need to be: they were just in the moment, just doing it.

Different story for SLO. Everything seemed laborious. It wasn’t a lack of effort or really even execution. They were running hard, they looked locked in, but the plan just wasn’t coming off. Windows that should have been open were closed, defenders that should have been in position to make a play found themselves chasing shadows. It wasn’t hubris — there was no sense of entitlement — but more a confusion as to why the fuse wasn’t lighting. Whatever that ineffable quality is that we identify in winners, it wasn’t there.

But it was Saturday morning. And all weekend beforehand. Cal Poly put together a triumphant performance against tournament darlings Oregon in quarterfinals, one of those wins where you can see the pieces fully coming together, a puzzle becoming whole and looking a lot like the picture of a gold medal on the box. They looked like a team ready and able to win a championship. Right up until they didn’t.

Different story for UMass, who strayed dangerously close to tumbling into the abyss during their quarterfinal against Texas. Execution errors, flagging energy, looking stiff and hesitant, every accusation you could hurl at SLO in the semifinals UMass exhibited in their own way earlier on the same day. But down 13-11, facing doom, they clawed their way back and came through on the other side. You can tell the difference between a win that feels like a triumph and one that feels like relief, and the overwhelming sense from Massachusetts after that game was that they had narrowly avoided some horrible fate.

Maybe it was in overcoming this moment, having to stare down their own failures, that UMass found the freedom to play the semifinal without fear.

“I think the moment got to us a little bit,” said UMass’s Jonah Stang-Osborne of the quarterfinal against Texas. “But then after we proved that we could grind through a really sloppy game, we just felt the moment and embraced it. We proved to ourselves that we could overcome any challenge.”

Zoodisc captain Isaac Kaplan elaborated, saying that “after the Texas game, that was such an emotional push, that it was just like a release. And [during the semifinal] it was beautiful out and incredible conditions under the lights. So mostly, it was just a calm we had, [feeling like] we can play whatever, however we want to play.”

It’s worth pointing out that Cal Poly never faced the same existential stakes for their season until things started to go wrong in the early going against Zoodisc. They had rolled through their competition at Regionals and Nationals, being the adversity that teams face rather than having to face it themselves. And in the semifinal, only one team played with a joie-de-vivre that reflected a real embrace of the finite nature of a season, rather than the pressure that comes from it.

Playing every game like it’s your last can be empowering or paralyzing, depending on how you internalize the concept, and how teams process that reality in elimination play is part of the equation in determining who ends their season as a champion.

As it happened, neither team would be crowned champions in 2023. “Worthiness” is not a concept that matters much for medals in the UNC Darkside era. The evil empire once again eclipsed the sun, living at a championship level their entire season by dint of their programmatic dominance. Both UMass and Cal Poly reached those heights at points this season, but doing it over and over and over again until there are no more games to play is the challenge still before them.

  1. Patrick Stegemoeller
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    Patrick Stegemoeller is a Senior Staff Writer for Ultiworld, co-host of the Sin The Fields podcast, and also a lawyer who lives in Brooklyn.

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