PUL Championship Weekend 2023: New York, Raleigh Advance (Semis Recaps)

WASHINGTON DC — The Premier Ultimate League Championship Weekend got off to a hot start on Saturday as the hometown #1 seed DC Shadow took on the Raleigh Radiance and the New York Gridlock clashed with the undefeated Minnesota Strike.

Both games were rematches of games from the regular season: the Strike narrowly defeated the Gridlock in Minneapolis, and the Shadow beat the Radiance in DC. This time, the underdogs flipped the script. The Gridlock easily dispatched the Strike 20-13 and the Radiance held off a late comeback to defeat the Shadow 18-16 to advance to Sunday’s Championship game.

As the division winner from the Southeast, the Radiance showed that they were more than just the best team in a weak division. And faced with controversy as to whether or not they deserved to be the wild card selection, the Gridlock looked like the strongest team on day one.

New York Overwhelms Minnesota

Gridlock’s Yina Cartagena. Photo: Kevin Leclaire — UltiPhotos.com

All things must come to an end. For Minnesota Strike, a six-game winning streak. For Gridlock, a habit of coming up short in the moments they needed to step up the most.

In a hard-fought semifinal, New York Gridlock dominated Minnesota Strike 20-13. It seemed like a perfect game for Gridlock. After a hold and two quick breaks, thanks in part to Becky Malinowski as well as some unforced errors for Strike, the Gridlock jumped out to a 3-0 lead. It appeared as if when Strike made the first mistake, mentalities changed and the tone was set. Strike got in their own heads, and Gridlock knew that they had the edge after falling to the Strike in Minnesota during the regular season.

“We came out strong in the beginning. We came out with some breaks to start and never let them back in the game,” said Gridlock coach Ryan Thompson. “We never got complacent, we were battling for every point (in the game as a whole). Everyone kept their head in the game.”

Finally, Robyn Fennig decided enough was enough and sent a deep shot to Kayla Blanek to get Strike on the board. While Strike had been in the trailing position before against the Columbus Pride, this was not that game and these were not those opponents. While the defense threw varying looks to force turns, offense remained fairly clean. Even turnover-filled points trended towards being holds.

After the starting New York breaks, the story of the rest of the first half remained the same. Gridlock would get a D and a break chance, and then Strike would find a way to get the disc back. Gridlock would have a clean hold, Strike would answer with a clean hold themselves. But the one thing that Strike could not do was get the breaks back.

Even in the first half, it was quite clear who the playmakers were for either side. Fennig again proved to be an asset, and in the six points Strike scored in the first half, she assisted on five. She finished the game with seven assists and nine turnovers. Kayla Blanek (3G, 2A) also made major plays for Strike’s O-line, constantly coming down with saving grabs. Emma Peaslee (2G, 1A, 2B) was also asked to do a lot of work for the offense.

For Gridlock, Tulsa Douglas (3G, 3A), Yina Cartagena (4A, 2T), Amy Zhou (2G, 1A, 1B), and Genny De Jesus (3G, 2A, oT) proved unstoppable for Gridlock’s O-line. The three were always reliable with the disc in their hands, with Zhou knowing where and when to make the big moves, Cartagena at the helm upfield, De Jesus in the deep space and end zone, and Douglas doing a little bit of everything. Emily Barrett was a scoring weapon with four goals and two assists.

The second half featured more of the same, starting out with a Gridlock hold followed by a break. Near the end of the third quarter, Gridlock broke to increase the lead to 14-8. As hard as Strike tried on defense, the New York team came out aggressively on the attack. Finally, Becky Malinowski ensured a second break for the Gridlock and scored the final point, ending the game victorious, 20-13.

The Strike were only able to force four turnovers from the Gridlock offense and finished the game with just one break.

Raleigh Stuns DC

Raleigh’s Claire Revere throws a forehand at PUL Championship Weekend. Photo: Kevin Leclaire — UltiPhotos.com

The DC Shadow came into their semifinal against the Raleigh Radiance with all the advantages. They were playing at their home stadium in front of their home fans. They had a fantastic season in which they won games with high margins, resulting in the biggest point differential in the PUL this season. They had star power with multiple world-class athletes on the roster and even picked up Kami Groom for their Championship Weekend run. They were the top-seeded team playing the lowest-seeded team, one they had already defeated during the regular season. Despite all those advantages, the Shadow came up short, losing to the Radiance 18-16.

So, what happened?

The game sizzled out of the gate, with two clean holds a piece, not seeing a mistake until the fifth point of the game, when Raleigh missed a connection and Shadow easily cleaned up in a pace that Radiance could not keep up with. And then Shadow got another break to increase their lead to 4-2. It seemed as if the game would at that point go the way the majority of Shadow’s games had gone throughout their season — with breaks adding up until they gained too much of a lead for their opponent to come back from.

After a Radiance hold and then a break, a wobbly throw by the Shadow was knocked down by Jenna Dahl before Sarah Spall and Justine Neville punched in the break to regain the Radiance lead, 5-4.

The Radiance had several errors in their following offensive points, but their O-line’s defense was strong enough to get them the disc back. Their D-line was then able to pressure a turn and give Alex Barnett a score to make it 8-6, before another block set up Grace Conerly and Dawn Culton to drive another break, advancing the Raleigh lead to three.

Throughout the game, the young Radiance players all shined on the field. Fresh off of their D-I Nationals victories with UNC Pleiades, Ultiworld College Women’s Player of the Year Alex Barnett, 2022 POTY Dawn Culton, Allison Reilly, Emily Przykucki, Conerly, Theresa Yu, and Erica Birdsong proved they were assets to the team, not only on the field but also bringing the winning spirit to the team in their big moment.

“They’re in full fitness form, they’re hyped. Winning a championship gets them more hyped about frisbee, riding that high. And the rest of the team is feeding off that,” said Radiance coach Liz Leon. “It’s really cool to see how the team has embraced that Pleiades championship and so it’s getting everyone super excited, and we love having those players on the field with us too.”

On the Shadow side, they relied more heavily on some of their more veteran players. Claire Trop, Kami Groom, and Carolyn Normile all made big plays for the DC team. They proved that they are some of the best players in the world as they took command of the field. Combine that with the youth of Marge Walker and Annelise Peters, and the Shadow had the depth that gave them success in the regular season and could have led them to a championship.

Although Shadow got another break back, Radiance kept their two-point lead going into the second half and had a clean hold with a Birdsong sky over a pile of defenders to slowly increase the margins. However, Shadow took their next break chance to keep a calm offense, looking more like their regular-season selves and once again broke. Yet Radiance found a way back to a three-point lead again and ended the third quarter in a comfortable position.

The fourth quarter saw more of the same action as the third. Shadow broke again to narrow their deficit to one. They dialed up their pressure, pushing to make a late-game comeback. But it didn’t faze the Radiance, as their offensive systems remained without error. In the final point scored in the game, Claire Revere found Barnett to secure the last hold for Radiance with 38 seconds left, ending things 18-16.

“We came here proud of what we accomplished this season. Everyone trusted each other, we had good vibes and positive energy throughout the game,” said captain Jinny Riedel. “We approached this as a celebration of our season, so even if things didn’t go perfectly planned, everyone was on the field celebrating each other. We were positive from the beginning to the end and we were building throughout. It’s hard to close out games, and I’m so proud with how this team closed out the game and I hope other people saw how positive and happy everyone was.”

The Radiance will face the Gridlock in today’s Championship game.

  1. Laura Osterlund
    Laura Osterlund

    Laura picked up a disc her senior year of high school and hasn't put it down since. She played on the mixed/open team at Bethel University where she graduated with a journalism degree. Based out of the Twin Cities, MN, you can find her engaging in all levels of Ultimate: working with Minnesota Strike, playing mixed club, and grinding at local ultimate and goalty leagues. Her ultimate accomplishment - besides helping start a women's league (coming spring 2024) - is winning Z league with Big Blue.

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