Raleigh Radiance are your 2023 PUL champions!
June 20, 2023 by Laura Osterlund in Recap with 0 comments
WASHINGTON DC — In a game that was close all the way until the end, Raleigh Radiance emerged victorious against New York Gridlock to become the Premier Ultimate League’s newest (and only, other than Revolution) champions.
While on paper, both finalists New York Gridlock and Raleigh Radiance seem quite different1 – Radiance have more youth while New York has more experience, Raleigh find success through their systems while Gridlock pride themselves on their strong defense, and Radiance have more homegrown talent from the Triangle area while Gridlock pulled some talent from Boston and Colombia – the Premier Ultimate League Championship Weekend showed they were a bit more similar than one would expect. Both teams entered their semifinal games as the lower-seeded teams. They both came in with a mission to prove they deserved to be in Championship Weekend, and in the final no less.
Raleigh Radiance advanced to the Championship as the Southeast Division winner. They went 4-2 in their regular season, losing to Philadelphia Surge2 and DC Shadow but winning their in-region games to Nashville Nightshade, Austin Torch,3 and Atlanta Soul, as well as an out-of-region win against Columbus Pride.4 They came into the weekend with a hunger to show they were more than just the fourth-seed underdogs, and did just that with a win over DC – who’d been dominant all regular season with a final +46 goal differential – in the semifinal. Radiance became the first bottom-seeded team entering PUL Championship Weekend to make the final, let alone win the whole thing.
New York Gridlock had a similar story. While they did not win the challenging East Division, they were the only team to beat DC Shadow, the division winners. Their overall season record was 4-2, with losses to Philadelphia Surge and Minnesota Strike and wins over Portland Rising, Austin Torch, and Milwaukee Monarchs. To get to championship weekend, Gridlock was selected as the wildcard team, a controversial choice in the eyes of many fans and East Division competitors. Ultimately though, they won their semifinal rematch against Minnesota Strike in decisive fashion to secure their spot in the final.
“Our goal for this season was to build, to be the best team we could be. I think we were the best team we could be and I think the committee saw that, whatever it was. But we built up ourselves to be who we ended up being today,” said Stazi Tangherlini after the final. “I’m really proud of what we did to come together to get through that awkward adversity of ‘we’re using the algorithm, we’re using the committee system.’ I think, if I’m being honest, the best team that could have been here showed up here today.”
As strong as both teams played in their winning semifinals, with near perfect offense and few mistakes, in contrast the final opened slowly, with two points featuring both turns and blocks on the way to two respective holds. Raleigh made it interesting on the third point, as Justine Neville got in the way of a Gridlock disc and Raleigh capitalized for the first break of the game and an early lead. Radiance secured another break off a messy point at the end of the quarter to go up 4-2.
Raleigh continued their scoring run in the second with a hold and another break to take a four-point lead, 6-2. It was then Gridlock turned up the pressure and went back to what gave them success – getting blocks and running clean offense on a turn. Angela Zhu trimmed the deficit to one with a high, arcing forehand that forced Nola Kim-Mayer (2G) to do what can only be described as a sky-to-layout.
The ping-pong match continued with both teams generating quick and clean holds despite different defensive looks and zones. The end of the half epitomized this, as Raleigh executed a 20 second-long, three-throw point on the back of a Claire Revere half-field huck to Qxhna Titcomb right after the buzzer sounded to extend the lead to 8-6.
Although Radiance pride themselves on their powerful Triangle Area player pipeline, Revere and Titomb’s Seattle roots added even more depth and experience to the team. Titcomb (2G/3A/OT), a new Radiance member this season, found early chemistry with Revere (3G/2A) and together were dependable whenever they had the disc and constantly made crucial plays.
This is, of course, not to discount the workings of the big playmakers from the Triangle Area. Georgia Tse (2G/2A) especially worked wonders with the disc, getting big to make plays and being reliable in the downfield. Dawn Culton, Claire Bridigare-Curtis (2G/1A), and Alex Barnett (3G/4A/1D) once again showed up to play, making big moves and hunting down the stats.
“We could not have [won] without every single person on this roster. We wouldn’t have been here without the ridiculous performance from Erica Birdsong yesterday (at the semi), Georgia Tse really stepped up throughout the course of the season; we put her on a really hard spot on the O-line and she really stepped up to take care of business,” said Barnett. “Behind the scenes, Grace Conerly is a huge leader – she knows every player on every roster and we could not have made the strategy without her.”
Gridlock went on a two-goal run of their own to start the second half and knot things up at 8-8, the first time the score was even since the start of the game. A clean hold was followed by Becky Malinowski poach block and New York capitalized, Luisa Neves hitting Sam Harris. Things remained close as both teams elected to patiently work though their throws and hit the easy unders and swings to trade clean holds. But Gridlock blinked first, dropping a disc one point and erring enough the next for Radiance to punch in back-to-back breaks. Raleigh stuffed Gridlock’s end-of-quarter attempt to maintain their 13-10 lead.
Radiance cruised to a four-point lead – their second of the game – to start the last quarter, but Gridlock intended to make Raleigh work for the game’s final 12 minutes. The narrative remained the same for several points – holds, some clean, others a bit messy – until 16-13. The momentum began to shift when Amy Zhou (5A/1B) got a handblock5 and New York calmly worked the disc up the field and into the hands of Kim-Mayer to kickstart Gridlock’s last string of breaks. Yina Cartagena (3A) and Genny DeJesus (4G/1A) took advantage of an overthrown Radiance swing the next point to command the Gridlock offense and close the gap, bringing the game back to one at 16-15.
“Seeing your teammates play in their roles, doing what they need to be doing inspires everybody else to step up and be like ‘I can do this, I believe in myself, I believe in my teammates,’” said Tangherlini. “Seeing someone get a block, building that pressure, seeing them do what they need to do is gonna make everyone play better, and make everyone be like ‘I feel like I’m held, I feel like I’m here, my teammates are here with me.’”
Unfortunately for New York, these breaks came too late in the game, their last one occurring with three minutes left. Raleigh kept holding, and with one second remaining a bladey outside-in flick from Caitlin Gross around the ever-present pressure from Aki Younge and Malinowski, from one corner of the end zone to the other, found the waiting hands of Tse to cap the scoring at 18-16.
“Our coaches did a really great job of instilling confidence in us and I think that really bled over so we all had confidence in one another,” said Revere after her Raadiance’s victory. “We really were able to trust our systems, take a breath when we need it, and just lean back on one another.”
If, for a second, we forget about their powerhouse rosters ↩
In a game that only went to halftime ↩
Though again, closer results than expected ↩