Fury and Scandal are set to rematch in the final after a dramatic Saturday.
August 6, 2023 by Edward Stephens in Recap with 0 comments
Ultiworld’s coverage of the 2023 club 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.
Semifinal Wins Confirm Collision Course
Through two days at the tournament, there has been no doubt that the two most impressive teams have been #2 San Francisco Fury and #5 Washington DC Scandal. They each cemented that impression with multi-break semifinal victories over stiff competition.
Scandal continued their undefeated 2023 campaign with wins over both Japanese clubs in the bracket. Their 15-7 dismantling of Tokyo Swampybarg followed the model of most of their margins this season — they’re averaging better than eight goals per game over their opponents — and was probably a good warmup for their later game against the stronger Tokyo side, MUD.
MUD presented a challenge. What they lack in size and deep game, they more than make up for with great hands, an offensive system built around inside breaks and multiple resets, and crafty defensive looks. Scandal came with a game plan. “We were really trying downfield to orbit to take away the break side space, forcing them, if they were going to throw open side, for it to be wide. And really trying to challenge their bread-and-butter, those inside tight shots,” said captain Lisi Lohre
It took a while for Scandal to adjust in the first half. It wasn’t so much that they struggled, and in fact, Claire Trop, Blaise Sevier, and Kami Groom started off red hot, but DC couldn’t find a way to keep MUD at arm’s length. Not only were the classic inside break continues on point for MUD early in the game, leaving the Scandal defenders dizzied, but Shiori Ogawa, Risa Shamada, and Mayuka Takada showed up prepared for a gritty, physical game. MUD broke first, putting Scandal on the back foot, and it took a few defensive plays (including a huge Jamie Eriksson layout block) to get them back on top. A pair of Lisa Dang deep shots — she must love having both Trop and Groom as targets — helped Scandal take a two-break lead into half.
MUD, as they had shown earlier in a thrilling quarterfinal (see below), do not have the ‘quit’ gene. They made a push to get back into the competition, which reached a fever pitch when Ogawa held on to a deep shot through a physical Sandy Jorgensen bid to draw the game even at 10-10. But that was where MUD ran out of steam. Scandal leaned on their massive advantage in away shots as Trop, Sevier, and Eriksson all attacked deep, showing off the team’s extensive throwing talent, and they finally put MUD out of the game.
Fury, on the other hand, wasted no time whatsoever putting #3 Boston Brute Squad in their place. The San Franciscans played a perfect first point of offense and then jumped all over Brute’s mistakes to sprint to a 5-1 lead. During that interval they demonstrated a best-in-class offense, and when Fury are cooking, there is no stopping them. They regularly worked in rhythm, moving the disc from the sideline to the middle of the field and back again with prefab tongue-and-groove tiles of 20-yard gainers that turned the defense topsy-turvy, and typically released the disc within a second of receiving it.
“I think it’s no secret that Fury has had the same core group of people for many, many years. I think that adds a lot to it,” said captain Kirstin Johnson. “And we’ve been working on our tempo — it has always been a point of emphasis since I joined the team in 2018. We practice with 4-second stall scrimmages, and we know we need to try to keep that tempo up all the time.” It helps that one of Fury’s characteristic traits is the teamwide crispiness of their basic throws, and nowhere is this more apparent than when Johnson, Opi Payne, Anna Thompson, Jessie O’Connor, and Anna Nazarov are ping-ponging toward the end zone.
Brute found a little bit of their form as the first half wore on, but they didn’t fully recover their dignity until the second. “We started with a very low energy,” said Laura Ospina, one of the 2023 captains. “So it was a tough start, but we were able to talk as a team, get it together, and play a better second half.”
Lisa Couper kept getting her shots in for Fury — she seemed to have Brute’s number en route to a five-goal, two-block performance — but so did Brute’s Samiya Ismail, Yuge Xiao, and Angela Zhu. And as a late-game wind whipped the air into a vortex, Fury faltered a little bit. Coco Pellegrini and Jae Cruz took over for an offensive point; Ismail and Becky Malinowski drove a break; all of a sudden Brute had closed the deficit to 9-12.
And that was all the bend Fury had to give. They snapped back into form with some brilliant moments, with a razor-edged Han Chen blade and a superhuman Lo Guerin sequence coming to mind, and stretched the lead back out like putty. The final score of 15-10 maintained the halftime margin.
That set up a battle of the titans in the final. A re-battle of the titans, in fact, after Scandal prevailed over Fury 14-13 in a seeding crossover round on Friday. Whether Scandal can keep up the pace or if, instead, they will be the latest matchup for Fury to overwhelm will define our sense of DC’s championship bona fides.
The Two Kinds of Universe Points
Anyone who has played or watched enough ultimate knows that universe point situations typically go one of two ways: either they are supremely tense nail-biters, or they completely disappoint on every conceivable level of suspense. The women’s quarterfinals delivered a fine example of each after #9 Toronto 6ixers drew even with Fury at 12-12 and #6 San Diego Flipside notched an equalizer against MUD for 11-11.
The end of the Flipside vs. MUD bout was sensational. MUD took advantage of two late-game Flipside mistakes (a rare drop from Kaitlyn Weaver and an even rarer turf by Alex Diaz – it has to be a statistical improbability that they would happen on back-to-back points) to take the lead. A third Flipside error gave MUD a shot at the win, and they marched to the goal line and settled into a red zone set that had been one of the division’s most effective. That’s when Kaela Helton took matters into her own hands with a jaw-droppingly powerful bid ahead of the would-be game winner to the front cone: a perfect clean block in the clutch. She then put up a picturesque 60-yard backhand huck to Megan Maxfield to set up the goal to force universe.
There were even more fireworks on the final point. MUD had abused the inside lane all day by clearing initiating cutters wide out through the stack and giving a massive vacuum of space in the middle for the secondary looks. This time, though, Maxfield was ready. She stayed on Rena Hayashi’s hip for an entire five-second sequence and flew into a bid every bit as powerful as Helton’s from the previous point, setting up a red zone sequence for the potential win. An overthrow on Flipside’s first scoring try, though, and a drop on their second kept giving MUD extra chances for the final hold.
For a moment, it seemed like MUD finally beat the defense, as they sent Shimada into a gap with room for a continue pass. But Shimada couldn’t quite get her hand under the soft break before it touched grass, and Flipside had a third chance. And now it was Ogawa’s turn to play hero, and she sprawled ahead of an undercut to break the play apart with all the explosive chaos of a shattering plate. MUD then rode the transition to a handful of breakside throws that pushed them across the line and into semis.
Captain Alisha Stoun left no doubt that Flipside believed they should have won the game. “Really we put ourselves in that situation. We had three chances… So, good job MUD, but we did it to ourselves,” she said.
The action in the other tight quarterfinal was limited to all the points that led up to universe. Faced with their toughest challenge of the weekend and still acclimatizing to new players and new roles, 6ixers put forth their best showing of the tournament. Fury threw great defenders at the Britt Dos Santos matchup – Sharon Lin, Irene Scazzieri, Lo Guerin – in recognition of her importance, and while Dos Santos got her wins from time to time, the key to the 6ixers strength in the game was the way they left it to other players to step up. Krystal Dos Santos, Rachel Cooc, Danielle Leung, Joely Valencerina, Cindy Truong, and Christine Jurychuk were outstanding secondary outlets when the chains on Britt Dos Santos proved too burdensome.
6ixers took an early two-break lead on the strength of their defense, as well as some Fury mistakes,1 and at points showed off a patient offense that had been anything but patient the day before. All signs pointed to a tough game for Fury.
Fury have an unmatched level of experience, though, and most of their players have a long history of overcoming tough games. Amel Awadelkarim in particular seemed to thrive as a thrower in high-stakes break chances. Down 5-2, Fury quickly tied the game and kept it on serve until the last point of the half. That’s when Alyssa Mason measured the distance to the disc and made a superb block at the back of the goal box against Han Chen. The play set up an all-out sprint for Mason, who surged toward a Sarah Jacobsohn huck and reeled it in to take half up a break.
Fury aren’t the type of team to believe in losing, though, and they put their heads back on a little tighter for the second half, hitting on all the kinds of shots they missed in the first half and inching closer and closer to blocks on defense. The watershed point occurred at 9-9, as both Lin and Scazzieri made brilliant blocks, the latter of which led to a lead-taking score. Fury then earned another break on the back of Awadelkarim’s post-turn prowess, but 6ixers refused to go down without a fight. They tied the game at 11s. They tied the game at 12s. They called out a transition zone set for universe point…
And then they made a mistake. Some of the players on the field thought the melt from the junk set was set for three passes, but the call was for five, and defenders evacuated the deep space to try to pick up good matchups.
As a result, there was no one with O’Connor at all. Thompson saw her all alone in the goal box and dropped an almost casual 55 yard backhand to the space. That was it — no grinding, no contested play, just a game-of-catch connection to send 6ixers into consolation — a real downer of a point after all the action that came before.
Still, 6ixers found more to like about the game with Fury than to dislike: “A lot of people have doubted us because we’ve lost really good players. People are like, ‘You’ve lost these World Games players.’ And I think we’ve just learned that that doesn’t matter,” said captain Alyssa Mason. “We have such a solid foundation…If we’re out here playing Fury, it’s like — in 2019 we had all these players [that people are reminding us we lost] and lost 15-3, and now we’re out here on universe against Fury.”
Onward and upward, then.
Molly Falter, Brute Fly
The final round of quarters took a more surprising turn, as Brute Squad comfortably knocked #1 Denver Molly Brown out of the tournament by a 15-11 score. Molly had rolled through the competition at the US Open up to that point, downing Schwa and Nightlock without breaking a sweat and getting such a big early lead against Flipside in the seeding crossover that any comeback attempt (and there was one) was bound to come up short. But their own unfocused play and a determined Brute effort put them on the back foot for the duration of the quarterfinal match, sending them to a stumble from which they were not able to recover.
Brute, for their part, showed the necessary fearlessness attacking space against Molly right off the bat. Sarah Hansen and Cate Boezi both won the space early, stretching the defense in a way that allowed for more disc-adjacent movement as the game wore on. The deep looks weren’t always successful, as demonstrated by a too-long Samiya Ismail shot that set Molly up for a break early in the first half, but even when they missed, they served the purpose of opening up the field.
Molly showed off the collection of top talent that won them the title in 2022. Lisa Pitcaithley, Claire Chastain, Manu Cárdenas, and Valeria Cárdenas all had the kind of jaw-dropping moments that have become commonplace for them. I’m thinking of a 45-yard dribbling sequence between Chastain and Manu. I’m thinking of the unreal hammer that Vale launched into the sun to a space by the back line only she and her receiver (a bidding Manu) could see. I’m thinking particularly of Pitcaithley, who had a tremendous tournament. Between her ability to catch high discs, lay out for low or far discs, and generally take any route she wants uncontested, she has a good early 2023 argument for being the best receiver in the game.
And Molly showed off their depth, running scoring plays through Sara Taggart, Stacy Gaskill, Megan Henderson, and Marlee Akerson, for instance. In terms of roster construction, everything looked hunky-dory for the defending champs. But in addition to the topline talent and the breadth of key contributors across the roster, Molly also showed off an unfortunate tendency to play sloppy ultimate. They dropped easy passes, shot discs into closing windows, forgot to take the extra throw to get a step ahead of the defense in the red zone, and took too long to calibrate their throws. The upshot was a heap of break opportunities for Brute Squad.
Mess around? Find out. Break opportunities are exactly what you don’t want to give to a D-line offense often led by Ismail, Tulsa Douglas, Angela Zhu, or a combination of all three. They know how to put the disc in the end zone, and they did it with regularity against Molly. Boezi stood out among the receiving core in this particular game, but Brute spread the love fairly evenly. Mangie Forero, Jae Cruz, Coco Pellegrini, and Becky Malinowski all stepped up to take a turn breaking Molly Brown’s heart.
Nothing about the loss suggests that Molly don’t have it in them to repeat as champions this season. In fact, the eye test of their performance this weekend suggests they may be even stronger by season’s end than they were last year. But it does flash a massive warning sign for what can happen if they start to fall into bad habits — and reminds us that bad habits are very much a real possibility for them — against a good team like Brute. Who, by the way, were without Caroline Tornquist (injury) and both of their German imports, Levke Walczak and Lilli Trautmann.
Fury, it must be said, have been imposing but not terribly consistent across a full game so far this season. ↩