Pro Championships 2023: Collision Course with a Big Friendly Drag’N (Mixed Division)

BFG outlasted top seeded AMP and Drag’n Thrust rose from the bottom seed to make the tournament final

Minneapolis Drag’n Thrust’s Brandon Matis makes a diving catch at the 2023 US Open. Photo: Sam Hotaling – UltiPhotos.com

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#11 Minneapolis Drag’n Thrust and #3 Seattle BFG started Sunday with a game against each other. Drag’n Thrust won on double game point, setting off a sequence of events that saw BFG fight through a close game against Hybrid in pre-semis and Drag’n Thrust earn a bye straight to the semifinal against their regional rival. Twelve hours later, they each won their semifinal matchups and are set to face off in the Pro Champs final.

Drag’n Thrust 15-9 NOISE

So often in this tournament, #4 Madison NOISE built an early lead before letting their opponent claw back to make a game close. Against #24 Durham Toro in pool play and again against #10 San Francisco Polar Bears in the bracket, this sequence occurred. Meanwhile, Drag’n Thrust had fallen into the habit of digging an early hole before staging a comeback. Against Polar Bears on Saturday and BFG on Sunday this pattern occurred. 

Naturally, they swapped roles for their semifinal game. 

Drag’n Thrust built an early lead through smarter strategic decisions in the wind. To be clear, NOISE played fine in the wind. Robyn Fennig, Kelsen Alexander, and Daniel Garlock were all able to throw upwind without limitation. However, Drag’n Thrust adjusted their strategy to make life harder for NOISE by throwing soft junk sets that stymied Madison’s movement. Dylan DeClerck took advantage of one such defensive moment, nearly catching a callahan with NOISE backed up in their own end zone. The ensuing score gave Minnesota a 5-2 lead and the confidence that they could crush their regional rival. 

Another break gave Drag’n Thrust momentum heading into halftime. Kayla Blanek’s large and mobile mark closed off Fennig’s typical break side looks in the red zone set and Drag’n Thrust put together an impressive goal line stand. Fennig and Tyler Williams were not on the same page as Williams moved downfield and Fennig threw a backwards reset. Charlie Schuweiler hustled to pick up the disc and fired an upwind huck to DeClerck to set up a Drag’n Thrust break and a 8-4 halftime lead. 

As they have all tournament, Drag’n Thrust came out of the halftime break dialed in and playing well. They rattled off five straight goals to build a 13-5 lead and put the game out of reach. 

“The reason that we went up by so much, was our intensity,” Drag’n’s Emma Peaslee said. “That’s something that we’re trying to manufacture even when we don’t make big plays. That’s something that we were lacking at US Open–that energy. Our goal was to be a much louder sideline and survive those lulls a little bit more.”

NOISE hung around and made things interesting, putting together a four goal run of their own before ultimately succumbing to the team who played better in the wind. 

“We obviously know this team really well,” Peaslee said. “We know that they don’t give up. We were pleased with where we were, but that little run they did…that’s classic and so I think we know better than to think, ‘We got it.’”

Drag’n took the game 15-9 and advanced to the Pro Champs final for the second straight season. “We left US Open not knowing what we can do,” said Peaslee. “We left a lot of things on the table. I think we want to see when we’re firing, when we have chemistry. When we have a few practices under our belt, what we look like. There wasn’t like an outcome goal – though obviously we want to win – we weren’t interested in stacking our lines to go all out for every game at the cost of what we need to do later in the season.” 

Though there is still Regionals and presumably Nationals left to play, Drag’n Thrust earned one more opportunity to play together in the final and get better in a high pressure moment. Though they were probably hoping to face off against an AMP side they haven’t seen yet, Drag’n Thrust will test their energy and improvement in the tournament final against a BFG side they squeaked by on Sunday morning in a double game point nailbiter. 

BFG Comeback Sinks AMP

In a rematch of their closely contested US Open tournament final, #1 Philadelphia AMP and BFG played a barnburner of a semifinal under the lights. Throughout pool play, AMP looked like the best team at Pro Champs. Their offense looked crisp despite a gusty wind and their defensive pressure put opponents away early. AMP won four pool play games by 21 combined goals. Despite entering as the no.2 seed and pool favorite, BFG played through some tough games including losses to #23 Denver Love Tractor and Drag’n Thrust. For the most part, BFG largely looked deserving of their high seed because of their efficient offensive play and a few defensive stars, but their wins were decidedly less dominant than AMP’s.

During their 4-0 run in pool play, AMP rotated through their roster, giving significant playing time to every healthy, present player. With co-coach Patrick Sherlock unavailable during the semifinal, former player and current co-coach Andrea DeSabato leaned more heavily on the team’s stars, giving players like Lindsay McKenna, Henry Ing, and Jordan Rhyne more playing time than they had seen to this point. AMP had not really played with traditional set offensive and defensive lines at the tournament. In their semifinal game, they sent out more rigid units and stacked throwing talent on their upwind lines. After the game, DeSabato noted that this was not a premeditated plan, but more of a reaction to the flow of the game and the tough conditions. 

AMP and BFG dealt with the change from grass fields earlier in the day to turf for the semifinal showcase, as well as changing shadows as the sun went down and plenty of wind. Each team was also missing players in this game. BFG’s Derek Mourad sat out the contest with an injury, and AMP’s Linda Morse, Raha Mozaffari, Liz Hart, and Grace Maroon were not in Milwaukee for the semifinal.  

At first, AMP’s adapted approach worked well. Ing powered in for the first goal and Philadelphia managed to break upwind on their first opportunity one point later with a Sumi Onoe layout grab, a Delrico Johnson huck, and a Natalie Bova diving catch. Though BFG were able to get a downwind break back, AMP controlled the run of play with measured shots and the occasional burst of pure power. McKenna launched herself through the air for a layout block as halftime neared. Eric Nardelli and Johnson both made heads up, second effort grabs to secure an insurance goal and a 7-5 lead. AMP took the two goal lead into halftime. 

In the second half, BFG played relentless defense, as the toll of many more points played took their effect on some of AMP’s legs. “It might have been the point to take half that AMP scored that our sideline finally woke up,” Sam Pickel said. “They gave players on the field a lot of energy. They were getting super into it. Calling back to that energy and trying to summon that and tap into it helped.”

Conor Belfield took on the Ing matchup, fighting power with speed. Belfield held his own in the air, especially when tasked with playing center field in BFG bracket and zone sets. BFG scored their first upwinder of the second half after Belfield picked off an Ing hammer over a 3-3-1 zone. Pickel will get credit for the goal, and Mo Tilmo and Ellie Moskovitz’s red zone contributions are duly noted, but the score was a full team effort that tied the game at 10. 

Of course, just after BFG scored their upwinder, AMP held into the breeze and immediately got the downwind score on a long give-and-go from Jordan Rhyne. With momentum turning in their direction, AMP caught a big break when Crystal Koo let loose a throw to a spot her cutter vacated. Jack Verzuh nearly got it back for BFG with a layout deflection, but Onoe followed the play and caught another break to put AMP up 13-10. With a three goal lead, AMP were in a good position to close out the match and cement their status as the mixed division’s top team. 

BFG had other plans, and the gods of chaos that rule over the mixed division agreed. Tommy Li launched a huge backhand huck into the wind that Eric Witmer tipped on the mark. Leah Bar-On Simmons outread her defender to make the improbable catch and flipped an assist to Hsu to stop the AMP run and build some belief on the BFG sideline. 

“We know that we’re known as a system team,” Anna Maria Pape said, “but this year we’re also trying to give people license to go be a star on the field. Especially in the wind sometimes you need to go do that and we had a lot of those moments in this game and throughout the weekend.”  

In this moment, Li was the star, but lesser known players like Jaime Kauffman, Jason Yun, and Alissa Soo each had their turn as well. The BFG zone relied on all seven players working together to get a block with downwind defense that pushed AMP backwards. Tilmo’s catch block gave BFG the only chance they needed to bring the game within one. 

Seattle forced double game point with a three-possession defensive point that ended with an Alissa Soo step out backhand to Sam Harkness upline after they displayed impressive footwork to toe tap the preceding reset. With BFG going downwind on double game point, they surely felt like the game was in hand. 

“In the US Open we started going down early,” Pape said after the game. “There was a lot of nervous energy. Throughout this game there was never a doubt, never a doubt that we had trust in our teammates to get the job done. When we were down late everyone was like ‘I can’t wait to get on the field.’ They were fully ready.”

Seattle put its zone back on the field and forced AMP to swing the disc backwards and backwards until they were in their own end zone. On what looked like a simple, short pass to reset the stall count, Ing hopped forward as Sam Grossberg threw a reset to his just-vacated stationary position. It actually hit the turf softly, but must have felt like a thud. As Pickel hit Belfield for the last throw of the game, BFG rushed the field in celebration. 

“We come to these tournaments to play big games and the pressure is on,” Pape said. “That pressure is a privilege and we’re excited to go out there. We know that [Drag’n Thrust] were watching [the semifinal game against AMP] and they got some thoughts, and we’re ready to punch back.”

  1. Alex Rubin
    Alex Rubin

    Alex Rubin started writing for Ultiworld in 2018. He is a graduate of Northwestern University where he played for four years. After a stint in Los Angeles coaching high school and college teams, they moved to Chicago to experience real seasons and eat deep dish pizza. You can reach Alex through e-mail ([email protected]) or Twitter (@arubes14).

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