September 7, 2023 by Zack Davis 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.
Milwaukee– #6 Raleigh Phoenix put the cherry on top of an undefeated Labor Day weekend with a nervy 15-13 victory over #1 Washington DC Scandal in the Pro Champs final. The win over the reigning US Open champ, Phoenix’s second over the course of the tournament, left no doubt that they have their eyes set on a National title come October.
Raleigh made their intentions clear from the start when Phoenix phenom Qxhna Titcomb, a long time fixture in the Seattle scene who is in her first season with the Raleigh club, came up big with a layout block to set up an opening break. It was another bit of adversity for a Scandal side who had already faced and overcome their fair share of it on the weekend. They had already lost: (1) their first game of the season to the very same Phoenix team who now led them by a break; (2) one of the division’s most dogged defenders in Amanda ‘Beans’ Murphy, who injured herself on a bid at the start of their semifinal against #2 San Francisco Fury; and (3) their unrivaled superstar Claire Trop, nursing an injury rather than risk aggravating it before the Series. To make matters even more difficult, Blaise Sevier, who stepped up to help fill the Trop gap with a blistering offensive performance in semis, started the final limited by injury and become entirely unavailable as the game progressed.
As has been so often the case this season, however, it appeared that Scandal’s depth would be enough to carry them through. They found their footing on the second attempt, with Marge Walker ripping a backhand huck to Ashleigh Buch who flipped it to Kira Flores for a goal. No Trop? No Sevier? No problem: ‘next player up’ is the rule for 2023 Scandal.
On Phoenix’s next possession they worked the disc down field with an easy flow, previewing what a lot of their future offensive sets would look like. All seven players on the line were comfortable taking what Scandal would give them and attacking the unders to chip away at the Scandal defensive set despite the tight coverage. It helped that the defense continued to keep the pressure pointed the other way: Phoenix opened up their lead a little more on the next point, forcing Scandal to cough up the disc twice in the first really contested point of the game. Dawn Culton punctuated it with a trademark diving grab for the score. Scandal bounced back though, first holding cleanly, and then making short work of a break opportunity with good team movement which culminated in a Keila Strick-Jess Oh connection for the goal, taking advantage of a Phoenix error to bring the score to 3-3.
As sturdy and resilient as Scandal have been throughout the season, though, it proved difficult to fully rebound in the first half against the Raleigh onslaught. Alex Barnett, lurking in the lane, pounced for a big takeaway to set up another Culton break score. Barnett and Lindsay Soo were pristine together on an offensive point in the backfield, dashing DC’s hopes to re-reclaim the break. Sarah Meckstroth made her presence felt with a confident sky for another Raleigh break, and they took a three-break lead into half 8-5 as Mary Rippe hauled in a tipped disc.
That kind of deficit can be daunting, but anyone who had seen Scandal score five straight times against Fury with their backs against the wall just the day before would never count them out. Living up to their reputation, Scandal began the comeback without delay. Phoenix blundered on an upline throw that floated over a leaping Culton. Scandal jumped at the chance to chip at the lead and worked a possession up the sideline for the break. A pair of holds later, Phoenix made a rare miscue near their own end zone to give Scandal another life-line break. In just a few minutes, they had gone from trailing 8-5 to trailing 9-8 and in range of retaking the lead.
The teams traded holds with some heroics on each side, particularly from Hannah Boone who stepped up for Scandal in a big way – next player up – and Phoenix’s young star Culton, who always seemed to find a way to create space and get open and may be playing the best ultimate of her decorated career. Heroics or not, though, Scandal could not afford to trade holds. They still needed at least two breaks to win the game, and they were running out of points to get them.
Finally, at 12-11 Scandal forced out not one, but two turns from the stingy Phoenix O-line and managed to tie the game. Both teams, recognizing that control of the game was now hanging in the balance, dug in to find an extra defensive gear. After a long point made longer by some stoppage and discussions it was Phoenix who finally managed to earn their hold. Titcomb put up a huck with plenty of distance but not as much height as she would have liked. Enter Meckstroth. The World Games star was able to make an incredibly athletic grab in the end zone, snatching the disc right before colliding with the turf. The precious inches separating that phenomenal score from a potential turnover might as well have been the margin of victory: Scandal, after a two days of improbable comebacks, had finally run out of answers.
Phoenix, on game point with two chances, wouldn’t need them both. Sensing perhaps the exhaustion of their opponents, or simply the recognition that they were on the cusp of winning the best regular season tournament of the year, they ratcheted up the defensive intensity and began applying incredible defensive pressure – so much so that Scandal were unable to pass their own brick mark before giving up the possession. Phoenix moved the disc sideline-to-sideline with poise against the exhausted Scandal O-line, and Grace Conerly ended the game with a quick flick to Theresa Yu to seal the tournament championship.