A slate of injuries left the classic Ring-PoNY matchup without some stars, but nonetheless the universe point battle became an instant classic
October 21, 2023 by Edward Stephens in Recap with 0 comments
Ultiworld’s coverage of the 2023 Club National Championships 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.
After a year away, Raleigh Ring of Fire have clawed their way back to semis at Nationals thanks to a tightrope-nervy upset of New York PoNY. They held on for possession after possession through PoNY’s most incendiary defensive effort throughout the second half, including during a hectic universe point, to ink a 14-13 victory. The win places them firmly in the mix for a second championship in program history, a possibility that seemed remote at best as play started on Friday morning.
The game was a curated showcase of both teams’ strengths and a prize demonstration of the almost carnal appeal of the sport when played at its best – as I will attempt to describe presently in this recap. But first, a note on some upsetting events that occurred during the game.
For the second consecutive year, an ultra-talented PoNY side exit Nationals under the black cloud of injury. First Sam Little, then Jeff Babbitt were forced to leave the game under medical supervision. The quiet at the fields during both stoppages was eerily reminiscent of the mood at the Mira Mesa High School stadium during the 2022 semifinal while Grant Lindsley was unconscious following a terrible head-to-head collision with Truck Stop’s Aaron Bartlett.
Thankfully, neither of the injuries today were as deathly scary as their precursor a year ago – but they were serious. Little went up for a catch early in the first half and was prevented from landing because Suraj Madiraju was directly underneath him: the fall badly broke his forearm. Babbitt, meanwhile, appeared to aggravate a longtime recurring head injury by landing on it when he tried to bid for an off-target throw late in the game.
“The feeling of Sam [Little] running off… and you could see how broken [his arm] was, and someone screamed, ‘He broke his arm!’… That’s going to be in my head for a while,” remembered Conrad Schloer. “Emotionally… I mean, injuries. They’re the worst.”
Neither injury definitively altered the course of the game, but both call into question the continued group dedication to a hobby that carries this kind of risk for its participants. It’s a terrible shame for Babbitt and Little to have suffered grievous injuries – I wish them both a speedy and full recovery – and it’s a terrible coincidence for it to have happened to PoNY three times in their last two elimination games. May it never happen again.
In truth, the PoNY-Ring quarter bore the scars of injury even before it started. Jimmy Mickle hurt the index finger on his throwing hand against Doublewide in pool play; he tested it out in warm ups without success and did not play. Alex Davis, meanwhile, hurt his achilles during Ring’s warm-up and was immediately ruled out for the remainder of the tournament. The upshot is that PoNY would start the game without one of their premier offensive weapons, and Ring had to soldier on without the services of one of their main two-way D-line threats.
Knowing the necessity of having enough acreage to move around in during long points against determined defenses, PoNY and Ring both used their first offensive points to open up the deep space. Ben Dameron (2G, 4A) and Ryan Osgar (2G, 3A) tossed the opening hucks, and both would remain major offensive forces throughout the contest. After those two quick holds, the inconsistency that has cropped up too often for PoNY this season reared its head once again: Little and Ben Jagt miscommunicated a short reset to give Ring the disc. Ring punished the mistake quickly with a goal for Matt Rehder.
PoNY were down, but they weren’t fazed in the least. The offensive efficiency kicked back into high gear – they only turned over the disc once more in the half – through intermission. Even the gruesome injury to Little could not interrupt their march. The simple fact is that Osgar, Jack Williams, Ben Jagt, Sean Keegan, and Chris Kocher kept the ball moving with the exact kind of full-field confidence they would have had if Mickle and Little were on the field with them. And for exclamation point material, they turned to Harper Garvey. Garvey made one of the best catches of the tournament to even the score at 6-6, leaping into a Jordan pose to grab the disc near the back line over Elijah Long. It was filthy.
Harper Garvey doesn’t just send it deep, he’ll take you deep 😤 pic.twitter.com/rFfbbpdmmZ
— Ultiworld (@Ultiworld) October 20, 2023
“Our thing this weekend is ‘Harper is mini-Babbitt,’” said Schloer. “Harper has figured out his deep [game] to a degree that people underestimate or don’t really know about. He times it well, he gets higher than you expect, he gets really good positioning.”
Ring, for their part, matched PoNY’s results and bettered their effort. Anders Juengst continues to draw to matchups – often Schloer today – and treat them to a taste of his dust. Ethan Bloodworth suddenly looks like one of the most powerful continuation cutters in the division. Eric Taylor, whose injury status was uncertain heading into the weekend, enjoyed great success slipping into unmarked spaces. And Ben Dameron, the best feature today of an illustrious body of defenders, just generally chewed up yards with his legs and his throws. They worked the unders to three zones with brilliant timing.
The good times for Ring lasted until galaxy point. That’s when Dameron misplayed a huck he should have brought in for a score. PoNY let John Randolph cook on the counter, and he rewarded their trust with a score on an assist from Cam Wariner to put the game back on serve to start the second half.
Ring came out firing in the second. After a quick hold – thanks to Taylor’s uncanny ability to free up space for himself – they capitalized on a PoNY drop to maraud into the red zone, where Trevor Lynch and Suraj Madiraju both did pitch perfect Randolph imitations to punch in the break. They tacked on another one with a brilliant goal line stand. Or, more accurately, the stand was half-brilliance on Ring’s part, and half-clunky on PoNY’s. The offense simply stopped running through cycles, leaving Osgar without a viable look for nine counts. He settled for throwing toward the goal box with a sprinkle of hope rather than get stalled out, and Ring first year Matt Tucker was on hand to knock it down.
The possession that followed arguably won Ring the game. Sol Yanuck, Suraj Madiraju, Suhas Madiraju, Tucker, Walker Matthews, Dylan Hawkins all touched the disc as they worked confidently down the flick sideline, and then back and forth ahead of the red zone until the PoNY defense was out of position. Dylan Hawkins collected the disc on a swing and immediately dropped a hammer crossfield, where he had two unguarded receivers: PoNY’s risk-reward calculus with the overloaded defense on the force side of the field had, apparently, backfired.
“We relish the chance to wear down the opponent’s O-line,” said Matt Gouchoe-Hanas of the D-line offense’s effort. Based on the lapse in coverage at point’s end, they did just that.
PoNY, trailing 12-10, now needed two late breaks to win the game. They would get one. The sequence that started with Babbitt’s injury ended with a lovely red zone set: Osgar, Kocher, and Williams played the system game like they were taping a tutorial.
“Playing against these guys at practice is the hardest thing that exists,” said Schloer, who has to try to keep up with that red zone set regularly. “There aren’t really better players than these guys… It’s such an amazing challenge, and the reason I keep coming back every year is to be able to play against them. And then when I’m on their side? It feels good, for sure.”
That set up a universe point stand-off. Ring worked to the attacking brick methodically. And then it looked for all the world like PoNY had the turnover they needed when Dameron put the wrong weight on a backhand break and popped it over Rutledge Smith’s head.
“I was like, ‘Oh shit. Here we go. That’s tough,’” recalled Gouchoe-Hanas.
But Noah Saul had been working the same area of the field a little deeper – he also had a step on his matchup and cleaned up the miscue before it could turn into a turnover. The veteran’s certified hustle play ended up cinching the win.
“Each team has their moment where they come down with things like that. Players on [PoNY] made a lot of really impressive hustle plays in that game, and looking at it now, I’m thinking like, yeah, we were due for a hustle play. We were due to win one of those moments,” said Guchoe-Hanas. “So I was terrified, and then relieved, and then terrified all over again when Noah [Saul] decided to throw to Jacob [Fairfax].”
Saul saw just enough of Fairfax to feed him a backhand. Like Dameron’s pass before, it also rose high in the wind. But Fairfax rose like a paper lantern to meet it, and as soon as his feet touched the ground Ring were transported to semis. A Pool A rematch with Truck Stop awaits them there. If they can meet the challenge with the same attitude they brought into the PoNY matchup, a slot in the final is well within range.
“Noah Saul’s buzzwords are ‘faith’ and ‘belief,’ said Gouchoe-Hanas. “It comes down to us having faith that we can play with anybody, and believing in ourselves, believing we can be successful. And then we attack each moment with that belief.”