National Championships 2023: Traffic Run Into Gridlock Fury Defense, Putting Upset Dreams to a Standstill (Women’s Quarterfinal Recap)

Traffic played tight with Fury in the closest of all the women's division quarterfinals, but the divisional powerhouse showed their teeth in the second half

San Francisco Fury’s Dena Elimelech gets up for the grab against Traffic in the quarterfinals of the 2023 Club Championships. Photo: Kevin Leclaire – UltiPhotos.com

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.

The promise of a competitive quarterfinal match arrived with the battle between Traffic and Fury that appeared to be evenly matched for most of the game, right until Fury went grand theft auto and stole Traffic’s wheels right out from under them. The Vancouver squad had been keeping pace with San Francisco and were within shooting distance of semis, only for that dream to be denied by the team that hasn’t lost a quarterfinals game at Nationals since 2004.

At what point is a team allowed to believe they have a chance of upsetting Fury at Nationals? Is it the first break? Like when a handblock from Nicola Parker on Cree Howard gave Traffic a short field and an out-of-position Fury to set up a pass from Laurel Jay to Jada Lim? Or is it when you get to half on serve with the San Franciscans, just as Vancouver did in the game, getting two breaks to match Fury’s own in the first half?

In truth, the answer is neither of those. You can’t allow yourself to believe you can beat Fury until you’ve buried them in the ground. Until then, they’re the presumptive favorites to win any game they’re playing.

It’s not as if Traffic weren’t right there with Fury. They were. Make no mistake, the first few points even made things look favorable for the Canadians. Alongside their early break, they were denying a lot of Fury’s first looks and forcing them to punt hucks that were contested by Traffic players. Granted, most of those hucks were to Dena Elimelech, who was a mismatch problem for Vancouver from the offset. She came down with most of those over Traffic’s players, but it still forced Fury out of their comfort zone.

A lot of Fury’s early issues came because they were playing Traffic’s game, not their own. It became a contest of which team was able to throw it past the opposition’s bidding defense, rather than a tactical battle of winning under cuts in the center of the field. This favored Traffic, which was largely why they were staying tight with Fury. “We started flatter than we would have liked,” said Fury’s Sam Loop. “They were just putting it and legging it, slanging and flanging for it. It took us a second before we recalibrated for that.”

To Traffic’s credit, their defense wasn’t giving Fury any time to calibrate –or recalibrate. Brianne Wager, Juli Ohsada, and Andrea Moir were causing problems for Fury, especially with their handlers. It wasn’t that Fury’s handlers couldn’t get open, they just weren’t gaining any yards while doing so, which slowed down their offense considerably.

Before things get too far down the line, it’s important to circle back to Dena Elimelech. Fury’s prodigal child returned from a year on San Diego Flipside to establish herself as the best player on Fury, which is almost unassailable at this point. Elimelech had a third of her team’s goals over the course of the game and added an assist to that for good measure. Traffic tried a number of different ways to slow down the UCSD product; nothing stuck. It was her effort that earned Fury their first break of the game and, were it not for Opi Payne’s still-sharp defensive effort, she could have made a case as the team’s best defender, too.

It wasn’t just Elimelech and Payne, to be fair. Carolyn Finney brought out her best game of the tournament so far, with a 1G/2A/2D statline and was joined by Anna Nazarov also showing up in a massive way. Her three assists were eclipsed only by two amazing layout blocks. Fury’s veterans still run this team and can keep pace with any of the rookies.

Speaking of keeping pace with the rookies, with the score tied at 7s and Traffic forcing multiple turns, it was Finney who put the team on her back to give Fury the clutch hold. She spied Italian rookie Irene Scazzieri streaking deep and rifled off a flick huck well beyond any spot a defender could make an effort to reach. Fury’s effective blend of veterans and rookies is how they’ve lasted so long as a program, and it’s also why up-and-comers like Traffic struggle to find an edge over the SF squad.

The second half was a different story. It would be an oversimplification to say Traffic ran out of steam; that’s not it at all. Traffic were not at fault for Fury’s late game run, it all rests at the feet of the 12 time champions. “[The second half] came down to a ‘play our game and force them to play a different game’ situation,” noted Fury coach Nancy Sun. “We came out and tried to take away their deep game… force them to make a couple more passes.”

The additional passes did start to wear on Traffic. At 9-8 in Fury’s favor, Traffic’s offense patiently moved it across the field, only to boost a huck to Catherine Menzies that would have been caught easily if not for a bidding Amel Awadelkarim. This set up a break that was initiated by Payne and sealed by Elimelech. It’s not that Traffic’s decision-making changed, they just had their favorite options taken away and it gave Fury the opportunities they need to convert the necessary breaks to pad their lead.

Fury’s next break wouldn’t come until five points later, but by then Traffic were feeling the pressure. It’s one thing to be down a break and a half, it’s another thing to be down a break or two and have to find those with the cap closing in and Fury needing only two points to win. Unfortunately for Traffic, this is exactly when that mental pressure set in. They could tell they weren’t getting any traction over San Francisco, so they started getting a little riskier with their shots. That’s when the likes of Anna Thompson and Payne took over to seal the deal.

At 14-11, Traffic had a chance to hold and put the onus on Fury to actually finish the game. Instead, a short turn gave Fury the chance to easily punch in the goal, something Payne was happy to do.

Despite ending down four goals, Traffic put up the best fight against Fury the team has seen in some time. Fury have a tendency to coast through to semis, and this game was anything but that. Fury admitted they had to intentionally get out of cruise control and grip the steering wheel a little tighter, high praise for a team that’s known for maintaining an even keel no matter the opponent.

Traffic can hold their heads high after this performance. They gave everyone the best game of all the women’s semifinals, and they proved they’re a team that has staying power in the bracket.

For Fury, this sets them up to play none other than Boston Brute Squad in a rivalry that has defined the last decade of women’s ultimate. If all goes according to plan, it should be another instant classic for all of us.

  1. Graham Gerhart
    Graham Gerhart

    Graham Gerhart is a Senior Staff Writer at Ultiworld, focusing primarily on the Women's and Mixed divisions. Graham graduated from the University of Cape Town in South Africa after playing 4 years with the UCT Flying Tigers. He now lives and works full time in San Diego. Follow him on twitter @JustGrahamG

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