2023 National Championships: Fury’s Offensive Flow Fails Them, Brute Squad’s Defense Doesn’t (Women’s Semifinal Recap)

Another chapter in Brute Squad v Fury, the best rivalry in ultimate

Boston Brute Squad’s Levke Walczak, Lilli Trautmann, and Laura Ospina celebrate after winning the semifinal of the 2023 Club Championships. Photo: William “Brody” Brotman – 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.

Inevitably, there were tears at the end of the San Francisco FuryBoston Brute Squad game. Both of relief and disappointment, because catharsis in sports is inevitable. There was also shouting and cheering, a lot of it from the Boston Slow sideline, but enough of it from the players, too. The energy was there for Brute Squad as they clinched their win over Fury with a Lilli Trautmann catch through traffic, it was just dampened by the mutual respect that both teams had for each other.

Fury vs. Brute Squad is the greatest rivalry our sport has had in the past decade, and the players know it just as much as the fans. So even though it wasn’t the best offense the two teams have ever played, it was still great. Because it’s Fury and Brute. They can’t help but be great when they play each other.

When setting the tone for a defensive-minded game, a first point break is a pretty good start. Good reset pressure from Brute Squad ensured that defense was going to be top of mind from the offset by getting Fury to cough up a dump pass on their first possession. From there, the small ball movement of Boston’s backfield proved too much for Fury to overcome, as Levke Walczak and Lilli Trautmann connected in the endzone for the goal.

One break does not automatically sync everyone into a defense-first mindset, but it does force both teams to put that break at the front of their minds. Fury suddenly had all the desperate incentive necessary to hunt for blocks and tighten their marks against Brute Squad in hopes of getting the game back on serve, and Brute Squad were going to do all they could to maintain that lead.

The second point of the game allowed Fury to flex their own defensive muscles. A short turn gave Boston another break chance, but Shayla Harris had other ideas. One massive footblock later and suddenly Boston was scrambling to get back on defense, only for Kanari Imanishi to hit Calise Cardenas squarely in the chest at the front of the goal to give Fury a hold.

Plenty of other points along the way would be decided in a similar manner. It wasn’t enough for the two teams to battle it out on offense, most lines moved to prove their stripes on defense, too. “Both teams play that hard physical defense,” said Fury coach Matty Tsang. “That’s what we expected. Our games against each other are normally more gritty and ugly… it’s about how hard each team is willing to work.”

Despite the incredible defense from both sides, breaks were initially hard to come by. After the first point, it was all holds for the next handful of points. Less than clean holds, but holds nonetheless. It was during these longer possessions that some of the best defensive moments of the game occurred. On one point alone, with Boston up 3-2, Amy Zhou made a standout layout block on the mark to stop Fury in their tracks, only for Dena Elimelech to snipe a huck out of the air for an incredible block of her own, which then was capped off with a blady flick to Anna Thompson who made a play past her defender to snag the disc and pass it right through to Anna Nazarov for the goal.

The combination of individual brilliance and adherence to a system that sets up players for blocks is exactly why this semifinal turned into a defensive masterclass. It wasn’t just that both teams weren’t playing clean offense, it was that they were forced out of the offense which would generally allow them to play cleanly. “Fury like to play cutter to cutter,” said Fury veteran Nancy Sun. “And [Brute Squad] did a really good job of making us play through the entire field and taking away all the close options.”

Boston was the team that managed to land the second break of the game. At 4-3, Fury rushed a pass to the endzone to get around the closing Brute Squad defenders, and that mistake ended up costing them as Angela Zhu and Levke Walczak worked with the Boston cutters to get the disc down the field before finding each other in the endzone.

To the surprise of no one, Walczak was a holy terror against Fury. The German national has become one of the greatest players in the game today and her final statline of four assists and one goal does little to portray exactly how huge she was for her team. Walczak could have gone every-other the entire game and it still might have been a good strategy. She’s just that potent.

Walczak wasn’t the only one having a good game, though. The next generation of Fury’s handlers were playing at an elite level. If Fury’s future is Anna Thompson, Amel Awadelkarim, and Kirstin Johnson, the team is in good hands. The three of them combined for a 2G/5A/3D statline and probably could have doubled that if hockey assists were included. In a game where Fury’s offense looked scrappy, those three made it look clean.

Fury’s less-than-perfect offense was a problem for them, but their defense bailed them out too many times to count. After one particular possession where Fury’s zone defense forced a turn out of Boston, Awadelkarim took charge and sliced a few throws through the wind before hitting Lisa Couper for the goal.

Not one point later, Fury’s defense would earn another break off tight end zone defense and heroics from Kanari Imanishi. Just like that, defense had brought the game back on serve.

Boston had one more break in them before half. At 7-7, a Fury miscue allowed for some easy offense from Brute Squad to punch in a break thanks to Caroline Tornquist –one of Boston’s biggest playmakers on offense. This once again put the onus back on Fury to score, something they’d find far more difficult in the second half.

It wasn’t that the second half was any cleaner than the first. In fact, as the game wore on both teams showed the strain. Still, a grittier game favored Boston, as whatever magnets they’d stuck to their jerseys kept them tight on Fury’s players every point.

Fury’s very first offensive possession out of half was stolen by a run-through block on the pull from Boston’s Elise Freedman. With so much time left on the clock at that point in the game, it’s hard to say that it was the nail in the coffin, but it did have an oversized impact on the game. Fury going down 10-7 was the largest lead of the game by either team, sizable enough that the otherwise even-keeled SF squad was starting to look out of sorts. “Her first time at Nationals,” noted Boston Brute Squad coach Rob Brazile with pride. “Her first time against Fury and she did everything she could out there.”

San Francisco would get a break back soon after, but time was against them. For some reason, that seemed to matter in ways it hadn’t before. The almost unflappable Carolyn Finney made a number of ill-advised hucks and even the ageless Opi Payne had some drops that were so out of character even the Brute Squad sideline were waiting for an injury or foul call. Fury weren’t just under pressure, they were playing like that pressure had caught up to them.

Just to make sure everyone’s on the same page, this is still Fury we’re talking about. This team under pressure makes plays that could make Grecian gods weep and wax poetics. Even when playing outside of their comfort, they still broke back enough to tie the game at 10s. That’s just what great teams do under pressure.

The point where the two teams were tied at 10s was the one that was going to decide everything. For either team, that one goal advantage was so obviously going to be the difference maker that they threw the kitchen sink at each other, went back to Bed Bath & Beyond, bought a million more sinks, and threw those at each other too for good measure. Every time Boston would come close to scoring, Fury would have an answer. Every time Fury set up a cutter in the deep space for a goal, the throw would fall just too far away. There wasn’t an advantage to be gained in the point, which is why it lasted for what must have felt like an eternity for fans and players alike.

Eventually it was none other than Tornquist who broke things open for Boston by hustling past her mark to the open side, grabbing a disc and snapping it through to Maria Angelica Forero Becerra in the endzone. That goal put Boston up a break, but it also gave them the assurance Fury couldn’t get past them if the game was going to go down to the wire.

This mentality held them right through to the end of the game. Cap went on at 13-11 as Amy Zhou found Forero Becerra for a Boston break. With Fury staring down the face of three straight goals to meet their game objective, the team went to work. They managed to save a hold thanks to Johnston following up a layout block from Tulsa Douglas with a skying block of her own that set up Thompson for a beautiful backhand to Jessie O’Connor in the endzone.

Fury didn’t have anything left after that. They managed to get a turn on Brute but two brutal drops ensure Boston had one too many chances on offense to convert, which they did when Walczak found Trautmann at the front of the endzone, reminiscent of the very first point of the game.

With that, Boston punched their ticket to the final, and Fury had to take stock of a winnable game they just let slip with an offense that wasn’t up to their regular standard. It’s hard to be too critical of either team since their respective defenses were outstanding. It just so happened that in a game of defense, it’s Boston that has the edge in 2023.

These two teams added another chapter to their storied history together with this semis. It’s not going to be forgotten for a long time, especially as it serves as just one note in the orchestra that has been their rivalry. Here’s to twenty more years of Boston vs. San Francisco, the best rivalry in ultimate.

  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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