2023 Club Championships: Glory! Truck Stop Win the Whole Thing (Men’s Final Recap)

Truck Stop's first title.

Washington DC Truck Stop’s AJ Merriman lifts the 2023 Club Championship trophy. Photo: Jeff Bell – 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.

Washington DC Truck Stop defeated Chicago Machine 15 – 12 on the strength of a magnificent second half to win the program’s first title. Truck Stop’s offense was perfect down the stretch, and they cranked the defensive pressure to a boil to put the game away with a pair of late breaks.

It was, technically, a comeback, since Machine broke DC on the game’s first point to jump to an early lead. Ben Oort – who otherwise played a fine game, scoring three goals – misjudged the wind and popped up a pass to a wide open cutter. Machine were merciless on the counter. Conor McHale, as he has so often for his home European club Clapham, cracked the point open with a sublime throw. This one was a high-wire inside-out fifty-yard backhand that settled like a tired puppy into Jason Vallee’s arms in perfect stride.

Even as Truck settled for a hold on the second point, the message was clear: Machine had a plan of attack and the right set of personnel to execute. This was true despite the absence of two major defensive talents. Andrew Sjogren, who was hurt while making the awe-inspiring block that set up Machine’s semifinal win on Saturday night, was on the sidelines in a sling. And then there was Johnny Bansfield.1 Bansfield, who had been ejected from the semifinal after receiving a red card and was not eligible to return until the second half of the final, was watching the action from a perch outside the stadium, atop a staircase in one of the other buildings on the Canyon Crest Academy grounds.

Machine’s O-line were poised to start the game. It didn’t matter that, in the first battle of a war that would last the entire game, Truck’s ace matchup defender Troy Holland put a lid on Joe White’s efforts to collect a reset. Pawel Janas charged to the sideline to offer a timely bail-out for Paul Arters and then bent a high-release backhand to Jack Shanahan – the first of Shanahan’s three goals in the final.

Poised or no, Machine were not going to skate ahead of Truck without a response. It came quickly. Pressure from Truck’s D-line forced a tough pass down the flick sideline. Malik Auger-Semmar threw his hand out at the last second to try a stabbing grab, but he couldn’t get a grip. That set up a showcase point for one of Truck Stops 2023 additions: Thomas Edmonds. Edmonds has been brilliant on offense after turnovers, and he added another star sticker to his chart with a silky IO forehand over everyone in the middle of the field to find Fred Farah. The game, briefly kinked, was now straightened back to on serve.

Truck earned another break a few points later to take their first real lead. That’s about when the game’s stars began to rise into the stratosphere. McHale led another strong scoring effort with his deep throwing as the Machine D-line came on for a hold. On the next point, he bodied Rowan McDonnell for a deep block, but McDonnell got him back on the ensuing possession to set up a trademark Jonny Malks torpedo forehand to Cole Jurek. Arters and Shanahan connected again on a skillfully curved, skillfully sealed red zone pass. Christian Boxley skipped, dashed, and juked his way open with the regularity he’s shown all season long.

But no one was as singularly dominant as White. The game-leading +6 line he posted (4A, 2G, 0T) only tells some of the story. He was so good throughout the tournament as a combination deep threat, hucking threat, and short game expert that there wasn’t an answer for him. He managed to catch a huck with Holland standing essentially against him and waving his arms blindly. That feat of concentration kept Machine within a point. White then led the D-line counter to put the game back on serve, finishing with a rather improbable touch blade over two defenders to Jeff Gao.

There was one superstar, however, who did not contribute on the field at all in the first half: Bansfield. He made a hero’s entrance as soon as the first period ended, strolling from his USAU-designated hideaway outbuilding onto the field to a full-throated roar from the crowd. It is not an overstatement to say it instantly became one of the most iconic moments in the history of the sport.

“We had a ton of confidence going into halftime. Johnny Bansfield was coming back for us, and we felt like a complete team again,” said Kyle Rutledge. “We felt awesome. If you tell me you’re tied at half and then you get Johnny back? I’ll take that every time.”

The roar began again after a Machine hold out of half to tie the game at 8-8: the ensuing defensive point was Bansfield’s first since the ejection the night before, and the stadium rang with his name in a fervent chant.

Energized by Bansfield’s return, Machine dug in for a tremendous point. At the goal line, the famously coordinated and hungry D-line held Truck in check for nine counts. It wasn’t quite enough. Tyler Monroe, desperate for any kind of option, finally saw a seam toward Ben Oort across the field and whipped a backhand. It was like an emergency exit had suddenly appeared – one more suspenseful happy ending for a team that buttered its bread on Houdini-esque escapes throughout the final. Truck Stop’s O-line ultimately did not turn the disc over in the second half.

Machine were quick to acknowledge the challenge of gameplanning against such a multifaceted offense: Truck Stop’s regular O-line rotation was significantly larger than that of other Nationals teams. “One of the biggest problems was simply that they had 11 people, which seems large. We were having trouble – like, ‘Wait, who’s the 11th person? Oh, we still gotta matchup with Jacques [Nissen]?! Wonderful. Fantastic. We’re running out of people to throw at them,’” said coach Alex Champe.

“They’re really tough to match up against because they trust everyone with the disc. They’ve built a really strong system where everyone is comfortable, even in the wind. They all get open on resets very well, and they don’t give the ball up. So it’s really tough to game plan against them when a lot of people can do a lot of different things,” echoed Rutledge.

White (masterful reset work and a gorgeous backhand floater to space) and Monroe (air-shattering scoober) traded highlights for a few points. Then, with Truck leading 11-10 on serve, the game finally broke. At the outset of an offensive point, Keegan North targeted Malik Auger-Semmar on a long under. Moussa Dia was in the vicinity, though, and he had been preparing for just that kind of a moment.

“Machine had been doing a great job the entire game of isolating their really big cutters in space,” said Dia. “And it’s just such a hassle to have to deal with Nate Goff, Malik [Auger-Semmar], Joe White in space. And coming into that second half knowing that they were going upwind and knowing that we needed to change something up to mount the pressure… we just started playing a lot more aggressively. Being able to play tighter got me into that mindset of trying to get a block under instead of conceding and letting them have those.”

With a split-second reaction, he threw his hand out to knock the disc down. Truck’s D-line offense did not waste any time scoring in the short field scenario: AJ Merriman, who broke out in a big way on both defense and offense over the course of the tournament, calmly met Troy Holland’s end zone cut with a forehand.

Machine stayed within comeback range for a couple of points as North, White, Shanahan, and Janas continued their run of strong play. Shanahan, in his sixth season with Machine, had had a quiet tournament until the final – he only scored one other goal. But in the most important game of the season, only White was more effective. Shanahan’s crafty isolation cuts in the end zone were a kind of jaws-of-life tool to pry Machine free of Truck’s crushing matchup defense.

“Jack Shanahan,” said Rutledge. “We were moving some pieces around trying to change up matchups. We pulled Nate [Goff] to a lot of D-line points, and Jack stepped up in a big way.”

Trailing 13-12, Machine might have had an opening to force a second consecutive universe point – but a McDonnell dagger put the game out of reach. For the past two years, Truck Stop’s O-line, famously, have thrived on front-of-stack motion and, when they open up, continuations from there both to advance down the field and score in the red zone. They’ll sprinkle in a pull play huck or two each game to keep the defense honest, but by and large they prefer to stick to the script. At this critical juncture, however, McDonnell tore it to pieces. Turning around on an under, he catapulted an edgy forehand – it verged on being a blade – more than fifty yards crossfield to the back line for Malks. The throw was out of system, out of pocket, outrageous, and, crucially, out of Nate Goff’s reach: he couldn’t do anything but watch it come down to earth and hope for a turnover. Malks ran it down to put Truck Stop at the precipice of victory.

“Those are points where the individual brilliance comes through,” said Boxley. “We’re a system team, and we like to cycle through our players. But we’re all brilliant in our own ways. We can be walking up to the line and be like, ‘Let’s work’em. Let’s work the disc up the field,’ and then Rowan will catch the disc on the flat side and throw a 55-yard edgy huck perfectly… We all have individual moments of brilliance that power the system that we trust.”

Truck didn’t waste any time putting the final touches on the picture. They earned the disc on a rather strange play. Janas collected a long under on the flick sideline and saw both receivers dashing toward the end zone and trailing Truck defenders hustling to catch up with them on a line that took them near where he held the disc. He dove into contact with a passing defender as he threw a backhand: predictably, the contact resulted in a bad throw. It would have also been a foul and given the disc back to Janas – except that he had been called for a travel on the play before the contact occurred. The observers ruled that the travel call was correct and that it pre-empted the contact. Therefore the result of the play was a turnover.

Machine were philosophical about that play and a couple of others. “That definitely falls into the category of uncontrollables. Once you go to Orange, it’s out of your control, and that’s that. You’ve got to learn to live with it,” said Champe.

“Definitely the one with Pawel [Janas] was strange. I don’t think a lot of people even realized that it would be a turn,” Champe added. “But I don’t think we feel robbed or anything like that. Calls are going to go calls’ way.”

Truck swung the disc to the opposite sideline to David Cranston. Seeing him get the disc had the effect of a starter’s pistol: Holland, Merriman, and Dia all bolted for the end zone.

“Whenever David Cranston has the disc on the flick side, everyone wants to cut deep and catch it,” said Dia.

Merriman was in position to make the play, but Machine defended his cut well, and Shanahan rose for the critical block. Unfortunately, he mac’ed it into the end zone with enough stability and float to give Dia a play on the tip.

“As soon as I saw it go up… Troy Holland instilled something in me to always chase things down, give effort to every disc that goes up,” said Dia.

Dia laid out for a tremendous one-handed grab and popped up immediately to receive the rush of teammates leaping and whooping to celebrate the win.

“It feels real sweet,” said captain and D-line handler David Bloodgood.

It wasn’t an easy road through the tournament for Truck. Pool play bruised them with a pair of universe point losses – to what would turn out to be two of the four semifinalists, Denver Johnny Bravo and Raleigh Ring of Fire. Atlanta Chain Lightning posed a credible threat to topple them during an intense prequarters contest before Truck eked out a 15-13 win – the same narrow margin that floated them out of a difficult semifinal rematch with Ring.

And, of course, the reason they made the final was because of the overturned strip call on a Peter Boerth catch that would have ended their season in quarters at the hands of Boston DiG. McDonnell and has acknowledged as much.

“The end of the DiG game is on my mind. It almost seemed like we needed two lives to win this tournament,” McDonnell said in an interview on the Deep Look podcast. “They got it wrong. 14-14, it’s just a little different feeling, because technically if you stop rotation in the end zone at 14s, that should be the game… [Everybody] saw it, everybody knows… I do think there is a little bit of an asterisk.”

All difficulty and controversy aside, though, the tournament victory this year had the feel of a coronation. It serves as an official acknowledgment of something all of us – Truck Stop players, opponents, the media, and fans – have known for some time now. Something perhaps best expressed in a tweet from the very club who were on the wrong end of the call in quarters:

Boston DiG Congratulations Tweet

The win washes away the torment of the effort in 2022 that fell a game short of the ultimate goal. “This feels a lot better than last year, I’ll say that much,” said Boxley. “[Alexandre] Fall and I had the same conversation maybe 20 times that first month after [the loss to Bravo]: ‘We should’ve won it… we’ll win it next year.’ Like every time we got two beers in us, ‘Oooh, we should’ve won it!’”

There will be no cause for regret this offseason. Truck Stop, in capping off their season with a hard-earned title, did not leave anything else to question. They have, for the first time in program history, fulfilled the whole promise of their glory.

  1. Bansfield split time between the O-line and the D-line throughout the tournament, but we’ll count him as a D-liner for this sentence. 

  1. Edward Stephens
    Edward Stephens

    Edward Stephens has an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. He writes and plays ultimate in Athens, Georgia.

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