Brute Squad snuff out Scandal’s title aspirations with suffocating defense
October 31, 2023 by Jenna Weiner in Recap with 0 comments
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When the lights are at their brightest, it helps to be familiar with their heat. To be ready to shine and not melt as the dial gets turned up bit by bit. To be able to step up the moment and not wilt away.
Under the midday Sunday sunshine of San Diego, it was Boston Brute Squad in their blacks that held up to that heat and swept past Scandal to win the program’s fourth national title. They did it in comprehensive fashion, putting together a 7-3 second half defensive clinic that demoralized Washington DC Scandal as Boston rolled to a 15-9 final margin.
“Their handler defense and their marks were the best we saw all season, better than they were in pool play,” said Scandal coach Ty Aderhold after the final. “And better than any other team has played defense on our handlers and our marks. And I think that frustrated us throughout the game, and we never truly found the combination to solve it.”
Not only was Brute’s defense the best that Scandal had seen all season, but it was on point from the start. After Boston held to open the game, they locked DC down on their very first offensive possession, forcing a bailout throw that Caitlyn Lee ensured was a Scandal turn with a block. While Brute didn’t immediately convert, after a Scandal giveaway they were away, as Angela Zhu, one of Brute’s longest tenured players and a two-way force, put it deep for Levke Walczak. Just like that, it was a 2-0 Boston lead.
However, Scandal weren’t particularly shaken by the initial two-goal deficit. After all, they had just been in this position some 24 hours before against Molly Brown, and proceeded to reel off back-to-back goals to tie the game before eventually taking half and the game. And so, as it was in the Molly game, it was against Brute, and Scandal rebounded with a pair of scores.
DC’s first score was finished off with a dish from Marge Walker to Kami Groom, before the second, initiated by a smooth Nada Tramonte run-through block, was wrapped up with a touchy flick from Allie Wallace to Amanda Murphy.
In hindsight, that goal that evened the game up at 2-2 was the exception more than the norm for Scandal in the final, even as it helped contribute to what was a balanced first half. For starters, by the end of the game, either or both of Groom and Claire Trop had contributed directly to every goal — except this one. There was also the small matter of this being the first of only two Scandal breaks in the game, the second not coming until DC were trying to work their way back from being down three goals early in the second half. It also was one of the few times that Scandal’s offense looked fully on the same page, which would not bode well for the rest of the game.
The opening exchanges also saw two of the most anticipated matchups of the game, as Brute Squad’s two German World Games stars Walczak and Lilli Trautmann (a Brute rookie) did their best to slow down Team USA’s Trop. While the Germans weren’t entirely successful in the first half — as evidenced by Trop’s goal and two assists across three Scandal holds as the game went from 2-2 to 5-5 on serve — they, and their team, eventually got their way.
“I mean I think club and World Games are two really different animals and they’re both great players, but I really think I would credit that win to a team defensive performance by Brute Squad,” said Trop.
While Trop and Groom had done what they could to propel Scandal forward in the first third of the game, Brute’s defense did begin to ramp up, and a hold-break combo restored Boston’s two-goal lead. At the tail end of a back-and-forth first half, Brute had found their footing, and a quick strike score from Walczak to Caroline Tornquist after Zhu had corralled a floaty Scandal pass foreshadowed the nearly all-Boston second half.
An ensuing exchange from Trop to Groom capped off an efficient Scandal hold as they brought the deficit back down to one, but they couldn’t close the margin before halftime. Instead, Brute rode their luck as champions sometimes have to, and despite a miscommunication between the Boston handlers, a final pass from Samiya Ismail was scooped up by Zhu to close out the first half to the tune of an 8-6 Brute Squad lead.
With Scandal having gotten the better of Brute in pool play, the shift from a two-goal DC win to a two-goal Boston halftime advantage was notable, even before the runaway second half. After all, Walczak and Trauttman were playing in that Thursday afternoon matchup, not absent as they had been earlier in the season, and yet Scandal still got the better of Brute. So what had changed in the following 72 hours?
“Well, we made it well known that we had 20 break chances against them on Thursday and we only put in six,” said Brute Squad coach Dan Hourigan. “So it was a very clear message that if we played our defense, which we think is the best in the country, which I think we proved, and we just deliver our passes and trust each other and play offense in our system, we were going to win this game.”
The stats bear out that Brute’s defensive efficiency was better in the final than in pool play — though not overwhelmingly. Over the course of the game, Boston had 16 break chances and converted seven of them, just shy of 50%, though in the second half alone that number jumped to five break conversions in nine attempts. While not clinical, Brute did more than enough to take advantage of Scandal’s mistakes, especially after the halftime breather.
Saying that Brute Squad only took advantage of Scandal’s mistakes, though, undersells the sheer defensive pressure that Boston put on DC. In particular, Zhu and Tornquist led the stifling Brute defense with four and three recorded blocks, respectively, each coming up with key stops.
When a defense steps up in the manner that Brute Squad’s did in the final, there’s often a specific emphasis that is placed on one element of the game that helps catalyze the rest. For the champions, it was their handler defense, as they locked down a Scandal handler core that didn’t help themselves by having one of their worst games of the season.
“We really focused on how we mark, so that we have a flat mark in the beginning to shut down the deep huck as a mark,” said Trautmann. “But then also we really really worked hard on shutting down deep cuts in the last two, three practices.”
“We kind of got frustrated at some point as well because we couldn’t shut down each other at practice,” Trautmann continued, “and then we took that as an opportunity to step up and learn it, and I think we got it in the end that we can help each other and [in] that way can shut down the deep.”
Brute did just that to open up the second half with a break, as Caitlyn Lee prevented Trop from reeling in a deep throw from Walker and Walczak hit Becky Malinowski in stride back the other way for a three-goal Brute Squad lead. Walker, who had ably stepped in this season as one of Scandal’s primary rotation handlers, certainly didn’t have her best day against Brute Squad, finishing with seven turnovers, although she wasn’t alone. While Scandal were able to pull a pair of goals back to reduce the margin to a 9-8 Boston lead, from there Brute Squad piled on to put the game well out of reach.
Following a smooth Boston hold that reestablished their two goal cushion, it was the Trautmann and Tornquist show for Brute Squad. The two combined for two blocks, two assists, and a goal as Brute took off on a 4-0 run that all but ended the game. Drawing both the Trop and Walker matchups with the score at 10-8, Trautmann denied Trop with a heavy bid on an under cut, and then, after Blaise Sevier knocked down a Brute Squad deep huck in a pile of people, laid out for a pure point block on Walker.
“Actually I didn’t, it just felt right,” said Trauttman when asked how she knew to leave her feet at that moment. “It looked like that huck would really go up and I felt like, ‘try it, what’s there to lose?’”
Trautmann would end up connecting with her German teammate Walczak shortly thereafter to seal the break conversion, and Tornquist took over on the next point. She earned a run-through block and then completed the back-to-back break chance with a low release backhand to Mangie Ferero to balloon the lead to its largest of the game at 12-8 in Boston’s favor.
Tornquist picked a fantastic time to have her best game of the tournament, adding to her eventual 2G/2A/3B tally with an emphatic hand block on the final point as Brute tried to ice the game in statement fashion. While still arguably an up-and-coming player having just completed a stint with the USA U24 team earlier this year, Tornquist put her stamp on this game and this season as one of Brute’s potential stars for the next ten years. As her stat line suggests, Tornquist’s defense was particularly potent and came from honing a defensive mindset on Brute Squad this season.
“I’ve kind of created this identity on Brute this year as being a primary handler defender for my line,” she said after the game. “And so a big part of that is being able to put pressure on the mark and so it was really awesome to get that one at the end.”
Alongside Tornquist’s standout performance was that of one of Brute’s most veteran players, Angela Zhu, who has played with Boston since 2014, the season that kicked off Brute Squad’s active nine-season semifinal streak. Zhu was back to her classic best against Scandal, putting up three goals and one assist alongside four blocks, and she closed out the show in style. Two points, two goals, one each from each of her German teammates, and a leaping block that ended Scandal’s chances, and that was that. It was vintage from Zhu and vintage from Brute, as they made it a quartet of titles on the back of their trademark defensive intensity.
As for Scandal, while they couldn’t put a final exclamation mark on what was an excellent season, it was a remarkable one nonetheless. It’s easy to forget that this team was on a season-long hiatus two years ago, and the rise from nothing to quarters to the national final is an impressive achievement on its own. This is still a young DC team, after all, and with Trop and Groom leading the way, there’s bound to be more to come next year from Scandal.
“I said it to the team in the end of the huddle, but I wouldn’t want to do it with any other group of people,” said Trop. “And I’m sure there will be changes between now and next year, but I really hope that we carry that spirit of togetherness into 2024.”