Northwest Challenge 2024: Tournament Recap (Women’s Div.)

Carleton Syzygy’s Aria Kischner and her teammates celebrate at the 2024 Northwest Challenge. Photo: Emma Ottosen – UltiPhotos.com

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Northwest Challenge 2024 didn’t look as momentous as previous year’s had, with a smaller field and some elite teams not attending. It ended in historic and memorable fashion, with the book closed on a legendary winning streak and a new favorite established in the women’s division. Rest assured that this tournament will not fade from our collective memory anytime soon.

A Victory Written in the Stars

It actually happened. North Carolina Pleiades lost a game, breaking their 1,451-day, four-year-long winning streak. In 2020, the last (and only that year) team to beat Pleiades was Carleton Syzygy at Queen City Tune Up. They went on to go three seasons, winning three straight D-I championship titles without any losses on their name. They even started out this season strong, easily winning all of their games in two prior tournaments. Never has a team been so dominant, to go completely undefeated in a way that only a small handful of their upperclassmen have felt what a sanctioned loss in college feels like.

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Until now.

In their semifinal, it’s only fitting that Carleton Syzygy became the first team to beat the powerhouse team since their 2020 victory.

“We’re pretty hyped because the last time UNC lost was to Syz and so to be able to have that honor and work towards that has been a big goal of ours. And to be able to have something to show for that is just a cool thing,” said Aria Kischner.

“Yeah, (we) bookended it,” added Mia Beeman-Weber.

While the UNC loss comes as a surprise to some, others have sensed this coming; it was only a matter of time. Onlookers noticed that throughout the weekend at Northwest Challenge, Pleiades’s offense looked more shaky than that of past iterations. Yes, it was still strong enough to produce favorable results against the other teams they faced. Still, the standard for their performance was elevated so much that their mediocre was the same as great for most teams. Simply said, up until the semifinal round, they were in control of every game they played. Nevertheless, the other top teams in the tournament looked equally as strong. One of those teams was Syzygy in the semifinal.

See: the video recap of UNC vs. Carleton in the Northwest Challenge semifinals

The semifinal started just like a lot of UNC’s games typically did; with a clean hold and a clean break due to a Syzygy drop. However, on the following point, Carleton cleaned things up with a look from Chagall Gelfand to Naomi Fina. This was not the first time over the weekend that these two earned stats, and it most certainly would not be the last. Every time from that point on that the Carleton O-line scored, Fina was on the receiving end. Even with a matchup as powerful as 2022 Callahan winner Dawn Culton on her, she still managed to get open constantly. She became a problem that UNC’s defense did not know how to answer.

After several holds and miscues per team, a Tori Gray shot to Mia Beeman-Weber allowed Carleton a break to tie the game back up at 4-4. It became quite clear that both teams were in it. As Pleiades cleaned up their offense and Syzygy’s O-line defense strengthened, and teams found themselves deadlocked on the point to take half. Thanks to a run-through block by Gelfand, Syzygy broke. They received and held the following point to put them up 8-6.

Adding fuel to their fire, a whole team of Carleton CUT players cheered their sister team on from the sidelines, even though the NWC Men’s division tournament was not until the following week. As many Carleton players hail from Seattle, several families were also there to cheer their children on. The additional sideline support was enough of a home-field advantage to help the team keep their energy up.

Pleiades took their first O-point of the half in style with a clean hold ending in an Erica Birdsong trailing edge layout score. Birdsong was arguably Pleiades’s best player not only in this game but all weekend. Not only did she make catches that perhaps no one else could catch with full-body extensions, but the same can be said with the blocks she made, as she ruled the air.

In an attempt for both teams to slow down their opponent’s offense, they took turns setting out some zones for the first time in the game. The zones lasted several points but neither team was successful at stopping the offense, and we saw multiple clean holds. When Pleiades switched to person defense, Theresa Yu picked up on the fact that Fina was Carleton’s favorite target and got a block on her score attempt. But when Fina was presented with another scoring opportunity thanks to a block by Opal Burruss, with a perfectly placed throw by Gelfand, she out-read both Yu and Culton to go up 11-9.

When UNC held the following point, they took a timeout to re-group. Something in the timeout speech helped, because they got a break. And then another. With blocks by Yu and Izzy Myers-Miller and a save off of a deflection in the end zone by Macy Hudson, Pleiades found themselves reclaiming the lead at 12-11, with the game to 13. The game wasn’t over quite yet and Syzygy knew that as Beeman-Weber hit Gray to force a double game point.

Starting on defense, it was still an uphill battle for the underdogs from Northfield. The point started out looking too easy for Pleiades as they marched down the field. That is until Gray got a handblock that was 20 yards away from the UNC end zone. Syzygy players all streaked deep to create as many yards as they could and got pretty far until Birdsong went beast mode with a layout block. Due to a miscommunication on a throw from Pleiades, Syzygy had another chance, likely knowing it was their last at making history.

Carleton were patient, holstering their deep looks, waiting until it was time to strike. When Gray saw Clara Gale running deep out of the stack, she took her shot, around the defending Birdsong, right into the arms of Gale. Before the catch was even made, everyone on the sidelines knew that was it. Before too many players and fans rushed the field, and before the observers could make a signal, everyone had to take a pause. Prior to the throw going up, Gale’s defender called a pick. After some discussion, the observers ruled that the throw was too much of a long shot for the defender to make a play and signaled a goal.

Even though it was an unconventional ending, Syzygy had officially ended Pleiades’s 1451-day winning streak.

“This whole season, we’ve been really trying to recenter just to ourselves and just to our teammates, trust our systems, and ignore whoever our opponent is. Coming into a game with a big matchup like that can be hard to do,” said Kischner. “But really trying to dial into ourselves and do what we’ve been working for this whole season. It was cool to show it and see some results with that.”

“Right off the bat, we came out there trusting every single one of our teammates and trusting our systems and knowing that easy hands were going to open up,” added Beeman-Weber. “We’re playing our game, we don’t care who they are, we don’t care what they’re trying to throw on us. We’re doing the easy thing for us and that’ll work out. And it definitely did.”

Of course, Pleiades still have their sights set on the prize of what truly matters: another National title. One loss in their season does not change that. The small setback might even help build resilience to make them all the much better.

“Obviously it sucks to lose, but we are still in the middle of our season, we have bigger goals than just this tournament. I think we can learn a lot from that game and all of the games that we play, win or lose, so I’m looking forward to what the rest of the season holds and I think we have a lot to take away from that,” said Erica Birdsong. “I think up until now, this [winning streak] has been something very not normal, and this [loss] is something normal that happens to pretty much every other team. And we’ll be fine. But moving forward, taking this for what it is, and looking ahead.”

Thunderous Success

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  1. Laura Osterlund
    Laura Osterlund

    Laura picked up a disc her senior year of high school and hasn't put it down since. She played on the mixed/open team at Bethel University where she graduated with a journalism degree. Based out of the Twin Cities, MN, you can find her engaging in all levels of Ultimate: working with Minnesota Strike, playing mixed club, and grinding at local ultimate and goalty leagues. Her ultimate accomplishment - besides helping start a women's league (coming spring 2024) - is winning Z league with Big Blue.

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