East Coast Invite 2024: Tournament Recap (Women’s Div.)

Vermont Ruckus position themselves as clear title contenders - if not near-favorites - with two wins over North Carolina Pleiades to claim the ECI crown

Vermont’s Kennedy McCarthy with the score against UNC in the finals of East Coast Invite 2024. Photo: Jeremy Smeltzer – j.j.photography302

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Frederica, DE – It’s official: the top of the college division is as wide open as the Carolina blue sky for the first time in four years. #1 Vermont Ruckus overcame getting broken on the first two points of the game to take down #4 North Carolina Pleiades in the East Coast Invite final, staking their claim as a Nationals one-seed.

Tufts, Michigan, Northeastern, and Penn all posted the most impressive weekends of their seasons with deep bracket runs, but it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for that group; Northeastern’s performance left them a heartbreaking 12 rankings points short of bid-earning territory.

Ruckus Do It!: Vermont Over North Carolina (x2)

North Carolina-Vermont was the marquee matchup of the tournament. So nice, we got to see it twice! ECI’s scramble-style schedule pitted the top two seeds against each other on Saturday, with a chance to meet again in the Sunday bracket.

In match play, Ruckus soundly beat UNC 15-11. In that game, the Pleiades offense looked timid and made execution errors we’re not accustomed to seeing from the legendarily stingy unit: low throws, dropped discs, lackluster motion. When they gave the disc up, the Vermont D-line simply didn’t give it back. On the other side of the ball, the UNC defense looked lost as Ruckus clinically picked them apart. It was a truly complete performance for Vermont, and a head scratcher from a not-invincible-but-still-very good Pleiades team.

Coming into the final, it looked like we might be in for more of the same. Vermont rolled through the tournament, giving up no more than nine goals to any team not named Pleiades all weekend and demolishing a Nationals-caliber #17 Northeastern Valkyries 15-3 in the semi. Ruckus’ top end on offense — Kennedy McCarthy, Emily Pozzy, Caroline Stone, Sophie Acker, and Lucy Toppen, to name a few — looked downright fearsome, and nigh unstoppable at their best.

North Carolina, on the other hand, had just come off a 9-8 squeaker against #7 Tufts EWO in their semi. The offense continued to look tentative and Tufts was able to connect on their deep balls — a bad sign for Pleiades about to face a similarly huck-happy Ruckus offense. All signs pointed to another hot start for Vermont. 

But this is why we actually play the games, folks. From the first pull, both patterns flipped: all of a sudden, the UNC defense was exerting real pressure, and the red-hot Vermont offense had cooled. Ruckus threw it away twice on the very first offensive point, and Pleiades were able to punch in the downwind break with chilly end zone motion. The second point started with an out-of-bounds huck for Vermont; Bella Russell ripped an upwinder to Dawn Culton on the goal line, who quickly flipped it in. Just like that: 2-0.

Pleiades had clearly been looking forward to the rematch and the chance to improve on their Saturday showing.

“You don’t get to learn a lot when you beat other teams by a lot,” said UNC spirit captain Claudia Dare. “We like being challenged, we like being pushed. It’s exciting to get that and get to grow from that.”

Vermont eventually got their feet under them, and the teams traded holds and a pair of breaks to make it 5-3. On Vermont’s next upwind O-point, Ruckus found themselves in the red zone and ran a classic small ball set, working the disc between Emily Pozzy, Kennedy McCarthy, Sophie Acker and Caroline Stone. Pozzy charged upline, looking back toward the thrower, and inadvertently collided with Caroline Spencer, who had been faceguarding Acker as she cut to the same space. Spencer and Pozzy seemed equally surprised by the contact and went down hard.

It was a scary moment, and neither player would return to the game, a significant blow for both teams. Spencer is an O-line starter for Pleiades who has found a new level after spending a club season with Raleigh Phoenix. Ruckus gives Pozzy huge minutes on both sides of the ball, playing her at center O-line handler and frequently crossing her to defense. Both units, though, emphasized that one player does not a team make.

“Caroline is a weapon… [losing her] is a hit, but that’s why we have 27 people on our team,” said Dare.

McCarthy echoed that sentiment. “That’s what our team culture is: Emily Pozzy is one of our top players, but [when she goes out] we don’t bat an eye — well, maybe we batted an eye, but we were able to bounce back,” she said.

Bounce back they did. Ruckus were able to punch in that upwind hold for 5-4. Without Spencer, the margins became ever so slightly tighter on offense for UNC. Ruckus were able to capitalize on their discomfort and bit by bit, break by break, work their way back into the game.

Vermont got one back before half to make it 6-6 when McCarthy picked up an out-of-bounds North Carolina huck and sent a deep ball of her own. Another break came immediately after half when a routine swing look was too low for the UNC receiver — a crossfield look from Lucy Toppen found Stone in the end zone. After those plays, the next two breaks to get back on serve and open up a two-goal lead felt perfunctory, almost unavoidable. North Carolina was making too many execution errors and Vermont, though imperfect themselves, was converting those chances at a higher clip.

The game ended in perhaps the only way it could have: McCarthy (2G/2A) launching a flick huck for Sophie Acker (4G), 12-10. It was Vermont’s second regular-season tournament title in as many tries.1

Vermont’s Sophie Acker celebrates catching the game winner against UNC in the 2024 East Coast Invite final. Photo: Jeremy Smeltzer – j.j.photography302

Vermont’s exuberant celebration after both UNC games speaks to the impressiveness of their performance and, in some ways, is a tribute to the aura that has coalesced around Pleiades over these last few dominant years. These games, for Pleiades, were just another pool play game and just another tournament final2; they were milestones for Vermont.

“It’s kind of like nothing I’ve ever felt before,” said McCarthy. Stone agreed. “It’s so surreal [after] holding them on a pedestal for so long,” she said. 

“UNC is the team that every women’s college team has looked to for how to play ultimate,” said McCarthy. “You study Ella Juengst, Alex Barnett, Dawn Culton, Erica [Birdsong], [Theresa] Yu… they’ve revolutionized the game. I know it’s cringe, but it was an honor to play our best against them.” 

The win(s) are a clear indicator that Ruckus are not simply satisfied with competing on the biggest stages — they have every intent to win a national title. It goes without saying, then, that most of their work is ahead of them.

Come Regionals, they’ll have to get past a Tufts team that was a hair’s breadth from upsetting North Carolina themselves. More acutely, they’ll have to learn to cope with the pressure and scrutiny that comes with real expectations — it’s not unlikely they’ll end up the one-seed at Nationals. Up to this point, Ruckus have seemingly embraced the Cinderella mentality; for their next trick, they’ll have to gracefully carry the mantle of being one of the title favorites.

For UNC, the loss is a chance to plug the gaps Vermont exposed before the postseason. 

“This team is not excited to lose, but we’re excited to grow together,” said Dare. 

Luckily for them, they have plenty of time to polish their offense on both lines. However, the target has not been erased from their backs with these losses. They’ll continue to get other teams’ best shots, and need to find another gear if they’re to go back-to-back-to-back-to-back. It’s an interesting position to be in — at Nationals, there’s a real possibility that the three-time repeat champions are underdogs.3

New England Notables: Tufts, Northeastern

  1. They orchestrated a comeback against UBC in the final of Stanford Invite. 

  2. they’ve been in a few 

  3. By seed, anyway. 

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  1. Bridget Mizener
    Bridget Mizener

    Bridget Mizener is a Midwesterner by birth, but a product of the North Carolina ultimate machine. She thinks women’s college ultimate coverage is important, so she’s taking it into her own hands. She lives, plays, coaches, etc. in Durham. Tell her everything she got wrong about your team at [email protected].

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