January 28, 2014 by Alec Surmani in News, Recap with 4 comments
It may only be January, but the University of California-San Diego already looks like a team expecting to dominate in the series just a few months away.
Coming off their undefeated showing at the Sean Ryan Memorial Tournament in Santa Cruz last fall, the Air Squids went 7-0 this weekend and took home their second tournament title in a row at the Santa Barbara Invite. With an impressively smooth offense and stifling defense, which carried the Air Squids to a convincing 13-10 victory over the University of British Columbia in the finals, UCSD may have just asserted itself as the team to beat in the Southwest Region.
Throughout the weekend, the Air Squids displayed a level of offensive chemistry rarely seen this early in the season.
“Success came from the offense stepping up,” UCSD captain Nick “Alamo” Smith said. “Our O line probably got broken no more than 10 or 12 times all weekend.”
Though a number of teams use SB Invite as something of litmus test to see how their players mesh together in a competitive atmosphere, often foregoing a win-at-all-costs mentality for a certain amount of experimentation, only so much of UCSD’s success over the weekend can be attributed to other teams sitting their starters. Looking around at the expressions of the players and hearing the booming shouts of each field’s active sidelines, it was clear: teams came to play.
It was evident from the first few points of the finals that, if the Air Squids weren’t the best team out there, then they were sure playing like it, jumping out to a 4-0 lead and breaking the game wide open from the outset. Though UBC looked like a solid team as well, the Thunderbirds slow start was plagued with frantic cuts and easy drops.
Perhaps looking just to get a foothold, the Thunderbirds switched up their offense a few times in the early points, trying out horizontal, vertical and flood stacks, in search of a strategy that would help them claw their way into the game amidst UCSD’s smothering defense. “Their defense was phenomenal,” said Keane Knapp, one of UBC’s captains and standout players.
Few points had Air Squids players trailing their defensive assignments by more than a few steps. UBC’s first score required a patient endzone offense that maneuvered around at least five layout bids from Air Squids defenders before the Thunderbirds were able to punch it in and get on the board.
From there, both teams mostly traded points, with UBC greatly relying on big plays from their top players and only managing one break before the half. While there were a sizable number of easy drops and throwaways, the game was largely an offensive display, with only a few of the layout bids by either team connecting with an actual D.
Though the Thunderbirds offense looked scraggly and appeared to have to work particularly hard just to any significant gainers for much of the game, often scoring their easiest goals in transition plays after turnovers, their intensity picked up in the second half. After getting a layout D on a high stall count throw, the Thunderbirds marched it down the field with deep cuts and hard unders to break and make the game a 9-8 contest.
The Air Squids lost none of their cool, however, and earned that separation back two points later with two consecutive breaks to push the lead to 12-8, before riding it to an comfortable 13-10 win.
Smith said the Air Squids offensive line has been playing together for years, and the entire team has bought into a mentality of “trusting the system.” It definitely showed. Their endzone mechanics were on point the entire game. They ran give-and-go’s to the open side and hit the breaks when they could, rarely taking difficult or unnecessary inside-out or over-the-top shots. Though they had their share of drops and throwaways in the finals, such aberrations stood out as curious and were often followed by an increase in discipline and ramped up defense.
Additionally, with 29 guys on the roster and 27 at the tournament, the Air Squids always had fresh legs to send in if any of their players were tired or just needed to calm down. Smith said that although some players such as Paul “Tinker” Morimoto and James Lai were large contributors, UCSD likes to play a more team-oriented, “Squid Army” style of play where nobody has to be the hero. Indeed, throughout the game, one would be hard-pressed to single out any one or two players that were driving the team.
Despite the success the Air Squids have already had in the season, winning two tournaments and remaining as yet undefeated, Smith says they won’t be satisfied until they qualify for Nationals and have a good showing there. “We’re doing our job now, but it really comes down to the series,” he said.
The Air Squids next tournament will be their own President’s Day Invite, hosted at the UCSD campus on February 15-16, followed by The Rock in Rockford, Illinois on March 22-23, presented by VC Ultimate.
As for UBC, Knapp said that after the Thunderbirds SB Invite victory in 2011, the team has been doing some rebuilding. “To be in the finals is huge for the program,” he said.
Knapp attributed much of their success at the tournament to great play from their rookies and U-23 Canada stars, including Kevin Greer, Peter Yu, Fred Lam and Knapp, all of which exhibited an impressive amount of athleticism and ultimate IQ.
UBC’s next tournament will be President’s Day Invite in San Diego, where the Thunderbirds hope to continue their early momentum.
Assorted notes from the tournament:
– Arizona State, with their lockdown defense and nasty break throws, looks like the other top contender in the Southwest. Had they drawn UBC or Arizona in the semifinals, they might have been playing UCSD in the finals.
– UCSD was down 12-10 to Arizona State in semifinals, but scored two in a row to force universe. ASU had it on endzone line twice and couldn’t convert.
– Getting NexGen star Eli Kerns back on Sunday did help UC Davis avenge its loss to eight-man Tulane, but couldn’t help them overcome Cal (14-12) in prequarters.
– Cal’s offense, run through Mischief handler Chuck Cao, runs on hard deep cuts and hard unders for large gainers. They look like a team that, after more polishing over the season, will be another strong contender for Nationals.
– With its strong cast of experienced club players in Polar Bears’ Simon Higgins, Revolver’s Marcelo Sanchez, and a number of Mischief and Greater Good veterans, Las Positas also looks like a team that could make a deep run in the series.
– Despite having only eight men on Saturday and a few more on Sunday, Tulane looked like an experienced and disciplined team, with good break throws, deep cuts from handler positions, and smart poachy defense. If they can scrounge up some better luck, they could be a dangerous team in a few months.
– Early potential Southwest Region rookie of the year: Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo’s Cameron Wariner. He has great speed, sneaky spin moves, and nasty ups.