April 25, 2014 by Taylor Stamps in Preview with 3 comments
In 2013, the South Central D-III Conference sent an unprecedented three teams to D-III Nationals. Harding and Rice both returned to Nationals while the newcomer to the DIII scene, John Brown, made their first appearance. With expectations very high after last season, the conference seemed ready to return two – and possibly three – teams to DIII Nationals in 2014.
However, less than desirable results from several leading teams, combined with tournament shortenings and cancellations have given the South Central just one bid to DIII Nationals — a disappointing outcome for a conference that has seen several teams vie for role as top dog.
This coming weekend, for the second year in a row, the South Central DIII Conference Championships will return to Tulsa, Oklahoma, hosted by Tulsa Ultimate Federation. With highs in the 80’s and the usual Oklahoma winds gusting around 15 to 20 miles per hour, weather should not be an issue as it has been throughout the regular season, except, perhaps some late Sunday thunderstorms.
The margin for error will be minuscule and teams must be prepared to compete from the first pull on Saturday morning if they want to have any chance come Sunday.
Over the past few years, the parity in the conference has been apparent, especially among the top three or four teams. This year is no exception. Truman State and John Brown are the clear leaders, with Truman State winning the head-to-head regular season matchup against a shortened John Brown squad. Besides TSU and JBU, the mysterious Air Force and up-and-coming University of Dallas lead the conference as the favorites to be playing in the championship game.
Top ranked Truman State comes into this weekend having only competed in one complete tournament due to a shortened Midwest Throwdown and cancelled Natural State Invite. Even with that shortened schedule, Truman State has been able to collect a couple of key victories that put them atop the conference rankings. A 13-6 victory over Missouri S&T and a 13-10 victory over John Brown have been the highlight of their in-conference competition.
The victory over an albeit short-handed John Brown has been the high point for Truman State’s season and established JuJiTSU as the team to beat. It would not be a surprise if Sunday’s championship game came down to these two teams.
In their first meeting, both Truman State and John Brown threw a zone defense. If windy conditions are again found in Tulsa, look for both teams to repeat that defensive strategy. Disc control is what gave Truman State the advantage in that game and it is what JuJiTSU’s captains have been focusing on in practice in case the two teams meet again.
If it was possession that gave Truman one of their marquee victories of the year, it was a lack of disc control that caused of their key losses. A thrilling 16-17 loss to Purdue early in the season was the results of poor decision-making on important offensive possessions. Said Club President Sean Hellebusch, on their loss against Purdue, “Our loss to Purdue was preventable, but we didn’t realize the mistakes we were making…We took low percentage shots too early in the game and didn’t take care of the disc like we should have.”
Perhaps, though, the most important thing going into this weekend of competition will be their ability to run an entirely healthy line. For the first time in a rather long while, JuJiTSU won’t be hampered by the injury bug – they will be at Conference Championships in fully healthy form.
Truman State has the toughest pool draw of any of the top teams, seeing as they face both Harding and Rice — two dark horse contenders.
The other heavy favorite, Ironfist, has played rather inconsistently throughout the season. A strong showing at Big D in Little D (their only loss, 11-15 to DI neighbor, and eventual Ozark Section Champion, Arkansas) and a perfect weekend at Hendrix Ultimate Experience displayed the high level to which this team can compete. When John Brown is on point, they are easily the most dominant team in the Conference.
That being said, their season has been hampered by the cancellation of Natural State and a poor showing at Huck Finn in St. Louis (2-4). Their dismal outing at Huck Finn, however, can be attributed to a shallow roster for that tournament. Three starters and a couple of upperclassmen were not in attendance..
The Huck Finn disappointment did reveal that John Brown’s fundamentals were not to the level that they should be at this point of the season. Since that tournament, John Brown has focused on emphasizing fundamentals, especially among their bench unit.
Captain Aric Powers described how practice has been focused on emphasizing the basics, “Fundamentals, Fundamentals, Fundamentals… Huck Finn showed as a team our fundamentals were not at a national level. The last few weeks every drill has revolved around fundamentals.”
On paper, John Brown is the most loaded team in the conference. With two All-Conference starters in Andrew Goode and Christopher Genheimer, and fellow senior Jacob Moore rounding out their senior core, Ironfist has a solid anchor. Very few teams can match the three seniors and the experienced upperclassmen that surround that central core. The only question that remains is how their second tier will play if called upon.
Assuming no injuries to their senior unit, John Brown should win their pool rather easily – I don’t see any other team in their pool pushing too hard. Ironfist should certainly be set to go up against either Truman State or Air Force early Sunday afternoon.
Air Force Academy
Air Force is probably the hardest team to gauge and predict – the results of having traveled West for most of their tournaments. The Academy’s location, being about 12 hours west of its nearest in-conference opponent, gives them the ability to face teams and attend tournament that most of their peers are unable to attend.
With this flexibility, Air Force headed to DIII Warm Up, and faced some of the top DIII teams in the nation. Poor matchups with St. Olaf and Puget Sound didn’t help their overall record on the weekend.
The highlight of the spring, though, has been Air Force’s showing at Trouble in Vegas. After a rough showing on Saturday, Air Force was able to collect themselves and play well on Sunday, amassing wins over several California teams.
On offense, the cadets will look use their athleticism and height to attack deep. Look for junior wing Gavin O’Neal to come down with the disc on deep attacks.
The lack of head-to-head matches with in-conference opponents make it very difficult to predict how the Cadets will do this coming weekend. Historically, Air Force has placed well in pool play, but has been unable to get over the hump during Sunday bracket play.
University of Dallas UDU
Over the last two seasons, there has been no bigger surprise in the conference than the rise of Dallas. With strong victories over Harding, Rice, and Hendrix, Dallas certainly earned their spot as fourth overall. Don’t let their high seeding fool you, though. UDU still embraces the role of underdog.
Perhaps the key to Dallas’ rise over the past several years has been its focus on building strong leadership with the backing of experienced coaching. Bringing in Paul Utesch to coach and provide a strong understanding of the “X’s and O’s” has been a crucial, formative move for the long-term development of the club. Utesch certainly should be in discussion for Coach of the Year in the Conference.
In addition, brothers and captains Austin and Christian Walker have provided a strong core and ethos for the offensive and defensive lines, respectively. Christian described this ethos, nicknamed “UD” Ultimate, as “ferocious defense and calm offense while maintaining good spiritedness.”
Even if UDU isn’t in a position to qualify for Nationals come Sunday morning, the foundation has been set by their coach and captains to continue their upward motion in the conference while maintaining a high level of spirit.
As talented as UDU might be, they will need to play well in order to get into a good position on Sunday. Their most important game of the weekend will be their matchup on Saturday against Air Force and if they stumble, their placement on Sunday will be less than ideal.
However, pull the upset and get some help in the form of a Truman State or John Brown loss, then UDU could be looking at a date in the semifinals, especially if the Walker brothers are able to instill that “UD” Ultimate mantra among their teammates.
After a dominating run in 2013, Harding Apocalypse hasn’t quite been able to return to that point this year. This is not too surprising as this year has been branded as a rebuilding season following the loss of several key contributors and the influx of fresh faces.
In addition, Harding suffered an early season setback when starting cutter Michael Hardison went down with a deep bone bruise in his leg in an early season matchup against Xavier. He returned several weeks later, but his presence was missed at T-Town Throwdown.
Greg Downing and Zac Petty provide the heart and firepower for Harding. On offense, Petty especially shines as the disc flows through him on most sets. As consistent as these two are, however, if an opposing team is able to shut them down, Harding will struggle to put points on the board.
Underclassmen development continues to be a focus for Harding to attain consistent success. When their freshmen are on point, such as Josh Berry in an early season game against Vanderbilt (3 goals and a pair of layout block), Harding is in decent shape. However, it is Apocalypse’s overall inconsistencies that are concerning and will most likely hinder their chances of returning to Nationals.
Rice Cloud 9
Injuries and Graduation. If you play college ultimate long enough, your team will undoubtedly face turnover due to both, perhaps in the same season. This two-headed monster is the problem Rice has faced throughout 2014.
Graduating seven players the year after appearing at Nationals is hard enough, but when numerous injuries are added to the mix, it is understandable why Rice has struggled a bit this spring.
Rice’s 6-2 showing at Big D in Little D gave this young team the necessary lift to realize that a return to Nationals was most certainly within their reach, provided necessary growth and improvements.
For a young team, Rice has more Nationals experience than most other conference contenders. Michael Drewry and Arnod Desai have been to Nationals twice in as many years, lending experience, especially on the offensive side of the disc. A good portion of Rice’s offensive schemes include both Drewry and Desai, with Freshman of the Year candidate Avery Zaleski rounding out the downfield cutters.
Last year, Rice made it to Nationals after a game-to-go against a hot Tulsa squad. This year, Cloud 9 is focusing on developing a winning instinct, to prevent getting in a similar situation. When asked about how his team is changing their focus this year, Arnod Desai touched on developing that instinct, “Last year we scrambled to get the third bid. We know you need a lot of drive to get that bid, both physically and emotionally. We are working on that killer instinct that will hopefully take us there.”
Cloud 9 is certainly better than their seeding implies. While they may not be at the top of the conference as in previous years, they certainly are not a team to ignore, especially if they are healthy.