Seattle's Emerald City Classic plays hosts to this season's Pro Flight Finale, where most of the top teams in the division will butt heads. Coming away with confidence and momentum is the most important prize, with nearly every title contender will be in attendance to assert themselves as the club series draws closer.
August 28, 2014 by Keith Raynor in Preview with 6 comments
This year’s Pro Flight Finale has a different tone than last year’s. A competitive field of challengers are looking for their chance to solidify their spot as contenders to take down a dominant Riot squad. However, the recent World Championships have thrown wrinkles into the seasons of five of the teams in attendance. The context of what this tournament means has shifted, creating a variety of perspectives, mostly unique to each team.
Burlington, WA will play host to what, regardless of who takes the field, should be an action-packed weekend of nearly every major character in the narrative of this club women’s season. The deeper field should try teams, creating some interesting potential scenarios and preparing these eight squads more for what is in store in Frisco, TX.
The Return of the Fury
The historically poor start to Fury’s competitive season at the US Open was shocking, but perhaps more surprising was how the team got there. Poor execution and a penchant to get down on themselves were far cries from the confident and dominating Fury we had come to know. They were just as famous for beating teams before they even took the field as they were for making the greatest comeback in Ultimate history. But something was missing.
“Each season is a different journey and though many of Fury’s past journeys have looked similar, this year’s journey looks pretty different than any past ones,” says Loryn Kanemaru, a veteran of the Bay Area squad, channeling her coach, Matty Tsang. “But that’s ok.”
Well, the fist that adorns the Fury logo was unleashed at World’s, with the team hitting hard and racking up the types of wins expected of them. They fought their way to the final where they played an exceptional game against their burning hot rival, Riot, falling short 17-15. Even without Alex Snyder, the team looked more solid and consistent than they had in Minnesota.
“At US Open, when we got broken, we’d be reeling a little bit and it was sometimes hard for us to pull ourselves back together,” says Kanemaru, who credits the team’s mental strengthening techniques. “Throughout the [World Championships], we gave up very few breaks and when we did, we were more resilient and bounced back rather than dwelling on the fact that we had just given up a break.”
The talent is still present on the roster, as is the experience, in spades. The opportunity to avenge a 15-12 US Open loss to Brute Squad is in the cards as well. Plus, Fury has a score to settle with Riot; they’re the only team to best Seattle this season. And now, they also have their namesake, a manifestation of a refocusing that’s yielded impressive results so far.
Can Scandal Beat the Elite?
When Scandal completely dominated their way through the semifinals and final at the Club Championships last year, it was supposed to mark a major change for the team. With the right combination of superstar talents, great depth, strong leadership, and culture, the team seemed setup to begin hanging out in the VIP Room that has so long only entertained Fury and Riot. That hasn’t exactly come to fruition so far this season.
DC has struggled to assert themselves against the elite squads of this season, going 0-6 against teams that will be seeded above them at the Pro Flight Finale. Accordingly, they’ve failed to win a major tournament this season: they fell in the final of Chesapeake, the semifinals of WUCCs, and failed to even make the bracket at the US Open. The team is chalking their early struggles up to, in large part, missing players, for a variety of reasons.
“We have had two players tear their ACLs, we have two players with broken bones in their throwing hands, and we have had a lot of weddings keeping us from having full rosters for any given tournament,” says veteran Sam McClellan.
But the competition level in the division is leading to smaller margins of error game in and game out, according to Coach Alex “Dutchy” Ghesquiere.
Scandal’s success last year was often on the back of their stifling defensive play, a balancing act of discipline and pressure application. They overcame some of their offensive execution mistakes that way, but have been punished for those errors this season. So now the team is focusing more on cleaning up the offense with more precise throwing, cutting, and clearing.
“We would like to clean up our execution errors more than anything else,” says Ghesquiere.
It could be challenging for the team to get to the level they’d like to end the season at. They’ll still be without the services of Shino Yoshen and Allison Maddux; Anne Mercier, one of the division’s most effective offensive threats from the handler spot, will not yet join the team either.
Not that that matters much to Scandal.
“We know that the teams that win regular season tournaments are not the ones that win Nationals,” says McClellan. “The team that improves the most and has the most momentum heading into the club series is the one that is the most dangerous. We aim to be that team.”
Traffic Trying to Bounce Back from Worlds
Expectations for Vancouver was high coming into the year, and were only heightened by their impressive run to the US Open semifinals. Their throwers were already looking very impactful for so early in the season, and that was without star handler, Kira Frew, or skilled youngster Mira Donaldson. Both players will be cleating up – along with veteran cutter Jen Kwok – with a very flush Traffic roster at the Pro Flight Finale.
They’ll look to that returning firepower to gel with the rest of the squad after coming off a disappointing 5th place finish at the World Ultimate Club Championships. All three are multi-year returners, so they should be integrated quickly. On the other hand, the team will have only practiced three times between returning from Italy and appearing in Washington.
“Adding Kira, Kwok and Mira back onto our roster really helps deepen our bench and O line arsenal,” says Traffic captain Catherine Hui.
Traffic has added a focus on flexibility and versatility after their experiences at the US Open and Worlds. Seeing a wide variety of competition has shown them many styles of play and taught them they need to be adaptable.
“We are learning the subtle differences and playing styles from all over North America. It has forced us to become more flexible in our strategy,” says Hui.
The team has had mixed results against this level of competition and failed to score any big wins against the Pro Flight field in Lecco. After failing to make the WUCC semifinals, expect Traffic to come out in Washington with a bit of a chip on their shoulder.
Showdown Needs Consistency
At last year’s Pro Flight Finale, Showdown came in seeded 6th, the same seed as this season. Their regular season had been quite underwhelming up to that point. In the first round, they shocked Riot in a 15-14 upset. They followed that huge win up with five straight losses, four of which came by deficits of 2 or less. Those five losses were the last games they lost until semifinals at Nationals.
Suspect performances, competitive losses, and flashes of top quality may be hallmarks of Showdown. This season has had its share of bumps in the road: getting throttled by Riot and Fury at the US Open, and nearly losing to London Iceni. But then there’s those flashes, such as wins over Brute Squad at US Open and Traffic at World’s. Even their season series against Scandal is something of a microcosm. Against the DC ladies, they are 0-3, just getting edged in WUCC power pools, but getting rocked 17-10 in the 3rd place game.
The roster and style changes in Texas make it unsurprising the see the team feeling their way through the season. And nobody is foolish enough to write them off before Nationals, where they’ve demonstrated a penchant for booting expectations out the window. But their region promises to be a challenge, with Molly Brown asserting themselves as the best team that won’t be at the Pro Flight Finale.
More of the same from Showdown is what we all expect. But if they can put together some strong wins, they could enter the conversation for elite contenders.
Nothing Left for Riot to Prove
“Worlds provided us an opportunity to see what we can do right now when we don’t hold anything back. So the Pro Flight Finale doesn’t need to be that for us.”
The Riot captains have every reason to feel confident, with the team tearing through the season. Seattle has compiled a 24-1 record, with their only loss coming at the hands of Fury way back in June. They’ve bested their rivals three times since then, including in the WUCC final in Italy. With Pro Flight Finale so closing following Worlds, Riot has put themselves in a unique position to approach the tournament more openly.
“We can treat certain games at this tournament as an opportunity to test out new hypotheses,” added the captains. “The focus is on learning more about how to best use our weapons against each of these top teams we expect to see at Nationals.”
Riot’s depth of talent and strategy has been supported by their execution, making them the clear leader of the pack this season. The Seattle handler core has been a handful for every defense they’ve come across, and versatile cutters like Hana Kawai and Sarah Griffith have been equally effective. Even when the team is running field experiments, they’ll be capable of taking down the other top squads.
Brute Squad Back in Action
While the other top teams in the division were in Lecco, Italy, Boston was back in the States, working. They’re the only top six seed at the Pro Flight Finale who was not included for the World Championships. That means it’s been well over a month since the team has competed together and that their competitors are coming off mini-peaks in their seasons. It is unclear whether this will be to Boston’s advantage or their detriment.
The expectations for Brute Squad were high from the preseason, when splashy acquisitions made them to the talk of the offseason. They walked the walk, too, giving Riot a good run in the US Open final and winning the Chesapeake Invite over Scandal. Their two seed this weekend is well-earned.
Their work at the US Open was sans some of their most pivotal personnel, most of whom are headed to the Pro Flight Finale with the team. Kami Groom and Mia Greenwald are the only players not rostered for games in Washington. Brue Squad has marked themselves as one of the few teams capable of knocking top seeded Riot off course and this weekend should offer them ample opportunity to continue the upward trend.
Nemesis and Capitals Have Tough Roads Ahead
There’s no denying that two teams enter the Pro Flight Finale looking out of place: Chicago Nemesis and Toronto Capitals. The tournament’s bottom seeds are a combined 12-12 and have little in the way of elite competitive experience this year. Each has only been to two tournaments, with Nemesis yet to compile a winning weekend and Capitals sending shorthanded and misshapen rosters.
Chicago was sent back to the drawing board when a number of their top contributors left the team, and they’ve spent the season trying to carve out a new identity. It’s a taxing and difficult process that has left them a ways off from they were at this point last year. They’ve been forced to adopt a long term view, with eyes on October and even beyond.
This will be the second straight week of competition for Nemesis. However, their weekend at Heavyweights was shortened by weather, so they only played five games, all of which were relatively brief. Just when a 12-2 victory over Phoenix marked a sign of progress, they fell 6-10 to the same squad to end the day. It is safe to say they are still a work in progress.
The same is true of Capitals, who have yet to even finalize their roster. The Canadian competition calendar has always impacted the Caps, but the Worlds year seems to have pushed them back even further. There are only 16 women headed to Washington to represent the team – many of them new names and faces – and it is unlikely all of them will be joining the team for the fall series.
Is it intimidating to go in against the best teams in the country in such a state of flux?
“In the way of bids, possibly,” says Capitals captain Kathryn Pohran. “We know we have to run with these teams and do well.”
Toronto is in the competitive Northeast Region, and currently ranked 13th, near the bid cusp. While the weekend may be all about looking forward, they may not be able to afford glossing over their present situation.
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