Some of the stories to watch unfold this year.
February 4, 2015 by Alec Surmani and Keith Raynor in Opinion with 9 comments
Between the ever-expanding pro leagues, the always growing college game, and the club circuit coming off one of the most thrilling Nationals in recent memory, there’s no shortage of intriguing narratives to follow across the country and amongst the various divisions as we get into 2015.
Here’s a few of the top storylines to follow this year as the seasons unfold:
How Will People Respond to Bravo’s Success?
As far as success stories go, some might be tempted to write off Johnny Bravo’s championship run this year as a purchased title or at the very least “expected,” whatever that means. After all, with Jimmy Mickle, Kurt Gibson, Nick Lance, Bart Watson, Brett Matzuka, Sean Keegan, Brodie Smith, Ryan Farrell, Josh Ackley, Stanley Peterson, and pretty much their entire roster, how could they not win?
But when you step back from the kneejerk, what does that assumption even really stand on?
Look around at the other elite squads, though. Are teams like Revolver, Boston Ironside, Toronto GOAT, and Seattle Sockeye any less smashed to the brim with the country’s best talent?
Moreover, as this year’s thrilling Nationals displayed, even teams that seem only somewhat talent-laden, like Portland Rhino or Raleigh Ring of Fire or Washington DC Truck Stop, can defeat the juggernauts when the underdogs are playing their best.
There’s no denying that having a good handful of the world’s best players helps. But simplifying Bravo’s success this year to a mere Miami Heat analogy (a difficult temptation to resist) or anything else that detracts from how exceptionally well Denver played at the Club Championships would be not only a disservice to that team, but a great misunderstanding.
The more relevant issue then becomes: what will be the real takeaways and aftereffects of the precedent Bravo set this year?
Greater pushes to attract star power and consolidate may be a (continuing) ramification, yes. If one goes back and watches the footage of Denver’s semis and finals victories, however, it becomes apparent that they didn’t win those games by relying on Mickle skies or Gibson domination.
Numerous points, particularly in the most crucial parts of the matches, found Bravo taking a great multitude of swings, often at a significant loss of yardage, and remaining patient and trusting in their team system and collective abilities.
It was a system that Denver groomed over the course of the entire season, taking losses at big tournaments like U. S. Open and Pro Flight Finale in exchange for lessons that proved invaluable in Frisco.
U-23 Squads Look Stacked, Primed to Bring Home the Gold
With the deeply sad loss of the Nexgen Tour — one of the greatest things to happen to ultimate in the last few years — the hole left behind by the absence of a touring group of college ballers needs to be filled.
Perhaps one day, the Kevin Minderhout crew will be revived and we’ll all get our wish granted, but until then, U-23 is the next best thing.
Just look at the USA roster. The mixed team has the likes of Simon Higgins, Lisa Picaithley, Jonathan Nethercutt, and Qxhna Titcomb. The open team features Max Thorne, Stanley Peterson, Chris LaRocque, and Bobby Ley. The women’s team is loaded with Alika Johnston, Shira Stern, Lisi Lohre, and Bethany Kaylor.
It almost makes you feel sorry for the other countries.
That is, until you look at Canada’s rosters or Japan’s, or any of the other prime ultimate nations.
Sure, an American sweep seems fairly likely, just like any year. But history has proven otherwise, not just in the various victories of other countries not afforded the privilege of dozens of youth ultimate camps but also in the intensely close contests that have resulted even in the years the USA did bring home the gold in all divisions.
Thus, regardless of outcome, following the action in London, England this year will be a must — if only to witness some of best youth in the world competing at one of the highest levels and having an absolute blast doing it.
Fury Without Matty Tsang
Though he’ll continue to fulfill his role as Director of Player Development for the San Francisco Flamethrowers of the AUDL, legendary coach Matty Tsang will not return to lead San Francisco Fury in 2015.
Joining the elite program in 2006 after spending a number of years coaching Cal’s Pie Queens, Tsang became one of the game’s most recognizable faces and gifted leaders, not to mention one of the sport’s best representatives thanks to his loving smiles and the supportive atmosphere he fostered.
Tsang would lead Fury to the championship game every year of his coaching, including starting his career as the head of the Bay Area club with seven-straight national titles. Oh, and two world titles. It’s tough to get a better pedigree than that.
But the question in 2015 will be how one of the most dominant programs in ultimate history will fair without him.
Now, Fury won’t exactly be left in the lurch. When you have some of the game’s best players like Claire Desmond, Alex Snyder, Kaela Jorgenson, Cree Howard, Anna Nazarov, and Maggie Ruden, and when your “support” players are almost just as good as your stars, the loss of a great coach, no matter how legendary his success, will never be catastrophic. Sometimes it’s the little things, though, that point to how much a difference a brilliant strategist can make.
Take Fury’s semifinals upset of Seattle Riot at Nationals this year. All year long, no team had an answer to the arsenal of weapons Riot had been wielding with great success at every tournament, including Worlds. It wasn’t until San Francisco’s mixture of straight-up marks and varied defensive junk looks in the semis match that Seattle’s deadly inside-out breaks and overall style of play began to slow down just enough for them to commit a few critical mistakes, allowing Fury to sneak out the win and advance once again.
That’s what veteran leadership excels at doing: bringing out the greater potential of teams that could theoretically only realize a smaller portion of it without proper guidance.
While there’s no question that Fury will once again be in the thick of it come autumn, how they will respond to the loss of such an essential driving force will be one of the greatest tests one of the world’s greatest teams will have to face in 2015.
Scandal Verging on Dynasty Status
Speaking of killer programs, with their impressive title run at Nationals this year, back-to-back champions Washington D.C. Scandal look to be on the verge of establishing a new dynasty in the women’s division.
While their regular season produced good, but not quite great, results, Scandal proved without a doubt that not only was their 2013 victory not a fluke, but also that the D.C. team is now unquestionably the top dog.
Punctuated by their 15-7 annihilation of the stacked Boston Brute Squad in the semis of Nationals — a game that was somehow even more of a blowout than the final score suggests — as well as their impressive comeback victories over Fury in the title match and Denver Molly Brown in a tight pool play game, Scandal’s 2014 Nationals performance illustrated that not only is the D.C. team’s roster loaded with unstoppable talent like Octavia Payne, Sandy Jorgensen, Alicia White, Anne Mercier, Ashley Daly, and Sarah Itoh, but they know how to play together.
They could, if they wanted, huck to Jorgensen every possession and let her toast people all day. Or run their offense through the versatile Payne and let everyone else fill in the holes. But they don’t.
There are certainly questions about this core staying together and if, without an elite college program feeding it, Scandal can continue to develop new stars. White is stepping away and the team nearly lost Allison Maddux after Jenny Fey left this season. There’s no telling how long Mercier’s traveling relationship with the team will remain in tact and some other core players may be moving out of the notoriously transient D.C. scene.
Yet with Alex Ghesquiere still at the helm, quickly becoming the next Tsang in terms of brilliant leadership and subsequent success, it looks to be a tough next few years for any team that looks to unseat Scandal from their throne.
Even if Scandal fall to a new champion in 2015, their possible reemergence the following year could still secure their dynasty status. For, even though they fell short in 2012 and 2014, Revolver consistently draw predictions for eventual national champions, including this year.
Similarly, the reigning double champs of D.C. will surely be an exciting narrative to watch for years to come.
The AUDL Western Division — All of It
If you haven’t been following the pro leagues, now might be a good time to start. Not only did the AUDL add a South Division featuring hotbeds like Atlanta and Raleigh, but the added expansions of Los Angeles and San Diego to the already exciting Western Division demand even more attention, if only for their much-publicized early acquisitions.
The Los Angeles Aviators snagged the majority of the Santa Barbara element that played a significant role in the San Jose Spiders’ championship run, including Mark Elbogen, Tyler Bacon, and Michael Kiyoi. They also signed Husayn Carnegie, a spark plug playmaker formerly of the New York Empire. Given the amount of times LA-area people have played with and against each other over the past few years, and the resulting chemistry they’ll already have, one can expect the Aviators to jump into contention immediately.
Also entering the mix will be the San Diego Growlers. Though the San Diego community has been known as a respectable hub of ultimate for a while, it’s the Growlers’ signings of Denver Johnny Bravo stars Jimmy Mickle, Kurt Gibson, Nick Lance, and Josh Ackley that should prove to immediately catapult them to one of the most dangerous teams in the league, especially when rounded out by local talent.
Moreover, the recent partnerships between the Vancouver Riptide and Furious George and the Seattle Cascades and Sockeye should ensure that both pro squads will be loaded with much more elite club talent and thus be even more competitive in 2015.
And with the defending champion San Jose Spiders signing big names like Cassidy Rasmussen, Christian Johnson, and Justin Norden, what squads will finish atop the division is anybody’s guess.
AUDL’s Expansions into Non-Ultimate Hubs
Almost as interesting as the connections between long-standing ultimate hubs and newer pro teams are the efforts of the AUDL to expand into regions not historically known for their thriving cultures of ultimate.
Squads like the Jacksonville Cannons, Nashville Nightwatch, Ottawa Outlaws, and the as-yet-unnamed Charlotte franchise will test out their viability this year in cities that not only lack storied ultimate programs, but consequently also lack a proven market and interest in ultimate.
Let’s not forget, after all, that currently the biggest market for ultimate right now still resides in the community of people who also actually play it, or at the very least have a friends or family members that play it. Places without this initial safety net of interest suffer a significant disadvantage in terms of drumming up awareness and figuring out ways of attracting people outside the ultimate community and making them care about a sport that isn’t on basic cable and looks like a vaudeville comedy sketch when it gets too windy.
Just take a look at teams like the Detroit Mechanix and Rochester Dragons. Both had to build ultimate communities essentially from scratch and both struggled last year to compete and fill the stands.
Only continued years of experience will dictate whether such undertakings were brave expeditions into foreign territories made successful through countless hours of work and perseverance or simply failed ventures into places that just couldn’t sustain markets for sports they clearly didn’t care much about.
Despite sometimes seeming like the more put-together league, at least in the sense of its centralized leadership rather than being a separated conglomeration of franchise owners, the MLU looks to potentially be in a position to experience a more difficult year in 2015 — if only for the great talent shifts to the AUDL.
In the west, the Vancouver Nighthawks and Seattle Rainmakers can expect a significant overhaul of their roster with the AUDL’s Riptide and Cascades each signing agreements with the cities’ elite club teams: Furious George and Sockeye.
This already basically happened to the San Francisco Dogfish in 2014, when the vast majority of their San Francisco Revolver players switched over to the AUDL, resulting in their 8-2 record in 2013 dropping to a bleak 2-8 the following year. Though the Portland Stags look to be fine, as they are currently the only pro game in town, they may be looking at a much less competitive conference.
Things appear more stable in the East, with the Washington DC Current battling the AUDL’s Breeze and eventually re-signing big names like Alan Kolick and Markham Shofner. But New York and Philadelphia remain uncertain, especially with the new Pittsburgh Thunderbirds AUDL team likely to absorb some of the Spinners’ talent from western Pennsylvania.
While the Boston Whitecaps enjoy a similar situation as the Stags and thus look to be an early frontrunner in the conference despite the Current’s 2014 title, it’s difficult to anticipate what might happen to the MLU as their rival league continues to swoop a good lot of the country’s top players.
Early College Tournaments Mattering More and More
Though the recent trend for the club division has been for regular season tournaments to mean seemingly less and less — whereas it used to be that the winner of big events like the Emerald City Classic provided a good idea of who would come out on top in October — just the opposite might be developing for college teams.
This may not apply to perennial Nationals contenders like Oregon or Carleton or the like, but when it comes to universities that don’t have the comfort of pretty much knowing they’re going to qualify for the big show in May, fighting for more bids to the region feels increasingly among the paramount concerns.
Not that this hasn’t always been a concern for most college teams, but the recent debates surrounding the debilitating effects on rankings of treating early tournaments like Santa Barbara Invite or Florida Winter Classic as an experiment suggests that many squads might be leaning more on doing well than developing their weaker elements, regardless of what month it is.
Other moves like Stanford’s decision to offer a Southwest strength bid spot open in the men’s division for their home tournament, Stanford Invite, point to additional methods of strategic bolstering of one’s region.
As far as a single team’s ability to improve their region’s, and thus their own, odds of making Nationals goes, however, going all out in every tournament appears to be the greatest weapon and method of agency.
How that will affect a team’s readiness when the postseason rolls around is the unfortunate side effect that remains a dilemma that each squad must seek to address in their own way.
A New Wild Card Advances to Semis?
Perhaps the greatest storyline of the men’s division at last year’s college Nationals was North Carolina-Wilmington’s stunning upset of two-time defending champions Pittsburgh. In a game that saw only one break, the final double game point score, a team that had experienced a great gap since their last prominent run at Nationals dethroned a behemoth and advanced to the semifinals. It was pretty intense to witness, even if you were rooting for Pitt.
Based on an obviously extremely preliminary glance around the men’s division this year, a similar occurrence seems likely to occur again. Yes, one can still bet on some combination of powerhouses such as Colorado, Oregon, Wisconsin, Carleton and the like to occupy their share of semis slots in 2015.
That fourth slot, though. It was Central Florida in 2013. Iowa in 2011. Cornell in 2010. Anytime one of the final four is a wild card it’s a story. And since Colorado and Pitt and Oregon all seem fallible, though still admittedly quite good, this year, another surprise semis contender seems likely. The fun will be in finding out who it is.
Georgia Jojah, with their impressive Classic City Classic run, appear to be prime candidates. Harvard Red Line will return a wealth of their main contributors from last season and assuredly be quite deadly. Led by esteemed coach Tiina Booth and aided by monster defensive presence Jeff Babbitt, Massachusetts look to have a chance. A host of other squads naturally have legitimate shots of stepping back into the spotlight, even if the Mamabirds and Egos continue to soak up much of it.
Who Will Replace Ohio State?
It’s been awhile since a team so thoroughly dominated the women’s college division throughout the season and up through the finals at Nationals that a title almost felt like an inevitability. That is, it’s been awhile since that came from a team not named Fugue.
Ohio State’s supremacy in 2014 will most likely not repeat in 2015, due to the loss of Cassie Swafford, Paige Soper, and a number of other crucial seniors. They’ll no doubt put together another great squad, but nothing like the monster they were last year.
This leaves a big hole to fill in the division.
Sure, Oregon will most likely step up to be the early frontrunners. But they too lost essential pieces like Sophie Darch and will not likely be viewed as a lock to take the title as they have in past years. Tournaments like President’s Day will provide exciting glimpses into who’s going to assert themselves as top contenders. British Columbia? Virginia? Colorado? All appear to be likely candidates.
Northwest Women’s Dominance
Last year’s 6 bids may have just been the beginning. Most of the armaments that made the Northwest region the most formidable in the division are still in place, making for an explosive set of talent capable of steamrolling the rest of the nation. Oregon and British Columbia are both considered early title favorites, with some of the game’s brightest young stars filling out the roster.
But it goes deeper, down to Whitman and Washington. Washington is a perennial power with a flood of grad student talent slotting in to replace the vacancy at the top of their roster. Meanwhile, Whitman’s flowing pipeline to the Northwest youth scene has given them even more of the country’s best high school players, as well as transfer Nina Finley. Both are expected to make deep runs at nationals.
Deeper, still. Western Washington isn’t far behind, claiming more youth studs from the region’s high school ranks. They’ll still be a strong team even while losing Callahan finalist Callie Mah. Victoria has built a program away from the spotlight and seeks to return to nationals.
And have you seen the last U-19 roster? How strong Seattle Fryz have been? The Empire’s reign could be just beginning.