Despite losing incredible talent, three of 2014's top teams are all in the mix for a deep run at Nationals.
May 11, 2015 by Liz Gates in Analysis with 0 comments
At the end of the National Championships in Mason, Ohio, last May, three of the top women’s teams in the country were riding on the backs of a few phenomenal players, many of whom were playing in their final college tournament. With huge names like Sophie Darch, Cassie Swafford, Paige Soper, Mariel Hammond, and Sunny Harris departing, each of their respective teams was faced with the challenge of staying competitive while filling the holes left behind.
“We’re going through a transition year” is a statement commonly heard during the regular season. And hearing it is often an indicator that a team isn’t doing as well as they expected. But attrition and losing key players to graduation is both unavoidable at the college level and a huge part of what makes college sports as compelling as they are. Some teams fall apart after losing a star, while others soldier on through the loss and find a way to maintain their competitive level.
Sticking to the System
The University of Central Florida Sirens had an outstanding season last year, coming from out of nowhere to ultimately tie for third in the nation, and only after losing a spectacular game against the University of Oregon in the semifinals that ended on double game point. Both teams had chances on the game’s final point, and the Sirens, understandably, looked devastated as they left the field.
No one really knew what to expect from the Sirens this year. Nine players graduated, including captains Sunny Harris and Mariel Hammond, both of whom were huge leaders for the team on and off the field, with Hammond named the Defensive Player of the Year and Harris the runner up for the Offensive Player of the Year award. They now have only one starting senior, two new captains in Eli Williams and Shayna Brock, and a whole crop of young players pushed into roles usually given to veterans with more experience.
But despite all of these challenges, the Sirens have still finished in the top 20 in Ultiworld’s Power Rankings, a spot which still marks them as a Nationals-caliber team. Their strategy hasn’t changed much: UCF still stymies experienced offenses with their zone and relies on a handler heavy offense that Harris and Hammond made known last year. According to Harris, they have focused on finding new players to fill some roles, while also relying more heavily on the athleticism of their players. Freshman Janina Freystaetter has taken a central spot on both sides of the disc, while Alexa Wood and Jesse Baldwin are taking on a larger role downfield.
Coach Joe Tilley – who earned Co-Coach of the Year honors in 2014 – also noted the loss of leadership and confidence. Confidence goes along with experience which is something that we had a lot of last year and have been struggling with some this year,” he said. Those who have ever played with or against Sunny Harris can easily agree that ‘confident’ is one of the best ways to describe her style, and it is understandable that a team would struggle after losing her. Less obvious to outsiders is the impact of the loss of Hammond, who was a leader both on and off the field for the Sirens and brought so much to the team.
Last year, UCF surprised everyone with what they could do. This year, they’ve shown that they aren’t going to give up and miss Nationals just because of a little thing like roster turnover. After an extremely close game with Florida State in the regional final, the Sirens are obviously still set on making some noise in Milwaukee.
Is Fever a Fixture?
Ohio State Fever had a steady climb to becoming the National Champions last May. Their first Nationals appearance was in 2011, where they won a few games and finished 17th. The following two years yielded 5th place and 3rd place finishes, consecutively, as Fever continued to improve, and their steady ascent culminated last season with a national title. Along the way, two notable Fever players — Paige Soper and Cassie Swafford — were chosen as a 1-2 punch for Ultiworld Player of the Year (and runner-up). They were also nominated for the Callahan award, with Soper finishing in the top five in 2013 and Swafford winning the award last season.
After defeating Oregon 15-11 in the final to win the National Championship, spirits were high and there was a lot of talk about finally establishing a program in Columbus. However, Fever’s season hasn’t been spectacular. A 6th place finish at the Florida Winter Classic was redeemed by a good weekend at Queen City, where they won their games handily until losing to Virginia in the final. 3rd place at the Commonwealth Cup and 5th at Centex aren’t season ending, but this change from an undefeated last season can easily be explained by looking at the amount of rookies now on Fever’s roster.
Besides losing Swafford and Soper, co-captain Caitlin Harley also graduated, as well as most of the rest of Fever’s starting seven. Most of the play now runs through veterans Stevie Miller, Jenna Galletta, Katie Backus, and Caitlin Ramsey, but while their 2014 roster had three true rookies, this season has eight. A turnover of that magnitude would slow down any team. OSU coach Brent Reeb summed up this point well. “That rookie on a veteran heavy squad might go out there and just be required to be the 6th or 7th option where they can pick and choose their spots to get the disc,” he said. “This year, those same type of new players might be the 3rd or 4th option on a given line and are almost needed to touch the disc a couple times per point if we want to score.”
Needing to rely on rookies is a common issue for plenty of college teams. But neding to rely on rookies as the defending national champs, however, is a whole different ballgame, and returning to that high level of play is unprecedented. Yet, Ohio State is #14 in the Power Rankings, and ranked 15th by USAU.
Coach DeAnna Ball attributes this to their continued focus on the development of skill and on-the-field personality of each player. There have been some tweaks to the coaching strategy, most notably in line-calling at each tournament to see who works well together. “Essentially it’s a less about 1-on-1 talent match ups and more about establishing a team dynamic on the field that helps Fever win games,” said Ball. “But really, that’s always been the philosophy.”
Other than that, all Fever needs to do is maintain that positivity that showed so much during Nationals last year. After skating through the first day of Regionals only to find Pitt a considerable challenge in the final, Ohio State has made it to the final tournament of the season, but they’ll need to keep improving to make any kind of a splash against the elite teams in the field this year.
The Player’s Program
The Northwest has been the most dominant region for years in the college women’s division, and Oregon Fugue has always sat at or near the top of that pile. They’ve been national champs twice, and placed in the top three every year since 2009. They have built a well-established program, perhaps the model for consistency and dominance. But just like every other team, the giant that is Oregon Fugue has to rebuild after losing some of its stars.
Compared to UCF and Ohio State, Oregon didn’t lose as many key players. Unfortunately, those that they did lose were powerhouses. Sophie Darch is one of those players that makes the impossible look easy and had one of the top assist counts of the entire college nationals tournament last May, while Adrienne Bovee was accurately labeled as a huge threat downfield and still ended near the top of the list in goals scored. Lily Herd, Kasey Harris, and Andrea Fontenot were tough losses as well, and yet Oregon is still ranked one of the favorites to win their third title in Milwaukee.
While these losses in personnel would have rendered most seasons unrecoverable, Fugue has continued on with hardly a blip in their record. A loss to UBC at Northwest Challenge is the only red on their otherwise spotless season, and with some of the players they have, it’s not surprising to see why. Even after losing some of the best players in the country, they still have some of the best players in the country. “The program has reached such a height that we are going to lose good players every single year, and have incredible players remain every year,” said captain Jesse Shofner.
Shofner herself is one of the best defenders in the nation, and surprises many players with her speed. Bethany Kaylor is back from a foot injury that kept her out last season, and has picked right back up by being one of the most versatile players on the field. Rookie of the Year Hayley Wahlroos is still making insane plays. And they still have Ashley Young, Alex Ode, Olivia Bartruff, Gabby Aufderheide, Sarafina Angstadt-Leto….the list goes on and on.
After looking back at Fugue’s past rosters and seasons, it’s not difficult to imagine that coach Lou Burruss has gained some experience with steering this team through the loss of their biggest playmakers, and obviously he’s been doing something right. Shofner pointed out that Fugue builds each season around their players, rather than a certain set mold, and goes from there. This strategy has certainly worked well in past seasons, and has kept Fugue secure in the top two in rankings. A loss to the University of Washington in Regionals pool play shows that Oregon can indeed be defeated, but they came back to decisively take the regional title despite the loss. All that’s left to see is if Oregon can bring home the crown after Ohio State stole it from them last May.
It seems like the length of time each team has been playing at an elite level has influenced their different solutions. Central Florida, who had a breakout year and catapulted to the upper echelons of the division, is now working on finding replacements to the key pieces of their winning formula. Oregon, the ever present threat from the Northwest, revolves around players’ identities and makes each year a journey of continuing dominance. In between is Ohio State, who has been on the scene for a few years, but is only settling in to their seat at the table. Each year Fever focuses on the team dynamic, while still allowing key roles and ideas to center their development.
The final story of these three teams has yet to be written. But in two weeks we’ll see just how the months of preparation and development with fresh rosters plays out on the fields of Milwaukee.