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Stanford’s Faceless Five: 2016 Team Preview

Bloodthirsty's class of seniors has proven that hard work and effort is enough to become a top ten team. How much higher can Stanford climb?

Photo: Rodney Chen -- UltiPhotos.com
Photo: Rodney Chen — UltiPhotos.com

This preview comes from guest author Dan Silverstein, coach of University of California Ugmo.

They say that the best way to learn how to win big games is to lose big games. Stanford Bloodthirsty has been building over the past three years after finishing in the middle of the pack at Regionals in 2012. They’ve been doing this by losing games. First small games. Then bigger games. Then, finally, the biggest ones. And this year it seems that Stanford has remembered how to win.

Last season was an uphill slog for Stanford. They struggled to hit their stride, relying on a younger cast of players. Early season adversity and losses slowly gave way to experience and successes. By the time Southwest Regionals rolled around, they had bootstrapped themselves into a top team, facing UCSB’s Black Tide in the finals. Despite a season of hard work and growth, a trip to Nationals was not to be. For the second time in three years, Stanford’s season ended at the hard cap in the game-to-go.

Losing by just a point in the game-to-go hurts; having it happen twice in a college career is nearly heartbreaking. Faced with that disappointment, you can either give up or you can dig in and work your hardest. It is clear how Stanford has reacted; it is led by players that faced this heartbreak and chose to fight back.

This year the team rests of the shoulders of its five seniors. The faceless five. None has been named to an all-region team, not even the second team. None has played at Club Nationals. None was a youth sensation. None is a superior athlete. They arrived at Stanford with determination, passion, and little else. Yet somehow this group, this faceless five, has achieved. And most people couldn’t name more than one of them.

Although Bloodthirsty entered the season with little fanfare, their results have garnered attention and respect. And now, with a keystone victory over the UNCW Seamen at Easterns, they have established themselves as a threat for a quarterfinals victory at Nationals. In this position, the team itself poses the question: can hard work beat superior talent?

The Basics

Coaching Staff: Ryan Thompson, Cody Mills, Jordan Marcy
Captains: Elliot Chartock, Alvin Kim, Gabe Hernandez
2015 Results: 2nd place at Southwest Regionals (1 bid)

Years of Work

Stanford returned the majority of its roster this year. Add that to the fact that the team is led by a core of seniors that have been playing together for four years now – it means Stanford can employ systems and strategies that it is very comfortable with. Running the same set plays and junk sets for years has allowed them to optimize and form perfect habits; their level of execution is apparent the first time you run into one of their zones.

Defense, especially man defense, is the hallmark of Bloodthirsty; it has been for years, and each rookie earns the team’s respect through physical man defense first. The successful execution of Stanford’s man-defense is built on the back of the hard work of all the players – there is no single person generating most of the blocks. It is true team defense and this year’s version is an absolute terror. 

Bloodthirsty’s defensive squad returns several strong man-defenders — players like Allan Ndovu, who’s speed allows him to collect run-through-blocks instead of layout blocks, and Xavier Mignot, who cleans up many of the opposing team’s errant hucks. Captain Gabe Hernandez has established a culture of laying-out on under cuts, and the cumulative pressure this creates puts opposing throwers on edge. When the downfield looks are denied, players like Alvin Kim execute tight, physical defense on the handlers, forcing handler-set turnovers. Add in Nolan Walsh and Elliott Chartock from the O-line, players that collect blocks like there’s no tomorrow, and things look pretty bleak for Stanford’s opponents. But, wait, there’s more. This year, Stanford’s D-line has picked up three 6’5” rookie behemoths, including the well-developed Nick Hirning. And as if that weren’t enough, 6’3” defensive sensation Sam Kunz returns from studying abroad. To top it all off, more often than not you’re going to be pinned in your endzone by Walsh’s pulls. Yikes!

These raw materials give the coaching staff more freedom in their schemes, but ultimately it is still the same idea: play with hard marks and get blocks. Stanford likes to challenge hucks at the point-of-attack (one of the few teams to consistently force backhand) and let their defenders grind it out 1-on-1 downfield, relying on months of both technical and physical training.  Bloodthirsty’s commitment to marking can be seen in the intelligent angles they take into the mark, the way the mark shifts within each stall count, and the attention that each defender applies to his mark. It is hard to huck the disc or to move it off the sideline against the best Stanford markers, a reality that is surprising and frustrating for opposing offenses.

Stanford also uses a suite of junk defenses to great success, both in bad weather and high-pressure situations. Their zone defense feeds off of energy almost as much as their man defense. Their looks include a flat zone, a trap zone, and several schemes with handler flexes. The coaching staff smartly mixes in the looks, taking full advantage of the fact that many of their sets appear similar to begin with. It is not uncommon to hear the other team yelling, “zone,” when, in fact, it is not.

The cornerstone of the zone defenses is Stanford’s absolute trust in its deep, be it Walsh, Kunz, or Hirning. And the trust is there for good reason — it’s darn hard to beat those guys in the air. Their combination of height, speed, and reading ability make them top-tier defenders. Teams with excellent over-the-top throws (such as UMass’ flick blades) can work the zones, but otherwise, good luck.

It’s not all smooth sailing for Bloodthirsty’s D-line, though. What it lacks — and has consistently lacked in recent years — is a strong offensive presence after the turn. You’d think that with so many tall players, they would run an offense that attacks deep quickly like the 2008 Hodags. Instead, they play a more disciplined small-ball, vert-stack offense, led by the giant handler pair of Kunz and Hirning making it very difficult for the opposing O-line to match up. Their defenders are typically accustomed to guarding cutters, allowing those two to play a two-man game at-will. When they spring one another open on an upline cut, it will usually be followed by a huck into the endzone for a goal.

That’s not always happening, though. The lack of powerful D-line cutters keeps their conversion efficiency low. Their success is usually found through grinding out in-cuts and handler sets all the way down the field. Without Chartock or Walsh coming over from the O-line to cut downfield, it’s hard for them to generate movement beyond their handlers. And the bad news here is that Hirning broke his throwing hand at Stanford Invite.

Patient and Methodical

The offensive squad is anchored by four of Stanford’s faceless five: Chartock, Walsh, Cyrus Ready-Campbell, and Josh Kapilivsky. These four ran the offense last year and are back to do it again this year.

Chartock and Kapilivsky have been a handler duo for years now and their chemistry is immediately apparent; they have complete confidence working with each other. Over the years, they have both developed throw-sets that are nearly impossible to stop. Walsh and Ready-Campbell have been deep receivers for these two for years and a simple play call, or even a suggestive look, can result in a quick deep goal. Ready-Campbell’s development this year has been especially impressive, and his long and technically sound cuts grind down his opponents. When Chartock and Walsh draw the best defenders, you can expect to see Ready-Campbell running the show.

Stanford plays a smart system with discipline, running a crisp side stack offense that tries to keep the disc in the hands of its best players. Chartock and Kapilivsky have shown the ability to break the mark and collect resets easily against all but the best handler defenders (such as Wisconsin). With their throws into space, Stanford attacks downfield very successfully, be it down the open or break side. They lack downfield cutters who are able to throw accurate long balls so the cutter-to-cutter connection almost never goes deep, but if someone breaks loose with the disc in the hands of Chartock or Walsh, a goal is quick to follow.  

Even so, on offense, just as on defense, there is no superstar. Stanford doesn’t win with a series of one-pass goals, or even two-pass goals. The offense, be it side stack or vert stack, is patient and relies on the cutters being more fit than their defenders. Or, at the very least, being willing to work harder. You could say that they, figuratively, set up their under cuts with their winter track workouts. When the offense is collecting unders, it’s methodical. But if teams deny the under continuations, suddenly significant pressure is placed on the resets. Against elite defenders, Chartock and Kapilivsky can still manage an astonishing number of resets per point (with what seems like superhuman effort sometimes), but eventually the numbers catch up. When teams can frustrate that pair, the offense starts to fall apart. There is no Plan B.

With all of the powerhouse defenders playing on the D-line, Bloodthirsty gets into trouble if the offensive loses possession. Here is the one aspect of the game where Stanford relies on only a couple people: if Chartock and Walsh can’t get a block, the offense doesn’t get the disc back. For now, those two have been able to get enough blocks to keep the team alive. But in their blowout win of Bloodthirsty at Stanford Invite, Wisconsin showed that striking quickly after a turnover is a tactic that Stanford cannot counter effectively. 

A Top Ten Return

Stanford has emphatically demonstrated they can be a top ten team this season. Quarterfinals of Nationals seems a real possibility for Bloodthirsty in 2016, but do they have what it takes to make it to the semis? Can they string together results and pick up a big win at Nationals like their pool play victory over UNCW at Easterns? Or is this just another year where they come up heartbreakingly short?

In the end it’s about whether their five faceless seniors work hard enough to win and show that effort can match up against talent. 

 

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