While they never receive the same fanfare as Nationals or even Regionals, Conference Championships are the culmination of the college ultimate experience for most teams and players.
April 15, 2016 by Keith Raynor in Preview with 8 comments
The weeks between the end of the regular season and Regionals tend to see a respite in the nonstop barrage of college news, scores, and highlights that characterize March. You’d be mistaken, however, in assuming we don’t get any action. The two Conference Championship weekends may not get all the headlines, but they’re the culmination of the spring for the majority of the college division’s players and teams. Seasons will end and careers will conclude. Some will achieve their goals and advance while other will wallow in the disappointment of coming up short. There’s a lot on the line.
We’ve highlighted the most exciting, dramatic, and important Conference Championship tournaments across the college division this year to show you a slice of the action you may otherwise miss out on.
Women’s Carolina (Atlantic Coast)
The parity, familiarity, and rivalries of the Carolina Conference make it one of the most interesting sectional tournaments every year. 2016 is no different, with #24 North Carolina and rival UNC-Wilmington prepared to battle it out at the top of the conference — and likely again at Regionals — in pursuit of that elusive bid to Nationals.
UNC is the top seed and favorite at the Conference Championships after a very solid regular season, led by Jenny Wei, who has quietly been one of nation’s most consistent players and who should be on people’s radar. They’ve also gotten big contributions from captain Jocelyn Keung.
Wilmington had a big QCTU, landing the #20 spot in the rankings before falling out after an uneven Commonwealth Cup. However, they are currently on an eight game win streak, helmed by a dominant player in Klara Calderon-Guthe and strong backfield play from Emily Judd. Despite going to Queen City and Commonwealth with North Carolina, the two have not faced off yet this season. UNCW won the conference last year after beating UNC in pool play, wrenching the title away from Pleiades, so no telling what could happen this year.
After that duo at the top, there are three remaining Regionals bids up for grabs and a number of eager suitors. Chief among those are Clemson, Duke, Wake Forest, and NC State. Clemson, the three seed, wasn’t able to replicate the regular season success that nearly landed the AC a bid to Nationals in 2015. They have been very inconsistent in 2016, taking two decisive losses to NC State after thumping them twice at a different tournament. They are a wild card in the field. Duke, once a doormat in the conference, has worked hard to develop a winning culture — traveling to Santa Barbara for their Invite, for example — and have some dangerous handlers who can will them into games. NC State is led by one of the conference’s best threats in Ashley Powell and gained some talented rookies this season, making them a dangerous four seed. Wake Forest returns to D-I for the first time since 2012, and the 2014 D-III National Semifinalist is no pushover — especially with Lindsay Soo on the field, arguably the best player in the conference.
Last year’s tournament was loaded with upsets — North Carolina narrowly beat Duke in the game-to-go — and this year’s tournament may be no different.
Men’s Northwoods (North Central)
Northwoods features a great recipe for a Conference Championship worth watching: some top teams to battle it out for the Championship, some parity to figure out who makes Regionals, and a little bit of mystery as the cherry on top.
Since 2004, as far back as USAU’s Score Reporter records go, Minnesota’s Grey Duck and Carleton’s CUT have finished 1st and 2nd in the Northwoods. Year after year, they clash in the final — in recent history alternating as the conference’s premier outfit. But this year, make no mistake about it: this is #3 Minnesota’s Conference Championship to lose and #13 Carleton’s to steal. With Minnesota as one of the nation’s top title contenders and Carleton trying to return to glory, this conference final is primed to be one of the best in the country.
After that duo, third place has been squarely dominated by Minnesota-Duluth. Since 2011, Duluth has finished as the last team in the top three every season. They have a 13-8 win over the next seeded team, their lone game against a conference foe. What is there to doubt?
That next seeded team is looking to stir things up. With Ugly Duckling, the University of Minnesota is looking to unlock the achievement of sending a B-team to Regionals — one of the most notoriously competitive Regionals, no less — and has a very real shot. They are the fourth seed in a four bid year.
Along with Ugly Duckling, there are four other teams clawing for that last spot, but none more scary and unknown than Manitoba. The 7th seeded Manitoba is undefeated this season, mostly because they haven’t yet played a sanctioned game. But their roster is bolstered by a number of Team Canada players from their U19 and U23 outfits, such as Alan Scarth, Gil Binnum, Kevin Boreskie, Jesse Greenberg, and Mathew Ladyman. They were the Canadian college champions in 2014 and runners up in 2015. Don’t expect them to settle for 7th.
Women’s Rocky Mountain (South Central)
What the Rocky Mountain Conference lacks in size, they can make up in drama. The pairing of Colorado and Colorado College are both eyeing trips to Nationals and are far and away the top two teams in the conference. While Kali is the one seed and favorite, Colorado College actually won the teams’ only meeting this season, an early season 11-9 victory, meaning we could see Colorado fail to win the tournament for the first time since 2012.
For the remaining trio of teams, there are only two bids to go around. An established and experienced Colorado State squad is the highest seeded of the three and is expected to reclaim their spot on the Regionals Invite list. CSU’s combination of Kaci Cessna and Kat Killinsgworth should push them back to Regionals under the new guidance of coach Emily Stege.
Last year’s Colorado State found themselves on the outside looking in after Devi, Colorado’s B team, took them down in a 7-6 thriller. Devi is led by Anna Wood’s complete play, and the veteran captain will be key for them at the Conference Championships.
These two programs will be pushed by Denver, looking to enter the Regional fray. The DU women gave Devi a lot to handle last year, but Denver is 12-2 this season and has already won a pair of tournaments.
Men’s D-III Hudson Valley (Metro East)
Welcome to the most volatile conference in the country. Over the past three years, only one team has finished in the same spot twice. That’s right, since 2013, in a 9-10 team conference, every team bar one has had three different finishes. Marist is the only team to claim a bid to Regionals each of the past two seasons, Hartford won the conference in 2014 but finished second-to-last in 2015, while 2014 runner-up Wesleyan finished a spot above Hartford the following year.
You can’t even really peg a favorite this season. Skidmore is the top ranked team, but the #1 seed hasn’t even made the final in any of the past three seasons. To their credit, the Thoroughbears have wins over Middlebury and RPI to earn them the top spot. That RPI team has landed the second seed, with Army in third. But regular season results and seedings rarely tell the Hudson Valley D-III story.
Most of these teams had regular seasons impacted by attendance, weather, and generally small rosters. A large chunk has not played 10 sanctioned games, and those that have are from just two tournaments. This can lead to the inconsistencies from tournament to tournament, but everyone knows to bring it for their shot at Regionals. With no ranked team in the whole Metro East region, the Nationals autobid slot looks up for grab to nearly anyone who can get close. Teams like Marist, Vassar, Army, and Connecticut College are filled with youngsters looking to make names for themselves, weened on tales of close games at Sectionals past.
Women’s Western North Central (North Central)
Particularly in the women’s division, where conferences tend to be smaller, there are tournaments where nearly everyone is going home with a bid. But because of parity in the region, these events end up factoring heavily into who gets a shot at Nationals come Regionals. And, often, someone in the conference ends their season a couple of weekends before everyone else, and is forced to watch on Twitter as their conference foes continue the postseason.
Such is life in the Western North Central. Eight teams, including most of the best teams in the region, will battle for six spots to North Central Regionals. And after last year’s wild weekend — third- seeded Iowa State won the tournament and #1 seed at Regionals, second seeded Minnesota tumbled to the bottom of the standings — there’s plenty to see.
#16 Minnesota, led by Sarah Anciaux of Drag’n Thrust and the US Womens National Team, has to be the favorite this year after a very strong regular season, but reigning champion Iowa State and perennial power Carleton are not going to go quietly. This trio of teams (along with Wisconsin) is expected to battle for the one bid to Nationals at Regionals, and will be trying to set the tone. Carleton has spent the season getting beat up by the nation’s elite, but could wind up the better for it. Iowa State’s season has been buffeted by intense winds; they do have wins over #19 Florida State and Northwestern, but also losses to Northern Iowa.
Speaking of UNI, they are a joker in the deck as the four seed. While they’ve only played five games, all in insane winds at the Old Capitol Open, they are also undefeated this year and boast that W against ISU. They’ll have to fend off the duo of Nadine Rowen and Liz Diffey from Nebraska, who make for a very convincing spoiler, along with the experienced and poised Liz Gronnert and her squad from Iowa. Even Minnesota-Duluth and Winona State have upset potential. Expect the unexpected.
Men’s West Plains (North Central)
Let’s be honest: Conference Championships wouldn’t be special if everyone expected to move on. West Plains is in for a very brutal weekend, strapped with just three bids despite the conference adding a seventh team. Often operating with four, five, or even six bids, some years just showing up to the tournament was enough to get you to Regionals. Not this year, West Plains, not this year.
“Three bids changes a lot for us – even just one off game and we could be on the outside looking in for Regionals,” Iowa State captain Tanner Boyle told Ultiworld.
Betting money has to go to top-seeded Luther. LUFDA has reigned supreme in the West Plains, splitting the championships with Iowa in every year since 2007. They’ve seen very little of their conference foes in 2016, but have played solidly against some notable teams like UNC-Wilmington, Michigan, and Colorado College, who they beat at Trouble in Vegas. Ian Andre-Knudsen and Sam Berglund make for tough matchups with their combination of skill and size and lead what has, in recent years, been the West Plains’ best program.
They are far from a heavy favorite, however. Reigning champion Iowa has the most West Plains titles on the metaphorical shelves, though their history is dotted by some poor showings, like 2013’s 5th place finish. Jimmy Hean may be the most productive player in the conference and rookie Tyler Barrett has proven to be a rock behind the disc. Despite coming in seeded behind Iowa State, IHUC is going to come in expecting to win the conference.
Iowa State is the second seeded team, but may still be an underdog. They own the best win of any team in the conference, with a 9-8 game victory over Auburn, and have proven their worth. ISU’s offense will depend on Cullen Raasch, who is having a solid pro season with the Minnesota Wind Chill, and rely on Arthur Harris to anchor their defense.
Northern Iowa lurks in the four spot, with a little less game experience this season after some up years, but with a lethal thrower in the backfield in Austin Bruns.
All four teams have seen a lot of talent graduate and have brought new players into bigger roles. But they haven’t seen each other all season, so there will be a lot of quick adjustments to make. Every game counts for so much and the margins offer little relief. It doesn’t look like any of these teams will make much of a dent in a top-heavy Regional, making this Conference Championship their last hurrah.
Others to Watch
In a rarity, some Conference Championships will actually send teams to Nationals in the D-III realm! Women’s Northwest D-III will crown a champion and send them to the big show. #10 Puget Sound is the obvious favorite, having gone 4-0 against the conference field. The sleeper team is Seattle University Throbot, a tiny team featuring Team USA U23’s Nikki Bruce and Seattle Mixtape’s Lani Nguyen. That’s some firepower! Could they sneak into Nationals?
Likewise, someone from Women’s Great Lakes D-III is going to being planning a trip to Winston-Salem. #13 Knox and #14 Valparaiso are certainly set up for a thriller, but don’t write off second seed North Park either. Valpo, the top seed, lost to Knox 5-4 earlier in the season, but neither has seen North Park, and have to be wary. Four of the five teams will arrive in contention on Sunday, so it’ll be down to tiny margins of error.
But perhaps the toughest break for a Conference loser this year is in Women’s North New England DIII. Both Bowdoin and Bates are ranked inside Ultiworld’s Top 10 in the country, but because Bates did not play enough sanctioned regular season games to be counted toward strength bids, only the tournament winner will move on to Regionals.
Once you get past #4 Pittsburgh’s dominance, Men’s West Penn offers some potential fireworks. Three bids remain, and Shippensburg, Carnegie Melon, West Virginia, and Edinboro are all going to be trying to stake their claim. They will have uphill climbs to upset Penn State, meaning two of those teams are likely going to see their season end.
Much like the women’s side, the Men’s Carolina Conference Championships are tough to predict. Sure, UNC and UNC-W look like 1-2 shoe-ins, but after that, it gets dicey. Four remaining bids will be awarded to some combination of NC State, UNC-Charlotte, Wake Forest, Duke, South Carolina, Clemson, Charleston, and East Carolina. Could UNC-Wilmington-B snatch a bid? Yikes, that’s a very serious gauntlet.
When good teams don’t get 10 games, that can quickly shift the conference hierarchy. The Women’s Western NY Conference offers a good example, with undefeated Ottawa storming into the tournament. Perennially in the Regional title hunt, they are 7-0 and are likely to push one of Cornell, Rochester, or upstart SUNY-Binghamton — who is having a good year of their own — out of the Regional picture.
With just three bids to Regionals, Women’s Illinois Conference Championships have the setup for drama. Northwestern and Illinois are the favorites, but Chicago, Loyola-Chicago, and Illinois State all are looking to stake a claim to the third bid. Loyola and ISU have had tight battles this year, but will have their work cut out for them to take down a disciplined Chicago team.