By: Grant Lindsley
UNC lost only once en route to their 33-1 regular-season record, an impressive run that had some wondering if they shouldn’t have come into the College Championships as the tournament’s overall #1 seed. After all, they’d beaten the #1 seed, Carleton College, handily at the Stanford Invite earlier this year. Regardless of seed, the masses expected a Carleton-UNC showdown in the finals, but it was not to be. Pittsburgh En Sabah Nur stormed through Carleton in a showcase of athleticism and intensity in the semifinals, securing their spot in the championship game. To who was UNC’s single regular season loss? Pitt.
If any team besides Carleton had a shot at beating UNC, it was En Sabah Nur, the one team that had already done it.
Finals: UNC v. Pittsburgh
UNC opened with a display of patience as they methodically worked the disc down the field. Kai Marcus’ prior struggles seemed to have evaporated as, in the red zone, he threw such an effective fake that it tricked a Pitt defender into leaving his feet, creating a wide-open lane for the game’s first score.
While Pitt’s offense lacked nothing in aggression, it lacked much in patience. An early huck to Pitt’s Kevin Tsui fell out of reach, and when UNC couldn’t connect on a short flick on their first break attempt, Pitt again forced a questionable huck for a second turnover. UNC’s D line was the first to gain composure, evidenced by their pump fakes and fast clears on their way to the end zone. UNC: two goals, zero hucks. Pitt: two hucks, zero goals.
UNC tried a zone defense next, which probably played to Pitt’s benefit, because hucks are more difficult against a zone, and hucks seemed to be the primary point of failure for Pitt. While throwing a different defensive set early in a game is an intelligent idea, UNC’s zone effectively protected Pitt from themselves. Indeed, after working it back and forth, Noah Robinson flicked an around blade down the sideline for Pitt’s first score.
Darkside employed the most creative and effective initiating set plays on offense in the entire men’s college division. Whereas this creativity might cause chaos (and picks) on a team less disciplined in spacing and cutter flow, it didn’t here. In a horizontal stack on Darkside’s next O point, the two middle cutters twirled away while the two side cutters swiped under. This formed a kind of birds-eye butterfly-wing shape, eventually giving the middle handler two open under-cut options once the deep cutters flared from the middle back down either sideline. UNC worked it down the field, and Kai Marcus, again showing none of yesterday’s shakiness, caught a little flip into the end zone for a score and a 3-1 UNC lead.
At this point in the game, the question seemed to be whether Pitt could break UNC’s offense. If not, the trajectory of the match could be one of UNC’s D line systematically wearing down the Pitt O, gradually extending their lead en route to a win. However, Pitt wisely holstered their full-field hucks on their next possession, working the disc down the field until Noah Robinson flicked his second goal down the sideline into the hands of Kevin Tsui. But then UNC did the exact same thing, maintaining their one-break lead, 4-2.
What to do against the patient, possession-focused UNC O line? Force middle, perhaps, with downfield defenders forcing the cutters deep, if only to encourage hucks and test their throwers’ restraint?
After trading a few points, Noah Robinson short-armed an inside flick to Michael Ing, and Darkside’s Nathan Kwon sped back and forth along the end zone line, giving and going until finally finding Nick MacLeod for UNC’s second break. 6-3 Darkside.
Pitt, yet again, turned over a huck, this time to a fast-tiring Matt Hanna, but UNC’s Walker Matthews followed suit with a backhand that caught the wind. It seemed that the team who could restrain themselves on ill-advised hucks would emerge victorious.
While Pitt’s Leo Warren would eventually punch in a goal on an inside break to Michael Ing, and Kyle Hartley pushed his way to a pair of excellent Ds – one poaching the lane and another helping on a deep huck – Pitt continued to huck frequently and poorly. After squandering multiple break chances, Nathan Kwon shut the door on the first half with a laser up-line cut to give UNC a commanding 8-5 lead, Darkside up three breaks.
Pitt opened the second half with, you guessed it, a huck. This time, it worked because UNC’s Colin Smith misread it, handing Pitt a badly needed offensive hold.
UNC gave Pitt a small opening for a break after the fifth up-line cut in a row swept just out of reach of Gouche-Hanas. However, UNC’s O line ran a zone defense after a turn, another display of maturity that only a well-coached college team with high ultimate IQ could pull off. They forced a turnover, and this time Gouche-Hanas caught the up-line score.
UNC was not immune to huck-itis. But when hucks work, they can offer spectacular, highlight-worthy plays. Kai Marcus’ backhand huck over the heads of his sidestack was one such play. A sprinting, orange-cleated Alex Davis tumbled into a pancake catch in the back corner of the end zone for a UNC goal.
How did Pitt turn it over on their next possession? A huck. Great coverage by UNC’s Marc Rovner and a well-timed cut from team leader Norman Archer got UNC a big break. Another break on the next point gave UNC a 12-7 lead, and while Pitt trudged back to their line, UNC could be heard chanting, “We’ve got more! We’ve got more!”
Pitt was not done yet, though. Hafeez Shams, one of Pitt’s emotional leaders, made a rare appearance on the O line, caught a through-pass in the open field and put up a perfect huck, the kind of huck you actually want in an offense, to a beautifully positioned Dillon Tranquillo, streaking deep and catching the disc in stride. Then on the next point, Kyle Hartley lunged for an incredible fingertip layout block, and Pitt’s offense again found Hafeez Shams on a high through-pass in the open field. Shams reached high for a crowd-pleasing catch that might not have been possible if not for the stick in his gloves. He brought it down and put up a second, almost identically perfect, huck, this time a backhand, to the end zone for a Pitt break. Shams pumped his arms in celebration well before his receiver caught the break, staging a surge of late-game energy, a comeback in the brewing.
The comeback continued. On the next point, a small gust of wind lifted Gouche-Hanas’ centering pass to the jaws of Pitt’s D. One quick pass, and all of a sudden, seemingly out of gas, Pitt was fully fueled and running on all cylinders. Shams, on the field but uninvolved in the score, picked up the disc and spiked it on the turf, screaming at the cheering sidelines, trying to fan the resurgent flames. The cap horn sounded. Game to 14.
The truest test of an O line’s strength is their ability to right themselves and play with discipline after a couple mistakes, to course-correct during what can feel like a mid-air freefall. UNC did it, hucking to Liam Searles-Bohs just outside the end zone, and Gouche-Hanas ran by to catch the goal on an up-line cut to give UNC some room to breathe.
Pitt, on the other hand, suddenly seemed to have exhausted their resources, or perhaps regressed to their mean, as Kevin Tsui hucked the disc away to a visibly gassed Matt Hanna. UNC possession, game point. The antidotes to pressure, brutally slow and nerve-wracking as they can feel in the moment for those tasked with stomaching them, are patience, restraint and reliance upon an established system. UNC had this market cornered, calling a timeout to reset themselves and give their D-team’s offense a chance to regroup. Elijah Long pivoted with the disc while his offense initiated a play, faked once, and finally shot an open huck to Colin Smith for the goal, for the win, for the National Championship.