By: Preston Goulson
(1) Massachusetts (8) Washington (12) Stanford (13) Colorado State (17) Cal Poly-SLO
Lots of things can change in a year. Presidents can be elected, players can graduate and rules can change; but Massachusetts Zoodisc still comes into Nationals as the top overall seed. Although Jeff Babbitt and Conor Kline are gone, the core of this team that was bruised in Raleigh last year remains, and they’re back and just as good as ever. The stingy zone defense that UMass will throw out this weekend is bound to cause problems, despite the relatively placid environmental conditions in Cincinnati. Ben Sadok and Tannor Johnson led this team to tournament victories at Centex and Easterns in the regular season and an undefeated postseason. They roll into Cincinnati hoping that, like Star Wars, the sequel will be better than the original.
Washington finally got one over on their regional rivals, Oregon Ego, in the Northwest regional final, snapping their 22-game losing streak to their state neighbors. This team is hitting their stride, with all-around ace Khalif El-salaam absolutely on fire after throwing nine assists in said regional final. This team can reach the highest heights with their fifth-year leader on his game (and, more importantly, in the game), but their hopes to progress to the quarterfinals could hit some roadblocks in this deep pool. Washington primarily runs vertical stack and man-to-man defense – the meat and potatoes of college ultimate – and their final pool play game versus Stanford will be the moment we find out if their strong fundamentals will be enough.
The aforementioned Bloodthirsty are coming to Cincinnati on their own hot streak after winning their conference and the Southwest Region. Stanford has already beaten three fellow Nationals teams this season (most impressively versus North Carolina Darkside, when Elliott Chartock had six assists), and they possess an ace up their sleeve in Pool A. Captain Max Perham might sound pretty familiar to followers of New England ultimate; he served in that same role last year as the captain of Massachusetts. Let’s hope he’s been using lotion because Perham has definitely been eagerly rubbing his hands together ever since the pools were released. It helps that they’ll have the inside scoop on their pool leaders, but Stanford also has the players to be able to get some results.
Pool A continues to be en fuego when you look at Colorado State. They walked away from the ultra-deep South Central regional tournament with the crown and their first ever bid to Nationals, despite losing their last two games of Saturday; but on Sunday, they held off Texas A&M and beat rival Colorado (for the second time in the postseason) in the championship game. This team runs an up-tempo breed of vertical stack, with handlers repeatedly looking to give-and-go up-line. By resorting to an offense based on 1,000 paper cuts instead of one big swing of the sword, Hibida has been able to grind their opponents down all season long. If they can continue to do that this weekend, they’ll be in good shape.
Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo comes into this pool with a good idea of where they stand. They’ve already beaten Washington twice and have played Stanford three times this season. If Nathan Pettyjohn can overcome his injury issues, look for SLOCORE to put some pressure on the seeds above them. Ian Sweeney, as the stereotypical lanky lefty, will have to be on his game to help the team deal with the tough tactical defenses that UMass and Colorado State will throw their direction.
(2) Pittsburgh (7) Michigan (11) North Carolina-Wilmington (14) Texas A&M (18) Connecticut
After waving farewell to some of their big name mainstay players at the end of last season, En Sabah Nur is right back at it again in 2017, holding down the second overall seed at Nationals. As could be expected from a successful, well-drilled and experienced team, their offense has adapted and become much more of a “spread the love” affair. This tactical switch paid off with victories at Florida Warm Up, Stanford Invite and Ohio Valley Regionals. After being bridesmaids ever since back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013, Pittsburgh’s balanced offensive attack could be the fresh approach that sees them claim title number three.
MagnUM has essentially been on cruise control since mid-April, scything through the Michigan conference and Great Lakes Region with ruthless efficiency. It’s not often you see a 13-point difference in a regional final, a gulf that hammers home Michigan’s utter dominance on both sides of the disc in less than ideal environmental conditions. Their tight, impenetrable, oppressive zone defense will be enough to keep their opponents awake late into the night, and the sight of Noah Backer tossing 50-yard hammers will be enough to bring crowds to the fields. Keep an eye on this team – they’ve got the goods.
We’ll get this out of the way quickly: North Carolina-Wilmington has a pretty hefty monkey to get off their back after two consecutive damp squibs at Nationals. There, now we can move on. Jack Williams is an absolute stud, and he has the ability to pull his team up by the bootstraps. Expectations are still high for a team that has talent in bundles and will be looking to snipe a spot in the bracket.
The tremendous depth of Texas A&M’s program has helped smooth the transition from some of the big names from last year, with players like Dylan Swoboda making the jump from the C team all the way to Division I Nationals in one short year. A&M notched quality wins against national powers in Colorado and Texas during the South Central regional tournament, and consistent strong play from Carter Hollo and Ibrahim El-Sayed (who founded the Egyptian national team) could see them keep the good times rolling in Cincinnati.
Connecticut has compiled quite the robust résumé for their 2017 season, chalking up wins versus Washington and Colorado, and rolling undefeated through the series, even after stuttering out of the gate with a record of 1-8. UConn has designs of coming to Cincinnati and stacking up some blue-chip wins like sophomore Steven Purugganan stacks up cups in McDonald’s commercials.
(3) North Carolina (6) Carleton College (10) Colorado (15) Auburn (19) Oregon State
Defense, defense, defense. Darkside lives, breathes and makes their bed on the defensive side of the game. We’ve seen this movie before. The 2015 championship run was predicated on tremendous defensive pressure, and the 2016 team were no scrubs on that side of the disc either. Darkside is on track to complete their hat trick in 2017, after wins at Carolina Kickoff, Queen City Tune Up and Atlantic Coast Regionals.
Carleton College puts the “fun” in fundamentals, emphasizing tactical acuity and level headedness as the most important attributes to team success. They lost in gut-wrenching fashion to Minnesota in the North Central regional final, but CUT still put up a 26-8 record this season. Carleton will look to Henry Fisher and Sol Yanuck, who spent the summer playing big minutes for Ring of Fire in North Carolina, for any insight into their Darkside opponents; their matchup will be an interesting collision of zone defense versus patience and consistency.
Colorado comes into Nationals a bit scuffed up after losing to their in-state rivals, Colorado State, twice in the series. Those losses have taken a bit of sheen off of what has otherwise been a typically excellent season, which has culminated in a 20th consecutive berth at Nationals. Like always, Mamabird can run vertical stack with the best of them, but has shown a susceptibility to teams playing patient and tight zones this season. With Michigan in their pool, that could spell trouble for the powerhouse from Boulder.
You know them for the mega awesome fun times that Auburn has had at the past two national championships; Hank Womble and his trombone were part of this writer’s favorite memories from Raleigh. But don’t forget that they won their pool – one that featured a team from Minnesota that would go on to have a little bit of success later in the tournament. Additionally, this year they have already practiced slogging it out with everything on the line during the Southeast regional tournament. It’s no longer fanciful to think of this team as a dark horse; Aetos is the real deal.
“You’re the worst team here.” A begrudgingly defeated opponent bequeathed Oregon State with their 2017 team motto at a tournament earlier this spring. Talk about bulletin board material. That’s the sort of mental boost that teams not boasting a historic pedigree need to have to be able to break through on the national scene, and it has worked. Jacob Ramsey, a man who wears “Shooter’s gonna shoot” on his cleats, has led his team to Cincinnati with a “Why not us?” mentality. They’re not just here to make up the numbers, so don’t count them out.
(4) Minnesota, (5) Oregon, (9) Wisconsin, (16) British Columbia, (20) Virginia Tech
They’re back for more! After winning the first national title in program history, Minnesota has come strong with their defense, putting up a 31-4 regular-season record and winning Huck Finn and the North Central Region. Charlie McCutcheon, Tristan Van De Moortele and Cole Jurek (who broke his wrist laying out for a block at regionals) all headline a Gray Duck team that will be must-see TV.
Speaking of must-see, Oregon approaches their ultimate like an SEC football team. Speed kills, and let Adam Rees tell you about it. Watching Ego cutters jet from coast to coast and fly around with reckless abandon will be some of the highlights of the weekend. Connor Matthews is back for more; by this point, he’s a known quantity, but that won’t make him any less fun to watch. Whether Ego walks away from Cincinnati with a national title or not, they will have assuredly given the people something good to watch.
Speaking of…hello Hodags! It’s been a pretty quiet season from Wisconsin, but first-year coach Becky LeDonne has a team that can dominate physically while holding their own mentally. They share many athletic abilities with Oregon, but can point to their ability to dig deep, after having to slog through a bog in the backdoor bracket at regionals in order to earn their place at Nationals. It wasn’t the cleanest weekend for Wisconsin, but fans will hope it has given them a foundation to build off.
After losing the last two Northwest Region games-to-go, University of British Columbia finally made their breakthrough to Nationals this year. Although they have already lost to pool opponents Oregon and Wisconsin, UBC can point to a win over Washington and an undefeated performance at the Northwest Classic earlier this season as proof they can hang with the big dogs.
Virginia Tech had to dig deep in the game-to-go against North Carolina State, falling into an early hole 6-10. Rhys Bergeron and the D-line put the team on their backs and rallied to earn the first bid to Nationals in team history, but the offense will have to get their act together in a hurry to keep Burn from getting swept under by a deluge of points from the top teams in this pool.
Games to Watch
North Carolina v. Carleton College, Friday 2:30 p.m.
Ostensibly the title decider in Pool C, Darkside’s unique and challenging zone looks will put CUT’s steady hand to the test in the second game of the weekend. Either team can make a significant statement in the championship race early on in the weekend with a victory here.
Michigan v. North Carolina-Wilmington, Saturday 2:30 p.m.
UNC-Wilmington already owns a victory against MagnUM this season, as well as a win at Nationals last year. However, that win in Raleigh came after Michigan had sealed progression to the pre-quarters round, and the Seamen had been eliminated. Will it be the Great Lakes team that makes a return to the bracket, or can UNC-Wilmington exact some form of tangible revenge?
Oregon v. Wisconsin, Saturday 12:30 p.m.
You like things fast? You like bouncy athletes who can sky and lay out? Get on over to the fields for this high-octane matchup that will probably have implications for Ego and the Hodags, and accordingly promises great entertainment for neutrals. Bring the popcorn.
Dark Horse: Stanford
Bloodthirsty is getting hot at just the right time, and they boast one of the deeper rosters at this tournament. Eight freshmen are crowning their first year of college ultimate with an appearance in Cincinnati, and they’re escorted by players like senior Sam Kunz, who has a knack for rarely turning the disc (that most valuable of attributes). Nolan Walsh and Cyrus Ready-Campbell are both volume scorers for Bloodthirsty, comprising nearly 40 percent of the goals scored by the entire team. Washington and Colorado State are both good, yet fallible, so Stanford should feel good about their ability to make it to the bracket; if they can parlay Max Perham’s knowledge of the UMass system into a win there, then the weekend could get interesting.