By: Preston Goulson
The semifinals kicked off at 8:00 a.m. Sunday morning, but all four teams had already been at the fields since 6:30 a.m., mentally preparing themselves for the biggest games of their lives. Bryant, Richmond, Davidson and Alabama-Huntsville warmed up with a cold-blooded focus. The PA system blasted hype music that most of the players would not have allowed to penetrate their steely concentration. A palpable tension could be felt across the entirety of the Kentucky Horse Park; the overcast sky and slight drizzle contributed greatly to the pall of solemnity. Greatness was within reach; it was just a matter of who would be quickest to grab it.
After the threat of cataclysmic weather forced a rearrangement of the schedule on Saturday afternoon, the relatively benign breeze and slight drizzle were a welcome alternative. Still, it was a surprise to see Bryant start their semifinal matchup against Richmond playing a zone defense that left plenty of space for over-the-top throws between the handler and cutter defenders. Perhaps Richmond was equally surprised by this development, as they stuttered slightly, allowing Bryant to gain possession and break for two of the first four points. After that initial punch in the mouth, Richmond was able to fight their way back into the game, inspired by Donovan Award finalist Henry Babcock. Their senior leader had been playing mostly defensive points over the course of the weekend, but after seeing his team wobble in the face of the zone defense, Babcock came onto the offensive line and begin to assert himself.
Suddenly, hammers and upside-down throws began flying over the top of the Bryant defenders and into the waiting arms of Spidermonkey receivers, and the vaunted zone defense began to look a little more porous. Richmond took half at 8-6, and looked to be in the catbird seat. The second half saw Bryant make a defensive change, opting to put their opponents under pressure with hard and athletic defense. This shift garnered them some opportunities, but it took a huge toll on Craze, and they were unable to consistently maintain possession. Although Bryant was able to break to bring the score to 12-10, Babcock, Sam Gillespie and Richmond put their collective feet down and broke for the win 14-10. An excellent season for Bryant ended in heartbreak, but they could have few complaints after being consigned to defeat by a stellar performance from Henry Babcock.
The other side of the bracket was represented by surprise arrivals Davidson and Alabama-Huntsville, the eight and nine overall seeds. Both teams had fully earned their seats at the semifinal table after some stirring day one performances.
It wasn’t the prettiest or most fundamental game, with the conditions affecting execution far more than in the other semifinal. Drops and throwaways pervaded both halves of the game, but they were spread fairly evenly between the two teams. The teams traded a pair of breaks, and they arrived at half on serve, with Davidson leading 8-7. Whatever the coaching staff said to the players in their halftime circle needs to be inscribed on a plaque because DUFF came out hard and strong in the second half and never looked back. Utilizing their efficient and effective handler movement in conjunction with inside-out throws to cutters running vertical routes, Davidson rattled off three straight points. At 11-7, it was effectively all she wrote for Huntsville. Standout handler Andrew Roy led the way with five assists and one goal, and Davidson broke for the win at 13-9, setting up an all-Atlantic Coast final.
In scenes reminiscent of the semifinals, Davidson hit the ground running, and Richmond allowed a break on the first point. And just like the previous round, Richmond fought back with a pair of breaks under direction from their senior talisman. It would be announced during the post-game awards ceremony that Henry Babcock was the winner of the inaugural Donovan Award; while this honor was bestowed in recognition of his impressive play throughout the entire season, Babcock could have wrapped up the award for his work on day two of this tournament alone. Whether throwing or receiving, handling or cutting, Babcock was here, there and everywhere. He popped up with huck receptions and cheeky scoobers into space, as well as, for this writer’s money, the play of the tournament: After turning his back to the end zone to ostensibly dump the disc to another handler, Babcock flipped a ludicrous no-look, left-handed backhand perfectly into the path of a streaking up-line cut. A thing of beauty.
But Davidson was in no mood to kowtow, and DUFF gamely fought their way back into the affair, earning a couple breaks to earn a 6-5 lead over Richmond. The middle portion of the final boiled down to both teams exchanging multiple break runs. Richmond took half at 8-6; after holding out of halftime, Davidson strung together a series of breaks to take a 10-9 lead. That was to be their last time in control of the game. Richmond, no longer in the mood for nonsense, held and then put together a hat trick of breaks to earn themselves an unassailable 12-10 lead. Davidson did themselves no favors, repeatedly getting in their own way with simple execution mistakes and unforced errors.
In the end, the methodical and clinical play of Richmond earned them the opportunity to pull the disc to Davidson at 14-12, with a chance to win the national title on a break. Davidson had a couple chances to hold on Richmond’s first championship point, but throwing and catching errors reared their ugly heads again. DUFF turned the disc in the end zone on an inaccurate backhand to a wide-open receiver (who probably should have caught the disc anyway), and then, after Richmond had squandered their own golden opportunity to score, Davidson turned the disc over in the middle of the field on another backhand thrown too far in front of the receiver. On the ensuing possession, Richmond appeared trapped on the sideline, running into a pair of high-stall situations. The second one saw a hospital up-line pass floated into a scrum of half a dozen Davidson and Richmond players in the end zone; Harris Cannon, lurking just off the shoulder of the mob, was there to clean up the garbage when the disc jumped out of the hand of a receiver and floated nicely down into his eager and expectant arms. It wasn’t the cleanest or most fitting end to a clinically played tournament for Richmond, but they won’t care. They are your 2017 Division III National Champions. This was the final that the tournament and the fans deserved.