After the quarterfinals were pushed up to the final game of day one at the D-III College Championships, we started today off already in the semifinals. The first thing that has to be mentioned as a stark contrast from yesterday was the weather. On Saturday, competition wrapped up about two hours before a massive thunderstorm descended on Lexington, followed by rain throughout the night. As play began this morning, a light drizzle was still hanging around, followed by a much heavier drizzle toward the end of the round which really put a premium on solid throws and made for some absolutely sloppy possessions throughout the day. Now that we have that disclaimer out of the way, on to the action!
Bright and early, we had Valparaiso facing off against Wesleyan. Valparaiso played without two of their seniors, as it was their graduation ceremony today. Regardless, the show must go on. This was a close affair in the early goings, as both teams more or less traded points. But eventually, the lack of depth at the handler position and the conditions really began to hurt Valpo, who allowed several points to slip just before half. What was once a 3-3 game became an 8-4 game in favor of Wesleyan. But really, throughout the game, there were turnovers upon turnovers upon turnovers. There were a combined 131 turnovers in the game (64 for Wesleyan and 67 for Valparaiso), and most of the ones I witnessed were either throws that slipped or throws that just went straight through cutters’ hands because the disc was too slick. Once Valparaiso got to four points, they sort of stuck there for a while as Wesleyan continued to just pile up break after break, getting up to 12-4 at one point. An interesting note from this game, and one I’ll go into a little bit later, was that both teams almost exclusively played man-to-man defense. I figured that at some point one of the teams would try switching to zone as the disc stayed slippery, and both teams that they were having difficulties controlling possession. At the end of the game, Wesleyan’s lead was too much to overcome, and they punched their ticket to the finals with a comfortable 14-6 victory.
In the other game of the semifinal round, Carleton College-Eclipse took on Puget Sound. Both of these teams’ play stood out to me yesterday, and I was really interested in this matchup. Right out of the gate, Carleton’s defensive strategy was abundantly clear and could be summed up in one word: zone. Eclipse jumped out to an early 3-0 lead, almost exclusively due to them coming out in a zone and putting some of their taller players in a cup with a chaser. Puget Sound didn’t look prepared for this strategy at first, and it ended up costing them an early foothold. In the early going, it looked like Carleton was going to run away with the game, with the ending just being a formality. At one point, Carleton had stretched the lead to 7-2 before Puget Sound decided they were not going to go down quietly. Backed by the offensive abilities of Jane Marie Gunn and Ellen Kalenscher, they began to mount a comeback, chipping away until they recorded back-to-back-to-back breaks, bringing the score to 14-12 before Carleton finally slammed the door and marked their spot in the finals. The key to this game, and really all day for Carleton, was their zone and the height of their team. I would be willing to guess that they were the tallest team out there this weekend. Additionally, they really took care of the disc in the poor conditions. In contrast with the other game, they only recorded 26 turnovers during the semifinals, and a decent number of them were actually good throws, often deep shots by Leah Roche. Which leads me to my third key point, which was Leah Roche. She was a standout on a very good Carleton team all day and really most of the weekend. She recorded assists on 12 of Carleton’s 15 scores this game and had four Ds playing last back in their zone. Finally, remember that 3-0 lead Carleton jumped out to by throwing zone early and Puget Sound needing some time to figure out? Carleton ended up winning by three points.
And here we have it – the game we were all there for: the showdown between Wesleyan and Carleton for the D-III Women’s Championship. By this time during the day, the rain had subsided, and we were now in full-on perfect-temperature mode with overcast skies. For essentially all of the championship games, the weather held strong, with the only complaints coming from the fact that the wind picked up. Nevertheless, it was a strong championship performance from both teams and an exciting game.
Much like the semifinals, Carleton came out in their zone defense and jumped out to an early 4-1 lead. That cushion would be crucial down the road. After the early going, a large portion of the game was a back-and-forth contest. Carleton essentially maintained their three-point lead and their solid zone throughout the first half. As mentioned, the wind had picked up, and as a result, many of their downwind possessions consisted of taking a deep shot and setting up a zone. They threw several looks at Wesleyan, one of which was a box-and-one against Wesleyan’s main handler, Lucy Salwen (whose nickname, as indicated by her jersey, was Lucifer). Carleton also played a standard cup zone, but the mainstay was, again, Leah Roche trying to contain everything that went deep as the last back.
In my mind, the turning point of the game came when it was 6-5, and Wesleyan had a hammer go up to an open cutter in the end zone who simply wasn’t able to reel it in. After the turn, Carleton marched down the field and scored, making it 7-5, as opposed to six-all. A tough, tough break for Wesleyan for sure. However, they definitely got a spark from Salwen as she was able to record a Callahan when the player she was marking slipped on the wet ground as the throw intended for her went up. This brought the game to 10-8 in favor of Carleton. After another Carleton score, came a point I will never forget.
With both teams’ starters and captains resting and winds picking up to a decent gust, we were all witnesses to a 25 minute, 44-turnover point (and I double checked with the scorekeepers on those numbers). It became quite a spectacle as both teams were essentially cheering for someone, anyone to score. What we were blessed with was a layout grab by Wesleyan in the end zone on a hammer throw to bring it to 11-9. Unfortunately, the next point saw Wesleyan give up a Callahan to Abby Polk on a similar play to the first one: The wind picked up at the wrong time, and a throw sailed off of Wesleyan fingertips into Polk’s arms. From that point on, Carleton was able to control the game and take home the 13-10 win, scoring on a Roche-to-Olson throw, a common connection throughout the weekend.
Some other thoughts from the game were that Leah Roche, who had been stellar for Carleton all weekend, had an okay game, where she was still able to connect with her cutters and control most of the offense, but also had some throws not go according to plan. I’m not sure if it was the conditions or some championship gitters or even the general defensive strategy of “huck for field position, then play hard zone” that resulted in her having a lot of turns, but it was noticeable. Granted, she still had an insane nine assists on the team’s 13 scores, but her defense really stood out to me. She did a great job on the defensive end as the last back, and in this game in particular, she was coming down with most, if not all, discs she was in contention for. Another Carleton player who stood out was Meg Crenshaw, another one of their prominent handlers who worked some points almost solo, with Roche taking a backseat.
Finally, as mentioned, Lucy Salwen really stood out for Wesleyan as someone who would do a lot of solid handling and working the disc up the field, then all of a sudden bomb one to the end zone on a stellar huck. She also had several great breaks, and it was noticeable when she was not out there running the offense, especially against Carleton’s zone. She recorded two goals and five assists on 10 total Wesleyan scores in the final.
As for the champions, from beginning to end, I think Carleton was the best team in the field, and they deserved the victory. Outside of their very first game, where Mount Holyoke went up 11-10 in a game to 12 and they had to break to win, Carleton rolled through the rest of their games until – obviously – the semifinals and finals. Roche was a great team leader, and they really won this, in my opinion, with their defense. They were the only team that was able to both really disrupt the other team with their zone defense and also match up and shut down opposing players person to person.
All in all, it was a great weekend, and a huge congrats goes out to Carleton College Eclipse for winning the 2017 D-III Women’s College Championship!