2010 Easterns Sunday Championship Play - Girls Division

Posted: May 16, 2010 09:11 PM

The wind settled down and the skies cleared in Buffalo, NY, revealing a warm, sunny Spring day- perfect for the final day of UPA High School Easterns. But no matter how blue the skies, the prospect of facing Amherst loomed like an inevitable storm.

One mentions “Amherst” at Girls Easterns and all of a sudden the pulses race, fists and spirits are pumped, and teams get psyched… or psyched out.

On the far side of the fields, a hot battle was fought between tenth-seeded Nashville and third-seeded Columbia. The two teams traded points from the very beginning until Sparkle Motion managed to string together a couple of points to take the lead for the majority of the second half. After the soft cap was sounded, the Brutal Grassburn, led by the strong throws and field sense of junior star Jesse Shofner with 25 assists for the weekend, took advantage of risky decisions by Columbia and clawed back into the game with a 3-0 run to force universe point at 10. Nashville had the disc inches from their endzone when Motion put a trap along the sideline forcing a floater to the middle of the field which was caught by 4’11” senior Kate Donatelli. The captain forced a deep pass through Burn’s cup and found senior Jenny Podel in the back of the endzone for a full extension layout and the win.

“That was great. It was a very risky throw,“ said Donatelli, “and a very, very nice catch.”

“Kate is one of the hardest-working players I’ve ever seen and has such a calming influence on the rest of the team,” said Sparkle Motion coach Will Watts. “And Jenny is a great athlete, very competitive.”

Closer to the rest of the Quarters action, Mt. Lebanon seemed to have their match against underdogs LC Bird with an 11-5 lead. But in the second half, Bird went on a gutsy 6-1 comeback with a combination of junior Rachel Basham’s deep hucks and hardnosed defense. The G-Team’s bench was raucous with excitement and their coaches Brittany Schenk and Ray Heath beamed as they ran up and down the sideline, encouraging their seven on the field. They had a lot to be proud of.

“We came in seeded ninth with four foreign exchange students and no expectations,” said Heath. “And they showed they could compete.”

Basham had 3 goals and 6 assists and captain Laura Fitch, a senior, had 2 goals and 3 assists in the match for the G-Team.

LC Bird, playing through the injuries of juniors Lindsey Brookmire (hip flexor) and Anja Skubsi (hamstring), took advantage of the Wildhogs’ poaching with short easy in-cuts and clean passes. Mt. Lebo’s star senior Ellie Shaul also sat out of the game more than usual, helping LC Bird’s cause. But despite the valiant effort, Mt. Lebanon managed to hold on behind captain Jojo Buss and Shaul who had nearly every other touch. Shaul consistently threw low airbounces to break the mark and immediately came back with squirrely cuts back to the disc. For the last point of the game, junior Danielle Burns caught a long huck from Shaul, and gave an easy cross-field pass to freshman Teresa Grinko for the 13-11 win. Shaul had 1 goal and 5 assists (14 assists total in Sunday’s three games) and 5’9” senior Alex Taylor had 7 goals and 3 assists.

In other games, YHB defeated Andover 13-3 in a one-sided battle where the girls from Arlington, Virginia proved to move the disc up the field for crisp, clean flow.  The Golden Gophers could not get past YHB’s defense headed by 5’7” junior Claudia Dimick’s nine D’s. Amherst also blanked the Stuyvesant Sticky Fingers in a match in which senior Afra Danai and junior Hannah Yee combined for 11 of the Hurricanes’ 13 assists. Stuy even tried a new homey offense, a strategy that would play off their strong handlers; but Amherst’s fast and efficient pace did not give the Sticky Fingers room to breathe. “We just weren’t into it,” said junior Shannon Cornelius. “Four points into the game we said to ourselves we just need to work for each point.” For every girls team that faced the mighty Hurricanes this weekend, each point played was a grueling chore.

After staving off LC Bird in the quarterfinals, Mt. Lebanon’s day only got tougher as they faced Amherst in the semis. As scripted, the Hurricanes played with hardnosed man-D and showed exceptional patience on offense. Like an ultimate symphony, their O was composed of clean easy passes and sharp in-cuts, balanced with melodious long passes that put their opponents on their heels.

Amherst junior Kathryn Hopkins McGill was also a defensive key as she proved to arguably be Shaul’s toughest mark all weekend, taking her out of her game. Even on the occasions where Mt. Lebanon was able to work it down the field, the Wildhogs were so excited to just get into the redzone that they foolishly turned it over forcing ill-advised throws.

In a classic Amherst point, Danai, with what appeared to be an 8-inch disadvantage, skied over her opponent for the D in the Amherst endzone. A minute later she benefitted from a smooth backhand at the other end of the field from Yee for a 6-0 tally. Yee had 5 assists for the game and Danai finished with 4 goals and 4 assists. Amherst went on to beat Mt. Lebanon 13-2.

With their last three match-ups being decided by one point, 2 of which ended in universe point, the semifinal between Columbia and YHB was expected to follow the pattern of this new rivalry. Sparkle Motion had defeated YHB in the finals of the Titans’ home Invite in March and YHB returned the favor twice at the O’Hara Invite.

Perhaps Columbia was mentally and physically exhausted from their bout with Nashville, but YHB jumped to a surprising 6-0 lead. The Titans put on a four-man cup of seniors Sam Taggart and Alyse Alicandro on point and juniors Haley Sanner, 5’10”, and Nicole Broder, 5’8” in the middle. The tall zone flustered Columbia, who was not able to adjust with active poppers. YHB took advantage with junior Alika Johnston’s aggressive play, Dimick’s tireless speed, and junior Michelle Derieux’s active defense. It was a complete team effort. Johnston finished the game with 1 goal, 3 assists, and 4 defensive stops, and Derieux had 2 goals, 1 assist and 5 D’s for YHB.

“We’ve improved so much,” said Johnston. “We’re working together and we’ve had really good flow most of this weekend.”

Columbia tried to put on a three-man cup of their own, but Taggart, Johnston and junior Makysha Tolbert patiently worked the disc up the field to lead at half 7-1.

The Columbia girls were not about to go down without a fight.  Sparkle Motion’s handlers led by Donatelli settled down and they regrouped in the second half, returning with the familiar raw intensity seen in their previous contests. The new-found focus was evident not only on offense but on defense as well. Podel had 3 stops in addition to her 3 goals, and senior Alex Fagundez had 5 defensive plays. Both Moy and fellow senior Abby Powell had 3 stops each.

The early deficit was too much for Columbia to overcome and YHB earned a spot in the Championship game with a 12-6 victory.

“If we could’ve played the first half like we did the second,” said Donatelli, “it would’ve been a lot more competitive.”

Although both were undefeated, the path to the finals for the top two seeds had been very different. While no team scored more than 3 points against formidable Amherst, three of YHB’s seven games were decided by 2 points or less.

With two of their players, Denai and Yee, representing the United States at Worlds in August, the Hurricanes shut out YHB 13-0. Amherst continued their impeccable flow throughout the weekend and managed to maintain their intensity into the finals. As expected, they demonstrated solid fundamentals. But what separated Amherst from the rest of the field was their smooth handling and mature discipline on offense.
Hopkins McGill scored the first 3 goals for Amherst and each member of the team handled with precision and finesse. Denai threw a high-arcing forehand that cut against the wind to sophomore Maya Norman to extend the lead to 4-0.

YHB clawed for every point and put heart-felt effort out on defense, but the chemistry demonstrated all weekend had dissipated. The Titans looked like a completely different team and managed only three defensive stops the entire game.

The Hurricanes were able to maintain their focus despite the disparity of their opponents. At halftime, even while the Amherst boys’ team celebrated their championship win over Needham on the adjacent field, not one girl broke the huddle to acknowledge anything beyond what they came to Buffalo to do - to become Easterns champions.

With their spirits somewhat deflated, but heads held high, YHB were all smiles at halftime. Forming a lively circle around their three coaches, the cheer was followed by dancing on the sideline.

“We’re proud to get to this point,” said YHB’s Johnston. “Even though we got rolled over, we’re still second-place. Amherst’s reputation precedes them. They’re a great team and we still had a lot of fun.”

The second half followed the same pattern as the first. Denai, who had 28 assists for the tournament, consistently broke marks and players made calculated cuts with instinctive field sense. Despite their large lead, Amherst rarely threw swaggering passes, showing how much they valued the disc. Junior Molly Shulman also played an integral part of the Hurricanes’ efforts with unending hustle plays and layout grabs. Shulman finished with 2 goals, 2 assists and 3 D’s for the game and had 17 goals and 18 assists for the weekend.
Championship point was the longest of the game with both teams exchanging possession. YHB worked the disc along the right sideline and the crowd of spectators held their collective breath, pulling for the Titan’s first score, as Devrieux threw across the field to Sanner. But even running full speed, the disc was just out of Sanner’s reach.  Amherst handlers then weaved as they approached the endzone and sealed the anticipated win when Denai hit senior Zoe Elkin with a sidearm in the right corner.

“Tournaments are a lot of fun,” said Denai. “But Easterns is the real deal.”

This isn’t the end of Amherst’s talented tandem as Denai and Yee will be traveling to Worlds together and it means a great deal to them. “If I didn’t have that to look forward to,” said Yee.”I don’t know what I’d do.”

“Hannah and I have a special bond,” added Denai. “She’s just a great person. I trust her with my life.” Touched by the remark Yee concluded. “I trust you with my life.”
The spirit of the game and camaraderie of girls’ ultimate remains universal. With the talent exhibited this weekend at Girls Easterns, not only is it exciting to see how far girls ultimate has come, but how fierce the competition will be this summer in Germany.