2015 National Championships: Men's Day One Recap

Posted: October 1, 2015 08:21 PM

If I could think of one word to describe the first day of the National Championships, it’d be "nuanced."

With the format the way it is, the first day of pool play is oddly flat, an intensity and "do or die" attitude absent from a tournament where it’s usually omnipresent. In this format’s first year, every pool winner went onto semis, creating the feeling that Thursday mattered and winning your pool was a must. But then last year happened; we saw how hectic the second day of this format could be, how Raleigh Ring of Fire ran the table to the semis after finishing last in their pool, and suddenly logic was turned on its head. I heard several coaches and players from teams that weren’t seeded first in their pool say that they felt like today was their last opportunity to get better before Friday’s action began, as opposed to feeling the pressure to score a big upset win.

That being said, there is good reason to get Ws early and often in Frisco, the most important being confidence. Every player here wants to go into the win-or-go-home part of this tournament with faith in their teammates and themselves. Another reason is to get the match ups you want. If you’re a one seed, there is a lot of value in locking down a match up with the bottom feeder of another pool. If you’re in the middle of the pack, you can try to dictate who you’ll see in a crossover or even look ahead to quarters. I heard at least three teams admit they had considered working to avoid a quarterfinal match up with San Francisco Revolver or Seattle Sockeye. Revolver was basically the only team I didn’t watch much of today, as I expected them to roll through their considerably overmatched Pool A, which they did.

Round One

For me, the most compelling games in round one were Sockeye v. Florida United and Ring v. Doublewide. Unfortunately, neither game turned into the epic shootout I was hoping for.

Right out of the gate, Sockeye made Florida United look like the young team they are. They had them throwing into tight, crowded spaces. Those throws didn’t translate to turnovers immediately, but the grind wore on Florida, one of the most athletic teams in the tournament.

With Sockeye up 4-3, Florida United had the disc and a chance to even it up, but back to back Cole Sullivan hucks ended with two turnovers. The second was macked by Mischa Freystaetter into the waiting hands of a teammate, but there was an offensive foul called that gave the disc to Sockeye. That led to a Sam Harkness goal on a veteran box out against Jordan Hutson, which made it 5-3 Sockeye and gave them the grip they needed to maintain the lead and walk away with the game. They’d eventually win 13-7.

In the Ring-Doublewide game, the story was similar. Doublewide turned over their first O-point after Noah Saul forced a high throw with a nice mark against Kurt Gibson. But Jon Nethercutt picked up the disc and immediately hucked a turnover deep, giving Doublewide a second opportunity to punch their O-point. Doublewide got a hand block on Ring’s first O-point, walked a break in and didn't relent control from there. Ring couldn’t seem to connect on their deep looks, which Doublewide noticed. "Just sit under your guy, and let them huck. They haven’t hit one yet," I heard a player on Doublewide’s D-line say. Ring didn’t take the dagger until late and hung around to get the disc at 12-9. But a nice Doublewide sky D on the goal line that could have been a Callahan led to a quick inside-out, lefty backhand to Gibson for the 13-9 lead and the inevitable 15-10 win.

While that game was going on, Sub Zero and Rhino exchanged blows early. The two teams, despite being in different regions, are oddly familiar with each other. A lot of these guys have played youth or NexGen ultimate together or against each other, and it showed on the field. There was a lot of chirping back and forth, both playful and less so, and almost every goal came with a few smiley exchanges. For Rhino, it was basically the Jacob Janin, Cody Bjorklund and Dylan Freechild show. The three connected for several long completions or goals early on, and it didn’t seem like Sub Zero had an answer. Rhino went up 5-3 before the game got knotted up at 7s. But Sub would re-capture some momentum when they got the game’s most important score to that point and took half 8-7.

At 14s, the game was capped to set up a big double-game point. In a classic exchange of young fiery teams, the game went into monkey-see-monkey-do mode. Rhino received, but a quick huck from Bjorklund to Freechild fell short. Sub Zero picked it up and hucked it back, but Bjorklund got the D. A quick up-field pass to Trevor Smith gave him the opportunity to…you guessed it, huck it right back to Sub Zero. At that point, Simon Montague picked up the disc and did the veteran thing, burning their last timeout in the cap and re-grouping. Sub Zero then worked the disc down to the red zone before a high, floaty forehand went up to a crowd. And that’s when the drama started.

There were about six players in the area before someone on Sub Zero came over the top and skied them all, pulling down the disc and the first-round win. I didn’t get his number because of the immediate blow up that ensued over a Freechild foul call in the pile. It’s one of those plays you hate to see but understand; from my perspective, only one player made a great play on the disc, and he came down with it. But Freechild insisted he was pushed in the back and couldn’t jump. To Freechild’s ire, the observer ruled no foul and — according to Freechild — justified it by saying it was a hospital pass. Despite the game being over, Freechild’s argumentative attitude about the call earned him a player misconduct foul, adding a sour ending to a tough loss for Rhino.

It wasn’t the only game that ended in a controversial double-game point, either. On field seven, Chicago Machine and Madison Club went down to the wire before a cross-field, outside-in flick went up to Peter Graffy. Brett Matzuka, who was behind the play, came rumbling forward and laid out past a stationary Graffy for a beautiful catch D in the end zone. But to the crowd’s disappointment, Graffy called a strip, which led to a long argument that provoked a lot of heckling from the sidelines. Without observers on the field, some players implored Madison teammates to tell Graffy what they saw, but neither he nor Matzuka seemed ready to back down, and they returned the disc to the thrower. For what it’s worth, I was on the sideline, and the person next me to and I agreed Matzuka got the D cleanly. Just moments later, Graffy would find the back corner for the goal and the game winner over Matzuka, 14-13.  

In the most dramatic game of the first round, which I missed almost entirely, Truck Stop came roaring back from an 8-12 deficit to beat GOAT 14-13.

Other scores:

Revolver beats Patrol 15-10
High Five beats Ironside 15-10
Johnny Bravo beats Prairie Fire 15-7

Round Two

On adjacent fields, Johnny Bravo walked in the first point of the game against Ironside, Sockeye walked in their first point against GOAT, and Ring walked in their first point against Rhino. Each of those goals, which happened within seconds of each other, would be legitimate precursors for their games.

Nick Lance had a phenomenal layout D early in the Bravo game, living up to some of the whispers I had heard that he was a legitimate contender for the top player on the team behind Jimmy Mickle this year. That helped Bravo to an early 2-0 lead.

Sockeye manhandled GOAT early, jumping out 4-1 and controlling the tempo of the game from the very first pull. Then, 15 minutes into the round, the skies opened up.

In those first few minutes of rain, you can always see the kind of teams you have in front of you. Players on Rhino began jumping up and down in excitement, feeding off the poor weather. Sockeye got loud. Ironside scored on a long, grind-it-out point where Josh "Cricket" Markette proved he’s perfectly capable of carrying the extra weight in the absence of guys like George Stubbs and Russell Wallack. Matt Esser made an off-balance, toe-the-line grab in the back of the end zone against Machine for the 2-1 lead, and Patrol stormed the field. For a brief 10 minutes, with the rain coming down in sheets, it really felt like Nationals. Teams seemed intense, angry, determined, the only plausible and helpful response to poor weather if you’re in the business of winning.

After the rain calmed down, Sockeye, Bravo, Ring, Patrol, Prairie Fire, Florida United, Doublewide and Madison Club all emerged under the sunshine with leads. Most notable of that pack were Prairie Fire, leading a High Five team that had just rolled Ironside, and of course Madison Club leading a Revolver team that was seeded first at the tournament. I quickly left the safety of my tent to jog to the Madison game, and in the 90 seconds it took me to get there, Revolver had already re-gained the lead and taken half 8-6.

High Five, on the other hand, took a bit longer to get their grip back. It wasn’t until 12-11 that they led against Prairie Fire, the bottom seed in their pool, and even then a James Highsmith turn on the goal line gave Prairie Fire a chance to tie it up. Unfortunately, they gave it right back, and when High Five punched it in to make it 13-11, the game was effectively over. They’d go on to win 15-12.

In a game with little defense between Ring and Rhino, things got chippy at the end. In true Ring form, they began boo’ing and heckling themselves, which seemingly got under the skin of their Portland counterpart. At 14-12 with Ring in front, Freechild caught a goal to make it 14-13 and launched the disc into the parking lot. The result was a TMF, which incited another argument between an observer and Freechild. He wasn’t happy that they had let some of the Ring chatter go on unchecked, and when he wouldn’t stop arguing, he received his second PMF of the tournament. If he gets a third at any point over the next three days, he’ll be disqualified. Notably, the TMF for the spike was Rhino’s third of the game and gave Ring the disc at half field where they picked it up and walked it in for the 15-13 win.

Over in the Ironside v. Bravo match up, things were knotted at 7s before the cleanest point of ultimate I had seen all day was capped off with a Markette huck to Alex Kapinos that ended the half. It was a different Ironside team than the one that rolled over for High Five, and Bravo seemed to take notice.

Bravo pushed back early in the second half, starting with a ridiculous Mickle sky and dish for the goal to make it 9-9. It was one of those classic Mickle grabs that makes him seem like he’s 11 feet tall. Bravo fed off the big play and started to find their groove. They broke for the 10-9 lead and traded out before a late breakaway to win 14-12. Notably, three of Bravo’s biggest names were all playing in their first tournament of the season: Bart Watson, Eric Johnson and Hylke Snieder had cleated up in blue for the first time this season.

"The good thing is we’ve played with them all before," Mickle told me after the game. "Their talent makes up for a miscue here or there on the field, but what they bring to this team is so much more than that."

Over in the Machine v. Patrol game, it was yet another barn burner. On Machine’s second straight double-game-point finish, with the score tied at 13s, Michael Panna let loose a 50-yard backhand huck to Jake Rainwater. 6’3" Michael Schwenk was on his heels, but Rainwater went up early and went up big, ripping the disc down and bringing home Patrol’s first Nationals win in the young team’s history. For Machine, it was yet another heartbreaking defeat that came down to the last play, a theme that has become all-too-familiar for some elite ultimate players in Chicago.

Other scores:

Florida United beat Truck Stop 14-10
Revolver beat Madison Club 15-10
Doublewide beat Sub Zero 15-9
Sockeye beat Goat 15-9

Round Three

The final round of play in the men’s division was the lowest energy of them all. Doublewide and Revolver had both clinched their pools, and the rest of the games weren’t very high stakes. That’s not to say they didn’t end up being important, though.

The most highly anticipated match ups of the final round were Sockeye v. Truck Stop and Johnny Bravo v. High Five. If Truck could pull off the upset, they’d force a potential three-way tie that could make things messy. Early on, as they did against Florida United and GOAT, Sockeye gave Truck Stop fits on their resets. Players like Alan Kolick never looked comfortable in the backfield, and high throws translated to turnovers in a tricky cross wind that played to Sockeye’s strengths. It seemed as if the Fish were going to run away with it, but at 10-7, Truck Stop rose from the dead like they had against GOAT, rallied three straight breaks and tied the game. Oddly enough, Truck’s rally didn’t seem to shake Sockeye or really intensify the atmosphere. Like the short burst of a dud firework, their energy receded as Sockeye’s offense methodically worked in point-after-point until Matt Rehder easily caught the game winner on a strong cut to the front cone for the 13-12 win.

In the second potentially tournament-changing game, Bravo was set to take on High Five, the number one seed in their pool who was yet to lose on the day. But that game quickly turned into a blow out, and after Bravo took a commanding 8-3 halftime lead, High Five sat their starters and essentially let the clock run out on a dominant 15-9 victory for Bravo.

Over in the GOAT v. Florida United game, things got physical early. I looked over and saw three collisions throughout the game, and from what I heard, there were more. Florida will be holding their breath to hear about the status of Travis Catron, one of their 6’4" big men who went down with a possible concussion. The good news for Florida is that they won the game 14-13, finished second in their pool, and they’ll be getting reinforcements tonight. Bobby Ley and Chris LaRocque were both notably absent from today’s action but will be flying in tonight.

Meanwhile, Ironside rolled Prairie Fire 15-9 and Patrol, who made it to Nationals through the back door in the Mid-Atlantic Region with a 12-9 win over Pittsburgh Temper, got their second win of the day against Madison Club by a score of 15-12 to finish 2-0 against non-Revolver teams.

Other scores:

Revolver beat Machine 15-8
Sub Zero beat Ring of Fire 15-12

Some quick hits:

  • Tomorrow is going to be insane. Two huge regional finals match ups will have sequels when Florida United plays Ring of Fire and Sockeye and Rhino face off. The latter is the most intriguing, as Rhino actually beat Sockeye at regionals before going 0-3 on the day today while they watched Sockeye play arguably the best of any team at the tournament in what many considered to be the toughest pool.

  • Not many people expected Patrol to do much today, but they’ve got to be happy with where they are. They finished second in their pool and will play an Ironside team tomorrow that lacks the star power it has had in years past. It’ll be an interesting showcase between an up-and-coming team and Ironside, who has been a staple of Nationals but lost some studs heading into this season.

  • There was, of course, a Brodie Smith sighting. He’s grinding through physical therapy on his knee and is itching to get back to competitive ultimate.

  • High Five has left a lot of people scratching their heads. One moment they are destroying Ironside, who tweeted out a warning that the Michigan team was the real deal, and the next minute they are almost losing to Prairie Fire. They didn’t seem to have an answer for Bravo either, but it’s tough to tell if they were even trying to win that game.

  • From what I saw, it’s safe to say Pool C was the best of the bunch, and I’d be shocked if they don’t perform very well in the crossover games. Truck Stop proved they could beat Sockeye, who looks to be hitting their stride at the right time. Florida United is bigger and faster in person than I thought they’d be, and GOAT — even without Mark Lloyd — has the experience and grit to beat anyone.

  • Florida United wasn’t the only team missing players today. Ring was also without Justin Allen and Ken Porter, who will both be here tomorrow. With fresh legs and fresh off a fiery regional final, you can expect those teams to come out gunning tomorrow. After talking to players on each side, one thing is clear: this is not a friendly rivalry.

  • Despite a frustrating day for Rhino, they have come out of it relatively okay. A pre-quarters draw against Sockeye must give the Fish pause for thought, but you can expect them to be looking for revenge after Rhino ended their season at Nationals last year and beat them at regionals just weeks ago.

  • Revolver looks as dominant as ever, and they also had a fairly easy day one. It’s unlikely they get a challenge from Prairie Fire in pre-quarters, but if Truck holds seed and beats Sub Zero, it’ll be interesting to see how Revolver responds to their first big challenge of the weekend in quarterfinals in what would be a rematch of this year’s U.S. Open final.

  • If I had to pick semis teams right now, it’d be Revolver, Sockeye, Doublewide and Bravo. I know that isn’t interesting, being that they all won their pools, but they won them for a reason: They were the only teams that played complete halves of ultimate all day, and they each managed to stay healthy. Then again, of all the days at this tournament to play your best, Thursday is not the one you’re hoping for.

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