A Week at the Under-23 World Championships – Day 4

Posted: July 26, 2013 03:17 PM

The following is part of our of continuing coverage of the 2013 WFDF U-23 Championships in Toronto, Canada. 

Stop the presses!

Yesterday, this space was filled with information about the seemingly destined success of the U.S.A. under-23 mixed team. Much was made about how no other squad at the World Championships could test them, about how they were born loose, cool and collected.

That remained true for about 12 hours.

This afternoon, the U.S.A. ran headlong into a wall, and that wall was the border. In a pitched battle of the 49th parallel, U.S.A.’s and Canada’s mixed teams met in a fight that went all the way to double-game point.

Both sides fought valiantly. Neither emerged unscathed.

The interview with U.S.A. women’s coach Carolyn Matthews will be published tomorrow. For now, we focus on what has become the game of the tournament so far: U.S.A. vs. Canada.

Pre-Game: There is much in the way of history here. U.S.A. and Canada have been feuding since the War of 1812, and as recently as last month’s Poultry Days, the two countries’ national teams split a pair of games. America won the first; Canada won the second. At every international competition, U.S. and Canadian teams have gone down to the wire, so everyone knew this match had the potential to be a good one. But nobody knew just how good.

For an opening salvo, Canada broke the U.S.A. offensive line. They followed this up by breaking again, going up 2-0. This marked the first time all tournament that U.S.A.’s mixed team did not hold the lead, and for once, they looked fallible. Beatable, even. It was time to dig deep.

The game plan was to use their women, and down 3-1, Sabrina Fong found Becca Miller for the goal, making the score 3-2. But Canada answered right back to keep the lead. 4-2. 4-3. 5-3. Canada’s defense was tight as a bear trap, and their offense remained crisp. The teams traded back and forth, parrying, looking for an opening.

At 5-3, U.S.A. committed only the fourth turnover of the game when Khalif El-Salaam overshot Sarah Meckstroth in the end zone. This gave Canada a chance to go up big, but they turned it right back, and the point became sloppy, with multiple turnovers for both teams. Eventually, U.S.A. managed to punch in the score. They exploded with relief, and they well should have: as any ultimate player can attest, being down 5-4 feels way better than being down 6-3.

Despite a shift in the wind from previous days, both teams’ hucks stayed clean and generally found their intended targets. Indeed, both U.S.A. and Canada seemed determined to make the game an aerial battle, and for quite a while, both teams succeeded. But at 6-5, Canada turfed an early swing, and Elijah Kerns found an I/O flick to the end zone that gave U.S.A. its first break, an upwinder.

Tied now at 6-6, U.S.A. got the disc again when speedy Canadian receiver Cindy Truong suffered an uncharacteristic drop. With the wind now at their backs, the U.S.A. recognized the value of their opportunity, and when Claudia Tajima hit Natasha Won in the end zone, U.S.A. found themselves back in familiar territory: in the lead. From 7-6, the teams traded out, sending U.S.A. into halftime leading 9-8.

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Coming out of halftime, Canada turfed another disc. U.S.A. couldn’t take advantage, however, as Jack Hatchett found himself unable to reel in a huck from Mike Ogren. Canada made the most of their second chance and tied the score at 9s. The two teams proceeded to trade points for a while, but at 11-10, Canada committed another surprising turnover. After a few miscues for both teams, Elijah Kerns connected with Sabrina Fong in the end zone to push U.S.A.’s lead to 12-10.

After a slow start, U.S.A. had clearly found its groove, with the Red, White and Blue in the middle of a 9-5 run. Canada refused to go down, however, and Hugh Knapp – the team’s primary handler and chief offensive threat – led a Canadian resurgence. He carried his team through the U.S.A.’s cup defense, keeping Canada in the game, 12-11. U.S.A. scored in response, and then, at 13-11, U.S.A. broke again, putting the game all but out of reach at 14-11. Of course, all but out of reach is not the same as sealed away, and down 15-13, Canada earned their first break since the beginning of the game to bring the score within one. What did they do for an encore? They followed it up with another break to tie the game at 15s, with a hard cap set at 17.

Suddenly under attack and without the benefit of momentum, U.S.A. was forced to call a timeout to regroup. No one had ever put them to the test like this – could they step up to the challenge? They had all the advantages: the wind was at their backs, and they were receiving. All they needed to do was stay cool and play boring ultimate, and they would be able to close out the game with a win. But could they manage?

In fact, they could not! Both the bravado and clockwork-style efficiency the team had previously relied upon had left them. El-Salaam got into trouble again, forcing a dicey upline shot to a completely covered receiver in the end zone. The disc was knocked down, and it looked like Canada would have a chance to retake the lead, but Sara Meckstroth was there to eat up the trash. Her heads-up play bailed out her teammate and her team, making the score 16-15, U.S.A..

U.S.A. proceeded to brick their next pull. Clearly the pressure was affecting them. Curiously, Canada set up a side stack off the stopped disc. U.S.A.’s downfield players shifted position, and none of Canada’s cutters could get open – would this cause an early turnover? No! The cutters didn’t matter! The setup was a dummy; the real play was to isolate Canada’s Hugh Knapp again, and it worked. He set up initially as a swing handler, then made an S-cut into the space created by the side stack for a big gainer and power position. Knapp utilized these advantages to release a perfect shot to the back of the end zone; though his pass didn’t score, a foul-contest sent the disc back to him, and on the return possession, he played with conservative confidence, quarterbacking his team with 100 percent break shots and swings all the way into the goal.

Now at 16-16, the game hinged on universe point. It was the toughest test the U.S.A. had faced, and everybody – coaches, fans, players, spectators – knew it. U.S.A. sent Sophie Darch, Khalif El-Salaam, Lisa Pitcaithley, Simon Higgins, Ian Engler, Lee Farnsworth and Sarah Meckstroth to the line, a strong group to be sure, but one that left many armchair quarterbacks guessing. On double-game point, U.S.A. was neglecting to play Natasha Won, Sabrina Fong, Aaron Adamson, Claudia Tajima or Elijah Kerns, all players who had been taking care of business for the U.S.A. – particularly on offense – all week long.

The odd personnel selection came back to haunt them. Meckstroth dropped a pass in the red zone, and with the disc near their own brick mark, Canada called for time out. The crowd, sensing an upset, took to their feet, shouting "Canada! Canada! Canada!"

The players retook the field. The disc was tapped in. It was go time. Canada put all their money on a first throw huck. It had the distance, but it hung just too long, and the receiver failed to reel in the arcing shot. This seemed to be a back-breaking miscue, but Canada got a second chance when Sophie Darch overthrew a huck of her own to Lisa Pitcaithley. Once again, the crowd began to sing out for an upset, but there was an undercurrent of uncertainty. There had already been three turns, far more than on almost any other point during the game. Tension was high – was this going to be a hell point?

Indeed it was. A Canadian handler dropped an easy up-line pass, giving the U.S.A. a short field to work with. Canada didn’t fold, however; they admirably clamped down on defense, forcing U.S.A. farther and farther backfield until, eventually, an over-eager El-Salaam threw away a lefty high-backhand shot to an empty corner of the end zone and gave Canada a third chance to score and win.

This was their time. Everyone could sense it. But with the disc far from the hands of their stud handler Knapp, the young Canadian team proved unable to handle the pressure. After dropping still another easy handler pass, Canada gave U.S.A. a fourth possession with which to win the game, and with that many chances, the U.S.A. couldn’t miss. They worked it calmly for a goal, and after a nail-biter, U.S.A. won 17-16, besting Canada and emerging, for the moment, unscathed.

U.S.A. mixed barely managed to continue their winning streak. The game, however, removed both their mystique and all doubt; they are indeed mortal. In the aftermath, a new question has arisen: can U.S.A. mixed right their ship and re-chart their course to dominance?

With games scheduled against top competitors Ireland and Japan before entering elimination play on Saturday, they’ll find out soon enough.


Day 4 Highlights - Images by CBMT creative



WFDF World Under-23 Ultimate Championships (official website)

Tw (@USAUltimateU23):


2013 WU23UC - Day 5 - Canada vs USA (Mixed) from Rob Baril on Vimeo.

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