Rutgers Returns to the College Championship After a Long Absence

Posted: May 26, 2014 12:33 AM
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A look at Rutgers University Machine, one of the first-ever collegiate ultimate programs and their long-awaited trip back to the College Championships.

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Mason, Ohio (May 25, 2014) - Rutgers University has a storied history in the sport of ultimate. One of the original powerhouses way back when the game was in its infancy, Rutgers won what was then the National Championship every year from 1973 – 1976. Unfortunately, Rutgers was victimized by the early growth of the sport and the increase in competition that came with it. Unable to keep up with the increasing quality of play, they fell to being only a mid-level regional contender for the better part of the next three decades. 2006 saw the Rutgers Machine fail to make it to their regional championship, and it looked like the gears of the program that had once been so unstoppable were about to stop turning. Rutgers’ absence from Regionals continued, and their reputation began to wane.

In 2011, however, the Machine showed that it had only been resting. On the back of a strong freshman class, including Scott Xu, Matt Weintraub, Josh Alorro and Albert Alarcon, Rutgers returned to Regionals. Teams in the area began to worry that this batch of high-caliber rookies would develop into a true Machine. Over the next few years, that’s exactly what happened.

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This year, those same freshmen that brought Rutgers back to the Regional Championships gave the Machine their first regional title in nearly 40 years with a gutsy win over a heavily-favored Cornell, coming from behind to take the game at double-game point. With the upset, Rutgers got the only bid to the College Championships awarded to the relatively weak Metro East region and gave Machine an opportunity to play their game against the top teams from across the country in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Coming into the tournament seeded last in the pool of 20 teams gave Rutgers the chance to play the underdog role. Nevertheless, Machine was not at the Championships strictly for the experience their team would get from the competition; they were in it to take some wins and be a factor in bracket play.

"Coming in, we wanted to make pre-quarters," head coach Ari Weitzman stated. "That was a legitimate goal for us."

In a pool that consisted of stalwarts Oregon, North Carolina-Wilmington, Florida and a wildcard in Carleton College, the fight to pre-quarters would be uphill the whole way, and Rutgers knew they had to pick their battles efficiently. To make matters even more difficult for Machine, the schedule of their pool games was not optimal.

"It’s hard when you come in and every game that you have is that team’s first game of the day," Weitzman observed. That was the case the entire weekend for Rutgers. "It was very hard for us to be able to respond to our second game. We had Oregon on the first day, and then a fresh UNC-W on the second."

Rutgers lost both, by scores of 15-5 and 15-11. Those games, however, were not the ones Weitzman said were circled on Machine’s schedule. Instead, the teams they wanted to beat were Florida on Friday and Carleton on Saturday. At points during both games, it looked like they just might.

In their first game of pool play against Florida, Rutgers came out looking a little jittery. Florida took advantage, relying, as expected, on Bobby Ley, Jason Silverman and James Dahl to jump out to a quick 4-0 lead. Rutgers woke up to make it 5-3, but Florida responded to take the next three and bring the score to 8-3 heading into halftime. Rutgers adjusted during the break, moving the disc through Scott Xu, who played much better than his stat line that lists zero goals and two assists would suggest, and it was quickly 9-7. Machine did not have a solution for either Ley or Dahl, though, and each stepped up late in the game to finish with five assists and help hand Rutgers a 15-10 loss.

The other game Machine was eyeing was against Carleton College early on Saturday. Things got complex when Carleton roared through Friday with a 15-13 upset over fifth-ranked UNC-Wilmington and a 14-10 win over ninth-ranked Florida. Then Matt Weintraub, a key cog of the Machine playing out of the center-handler position, started getting back spasms minutes before Rutgers and Carleton were scheduled to take the field.

"You can’t replace Matt Weintraub," Weitzman stated simply. "But we really benefitted from the fact that the game started kind of quickly after Matty had back spasms. It felt rushed and urgent to a way where our team never had a chance to be nervous about it."

Carleton took the first point, and Rutgers lined up to receive the pull while Weintraub looked on from the sideline, a bag of ice strapped to his back.

"We have enough guys who have been playing with each other for long enough in different situations that we could say ‘Alright, we’re switching this,’ and just roll with it." Weitzman commented. "Scotty Xu, who is usually a cutter for us, just center handled the whole first half against Carleton, and everybody just responded to it."

Machine’s offense received the second pull of the game and got the point to tie the game at 1-1. Then their defense scored three straight break points to take a 4-1 lead.

"There are a lot of detriments to being seeded 20th, but there are also some benefits, as well," Weitzman stated, "We knew that other teams would not adjust what they’ve been doing for us – they’d be the same teams we’d seen on film."

Nothing Carleton College did on the field in the first half surprised Rutgers, and Machine was able to hold tight to go into half at 8-7. Carleton switched tactics during half, though, and threw the Machine a curveball in the form of a new zone look that broke Machine’s offense for two points and make the score 10-7. Weintraub’s back settled down, and he returned to the field to help Machine crawl back into the game, tie it up at 14s, and force double-game point. In a must-stop situation, the Rutgers defense put up a stand, but Carleton steadily worked the disc up the field and managed the score to take the game and solidify an 0-4 record for Rutgers in pool play. Slotted into the placement bracket, they drew a match up against the University of California-San Diego and lost 15-8.

While the results were not what they were looking for, the college championship experience is not something to overlook for the development of a program like Rutgers.

"It was huge learning moment for the guys who are coming back next year," Weitzman said, "but it’s too bad and it hurts for our seniors, but they’ll be better players for it. As a team, we’re left wanting from our performance, but the fact that we went 8-7 against Carleton in the first half tells me that we’re going to reload just fine. We’ve got a lot of guys who are special players, and just being here will help everyone step up in the future to fill special roles on the team."

It will be difficult for Rutgers to reach this level of play with the loss of such a talented class of players, but the exposure their younger players got playing against the top teams in the country will help immensely in the next few years.

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