There’s a lot of deja vu in sports and ultimate has had its share of moments. The ones that stand out to me all happened in the past three years or so since I started diligently watching film. Jack Williams’ performance against UNC this past nationals was certainly stunning but really understand that win – to comprehend the full weight of what just happened when Rick Henninghausen reeled in Jack’s massive backhand to seal the game – you need to go back in time to another semi final that happened just twenty minutes down the road. The only previous time UNC had played Wilmington in a semi final happened in 2014 and by halftime UNC had asserted its edge over the Seamen 8-6 – the exact same deficit Wilmington faced in 2017. With that in mind I was certain Wilmington was done, but there was one lingering factor that remains missing from a lot of the post-nationals analysis which may have very done UNC’s starters in before the game began. UNC had been in the hot seat earlier that day in another rematch from 2014 against Wisconsin in quarterfinals. UNC’s comeback against the Hodags (which amounted to something like eight points with their starters crossing over to defense) may have hamstrung the ability of their top players to finish off Wilmington. Wisconsin certainly didn’t get revenge for 2014, but they ensured that UNC’s starters had to push themselves to the limit before heading into the semis.
Of all the players on the field at any point during the 2017 semis it was Jack Williams who had played the most points in that previous 2014 matchup. Williams finished the game with three goals to top off an impressive 20 goal performance for his second nationals weekend. But to really understand just what exactly Jack did in that second half, you had to rewind the tape back to another, more recent semi final. It was with Ring of Fire, in the 2016 semifinals of the Club Championships, that Williams gave a hint of just what he would do against UNC. Ring of Fire was also facing an 8-6 deficit at halftime against San Francisco Revolver. Jack had a quiet first half playing exclusively offense for Ring. In the second half he came to life on offense, executing two high pressure catches on hucks close to the red zone and snagging a tipped disc near the end zone sideline. Williams then closed out Ring’s final offensive possession of the second half with extremely savvy cutting to score Ring’s final goal of the season to tie the game 12-12. I look at that late game comeback against Revolver the way I view the Julian Edelman’s performance in Super Bowl XLIX ; a performance foreshadowing what was to come in two different but not entirely dissimilar circumstances.
That foreshadowing can happen in a different and less comforting context. In 2015 Pittsburgh became the heavy favorite to win it all after a impressive regular season run winning Florida Warmup, the Stanford Invite, and Easterns in succession. You can imagine how shocking it was to hear about how hard Pittsburgh flamed out in quarterfinals against Central Florida in a 15-9 blowout. Go back to Easterns, particularly the final between Pitt and Wilmington, and you may see some early warning signs of things to come. The story of Pitt’s regular season in 2015 was their pristine offense through which on one offensive possession, every single player on Pittsburgh’s o line touched the disc on the break side! Pittsburgh’s defense on the other hand, struggled throughout that game to earn blocks and convert on Wilmington’s mistakes. Pittsburgh’s D line continually gave the disc back to Wilmington and struggled to answer Wilmington’s height downfield. Nationals exposed Pittsburghs defensive problems in ways nobody really foresaw. Their last three games of the season put the d line on notice as Pitt wrestled with tall matchups and teams that were out for blood. Against Texas in pool play Pitt was 2 for 11 on break chances. The cracks which were fully visible earlier in the season opened up and Pittsburgh once again ended its season in quarterfinals. There’s something truly poetic about Pitt’s most dramatic victory that season containing the seeds of their ignominious defeat.
Back in August I was fortunate to be a part of the extensive media coverage of the US Open as part of Ultiworld’s live streaming crew. After we wrapped up our Saturday streaming we congregated to watch the semi final between Seattle Riot and Medellin Revolution. Riot was in trouble as Revolution executed spectacular plays up and down the field to take a three point lead in the second half. Riot’s offensive execution was shaky and unforced errors were plaguing arguably the best offense in the country. Revolution on the other hand was playing through its mistakes and executing on a level that still sits in my head as one of the most memorable performances of the year. As Riot departed and Revolution celebrated their 15-10 loss, there was a feeling in my gut that maybe Riot was vulnerable to an upstart later in the season – and that maybe, under the right circumstances, against a team that could deal with the wind we knew was going to be in Sarasota – Riot might see their championship hopes end a little sooner than you’d expect. What I didn’t expect was to see Atlanta Ozone be the instrument of Riot’s demise and to be frank, after Riot’s performance at the Pro-Championships it was hard to imagine seeing them go down to anyone outside of the Big Four. Ozone’s execution wasn’t perfect – no one’s was on Friday – but they executed on break opportunities early and embraced the slop created by the wind. Riot saw their championship hopes sink in a flurry of long turnover heavy points.
It was eerie to watch Ozone’s triumphant celebration echoing what I’d seen from Revolution at the US Open. It’s hard to imagine anyone picking Ozone for an upset of that magnitude before nationals and no one expected Revolution to overwhelm the best US teams in August. Against the backdrop of an otherwise nearly perfect season you could have written off that loss against Revolution as a fluke, a result you could ignore heading into nationals. Today I look back at that game as the warning sign of what would happen to Riot in Sarasota where the wind disregarded everyone’s championship ambitions and acted as an equalizer between teams. Factor in Ozone, a team that had nothing to lose but everything to gain beating Riot and you have the perfect storm of conditions playing against the tournament favorite.
When you see games mirror past events or see echoes of past performances, it’s easy to wonder what manner of Shakespearian fate is at work in this wild world of amateur sports. The twisting road of events that define a program can be defined by external factors far beyond the control of any player or coach, and yet constantly we see performances that emulate what we’ve seen before. Here’s something to contemplate; in every national semi-final Jack Williams has competed in with Wilmington or Ring of Fire, his team has always been down 8-6 at halftime. When circumstances line up to create the perfect narrative – regardless of outcome – you truly come to appreciate the magic of sports.
With the college season just around the corner, there have been plenty of expectations heaped on the two de facto top teams in the country, UNC and Carleton. Both teams are heavy favorites this coming season to make the finals. The last time we had two heavy preseason favorites was back in 2014 with UNC and Colorado. What made 2014 so compelling was not necessarily who the frontrunners were, but what happened in the rest of the division. Some of the greatest program defining games in recent memory happened that season. It was in 2014 that a new Pittsburgh squad found its legs beating UNC on two occasions and stringing together victories that solidified the position of some that program’s most storied players. It was in 2014 that Michigan reasserted themselves as a nationally competitive program with an improbable Sunday run at Easterns. And it was in 2014 that Jack Williams burst on the scene helping to deliver one of the greatest upsets ever delivered at college nationals. The door is open to a lot of programs looking to make their mark in the coming year. UMass, LSU, Pittsburgh, and Wilmington all have the potential to remind the top dogs that they’re not the only teams looking for a title. If 2014 is a barometer, this could be a far more compelling regular season than we saw in the men’s division in 2017. Personally I’m looking for that individual performance that lets us know what to expect a few years down the road. I’ll let you know what I find.