Tuesday, February 17, 2015

King of the Hill Recap

By Kyle Stolcenberg

On Feb. 7, five teams played a round-robin at the King of the Hill tournament in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The teams were the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), which came in as the overwhelming favorite after a runner-up finish at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Championship (MARC); Virginia Quidditch Club (UVA), which qualified for World Cup at MARC in a less impressive fashion; Duke University Quidditch, which failed to qualify for the second year in a row but still competes officially; the Muggle Snugglers, a community team from Tennessee that played its second official outing after badly losing a pair of games to Tennessee Tech Quidditch; and an unofficial team from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. UNC finished the day undefeated after a snitch-range win against UVA and a very eventful forfeit from the Muggle Snugglers. The bulk of this recap will be devoted to the UNC–UVA matchup, which has the most relevance to World Cup preparation. More general observations will follow.
UNC 120* - 70 UVA
This game represents a massive clash in playstyle. In a total of 33 games this season, UNC has been held under 100 quaffle points only four times: in a blowout loss to Maryland Quidditch in the Turtle Cup IV final, in two snitch-range losses at Keystone Cup (to New York University and Bowling Green University), and in this victory. Compare this to UVA: its offense has scored at least 100 quaffle points only twice in 20 official games this season – in blowout wins against non-qualifiers Lock Haven University and Carnegie Mellon University at MARC – while its defense has conceded at least 100 quaffle points only twice, to Ohio State Quidditch and to Villanova Community Quidditch. Though UNC finished this game with a win, the scoreline represents a strategic success for UVA.

Offensively, UNC’s most dangerous player was starting female chaser Emma Troxler. She often found space on the flanks of UVA’s zone defense and was able to catch and release the quaffle more quickly than the defense could shift, leading to good opportunities in front of the outside hoops. This is especially notable because Troxler has a very defined role in the UNC offense; as the team comes into its offense, she curls toward the front side of the hoops on either side and often creates opportunities for quick catch-and-dunks given her reliable hands. However, if this first pass is not made, Troxler continues behind the hoops and is effectively lost for the duration of the play. UNC’s ball handlers – especially Max Miceli and Andrew McGregor – have a tendency to target her with desperate lobs over the hoops when facing beater pressure in this situation, but that play has proven to be painfully inefficient. If UNC wants to be dangerous in the half-field offense rather than exclusively in transition, it needs to work on keeping Troxler free around the front of the hoops.

UNC also excelled, as always, in the transition game, with the bulk of its points coming on very quick possessions that attacked the defense before it could get set.

UNC also debuted a brand new defensive scheme for the start of the semester. On most possessions, it played a Maryland-style defense (even referring to it as “Maryland”): the ball carrier is taken by a point beater (almost always Kyle Bullins) while the chasers mark man-to-man off-ball. The man coverage was surprisingly effective, as it allowed the chasers to capitalize on their superior athleticism without having to make any decisions or tackles. However, UNC’s beater game has usually been far too undisciplined to rely so heavily on a point beater. The typical UNC approach is to isolate beaters against each other and create physical matchups for Bullins. This often results in the ideal UNC offensive set: no beaters for either team. However, this also creates a lot of defensive no-bludger situations off of turnovers, a primary factor in the team’s reputation for not playing defense and something that this new scheme does nothing to correct. Even when UNC settled into its half-field “Maryland” defense, the point beater was often overaggressive and made to pay with quick passing.

The second new defensive scheme was a hoop zone (“Baylor,” of course): the two off-ball chasers and the keeper each guarded a hoop, eliminating possibilities for mid-range shots. Again, I believe this tactic is misguided. Off-ball chasers in this system are left entirely unmarked and, upon receiving incisive passes behind the point defender, must be met with a bludger or will have an excellent one-on-one opportunity at the hoops. This is another scheme that relies on good decision making from relatively conservative beaters. While it is encouraging that UNC seems to finally be emphasizing defense, it should focus on developing an adjustable system that highlights its strengths rather than blindly copying the defenses of other differently-talented teams that excel defensively. It is also worth noting that UNC was without chaser Lee Hodge this weekend. Hodge is the team’s most talented individual defender, but his presence would not have strongly affected the success of these schemes.

UVA’s offense in this game showed slight improvement from last semester, but it will need to find more consistent finishing near the hoops if it wants to compete against more stout World Cup defenses and avoid upsets like its snitch-range losses to extreme slow-balling Capital Madness Quidditch Club and George Mason University squads last fall. One notable change was the increased involvement of beaters in the offense; though this led to better opportunities for UVA’s undersized ball carriers, it also opened several fast break opportunities for UNC. UVA will need to find a balance between creating offense and maintaining its defense, which relies heavily on beaters to cover up a lack of depth in tackling ability.

Another wrinkle shown by UVA was the two-male beater set, which was used very infrequently in the fall but featured prominently in this game. Though Bullins’ physicality is very difficult to neutralize, the addition of a second male beater allowed UVA to maintain its poise defensively and give up fewer bludgerless drives than UNC typically creates. The potential weakening of off-ball chaser defense that can come with this set was not always important, as UNC tends to pass only as a last resort, but (as indicated above) the increased presence of Troxler near the hoops created problems.

UVA’s two-male beater set was also a primary factor in the low total score of the game. It clogged driving lanes defensively but limited driving options even against the no-bludger offensive situations it created. At times, UVA had to make personnel decisions to clearly indicate offensive or defensive focus for a particular scheme. The two-male beater lineup will only be successful against top teams if UVA can do a better job developing chasers who can be effective on both ends of the pitch.

The game was extremely competitive and fairly even for its duration. The ending should be a disappointment to both teams: a brand new snitch ran straight toward the UNC bench and was caught almost immediately. There was no opportunity for adjustment by either team in the seeking or beating games, something which (given the importance of aggressive beating in the matchup) would have been very telling.
UNC 150* - 0 Muggle Snugglers (Forfeit)
Some background: the Muggle Snugglers came into this tournament having only played two official games – two blowout losses to in-state rivals Tennessee Tech. The core of the team is composed of six siblings and it is, more than maybe any other official team, just a group of friends who wanted to have some fun. The difference is that they are enormous. Towering. The male quaffle players in particular are nearly undefendable around the hoops. The team is light on strategy and knowledge of the rules but has a lot of potential.

Now the game: the beginning was fascinating. The Snugglers went up 20-0 after solid drives that UNC could not answer. It was among the first tests all season of UNC against a physical style of play. UNC has been extremely successful running what is essentially a watered down Southwest-style game against a Mid-Atlantic region for which that style is a particularly bad matchup. Snuggler captain, beater, and defensive glue Gabriel Greene was injured by a tackle and taken out of the game. Then everything fell apart.

After a few injuries and blatant rule misunderstandings – including two double-yellow red cards, one of which was on a keeper-turned-beater who twice tried to tackle an opposing chaser – the Snugglers had every eligible player on the pitch, many in unfamiliar positions. UNC began piling on the points against a defense that could not make basic adjustments like covering the repeatedly wide open pass behind the hoops.

The deterioration of the game was unfortunate for two major reasons: (1) We were deprived of the chance to see UNC outmatched physically, a situation which UNC players should also find disappointing rather than relieving considering the lack of such improvement opportunities in-region; and (2) UNC did not handle itself appropriately. In what quickly became a blowout, chasers continued to tear down undefended hoops on wide-open dunks. At one point, a UNC chaser on an uncontested breakaway actually leapt through a hoop. It’s never acceptable to stop playing hard, but it’s less acceptable to humiliate an opponent – particularly an opponent that has just proven to be a worthy competitor in better circumstances.

Tempers increased and eventually, instigated by a hard but clean hit on a female chaser, a previously-ejected Snuggler came onto the pitch and grabbed a UNC player. A few minutes of bedlam ensued before the game was ended and the forfeit tallied.

Despite this crazy ending to the tournament, the Snugglers should feel encouraged. Their roster is filled with talent and, with a bit of strategy and preparation, they can think about stealing a bid at the upcoming South Regional Championship. The Snugglers even tallied their first win on a snitch catch against Duke.
Duke University Quidditch
Unfortunately, I was playing in another match during Duke’s game against the Muggle Snugglers. This brief overview is based, then, on its matches against UVA and UNC.

The most encouraging thing about Duke’s performance at this tournament was its adjustments since it failed in the fall to qualify for World Cup. Jack Grady, who played seeker exclusively in most matches at MARC, chased for stretches against UVA and proved himself a solid point defender. He was also a capable offensive player, particularly in driving situations, and is probably the best pure athlete on the roster. Keeping him off the field for 18 minutes was a waste. Casey Dudek, who spent far too much time beating at MARC, converted this weekend to a full-time chaser and impressed. From a pure talent perspective, Dudek is easily among the very top female players in the region. She has solid power, good hands, and deceptive quickness, consistently making her Duke’s most dangerous offensive weapon and the player most capable of driving to the hoops.

Strategically, Duke needs work. Most obviously, it needs to come up with an offensive scheme which uses Dudek more, as she will always either create a mismatch or draw additional coverage, opening space elsewhere. This weekend she just drifted on the sides, occasionally receiving the ball but never acting as a primary target.

The beater game is also a problem. Duke played most of the time in a two-male beater set and did a fair job maintaining bludger control, but was far too reluctant to press that advantage. Too often the back beater defensively would stand right at the hoops, hesitant to throw, and would allow goals he should have been in position to save. This – combined with a top beater who was easily drawn to the point – created a lot of space in front of the hoops, which was used freely by opponents.

If Duke can continue its willingness to experiment and rethink its strategy, it should come into next year with a much better shot at qualifying.
Three head referees attended the tournament: two from UNC and one from UVA. This meant that the head referee for the event’s marquee matchup was affiliated with the host school. Though Dylan Meyer did a fine job in that difficult situation, it is far from ideal.

There were no certified snitches. Despite incentive – snitches at the tournament were paid for each match, which is somewhat unusual – the only volunteers were essentially random players from teams with schedule breaks. Even with generally less-than-impressive seeking, most games – official USQ games – ended extremely quickly. It is fortunate that there were few snitch-range matches.

Assistant refereeing was bad. One beater referee told me that she could not call fouls, only beats. Another told me that, while he saw a clear foul committed, he felt that another referee closer to the action should have called it, and so he said nothing. There was the usual lack of communication and even attention from goal referees.

This is a serious problem. We constantly hear about big events struggling to find enough official referees – notably, of course, this year’s Lumberjack Invitational was retroactively made unofficial – but these are typically bailed out by unaffiliated referees and snitches. At smaller events, this is rarely the case and, with teams more willing to travel, mid-tier teams are struggling to get tournament invites to the major events in their own regions. If we cannot fix the lack of qualified referees and snitches attending small events, we need to reconsider designating these games USQ official and allowing them to impact rankings.

1 comment:

  1. L O L as if we would ever keep Grady on the sidelines for 18 minutes. Good one. Someone clearly didn't go to MARC