Friday, August 21, 2015

MLQ Championship Preview: North Division

Editor’s Note: All statistics referenced are accurate as of those released by Major League Quidditch by Aug. 20. The Indianapolis Intensity preview was changed on Aug. 22 to reflect the team having a female beater presence against Rochester. Indianapolis Intensity
By Anonymous Every sport has that one underdog team, one that is dismissed from the start but manages to exceed expectations with hard work, cohesive play, and leadership from its coach and star players. In MLQ’s inaugural season, that distinction belongs to the Indianapolis Intensity; the preseason pick to finish last, the Intensity enters the championships as the second seed.

What Went Right
A supposed weakness of the Intensity heading into the season was the lack of talent diversity. Twenty of the team’s 23 players were current or former members of Ball State University. However, from its first game, the Intensity has shown a cohesive, calculated strategy that has maximized opportunities to score and taken advantage of weaknesses in their opponents’ rosters. Players like keepers Blake Fitzgerald, Nick Kaufman, and beater Erin Moreno have showcased remarkable playmaking abilities, while beaters Tyler Walker and Alex Didat have made names for themselves in consistently outperforming their opponents. 

Keeper Blake Fitzgerald | Photo Courtesy of Jessica Jiamin Lang Photography
The best part about the Intensity’s game is that it rarely feels overwhelming. Goals are normally scored off precise passing and quick cuts, while beaters hold onto control and lock down the defense primarily through communication and limiting mistakes. While many teams depend on the transition or drives from a star player for a large portion of goals, the Intensity has five players who have scored at least nine goals this season. Other than Fitzgerald or chaser Sara Makey, no one on the team has scored more than three goals in a game. Every player on any given play is a threat to score, and opponents will have to be consistently aware of where every Intensity player is if they want to keep this team from with running away with the game.  
What Went Wrong
Absences played a huge role in the Intensity’s three losses. In the Intensity’s match against the Cleveland Riff, Walker, the captain and star beater, was forced to depart after Game Two. It showed on-pitch, as the Intensity was unable to consistently keep control throughout the game or adjust itself to Cleveland’s strategy. In its series against the Rochester Whiteout, the Intensity was forced to play without Fitzgerald and its female beaters due to lack of female chaser depth. This shorthanded roster and lack of aggression at chaser cost the Intensity two games out of range, but the team was able to win one game in-range using its trademark slow ball offense and brilliant beater play from Walker and Matt Pesch. Furthermore, the Intensity roster is composed of mostly mid-sized players with no elite speed from quaffle players outside of Fitzgerald and only chaser Zach Rupp possessing the raw strength to bring down bigger players singlehandedly.   Key To Victory
It is impossible to discuss the success of the Intensity without discussing Tyler Walker. In game after game during the regular season, Walker frustrated opponents with his accuracy, field awareness, and consummate playmaking abilities. Walker has used these abilities and his tireless engine to rack up the most beats per game and the highest rate of control regained in the league. The Intensity’s most talented player also doubles as its coach, and his mid-series adjustments have undoubtedly contributed to the Intensity’s first-place finish in the North Division. If the Intensity is to complete its Cinderella season with a championship, it needs to give its seekers a chance. Led by Jason Bowling, the Intensity seeker corps achieved a perfect 5-0 SWIM record this season, helped in no small part by its superb seeker beating. With potential matchups against Team USA seekers Sam Roitblat of the Cleveland Riff and Harry Greenhouse of the Boston Night Riders, as well as Team USA alternate Andrew Zagelbaum of the New York Titans, Bowling and company have their work cut out for them. However, if the Intensity beaters are able to repeat their brilliant seeker beating performance in their series against the Whiteout, Bowling only needs one or two solid opportunities to end up with the yellow tail in his hand.   Expectations vs. Reality
The Intensity has managed five or six more wins than anticipated during the regular season, and it’s not hard to imagine that success continuing into the MLQ Championships. Indianapolis was able to draw favorable opponents on its entire side of the bracket, from its first round opponent in the Ottawa Black Bears to its possible semifinal opponents the New York Titans or the Whiteout. The Intensity matches up well with the Titans, who do not have the beater depth or on-field chemistry of the Intensity. Despite losing its series to the Whiteout, this team was able to play its opponents close despite only having 14 players on its roster, with its seven missing players including the important figures of Fitzgerald, Melinda Staup, Moreno, and beater Alex Leitch. With a full roster and eight weeks to prepare for its matchups, expect the Intensity to make a run for the finals with an easy out-of-range game against the Black Bears and a low-scoring, hard-hitting affair with either one of its semifinal opponents. Cleveland Riff
By Danielle Lehmann and David Wier Starting the season off as the North Division favorite, the Cleveland Riff finished secondonly one win behind first place Indianapolis Intensity—in what ended up a highly contested division. The Riff boasts a deep roster at all positions, but struggled initially to build the chemistry that many assumed would come naturally. The Riff has since taken a big step forward remedying this weakness and looks to bring that team spirit, along with its talented roster, to make a deep run in Toledo. With Daniel Daugherty, Jeremy Boettner, Meredith Taylor, and David Hoops, the Riff has a phenomenal quaffle-playing corps that boasts keen awareness; this results in an adaptive play style, capable of capitalizing on its speed to drive to the hoops for guaranteed goals, as well as blisteringly fast and accurate long shots. Daugherty and Boettner are a fierce duo and arguably two of the best chasers in the North Division. As they are backed up by Pari Yost and Kendall Kuhn, strong defenders who know where to place themselves on the pitch, it’s clear that the Riff has the chaser depth it needs. As long as the question of chemistry has been taken care of, it will be difficult for anyone to match these players.
Keeper David Hoops | Photo Courtesy of Jessica Jiamin Lang Photography
The Riff also prides itself on beaters Julie Fritz, Max McAdoo, and Max Portillo, solid defenders who play a smart beating game. Matt Eveland is also a tactical beater who can make plays with his uncanny ability to catch a bludger thrown his way. Fritz and Eveland have years of experience as a beating pair, and the rest of the Riff’s beating corps hails from Bowling Green State University Quidditch, resulting in beater lines composed of individuals who have significant experience playing alongside one another, and few teams can match that. Add in seeker Samuel Roitblat, and the Riff have a quick and experienced seeker, an asset few teams in MLQ have. As the second seed in the North Division, the Riff has a favorable matchup against the East’s third seed, the Washington Admirals. The question remains: just how meaningful are these seedings? With only a one-game difference between the first, second, and third place finishers in the North Division, an extremely close series between Cleveland and the North’s fourth place finisher Detroit, and a 9-0 clean sweep from the Boston Night Riders in the East, the power differential between North and East teams is unclear. In these first round cross division matchups, anything could happen. If the Riff can pull together its team chemistry, it can use its depth to its advantage—although in previous series, the Riff has suffered from a dearth of non-male players, and with an injury to Amber Harmon, this issue may be magnified going into the championship. The Admirals have also been struggling with chemistry this season, so the Riff could snag the first game from the Admirals and advance to the next round if it keeps up its communication and field awareness. There are very talented players on the Riff, but as dominating, singular forces on their own respective teams, these powerhouses will have to swallow their egos and come together as a team in order to shoot for the finals and ultimately first place. Rochester Whiteout
By Dylan Meehan The Rochester Whiteout is a team that lives and dies by its beater play. With limited chaser talent, the Whiteout’s beaters need to play at the top of their game in order to take the trophy home from Toledo. Strengths: Chaotic Beaters
The Whiteout is often found in a dual-male beater line whose main goal is to force turnovers around mid-pitch and create a no-bludger situation for its offense. Rochester can run this line thanks to a multitude of competent beaters: Josh Kramer , Joseph Gagne, Alex Venuti, and Patrick Callanan. You can expect one of these players to always be on the pitch, attempting to force the opposition into a bad play or a quick chase after loose bludgers. When the Whiteout transitions to a male/non-male beater line, Sara Smacher is the team's go-to non-male player. She adds a sense of stability to the Whiteout’s beater game by grounding the defense and stopping opposing drives while her partner deals with rival beaters. However, her playing style often clashes with male counterparts, resulting in a lack of communication that leaves the duos vulnerable and out of position. While the communication on the dual-male beater line isn't much better, they usually can get away with it due to their speed. Smacher's greatest flaw is her reluctance to dictate the play; too often she lets opposing beaters make the first move, which, at best, results in a double beat and, at worst, is an easy way to regain control. However, you can expect Smacher to surprise the competition by making some nice catches and key beats to halt opponents’ offenses. Weakness: Chasers
While the Whiteout has some notable chasers, like Jon Jackson and Shane Hurlbert, the majority of its chasers only have one strength: speed. While definitely a positive quality, it isn't enough to bring a team to the championship. This forces the team’s chasers to rely heavily on its beaters. On offense, the beaters need to clear out both the opposing team's beaters and defenders in order to score, as none of the Whiteout chasers are built to drive through opponents. Defensively, if the Whiteout gets stuck in a no-bludger situation, teams should easily plow through its defenders. The team’s main scoring threats happen to be its best defensive options as well: Jackson and Hurlbert. The two scored 54 of the team's 85 goals and are also responsible for the plurality of the defensive stops and turnovers. If Jackson and Hurlbert played together, they would form a deadly duo, as Jackson is a smart offensive player while Hulbert makes strong defensive contributions. However, since the abilities of their other players are a bit lacking, they are often forced to be each other's subs and take turns carrying the weight of the team.
Chaser Shane Hulbert | Photo Courtesy of Jessica Jiamin Lang Photography
This is not to say that there is no hope for the chasers. If they can practice working the ball around the hoops and completing passes, they have the ability to run circles around opposing teams. The team often makes scrappy goals simply by shooting and recovering the ball until one of their shots makes it through the hoops. How They Win: Beater Dominance
If the Whiteout beaters can maintain bludger control for the majority of games, don't be surprised to see the team making a few upsets. However, as soon as the team is limited to one bludger, both its defense and its offense falls apart. This can be fixed if its chasers can manage a level of play that they have yet to put forth. If the Whiteout can stay in snitch range, its seekers could also grab the team some unanticipated wins. While Mike Pascutoi is not a quick-catch seeker, when given time with the snitch he'll almost always make the catch, either by wearing the snitch down or manipulating the snitch's weaknesses. In more rushed situations, the Whiteout can always throw Hurlbert at the snitch with his impressive speed and reach. Prediction
Unfortunately for the Whiteout, the beating talent in Toledo will be too much for its beaters to handle. Even if the team manages to get to the finals, a matchup against the Boston Night Riders’ beaters would be catastrophic. Given enough time to work out its issues, the Whiteout could be a contender for the trophy. However, there is too much work to be done in too short a time for the Rochester Whiteout to achieve true success in Ohio.
Detroit Innovators
by David Wier After a series loss on their home turf to wrap up the regular season, the Detroit Innovators end with a 2-7 record, putting them in last place in the North Division and second-to-last in the league overall. Consequently, their first game of the MLQ Championship (and barring a miracle, probably their last) will be against the undefeated East Division powerhouse, the Boston Night Riders. So how bleak is the Innovators’ future? Without mincing words: pretty damn bleak. Let the numbers speak for themselves. The Night Riders are 9-0, sweeping two teams with better records than Detroit (the New York Titans and Washington Admirals), and have not had a single game within snitch range. Even when it didn’t matter, the Night Riders only gave up one snitch out of nine. Do the Innovators even have a glimmer of hope of making it past the first round? At first glance, a 2-7 record would suggest no, they don’t stand half a chance. But their record doesn’t tell the whole story. Of the seven games the Innovators lost, only two were out of range, one against the Rochester Whiteout and one against the Indianapolis Intensity. If the Innovators had a competent, dedicated seeker, we could have been looking at a team leading its division 7-2, and the Detroit-Boston game could have been the finals.
The point here is that this is a team that could have performed differently. The Innovators aren’t devoid of talent. The reality is that no team is; each MLQ team boasts a roster that is an amalgamation of their region’s finest players who would be a competitive force during the regular season. What happened with the Innovators comparatively was a total inability to come together as a team. Between each series, the Innovators halved their point differential, from -200 against the Intensity to -70 against the Whiteout, and again to -30 against the Riff. This can partially be attributed to the varying talent of their opponents but also on the eventual development of some chemistry on the Innovators. But it may have been too little too late. Typical previews highlight key players of a given team. To do that would be to repeat previews and recaps already done and highlight the problem at the core of the Innovators’ performance; throwing the same jersey on a group of talented players does not a team make. To that end, and as a native Michigander letting his bias shine through, I will simply say this: shock us, Detroit. Shock us. One would be hard-pressed to make an argument that the Innovators can do what the entirety of the East Division couldn’t and defeat the Night Riders. But hey, we are talking about the championship tournament of the inaugural major league for a sport inspired by a fictional world of magic; crazier things have happened.

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