Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Five Lessons From Highlander Cup III

by Ashara Peiris and Zoe Ford

This past weekend, five teams from across the UK met in Edinburgh, Scotland to fight it out for the title of champion of Highlander Cup III. After two days, the Falmouth Falcons were victorious over the Bangor Broken Broomsticks. What can observers take away from this tournament? Here are five things we learned.

The Falmouth Falcons and Bangor Broken Broomsticks after the final | Photo credit: Ailsa Speirs

Final Tournament Standings:
  1. Falmouth Falcons
  2. Bangor Broken Broomsticks
  3. Holyrood Hippogriffs
  4. St Andrews Snidgets
  5. London Unspeakables

1. Falmouth was Dominant, but Does the Team Have Depth?
The Falmouth Falcons came into this tournament as heavy favourites, despite only taking a squad of 13 players. Not only did Falmouth go undefeated over the weekend, but it did not have a single SWIM-range game all weekend. Alex Brown and Alicia Ackroyd were able to thoroughly control the bludger game and continually force turnovers.

Victorious over the weekend, but lacking depth? | Photo credit: Ellie Leatham

Furthermore, Falmouth chasers were able to score seemingly at will over the weekend, putting away 640 quaffle points total whilst only conceding 90, as well as catching five out of six snitches. Falmouth’s offence, mostly led by Conor Watson and Oscar Lozada, varied between a strong passing game to get around aggressive point chasers and swift counterattacks to put in goals before the opposing team had a chance to reset. Kat Jeffery held a stalwart defence whilst also showing promise as a quaffle driver.

Most impressive of all, however, was Falmouth’s ability to field the same players for the vast majority of a game. In its first game against Bangor, Falmouth was able to only use 10 players including the seeker throughout the entirety of the game, with most players not even needing a substitute. Whilst this is an incredible testament to Falmouth’s talent, it also belies a potential weakness: Falmouth’s second and third string players are considerably weaker than its first string. During Falmouth’s game against the St Andrews Snidgets in the semifinals, Falmouth played its weaker lineup, and until the stronger players entered the game around the 12-minute mark, the game remained in SWIM range. This may become a greater problem at Southern Cup when Falmouth will undoubtedly have to give its new players pitch time, against potentially tougher opponents. Falmouth will need to ensure that these players, who did not make the journey to Edinburgh, are as strong as the likes of their co-captains, Brown and Watson.

If Falmouth can continually develop throughout its roster, then the team will prove an incredible test for even the very toughest teams in the UK.

2. Bangor was Strong, but Lacked Pitch Time Against High-Level Teams
Bangor came into this tournament with a point to prove and a grudge to settle. Whilst it can be argued that the team did not completely accomplish what it set out to do, the team still showed that its a tough team that cannot be trifled with. Bangor was hoping to use this tournament as a chance to give both its experienced players and freshers a chance to have real game time, and that it did. Particularly impressive was fresher beater Sam Bowler, who showed great tenacity in harassing the opposing beaters, and keeper Stephen Cockram, who exhibited great physicality on offence.

Tactically, Bangor is still playing its traditional physical chasing game, which allows the team to prevent a number of hoops in the last few metres. However, Bangor is also developing its passing game, with generally good communication and positioning from all chasers, including new players. Liam Vernon is doing a good job of stepping into the role of primary keeper, backed up by good fresher talent in Cockram. This talent was well-utilised against St Andrews, as a whole team of new players started on brooms up and held together well as a cohesive unit. Such confidence on pitch bodes well for Bangor in upcoming tournaments.

Many people predicted that the loss of experienced beaters would hurt Bangor’s bludger lineup; however, in some ways, graduations have allowed beaters such as Paula Noon to shine. Both Noon and Tom Dutton played fantastically over the weekend, and it does not seem that Bangor’s beating game will suffer from relying on new blood. There was an increased amount of highly-aggressive beating, which complimented the chasing game well and built paths that allowed a wide variety of hoop scorers. Particularly admirable is Bangor’s use of female chasers, who were constantly harassing teams around the hoops and pressuring them high up in their half when the opposing teams tried to attack.

One major weakness that Bangor needs to work on is keeping composure when things are not going the team’s way in a match. Against both Falmouth and Edinburgh, Bangor struggled to keep it together when the team conceded hoops, which sometimes led to silly mistakes and a slight disregard for some physical contact rules. If Bangor wants to go far this season, it need to make sure that it still performs as a team under pressure so games do not run away from them.

3. Edinburgh’s Hippogriffs Largely Impressed, but Seeking Still Needs Work
The Holyrood Hippogriffs came into Highlander Cup  III as a team with huge potential. Despite being one of the oldest teams in the UK, the Hippogriffs had not significantly improved until BQC2, in which they narrowly missed out on reaching the Top 16. This is no longer true, as the Hippogriffs were the team most were impressed with with over the weekend, taking Bangor to a SWIM-range game in the semifinals, after playing an incredibly close game with Bangor during pool play, where only an ill-timed red card allowed Bangor to take it out of SWIM range.

The Hippogriffs used a truly impressive blend of freshers and experienced players. Kelsey Silberman hugely impressed, scoring countless hoops and always pressuring the defence with some excellent ball carrying and on-ball physicality. Additionally, both of the Hippogriffs’ keepers were new players who showed remarkable feel for the game and control over their team. Both chasing and beating showed great improvement from last season with Ollie Riley dancing around defences and Nye Baker causing havoc amongst beaters with or without a bludger. Most impressive of all, however, was Hannah El-Shobaki, who showed excellent leadership and ensured the best group of players was on pitch at all times. This impeccable game awareness ensured that the Hippogriffs stayed competitive in every game they played. With more experience under its belt, the Hippogriffs are likely to be able to parlay this into a good performance at Northern Cup, where despite confirmed absences from some key squad members the homefield advantage won’t be lost.

One area where the Hippogriffs are lacking is in their seeking game. Whilst the team had opportunities to end its own games – being in SWIM and overtime range with Bangor at various points it seems its seekers lack experience in making the catch. While this might just be due to lack of practice, it’s something the Hippogriffs will need to work on if they continue to play snitch-range games this season.

4. St Andrews Needs to Work on Integrating New Players
The first day of Highlander Cup III was a struggle for the St Andrews Snidgets; they were soundly beaten by Falmouth, Bangor, and their old Hippogriff rivals successively. The loss to the Hippogriffs hurt the most, as last season St Andrews was often neck and neck with its Scottish compatriots. St Andrews had a large, fresher-heavy squad loaded with individual talents but no sense of teamwork. The only quaffle points scored were from fast runs by Roland Crompton or Samuel Bunce, and not enough to make an impact against the strong offences of the teams St Andrews faced.

Day Two’s double-bill match against the London Unspeakables showed a lot more promise. St Andrews had a smaller squad with a higher percentage of experienced players, and it showed. New chaser Klara Volckaert showed potential on Day One, but really shone Day Two, teaming up well with Crompton for multiple goals from well-timed passes and swift releases.

St Andrews’ beater game was a lot better showcased as well. Eleri Kent and Captain Alix Marie D’Avigneau were particularly impressive as persistent and tenacious players both with and without bludgers. This game style matched up a lot better against London than the other teams present, so this is something St Andrews should work on. Elliott Fogg was strong aggressively but was often needed as a quaffle driver, so St Andrews should try to improve its squad depth in this area.

St Andrews made two snitch catches against the London Unspeakables, the SWIM champions of last season, with a catch from last year’s captain Matt O’Connor and one from Caitlyn Ramsey. Ramsey’s speed and agility was very impressive and she could be vital in stealing victories for St Andrews. However, that talent will be all for naught if new players cannot build up the depth the team needs to hold opposing teams in range at tournaments. Depth and teamwork can both be fixed, but new players need to be better drilled in pitch awareness and positioning if St Andrews wants to make an effective campaign at Northern Cup and dispel doubts planted by a poor BQC showing last season.

5. London is Not the Surprise Threat it was Last Season
After an impressive start to last season with a second place finish at Highlander Cup II followed by a brilliant snitch catch to earn them bronze at Southern Cup, it seemed like the Unspeakables were finally climbing the rankings in UK quidditch, but it was only a shadow of this team that made it onto the pitch at Highlander Cup III. Starting with an unfortunate brooms-up injury to coach Sam Townsend, the tournament seemed pretty much over before it had even started for the Unspeakables.

The Unspeakables’ strength last season had been their ability to keep within snitch range of their opponents, then use the talents of Fiona Howat to make that crucial snitch grab; this strategy earned them a sixth place finish at BQC and a spot at EQC. But by the time the 18-minute mark hit in all but one of the Unspeakables’ games, their opponents had long ago run away with the lead. Unusually, the Unspeakables lost their only SWIM game to St Andrews.

It was a particularly small squad brought by the Unspeakables, but even the first choice starters seemed off their game. The loss of captain Ben Pooley undoubtedly shook the team for the remainder of its game against Bangor, but by that point the Unspeakables had already taken a clean sheet loss to the Hippogriffs, pretty much guaranteeing them a fourth or fifth place finish. It seemed the Unspeakables’ small squad was not balanced enough to cope with the loss of two players, and they often ended up putting their strong beaters in as chasers, and inexperienced players left to wear the green keeper headband.

Like other teams, the Unspeakables brought new players to Highlander Cup III, though these new players seemed less well-drilled in the rules of the game. The Unspeakables need to have more discipline with their players to avoid unnecessary losses aggravated by cards. New players also seemed to struggle with the passing game, fumbling catches and allowing turnovers far too easily. Generally, the Unspeakables failed to convert chances at the hoops, especially in their second game against St Andrews. This overall lack of concentration also led to silly mistakes such as lazy passes around the team’s own hoops, which were often intercepted and used as easy scoring opportunities.

There were good points in the Unspeakables’ games that the team should aim to build upon. Ella Blom was determined and tireless throughout the tournament, scoring excellent goals for the team and giving the Unspeakables boosts of hope much needed as they were often deflated in energy and attitude. Matt Bateman also made an impressive showing as a beater, executing great tackles against more experienced players to successfully disrupt opposing teams’ game. Although they did not capitalise on their one SWIM situation, Howat, Belinda Hammond, and Katya Veleva all put in good shifts as defensive seekers.

If the Unspeakables are to come anywhere near repeating last year’s podium finish at Southern Cup 2015, they need to quickly sharpen up their basic skills legal tackles, clean passes, and not wasting opportunities to score. The Unspeakables do not want to stagnate and fall from the respected place they worked so hard to get to last season.

Final Thoughts 
by Abby Whiteley

Although the weekend certainly offered some surprises, Highlander gave us some invaluable insight to the participating teams in advance of the Southern and Northern Cups. The teams that did well here will be looking to ride the crest of that wave into Regionals, probably hoping to grab EQC 2016 spots; those who foundered will be hoping that their performance here is not predictive of the upcoming season. The longest-running tournament in the UK consistently offers some exciting early-season results to help sketch out teams’ development since April, and it is clear from this iteration that there are some very interesting times ahead.

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