Friday, November 13, 2015

Northern Cup 2015 Review

by Matt O'Connor

With the first of QuidditchUK’s Regional Tournaments complete, and the Nottingham Nightmares crowned champions of the North, Matt O’Connor takes a look back at the play from the weekend. He starts by going through each group team-by-team briefly, before taking a look at the bracket play in closer detail chronologically. Stay tuned for our mid-season rankings and analysis over Christmas as we delve into even more detail for each individual team!

Pool Play
Group A
Billed as the Group of Death before the tournament began, Group A was indeed very close. However, it was the bottom half of the group that proved the closest, with Leeds Griffins, St. Andrews Snidgets, and the Durham Direwolves all taking wins from one another.

1. Keele Squirrels
The Keele Squirrels were the deserving winners of this group, although it was not always an easy road: they avoided a possible surprise against St. Andrews, only escaping snitch range in the 17th minute, and completed an overtime win against the Leicester Thestrals through their superior quaffle play. Using quick keeper drives, trolls, and an assured beater lineup, their performance in the pool was fairly complete. However, they had incidents where discipline was an issue. Tom Norton received a red card after two yellows just three minutes into overtime against Leicester, which left his team a beater short for the duration. Luckily for Keele, it did not cost them, but against more accomplished teams they are unlikely to be as lucky in this situation.

Keele Squirrels | Photo credit: Katherine Watson

2. Leicester Thestrals
Leicester are a team that start very slowly, before exploding into life around five minutes into the game, usually corresponding to the introduction of Warren McFadyen. Their overreliance on McFadyen and beater Dan Trick could prove a sticking point if they wish to improve their standing within the country. With a low centre of gravity, McFadyen is quick, agile, and difficult to stop, and Trick's game awareness is key to Leicester's promising showing in the group. If they can stay within snitch range, they may cause problems for teams considered better; their formidable seeker Joseph Wilson put in an impressive performance across the weekend, catching all but one of the snitches available.

Leicester Thestrals | Photo credit: Katherine Watson

3. Leeds Griffins
Leeds are another team guilty of relying too heavily on certain players. The vast majority of their quaffle points were scored through the brute force of Josh Armitage. Strong rather than quick, Armitage was at his most effective when on the pitch at the same time as the excellent Steve Daly. Daly's offensive beating set an excellent platform on which the Leeds chasers could build, and he was excellent at keeping bludger control when paired with fellow offensive beater George Matthews. However, their female beater lineup was far too passive and they were occupied far too easily by the novice beating of Matt O'Connor when they faced St Andrews. They will likely struggle if they come up against the likes of Ben Middlemiss or Lucy Q without Daly on the pitch. Leeds' female chaser line, however, has no such problems, exemplified by the irrepressible Sash Steele. A player with similar impact to that of McFadyen with Leicester, her speed and determination is integral to the Griffins. Showing remarkable grit, she shook off a knock to the head and, after being cleared by the first aid personnel, returned to win their game against St Andrews, catching the SWIM snitch.

Leeds Griffins | Photo credit: Katherine Watson

4. St Andrews Snidgets
St Andrews performance this weekend had more in common with their poor Day One showing from Highlander than their much improved Day Two. They seem to have the unenviable habit of matching their quality to that of their opponents, if not playing even a bit weaker; three of their games were within snitch range for the majority. Their best games of the tournament came against Keele and the Durham Direwolves, the two teams that bookended the group. St Andrews lacked physicality with Matt O'Connor out of form and Aakash Gupta injured. Aaron Daubney impressed in his first competitive game for the Scottish champions since BQC 2013 as well as the ever-reliable Roland Crompton, who is fast becoming a linchpin of the St Andrews quaffle line. The Snidgets desperately need a reliable male beater, with their options at Northern both very inexperienced in that position. On a positive note, if the Fife team can patch up their current game, in Caitlyn Ramsey and Daubney they have a pair of very capable seekers, with Caitlin Hamilton still to return. If they can keep teams to snitch range, there could still be some upsets from the Scots.

St Andrews Snidgets | Photo credit: Katherine Watson

5. Durham University Quidditch Club’s Direwolves
The Durham Direwolves, despite their official placing of 13th, performed admirably and are very reminiscent of Durhamstrang from 18 months ago. Strong quaffle drivers, notably Daniel Mitchell, formerly of Loughborough, are somewhat hampered by a fairly naïve beater game, yet their games against the established sides of St Andrews and Leeds were absurdly close. The Durham side were up on pitch versus St Andrews before a rare SWIM win for the Scots saw Durham lose 70*-40 before they recorded an even rarer double-overtime win against Leeds. All things considered,  they will compete comfortably in the lower-mid table at BQC 2015-16 and will only improve from here.

Group B
Group B was unfortunately reduced to four teams when the Preston Poltergeists pulled out after the draw was made. However, the group still contained big name teams Loughborough and Bangor, as well as the experienced Derby Union and possible surprise package York, returning to the UK scene for the first time since Northern 2013.

1. Loughborough Longshots
Loughborough, despite many previews expecting them to play a slightly altered game from last season, picked up where they left off at BQC. The unanticipated return of Jonathon “Farmer” Cookes allowed them to resume their incredibly physical chaser game, which, coupled with a rather aggressive beater strategy, led them to sweep the pool and take the top seed going into the bracket without overly impressing.

Loughborough Longshots | Photo credit: Katherine Watson

2. Bangor Broken Broomsticks
Bangor are another side that continued their form from last season. Though they are still a remarkably physical outfit, you cannot help but feel the Broken Broomsticks have stood still since their halcyon days of BQC 2013-14, where they placed third. Their keepers Liam Vernon and captain Jay Holmes are the bright spots for the Welsh side, but their beater game needs some serious work. It is also worth noting that they only caught one snitch all weekend, which does not bode well for Bangor’s future in SWIM situations.

Bangor Broken Broomsticks | Photo credit: Katherine Watson

3. Derby Union Quidditch
Derby were the unlucky third place team that missed out on the upper bracket. Their small squad size plus a number of injuries led to them take the precautionary step of forfeiting their game against Loughborough, with the resultant 150*-0 recorded score making their points difference inferior to those of Edinburgh and Leeds. However, despite their small squad size,, they had a large proportion of experienced players, especially in the beater game. Their forceful beater lineup of Phil Brown and Matt Guenzel, the only primary beaters in Derby’s squad, would be a valuable asset to any team, and they also have the invaluable pitchside assistance of Andy Cooke. If Derby can avoid injury and their fitness is good enough, they should comfortably compete in the BQC 2015-16 mid-table.

Derby Union Quidditch | Photo credit: Katherine Watson

4. HogYork Horntails
Despite existing for over a year, York are still an inexperienced and developing team, and it shows. With the absence of Preston, who likely would have provided opposition of a similar standard, the Horntails were always likely to foot the group. That said, they acquitted themselves well against Bangor, being only 60 behind before the snitch catch, and never once hit the 150 point difference cap. The Horntails are, however, somewhat over-reliant on captain Tom Stevens, who is their strongest chaser and seeker.

The HogYork Horntails | Photo credit: Katherine Watson

Group C
Although Group A was considered the Group of Death on social media, Group C contained two of last season's dark horse picks, the Nottingham Nightmares and hosts Durhamstrang, as well as this year's surprise package, Edinburgh's Holyrood Hippogriffs. The rebranded Chester Centurions performed well at Whiteknights but have yet to deliver on the national stage, while Manchester were competing in their first major tournament.

1. Nottingham Nightmares
The Nightmares look to be stepping away from from the role of dark horse team to become genuine contenders and were in a class apart for most of the weekend. Their only SWIM game of the tournament came in their first game against Durhamstrang. Their game is heavily built around speed rather than power although keeper Andrew Price is a notable exception with chasers James Thanangadan, Mikey Ansell and new acquisition David Goswell, formerly of the Radcliffe Chimeras, making a huge impact this weekend. Thanangadan especially was exceptional with the invaluable ability to evade and break tackles. Their beater game is led by captain Lucy Edlund and Lucy Q, arguably the best beater in the country. Despite their beaters not being the best at holding control, the high pressure from the Nottingham team as a whole posed serious issues to many teams, particularly ones looking to slowball close to their own hoops. It is, after all, difficult to score if the opposition will not let you past halfway.

The Nottingham Nightmares | Photo credit: Katherine Watson

2. Durham University Quidditch Club’s Durhamstrang
Durham are looking to build on an impressive breakout season in 2014-15 and can be proud of their performance at their home tournament. They boast an incredibly tough defensive line, as well as a beater setup that is adept at keeping control. They also excel at resetting attacks, allowing them to launch repeat plays without letting their opponents take possession of the quaffle. However, they struggled at running the score up against lesser teams and scored more than ten goals in one game only once across the weekend. This could return to bite them in tournaments where QPD is important. That said, they were the highest-ranked team to finish second in their group, so perhaps this criticism is overly harsh.

DUQC's Durhamstrang | Photo credit: Katherine Watson

3. Holyrood Hippogriffs
Edinburgh continue to improve on last season with a respectable showing at Northern. Lacking several players that led them to a third-place finish at Highlander, most notably physically impressive keeper Zachary Dean-Stone, their beater lineup was weakened somewhat by the return of Nye Baker to the quaffle game, breaking his impressive partnership with Ben Middlemiss from two weeks ago. Against the better sides, the Hippogriffs struggled somewhat, managing only two goals against the top two finishers in the group. They should, however, be looking to compete in the increasingly congested mid-table of UK quidditch after a hard-fought win against Chester. The Hippogriffs look set to take the top spot in Scotland.

The Holyrood Hippogriffs | Photo credit: Katherine Watson

4. Chester Centurions
Chester also struggled against the big sides in the group, but competed well against Edinburgh. In Jessica O'Neill and Henry Parkes they possess a rather formidable pair of defensive beaters. That said, they have little strength in depth and lack a truly offensive beater. However, if they can stay within snitch range, Conor Climo is a very dangerous seeker and the team as a whole took 60 percent of the snitches on offer over the weekend.

The Chester Centurions | Photo credit: Katherine Watson

5. Manchester Manticores
Manchester are a side new to truly competitive quidditch, despite hosing Preston and Chester at Cottonopolis Cup over the summer, and they lack experience against the more accomplished teams. In Robert Naylor and Ben Crump they have some dangerous chasers, but their beater game is best described as immature. This tournament will have been a chastening experience for the northwest side, but hopefully they will use it to learn and grow into BQC.

The Manchester Manticores | Photo credit: Katherine Watson

The quarterfinals of Northern showcased the gap that exists between the best and the rest. The closest game was between the fourth and fifth seeds Durhamstrang and Leicester Thestrals, and despite the relative closeness of that game, Durham were noticeably superior. A miscommunication between the seeker and bench resulting in a Thestrals cold catch lent an ugliness to the score of 110-70* for Leicester, but this is a tournament performance on which they can certainly build.

In a rematch of the semifinal from BQC 2013, Bangor were simply not good enough against Keele, with the Staffordshire side finishing as 150*-50 victors, truly highlighting the differing fortunes of these two sides over the last two seasons.

Loughborough gave Edinburgh a hard game, with the Scottish side continuing to perform well, despite only scoring one goal in the 90*-10 result. Meanwhile, Nottingham made its mark by hammering Leeds 180-40*, made even more impressive by Leeds' respectable performance in the group stage on Day One.

Lower bracket
In the lower bracket, St Andrews continued to miss the talents of Middlemiss and Elliott Fogg, being shut out by Chester 60*-0 after an accomplished beater performance by O'Neill and Parkes, as well as an eight-second snitch catch for Climo. Derby faced York in a rematch of their group game with York performing significantly better the second time around, but still going down 180*-70. The lower bracket final saw the depleted Derby overcome their small squad size to defeat Chester by 100*-40.

In the first semifinal, Nottingham continued to demonstrate their superiority with a comfortable 130*-40 win over Keele, who were heavily hit by injuries and down to one fully fit, dedicated keeper by the end of the game. Over on the other pitch, Durham prevailed 70*-30 over Loughborough in a game marred by a serious Cookes-inflicted injury to Durham's Livia Higgins, an incident that caused considerable debate on the UK Quidditch forum in the following days. Loughborough took an early lead, largely thanks to hyper-aggressive beating from Bill Orridge, and Durham were able to pull back when Longborough’s beater lineups shifted around, countering the aggression from Loughborough with more conservative beating from Jade Strange and Amy Chan. Loughborough were given very little time on the snitch, and Robbie Gawne caught it on the second attempt.

Third-place playoff
In the game neither team likely wished to play, an injury-riddled Keele performed admirably, despite losing  teammate Tom Norton to a concussion and standout player Tom Tugulu to a neck injury in their 100*-70 loss to Loughborough, who themselves were missing Cookes, the player choosing not to play again that day in light of the incident against Durham. This score will give many a sense of déjà vu, after the third-place playoff at BQC saw Loughborough and Keele go toe-to-toe with an even score on-pitch before Keele made the catch. Although this time the snitch grab went the other way, and Loughborough are doubtless breathing a sigh of relief at the thought of a probable guaranteed EQC spot, it is interesting to note the renewed parity of these two teams, likely as a result of both teams having managed to retain the bulk of their lineups from the last season.

The final of Northern Cup 2014-15 saw the rematch of the group stage game for Nottingham and Durham. However, this game was nowhere near as close. Despite a cagey opening, Nottingham were the better side throughout and were the deserving winners with a final score of 150*-50. Durham did not taking their chances early on, and it cost them as Thanangadan, Rooney and Goswell ran in several hoops between them. By the time Goswell caught the snitch, the result was not in doubt.
Nottingham were the deserved winners and their high-tempo game will cause trouble for many at BQC this season. It would be extremely naïve to suggest that they will win before having seen Southern Cup play out, but it is almost a certainty that the Nightmares will be in contention for the medals come March.

The Nottingham Nightmares celebrate David Goswell's tournament-winning snitch catch | Photo credit: Katherine Watson

On a purely organisational note, it should be mentioned that Northern Cup was a superbly run tournament, with both days finishing on time and very few delays, as well as several intelligent decisions regarding pitch playability and allocation of snitches. Congratulations must go to Tom Challinor and the organising committee for a tournament that should be held up as a shining example of a well-run weekend.

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