Thursday, April 14, 2016

Soaring to South Carolina Preview: Pools 4-6

This weekend, April 16-17, 60 teams will fight for a chance to hold up the championship trophy of US Quidditch Cup 9. The University of Texas is the three-time defending champion, but 59 teams will look to unseat it. In the week leading up to the tournament, the Quidditch Post will run through the pools and highlight some of the players, teams, and stories to watch this weekend.
Pool 4:
By Ryan Smythe

Rochester United
Kansas Quidditch  
Lake Effect Maelstrom   
Virginia Quidditch Club (UVA)
Crimson Elite  

Crimson Elite should not be a Pod 5 team.

*clears throat for those in the back*

Crimson Elite should not be a Pod 5 team.

This is the team that started out 6-2 before a communication error led to the forfeiture of those wins, punting it to the bottom of the standings. This is the team that made the finals at the 4th Annual Lumberjack Tournament and beat the Lost Boys at the West Regional Championship 60*-50. It was just too much to ask Crimson to make up the 1,200 point deficit tied to its 0-8 record.

Crimson Elite after its win over the Lost Boys at the 2016 West Regional Championship. | Photo Credit: Phillip Arroyo Long
This puts Virginia Quidditch Club, Lake Effect Maelstrom, and Kansas Quidditch in the uncomfortable position of needing to fend off what essentially amounts to a second Pod 2 team rather than a true Pod 5 team. As a Pod 4 team, UVA was hoping for a clean win in pool play over the Pod 5 team and upsetting either a Pod 3 or 2 for the final bracket spot. Maelstrom and Kansas were both hoping to finish out the day with the seeding finishing the same way it started, claiming their spots on Day Two.

Crimson Elite uses the strong defense of both its chasers and beaters to keep scores low, allowing seeker Dan Howland to go after the snitch. If the other teams in this pool allow beaters Paul Chaus, Andrew Tita, and Ben Reuling to use their size to bully their beaters all game, Howland will use his long arms to pull any snitch that comes near him. Meanwhile, when chaser Nate Western is on his game, he has the potential to turn Crimson Elite’s weak offense into a threatening one. His drives cause the opposing defense to collapse on him, leaving chasers like Kristin Jakus and Gina Allyn wide open for an easy goal. Keeping focused and not getting in his own head are important factors Western needs to address in order to succeed.

Crimson Elite keeper Nate Western stripping the ball from a Lone Star Quidditch Club chaser at Bat City Showcase. | Photo Credit: Jessica Jiamin Lang Photography
Luckily for Kansas, it has its own talented seeker in Kier Rudolph. If the Kansas vs. Crimson Elite game is in snitch range, this could end up being the best seeker battle all day.

Maelstrom needs to rely on its beating crew to win a close game. It’s arguably the best in the pool, anchored by Team USA’s Ashley Calhoun and her solid cast of male beaters. If the beating crew of Trevor Campbell, Chad Brown, and Kevin Conboy can match the physicality of the Crimson Elite beaters, their strategy of seeker by committee could work by keeping fresh legs on the pitch. It worked for the Lost Boys last year, so there’s proven merit to that strategy.

While those three teams are likely to finish their games against each other in snitch range, that likely won’t be the case in their games against Rochester United. Rochester United’s chaser lineup, headlined by Shane Hurlbert, Devin Sandon, and Jon Jackson, can match up against any team at US Quidditch Cup 9. Sandon is a constant injury risk and may not last through the day, but for every second he’s on the pitch, he’s a threat.

Rochester United has only lost three games all year, giving it the No. 2 spot in national rankings. Keeper Jon Jackson may be the smartest person at US Quidditch Cup 9. Studying astrophysics at Harvard University wasn’t enough for him, so now he’s off to get a PhD from Pennsylvania State University and a championship trophy from US Quidditch. His speed, size, and field awareness make him one of the most threatening offensive players in the game. Barring a historic collapse, Rochester United shouldn’t have an issue ending the day 4-0.

UVA might have the the worst luck in USQ, at least among the teams that made US Quidditch Cup 9. Unless a last-minute bracket/pool reshuffle happens, UVA is stuck facing the No. 2 team in the country, a veteran team with an A-list seeker, a Team USA-led beater line, and the team that *ahem* should not be a Pod 5 team.  If UVA can take home a single win in this pool, it should be proud of how it managed in South Carolina. UVA shouldn’t be considered a weak team, though. It will not go quietly into the night, and it will challenge the lower-seeded teams in Pool 4 for every win.

Pool 5:
By Mitch Hatfield

Boise State Abraxans (BSA)
New York Quidditch Club (NYQC)
University of California Los Angeles (UCLA)
SHSU Quidditch (SHSU)
Michigan State Quidditch (MSU)

The Boise State Abraxans must be feeling fairly good about their chances of success going into USQ Cup 9. They are ranked No. 5 in the country, which is not too shabby for the two-time Northwest Regional Champion. It would be a fair and even easy conclusion to say the Abraxans will make bracket play, but it may not be assured. 

Boise State went undefeated at its regional tournament this past February, which kept it undefeated against teams in their region, but those in-region games were few and far between. In fact, Boise played only two Northwest teams (its B Team, the Boise State Thestrals, and University of British Columbia Quidditch) before playing at the Northwest Regional Championship this year. By playing teams out of region, the Abraxans hoped to increase their level of play in preparation for their almost-guaranteed debut at US Quidditch Cup 9. Overall, the Abraxans did very well this season, going 17-2 with commanding wins over most of their opponents, including a 140*-0 win over the University of Northern Colorado and a 120*- 40 victory over Utah State Quidditch Club in early fall. The Abraxans also had a fair number of close games as well: seven of their 19 games came down to a snitch grab when considering the scores before any forfeited games.

The defining series of the Abraxans’ season, and likely the best metric for their skill level, is their five games against Crimson Elite. Out of the five games, the Abraxans officially stand at 3-2* against Crimson Elite. Three of these games were forfeited by Crimson Elite because of a communication error, but out of those three forfeited games, the Abraxans were 2-1. Two games were played at Crimson Cup, where Crimson Elite won a game 70*-60 and Boise won a game 120*-80; one game was played at the 2nd Annual Top of Utah Classic, where BSA won 130*-100. Those three games were turned into forfeits in favor of the Abraxans. The final two games, and the Abraxans’ last two losses, were at the Tree City Tournament III, where Crimson Elite won both games 150*-130 and 110*-100.

BSA’s Casey Thompson and Stew Driflot tackle Rain City Raptors chaser Ross Schram von Haupt during the Northwest Regional Championship final. | Photo Credit: Tasha Kiri Photography
The fact that every game between these two teams was within snitch range speaks to their similar skill levels despite the Abraxans’ artificially high No. 5 ranking and the Crimson Elite’s artificially low No. 56 ranking. It would therefore be easy to assume that the Abraxans could do as well as Crimson Elite has in the past. Unfortunately for the Abraxans, they find themselves with a pool play schedule that could hamper their chances at making bracket play and in a position that, if they aren’t careful, could make them the most likely regional champion to not make bracket play.

The Abraxans are used to being the top dogs in the Northwest region. Only last season’s Western Washington Wyverns and this season’s Rain City Raptors (each bearing similar rosters) were able to muster a challenge against them in the last two regional championships. This has led to a somewhat complacent attitude that was evident in their play style. The Abraxans rely almost entirely on their four lead players, expecting Stew Driflot, Joel Johnson, Bryan Bixler, and Casey Thompson to act as their main offensive force. In fact, their team is largely fronted by only a few battle-tested players, and the remainder of their roster has very little experience in games at the level of play they can expect at US Quidditch Cup 9. In relying too much on their main four, this team makes itself susceptible to injury, and an injured key player could severely damage the Abraxans’ chances of going far. Despite their skill at home and the fact that they are the most experienced in the Northwest against out-of-region teams, this roster has yet to attend US Quidditch Cup, missing last year due to financial problems. Since their first game will be against the always physical Michigan State Quidditch, the Boise State Abraxans could be in for a rude awakening.

In addition to MSU, the Abraxans will face off against strong  New York Quidditch Club, UCLA, and Sam Houston State University squads. UCLA’s Grant Rose is a strong keeper who can score on any defense, but his success depends on whether or not the team’s off-ball chasers can give him easy assists. He will help carry UCLA to a few wins, but the rest of the team will have to step up to help him out. SHSU is a team that never made a big statement until its upset at the Southwest Regional Championship this season when it defeated the reigning World Cup champions, University of Texas, in pool play. SHSU has the ability to play at a very high level, but against lower-ranked teams it tends to step down to the other teams levels, making SHSU inconsistent in its level of play and causing it to miss important scoring opportunities. Despite losing star beaters Kyle Jeon and Leeanne Dillmann to transfers early in the season, NYQC has lost just four times this season. However, two of those losses have come against a non-qualifying Hofstra University Flying Dutchmen squad. Additionally, the NYQC team has played just five official contests in the spring, and may suffer from the Northeast weather as it makes the trip south.

UCLA keeper Grant Rose has filled the shoes of his predecessors brilliantly, being able to score on any type of defense he faces. | Photo Credit: Sofia de la Vega Photography
If the Abraxans are not careful, they could find themselves the victims of an upset. Make no mistake the Abraxans are good, as their 17-2 record shows, but if they come into this tournament underestimating their opponents and expecting to coast into bracket play, they will be severely disappointed. 

All in all, it would be foolish to count the Abraxans entirely out of bracket play; however, I believe they will have a tougher time than they are expecting. It will be their attitude of superiority that will be their undoing, leading them to a pool play record of 2-2 with Boise losing to the underrated NYU and SHSU and defeating MSU and UCLA. NYQC, SHSU, and BSA will advance.

*According to the scores prior to the CE forfeitures early this season. The USQ standings list the series as 3-2 in favor of the Abraxans, but the actual scores of those games were used for the purposes of this comparison. Actual scores collected from Kym Couch (BSA), who found them in the Quidditch Scores Facebook group.

Pool 6:
By Keller Stevens

Michigan Quidditch Team (MQ)
Oklahoma State University (OKSU)
Tennessee Tech Quidditch (TTU)
Penn State University Nittany Lions (PSU)
RIT Dark Marks

Not quite worthy of the “Pool of Death” status, Pool 6 will nonetheless be a hotbed for its top three teams.

Michigan Quidditch is coming into this weekend at the top of its game. The regional champions rank fourth on USQ’s rankings, which makes it the highest-placed team from the Great Lakes region. Michigan has also worked to play out-of-region games in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, resulting in an incredible chaser corps on par with any top Texas team. Eighty-five percent of Michigan's victories have come out of snitch range, and the remainder have been won by the team’s tendency for quick seeker substitutions and brutal on-snitch beater play led by veteran beater Lisa Lavelanet. This will come in handy as Michigan fights through the top-tier South and mid-tier Southwest powerhouses.

Michigan beater Lisa Lavelanet against Ohio State | Photo Credit: Jessica Jiamin Lang Photography
Great Lakes play has also been the best preparation for Michigan’s match against the Southwest’s Oklahoma State. Oklahoma State is coming off of a fresh spring season sweep at the 4th Annual Spring Breakout, boasting a dominance over the Midwest’s smaller list of top-level teams (except for Kansas). Along with challenging play against Southwest teams like Texas State University, University of Arkansas, and Sam Houston State University, Oklahoma State is prepared to deal with Michigan. 

Both teams have a strong focus on their aggressive chasing, and when it comes down to the wire, this will be a symbolic battle between the two Team USA teammates, OKSU’s Hayden Applebee and MQ’s Andrew Axtell. These two players are the driving forces of their team’s offense and are both flanked by a powerful team akin to any other grade A team in the nation.

Tennessee Tech is a mid-tier team on paper, ranked 37th with a 10-4 record, but underneath that is the No. 1 seed from the South Regional Championship Day One. Tennessee Tech sports a considerably smaller roster but makes up for it in the skill levels of its core players like Austin Cathey and Christy Le. Tennessee Tech’s game against southern sweetheart Florida’s Finest saw Tennessee Tech win by a single goal and make sure anyone watching knew that the team could perform in clutch situations. 

An issue Tennessee Tech runs into, which will rear its head against Michigan and Oklahoma State, is its seeker game. With a 2-3 record in SWIM, Tennessee Tech does not boast a very high SWIM percentage for a team of its level. This is likely due to the small team syndrome of running on half a tank or lower at the end of the seeker floor. For a year when no one was expecting anything to come out of the South other than Floridians, Tennessee Tech has well earned its right to run with the biggest dog from the Great Lakes. However, the constant barrage of high-level chaser play and talented seekers from the north will likely prove too much for this team.

This pool will see some of the most challenging games of the day between these three teams, but as long as Michigan Quidditch, Oklahoma State Quidditch, and Tennessee Tech keep up their performance, each will see themselves through to Day Two. Although Penn State beater Scott Axel has the potential to terrorize this pool, Penn State Quidditch and the RIT Dark Marks only stand as a threat to Tennessee Tech, which certainly has the talent and drive to win its spot but must be careful about prolonging its games.  

TJ Goaley, Chris Lock, Andy Marmer, Steve Minnich, and Tyler Walker contributed to reporting.

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