Thursday, April 14, 2016

Soaring to South Carolina Preview: Pools 10-12

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 10:
By Steve Minnich

Rain City Raptors (RCR)
Texas Quidditch (UT)
Appalachian Apparators Quidditch (AAQ)
The Southern Storm
Silicon Valley Vipers (SVV)

The question in this pool is less “Can the Pod 1 team hang on?” and more “How far will Rain City fall?” The Northwest Regional runner-up got a really bad draw with Texas Quidditch in Pod 2. Texas has to be the favorite coming out of this pool. Looking at the schedule this year, one can only wonder if pool play point differential will be maximized against a group that does not boast a single team with the pedigree that would suggest competition for the defending champion squad. After Texas, Pool 10 looks to be a complete toss-up and an exciting four-way race for two bracket positions.

Rain City Raptors beaters at the Northwest Regional Championship. | Photo Credit: Tasha Kiri Photography
Interestingly, there have been two matchups between Pool 10 teams already this season. At Keep Quidditch Weird in December, Pod 1 Rain City Raptors defeated Pod 5 Silicon Valley Vipers in a close 100*-50 game. At the recent Chipotle Cup in the Carolinas Quidditch Conference, Pod 3 team Appalachian Apparators Quidditch defeated Pod 4 team the Southern Storm by a decisive score of 130*-50. Notably, the Vipers stayed in snitch range of the Raptors in an early-season game and word is that they have  improved dramatically between then and the West Regional Championship in February. In particular, rookie beater Suri Palanimuthu impressed, coming into his own as the season progressed. 

A key matchup will be between Palanimuthu and Storm veteran captain Tanner Morris, as both bring an excitingly aggressive style of play that opens up their team’s offenses but can also leave them vulnerable to the occasional counter attack. Look for Viper chasers Mostafa Fathy and Nate Stender to capitalize on scoring chances, and Laura Gaudet to take a couple buckets of her own. Morris and the Storm should benefit from a fuller roster than they have shown nearly all season, particularly with the return of keeper Steven Schwark who was notably absent from the Chipotle Cup roster. With his massive frame in the way, opponents will find scoring tougher than the Apparators did in March, while his driving power and decent arm will make it harder for teams to keep Storm off the board — especially if Morris hits his stride on the offensive end.

On the winning side of either result, Appalachian and Rain City both bring conservative beating and passing offenses that do not highlight individuals but rely on certain key members for success. As the Vipers have shown improvement since their December matchup, so too should the Raptor squad look better than it did in that game, as it will carry a more complete roster with a fully intact chaser lineup. Meanwhile, Appalachian just might have shown us its limits in its out-of-range victory over Storm, though the team will continue to gel as starters get more comfortable with keeper Trey Pressley back at the helm after not playing in the fall.

Ultimately, we should see a dogfight for the second and third seeds coming out of Pool 10. Look for Appalachian’s teamwork, built from a more rigorous practice and game schedule than most community teams can manage, to squeeze the team into one of those two bracket spots. The last bracket position might come down to whether or not Rain City or Silicon Valley can match up to the size that Storm boasts, but look for Rain City’s team play to confuse its opponents’ defenses enough to slide through into bracket play. We should not be surprised, though, if each of these four teams splits their games and the seeding comes down to nail-biting quaffle point differentials to determine who moves on and whose championship run will end early this weekend.

Pool 11: 
By Bruce Donnelly
The Lost Boys
Texas State University - San Marcos (TXST)
Tufts University Tufflepuffs
Miami University
George Mason Club Quidditch (GMU)

US Quidditch Cup 9 marks a return to pool play from the Swiss format of USQ World Cup 8. With this return, the emphasis on each team’s record in the standings and their subsequent seeding increases and becomes a storyline of its own. This year especially, it seems that several teams have been incorrectly seeded, leading to additional challenges that the top teams in pools might otherwise not have to face.

Pool 11 includes probably the most incorrectly seeded Pod 3 team of the tournament, the Tufts University Tufflepuffs. A victim of their proximity to one of the top teams in the country, the Northeast Regional semifinalist has six losses that puts it into the third place of Pool 11, but four of those losses came at the hands of that same top team, Quidditch Club Boston (QCB). Tufts was also the first team this season to hold QCB in range, the only in-range game QCB played outside of Bat City.

Its place as a Pod 3 team sets Tufts behind two early season regional favorites, the Lost Boys from the West and Texas State University - San Marcos from the Southwest. While each team considers itself a legitimate contender for a national championship, the West and Southwest teams had disappointing showings at their own regional championships; the Lost Boys were bumped out in the quarterfinals by Crimson Elite and Texas State was forced to qualify through the secondary bracket.

After what might have been a surprising run at the Northeast Regional Championship, Tufts finds itself in a prime position to make life very difficult for the top two teams in its pool. Given its strong beating and physical defense, it will be difficult for either of the two teams that have at times struggled to score to put up points against Tufts. Combining the defense with a strong offense that, when hot, can score a lot of goals in a short period of time, Tufts, led by keeper David Stack, could put the pool games out of range early. Failing to do so, however, wouldn’t put it at much of a disadvantage, given that it can throw Greg Bento at any snitch with confidence.
Tufts keeper David Stack consistently puts his team on top during pool play. | Photo Credit: Isabella Gong Photography
However, if the second day of last year’s World Cup told us anything about Tufts, it’s that if the team has a cold streak and fails to perform, it can be in danger of dropping every game it plays. Both of the lower seeded teams in Pool 11, Miami University and George Mason Club Quidditch, are teams that can keep games close and give a solid game to the Pod 3 team if they don’t put them away. Miami has spent much of the regular season keeping its games against top Great Lakes competition in range, including taking two victories in four games against Ohio State. George Mason, a typically beater-centered team, will use the addition of Sam Gaffigan to bolster the offense of a team that took its 16th seed bracket appearance at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Championship to upset No. 1 seeded Rutgers University Quidditch in its qualifying game.

Pool 12:
By Bruce Donnelly
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC)
RPI Remembralls (RPI)
Northern Arizona University Narwhals (NAU)
Illinois State University Firebirds (ISU)
Texas Tech Quidditch (TTU) 

In quidditch, we love our stars. A select few names always make up the narrative of the sport. Often the top teams going into a national tournament are identified by the big names on their roster, especially the community teams. Of the 12 Pod 1 teams, only two lack players from the past two years’ Team USA rosters: the Rain City Raptors of the Northwest region and UNC, which has played over twice as many games as the Raptors

UNC tops Pool 12 with a 32-4 record this regular season. Coming off last season’s Elite Eight appearance, this should come as no surprise. What UNC lacks in the way of a superstar, it makes up for with some of the most elite, underrated talent in the country.

At the beater position, Kyle Bullins demands all attention. An aggressive, dominant point beater, he is not likely to run around the field, but he is almost always going to find a way to recover bludger control. He has the size and strength that makes it nearly impossible to separate him from the ball in his possession, and he plays with enough physicality to cause problems for protecting beaters. On top of his game against opposing beaters, Bullins is the fulcrum of UNC’s hoop zone defense, his positioning making the otherwise questionable zone effective.

Keeper Justin Cole might be one of the strongest quaffle carriers in the Mid-Atlantic region and is a large part of how UNC averages more than 100 quaffle points per game. While Cole has the driving ability to score on most defenses, it’s his passing and shooting ability that sets him apart. Thanks to his height, defending Cole becomes a nightmare, as he can pass over most point defenders with ease and accuracy, finding cutting options both in front and behind hoops.

UNC Keeper Justin Cole may not look like the biggest threat, but his height gives him a huge advantage over his opponents on both offense and defense. | Photo Credit: Kat Ignatova Photography
Chasers Chris Champitto and Lee Hodge will be top passing targets for Cole, as well as integral parts of the aforementioned zone defense, as both play the important point defender role. UNC can use either of them to pressure opposing offenses into driving past Bullins and the beating corps, which will be problematic. The two also play well as passing options for the driver — both provide multiple rapid scoring options that many teams have not been able to contain.

Pool 12 also includes two of the MLQ’s rising stars from this past summer. The RPI Remembralls find themselves in the second position in the pool thanks, in large part, to beater Mario Nasta and chaser Teddy Costa. Nasta made a name for himself over the summer with frequent playing time for the New York Titans, using aggressive beating to help them finish second in the East Division, but he did not appear for the team during the championship tournament. Costa, on the other hand, did play, and played well, for the Boston Night Riders throughout their victorious tournament. A mix of speed and agility, Costa became a highlight reel of his own over the summer and has been helping to translate that success to RPI’s regular season.

While Pool 12 does have its underrated players, its Pod 4 team, the Illinois State Firebirds, has the only Team USA player in this pool. Although he plays keeper for most of the game, Jeffrey Siwek made the roster on the merits of his seeking. It was Siwek’s double catch against Kansas Quidditch that put ISU into the finals of its regional championship in addition to qualifying the team for US Quidditch Cup 9.

With a wealth of underrated talent at the top, this pool could break in two ways. UNC and RPI are both teams that could find themselves upset, RPI more so. If the UNC offense finds itself off for a game, any of the other four teams could put the pressure on the team in a snitch range game, especially ISU. RPI, on the other hand, could find its plans disrupted by a fast-paced game from either Northern Arizona or Texas Tech. If the top two teams can play their game, though, expect the names less spoken to make an appearance on Day Two.

Chris Lock, Andy Marmer, and Keller Stevens contributed to reporting.

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