Sunday, November 13, 2016

Southern Cup 2016 Review

By Jack Lennard, with additional reporting from Ashara Peiris

On Oct. 29-30, 17 teams from the UK’s South region came together for QuidditchUK’s Southern Cup 2016. There, two things were decided: first, the three teams that would secure places for the 2017 European Quidditch Cup (EQC), and second, which teams would not qualify for the 2017 British Quidditch Cup (BQC). In this article, we outline some of our key storylines from the tournament and explore where the teams will go from here.

Parity Goes from Analysis to Reality
For several seasons now, analysts have been sitting on the edge of our seats hoping that this will be the tournament where we get unpredictable paths to a climactic final, and tense, close games between evenly-matched teams at a mid-to-high-tier level. And every season, we have been disappointed; games fall out largely as expected, the same team names rise to the top, and we’re left with the promise of growth and development for next season.

Southern Cup 2016 was a different affair. Going into the tournament, we talked about how the old guard of top teams (such as the Radcliffe Chimeras and Southampton Quidditch Club Firsts [SQC1]) had suffered losses, and we talked about how close the third qualification place for EQC 2017 was going to be. What transpired exceeded our wildest expectations. From the very highest level of the tournament, such as a final where the teams scored only three goals between them, right through the latter rounds, such as quarterfinals where new teams like Swansea Seven Swans made good on their early season results in the South West League and their strong showing in pool play (only 50 behind SQC1 when their opponents caught the snitch to end the game 120*-40, and then incredibly dominant victories over SQC2, Norwich Nifflers, and Cambridge to come second in their group) and resurgent teams like the London Unspeakables shocked even the weakened SQC1 side in overtime 110*^-80 to progress to the semifinals.

Troy Kelly-Weekes catches for Swansea to win against Norwich | Photo Credit: Rowena Haigh, Courtesy of QuidditchUK

But Parity Is Not the Same as Equality
Many people would be fooled into walking away from this tournament thinking that the teams placing third to eighth are all at exactly the same level. They would be mistaken. There has been a closing of the gap between each of these teams. This can be seen from tense starts to games between Swansea (sixth) and the Bristol Brizzlebears (third) in the quarterfinals, and again between Warwick Quidditch Club (first) and the Radcliffe Chimeras (seventh). However, to say that a game between the third-place team and the eighth-place team would have an unpredictable result on any given day is misleading.

In both of those referenced quarterfinal matches, the eventual winners outplayed and eventually pulled out of SWIM range (albeit only just) before catching the snitch to take the game. The Bears used aggressive beating from Aaron Brett-Miller and Alistair Goodwin to keep the less experienced Swansea players under pressure and force errors, while Warwick showed the depth of their roster, with Katy Lawrence and Kat Jack making valuable contributions to a game that never seriously looked at risk for the eventual champions.

Though both Swansea and the Chimeras have the potential to surprise other teams in that top level of competition, it would be stretching the suspension of disbelief to say that it would be a knife-edge fixture in any given match. Whether these teams will develop enough to make that leap will be seen over the next few months as we approach BQC.

Alistair Goodwin beating for Brizzlebears | Photo Credit: Rowena Haigh, Courtesy of QuidditchUK

The Names Have Changed, but the Fear Factor at the Top Is Still the Same
Despite this parity, there is a clear gap in ability between the top two teams at the tournament and the next few teams in the ranking. Werewolves of London and Warwick Quidditch Club brushed aside their opponents in the semifinals; Werewolves beat the Brizzlebears 130*-40, and Warwick beat the London Unspeakables 110*-0. The only real challenge both teams faced was the game against each other. The final, it should be said, was an incredibly tense and low-scoring affair, and truly could have gone either way.

Now, it could be argued that both the Unspeakables and the Bears were saving themselves in their semifinal games for the expected third-place playoff – not an unwise tactic, with EQC qualification up for grabs. Certainly the Unspeakables were trying to cold catch relatively soon in their game. But it could also be argued that both Warwick and Werewolves were holding back in anticipation of a gruelling final against each other. Neither side would have gone into those semifinals expecting to lose to the Unspeakables or the Bears, and it’s doubtful that their opponents would have been thinking of much beyond a seemingly inevitable loss and third-place playoff. So while we didn’t get to see the top two teams take on the third and fourth-placed teams at full tilt, what we can and did see is an aura of fear and dominance around those two teams. This seems remarkably like the impression other teams had when taking on the Chimeras or SQC1 in previous seasons when they were at their peak.

The question remains, then, at what point will the new talent entering the sport (growing in athleticism as the sport gains recognition) eclipse the more experienced players who have joined community teams such as Werewolves and Velociraptors QC?

Never Write Off a Team
This is both a lesson learned from Southern Cup 2016 and a warning for BQC 2017. Two teams in particular spring to mind here. First, the Flying Chaucers from Canterbury. On Day One, they lost their games by significant margins, losing 110*-10 against the Falmouth Falcons, 220*-10 against the London Unspeakables, and then a whopping 320-40* against the Brizzlebears. Not only that, but several of their players succumbed to injury (including Sam Jackson, who looks to be a promising talent). When they were drawn against the Oxford Quidlings for the BQC 2017 qualification playoff at the start of Day Two, most people figured they could have a bit of a lie in. If they did, they would have missed one of the most thrilling encounters of the tournament. The Chaucers constantly pressed the Quidlings, exploiting as-yet-unseen strength in drives and capitalising on a chaotic beater game. Matt Baker and Kirsty Lukas stemmed the flow of the Quidling quaffle play by keeping calm on bludger defence. Sheer determination from the Chaucers made them a memorable team for the coming season, despite not qualifying for BQC 2017.

Kirsty Lukas beating for Chaucers against the Quidlings | Photo Credit: Rica Biasi

The other team that most springs to mind when discussing this is, of course, the London Unspeakables. I would love to say that my confidence in their ability had never faltered, though I would be lying if I did. After poor results last season and a loss of some players (such as Fiona Howat and Claire Jarvis) to the Werewolves, not to mention the many more experienced graduates moving to London who chose to join the Werewolves rather than the Unspeakables, many were sensing a plummet from the team in purple. Even after a second-place finish at Highlander Cup IV a month ago, few were expecting much from the Unspeakables. However, we were all wrong.

The Unspeakables pushed the Bears hard in their group game, only falling behind decisively in the latter part of the game. They then went on to defeat old rivals Falmouth on a snitch catch 80*-70, putting them through to the upper bracket. This would have been enough, a sign of a team with purpose. But the Unspeakables went on to beat SQC1 in overtime, and they again kept the Bears on their toes as they ultimately finished fourth. Such a result cannot be lauded enough. The quaffle defence, largely anchored by the strength of Alex Macartney and Pedro González-Tarrío, was supplemented by the tactical experience and long-range accuracy of Ben Pooley. Alberto Salvator brought his experience of basketball to the quidditch pitch, combining with Norwegian Eva Verpe to cause problems around the hoops for the opposition, while Martin Mornar and Monique Davis stood out as reliable and confident beaters. The resurgence of the Unspeakables is one of the storylines of the tournament that goes to show that, in an era of increased parity in the sport, teams simply can’t be written off.

Bears and Unspeakables keepers Ollie Bridgen and Alex Macartney face off | Photo Credit: Rica Biasi

The Old Giants Finally Fall…for Now
Speaking of writing off teams (or not), let’s look at two giants of the Southern region who had a less than ideal weekend: the Radcliffe Chimeras and SQC1.

Both teams have qualified for EQC in previous seasons and were the two finalists of Southern Cup 2015. All three British Quidditch Cups thus far have been won by one of these two teams. For some time, the Chimeras were regarded as “unbeatable,” though nobody expected this to remain the case heading into Southern Cup 2016. The Chimeras and SQC1 had both lost a lot of players, such as Luke Twist, Jan Mikolajczak, Abby Whiteley, Jemma Thripp, Vincent Fouré, and Ash Cooper, to name a just few from both sides.

So for the Chimeras to lose to Warwick in the quarterfinals was hardly the worst thing that could have happened. Perhaps stronger results on Day One would have swung the Day Two draw further in their favour – perhaps. But realistically they had a mountain to climb, with a late start to their term compared to the date of the tournament, and the aforementioned loss of players from their glory days. Despite this, there are positives for the team, and Oxford University Quidditch Club as a wider whole. The players they did have performed well, with Alice Walker, Fran Morris, and Robert Brignull putting in typically strong shifts, the latter two gaining in confidence from last season. This was demonstrated in their tighter-than-expected loss to Warwick, 100*-30, and though the team will be disappointed with their fall from last season, it is hard to imagine them being surprised by it, and far more likely that they will feel relief in placing solid foundations for a rebuilding season.

Mathilda Rose chasing for the Chimeras | Photo Credit: Rowena Haigh, courtesy of QuidditchUK

SQC1, on the other hand, didn’t have quite so much doom and gloom about them before the weekend. Yes, they had lost players, but they are known for their strong recruiting efforts, and a decent performance at Battle Royale, a home tournament, meant that many (myself included) had them as favourites for the third EQC spot. Perhaps they would have beaten the Bears if they had made it that far, but an overtime snitch loss to the Unspeakables in the quarterfinals will leave the team heartbroken. Their job from here is simultaneously easy and difficult. On the one hand, they can purely focus on drilling a disciplined team to be more reliable in tight games (of which there will be many at BQC). Losing Alex Carpenter through injury was a piece of bad luck that almost certainly would have given them the edge in their later matches, so the leadership should feel content in not overhauling the team drastically. On the other hand, the morale hit that the team will suffer from the shock will be a tricky obstacle to overcome, and it will take careful management if they want to fulfill their obvious potential at BQC 2017.

Both the Chimeras and SQC1 will want to move past Southern Cup quickly and look to the future. And, given the resurgence of some teams and the shocks sprung by others, it would be unwise to think that these two old giants won’t come out firing on all cylinders as we move into the second half of the season.

And a Great Deal of Other Things
It was almost hard to choose where to start with this article. There were simply so many interesting storylines to follow. Some of them I decided to set aside for later – the progress of the Falmouth Falcons, for example. Having ranked highly last season, and recruited well this year, they will have been disappointed not to make the upper bracket; however, a lower bracket final victory over Exeter Quidditch Club will give them the boost they need to prove a threat. Not that Exeter won’t feel the same excitement, after performing admirably. Both of these teams will be playing in the South West League, so I’m going to put a pin in their narratives for now and return to them in future articles. The same can be said for teams like Reading Rocs and Cambridge, both of which performed, if not successfully, then at least with gusto and a talent that suggests that with either more training or more players, they could emerge as more threatening opponents in time.

Others were elements that I fully intended to include, but couldn’t find the right place for – mostly about the running of the event itself, and to express gratitude to the hard work of the tournament committee and QuidditchUK. The tournament was well-run, and the facilities were good; the pitches were of a good quality, and sand was implemented to cover up any dangerous-looking divots that might turn an ankle. There was the expected debate about whether the splitting of BQC qualification places (16 and 16 per North and South region) was fair, with most people concluding that it probably wasn’t, but that trying to grade regions by strength of field was a can of worms nobody was keen to open.

And then there were the broader things that we can look forward to in future months. The Werewolves will be desperate to have another crack at Warwick, and if the two meet at BQC 2017 it will be one of the most anticipated games of the tournament. The Unspeakables, thriving despite the presence of the Werewolves next door, have proven that there is a place for two successful teams in the same area, offering a sigh of relief to the Midlands teams who might worry about the emergence of overpowered community teams. And the mid-tier teams will be gearing up for an arms race as the pack tightens around them.

What’s the biggest take-away from this huge, sprawling, complex weekend?

That this is going to be the most exciting season of quidditch the UK has ever seen.

Warwick victorious at last | Photo Credit: Rica Biasi

No comments:

Post a Comment