In 2014, Colorado State didn't make regionals. At conference championships, with seven of our top nine players injured, we went 0-4, and for the first time in the history of the program, did not receive a bid to regionals.
There was a lot of sadness in our final season huddle as we bid farewell to many seniors and elected leadership for the next season. I personally considered hanging up my coaching hat. That conference championship was the final tournament of my sixth year coaching the team. I still very much loved and believed in what we were doing, but we just felt adrift - there wasn't a clear plan or set path for the future.
I knew we had a group of talented freshmen incoming the next year but we needed to re-focus and re-define what the team was all about. I sat down with the two newly-elected captains and we discussed a culture shift. The plan was to re-dedicate our leadership efforts to competing at the highest levels of college ultimate. We weren't just going to talk about should have/could haves after a middling season, but rather actually redefine how the team would approach fitness, attitude and player development.
As we start our third spring season since the cultural shift, I am very proud of how much the team has accomplished. This past weekend, our B-team was at the President's Day Invite Qualifier, 18 hours away, with 21 players. We haven't had a travelling B-team since 2004. The A-team currently sits at 20th in the Ultiworld Power Rankings, with an exciting tournament schedule on the horizon (Pres Day, Centex and Huck Finn). We haven't been top 20 in any kind of ranking since 2006. We have the reigning south central freshmen of the year cleating up for us and a couple of new freshmen who will definitely be in the conversation for FOTY this season as well. We have had representation on the all-region team the past two seasons for the first time since 2004.
I'm not writing all this out just to toot our collective horn, but rather as a testament to what any team can accomplish if you foster an inclusive, positive, hard-working team culture. Huge props to all 50+ members of our A/B teams and coaching staff who have put in so much work this year. The season is young and our final measurements of success and reaching our goals are a long ways off, but the enthusiasm and energy within the team is absolutely electric.
Ok... on to the Santa Barbara Invite. Take a look at the full schedule and results here.
We've played at Santa Barbara off and on going back 10+ years. The issue we always run into is that the tournament takes place within a week of the beginning of our spring semester, so we're often heading in with a bit of rust, and oftentimes competing against teams on the quarter system who have had far more spring practices under their belt.
However, this year, we threw caution to the wind; we wanted to play somewhere with nice weather early in the semester. After we missed out on MLC, we hadn't played in a tournament since October and the team was chomping at the bit to line up against someone other than our own players.
We packed up our gear and hopped in the vans for the 18 hour drive, arriving in Buellton (cheaper hotels) with enough time to track down field space at a local park and get a bit of throwing in at sea-level.
We woke up early Saturday morning, snagged some breakfast, and drove down the 101 to Santa Barbara.
Game 1 vs Arizona State (0-0)
The last time we played Arizona State was in 2007 when they upset us at regionals on universe point. I knew that in the past several years they had been trending upward and had been teetering in that upper-regionals fringe space, but knew very little about the team beyond that.
We started the game with a quick break to take a 1-0 lead before trading out a few points and giving them the break back to get back on serve 3-4.
They had several very good, tall athletes including big #10 who secured some nice layout blocks as well as deep Ds for the squad.
Our standout of the game was freshman Will McDonald. One of three starting O-line freshmen, Will secured multiple blocks for us as we shook off some early offensive jitters.
We traded to 5s before a huge layout D from David Miller (in his first tournament back since shoulder surgery) and subsequent deep score for the bookends gave us the 6-5 lead. We stacked a d-line to take half and after securing the turn, scored on a nice look from freshman Mo Scott to Jack Hinchsliff.
We received out of half, with both teams playing relatively clean offense, trading to 11-8 before forcing a turn and Hudson Martin finding freshman Clark Yarbrough on a nice inside throw to complete the break 12-8.
They held to 12-9 then we stacked an O to finish the game with Jake hitting Mo up the line for the game winner 13-9.
ASU was a very athletic team with some excellent size. They performed well over the weekend and I think that they have the potential to insert themselves into the southwest conversation this year if they manage to stay out of their own heads. #10 specifically was a big game changer.
Game 2 vs Washington (1-0)
We quickly hiked over to the UCSB turf complex to play Washington after our previous win against ASU; this was a game that we figured would determine the winner of the pool and give us a measuring stick for where we stacked up against an elite program.
The game was filmed by Ultiworld and was also observed.
Overall, this game was defined by both team's efficient O-lines and an extremely fast pace. They secured an early break, but after we adjusted to their downfield speed and began relying more on our rotations and exploiting break-mark space, we settled into good offensive rhythm.
They weren't the tallest team, but they had elite speed across the board, even with their top player, Khalif El-Salaam, sidelined. The most frustrating part for us was that we run a defensive scheme predicated on making deep looks challenging. However, their main throwers consistently put out huge wide-side deep-throws against our force middle that they were able to run underneath and score with ease.
Specific details were hard to remember because both teams scored so efficiently. We went into half down 5-7, down one break, receiving in the second. They broke us out of half for an 8-5 lead then we settled back into the quick scoring routine. We traded to 10-12 before finally punching in a break to make it 11-12. I believe this was only the third turnover we'd forced against their offense the entire game.
We stacked a D to try and tie it up but they methodically worked it down the field before scoring on a short deep route for an 11-13 final. The game was over in a flash, when just about every other round was tight on time, we had a huge 30 minute buffer before our round 3 game.
I was very impressed with their squad overall; I think they're a quarters+ team this year at nationals assuming they stay healthy. Specific standouts were hard to say because they had many different guys consistently making impressive plays for them.
Game 3 vs UC Davis (1-1)
We headed back to the grass complex for our third game against UC Davis who was technically the two seed in the pool.
We started out the game with our youngest line (Bluegills) on D and they didn't disappoint, jumping out of the gates with an early break for us. We secured a couple more breaks in the first half, but gave one back for a 7-5 halftime score.
The wind was starting to kick up a little by this point, not significantly, but enough to make the upwind endzone a little bit more challenging to reach. We cruised to a 10-7 lead, even getting reigning SC FOTY, Jake Marrapode, his first points since 2016 regionals. "Pode" was running at about 50% speed, still limited by his previous season's injury, but with the wind to back him up, he slid into an O line handler spot showcasing his breakmark repertoire.
We finished up the game with a 13-9 victory. Davis was a solid team, but seemed too reliant on the deep shots without the placement consistency to make us feel particularly threatened. #11 (I believe was his number) seemed to be their main downfield playmaker, but ran himself ragged on hucks too far and hucks that trailed out of bounds.
Game 4 vs UCSD (2-1)
We had a bye before our final game of the round against UCSD. We had beaten them the previous season at President's Day, 15-12, and were ready to wrap up our day with a clean second place finish in the pool.
However, we didn't put together a great game. Spicer was hoping to play sparingly and ice his sore hips, but the team did not play well. We were up 7-6 at half, but the first half was mired with poor play on our part and a lack of intensity.
In the second half, UCSD came storming out of the gates, setting their infamous 4-person cup and quickly rattling off several breaks, taking the lead 10-8. Spicer, by this point had re-entered the game in his regular capacity and UCSD made the mistake of spiking on him after one of their players came down with a nice grab in the endzone. I don't believe it was an overly egregious spike, that's just the wrong person to do it on.
Spicer sat only one point the rest of the game and tallied 5 blocks in the final five points that he played. He put the team on his back defensively and we went on a 5-1 run to finish the game 13-11. The one point he sat during that run was the final point of the game with us up 12-11 when we again called on our youngest line to close out the game for us with a break, which they obliged; 13-11 final.
This secured us a 3-1 record, the #2 spot in the pool behind Washington and a pre-quarters matchup Sunday morning versus the third place finisher in pool D.
Game 5 vs UCSB (prequarters)(3-1)
Pool D ended up with three teams at 3-1, with the point differential leaving the pool with Western Washington in first, Cincinnati second and UCSB, the host team, third. We were excited that our opponent Sunday morning would be a UCSB team that had the same pool play record as us; we always want to play the toughest matchup.
All of our Sunday games would be at the turf complex, which was a welcome relief as the grass fields had gotten quite beat up from Saturday play.
That morning, we took our customary drive down the 101, enjoying the colorful sunrise over the ocean, before arriving at the fields. The team was energized for this game and Spicer would set the tone for us early.
UCSB played well overall, but just couldn't match our energy. We traded to 2-2 then they spotted us a quick turn which we punched in for the first break 3-2.
Dylan Custer, freshman athlete extraordinaire, secured a huge layout catch-block on the goal line of the next point and two more freshmen completed the break with a big huck from Mo to Sean Peskin. They would connect for three deep scores this game as Sean asserted his authority in our deep game and Mo showed some amazing huck placement.
We traded a couple holds then broke again to take half 7-4. The only break they would get back in the second half would be after a dropped pull, a time-out and a floaty scoober into traffic out of the time-out. At 12-8 we lined up 7 freshmen to take us home and they didn't disappoint. After forcing the turn, Mo aired it out to Sean, who came down with it in traffic for the game winner 13-8.
Game 6 vs SLO (quarters)(4-1)
SLO is one of our favorite opponents. We seem to manage a game or two against them no matter what tournament we're at and we were excited to play them for I believe the 4th time in the past three years. Going into the game, we had a 3-0 advantage in the match-up.
SLO also plays a very fun style. I don't want to call it sloppy, because that's not doing them justice, but they play... fearlessly. I'm not sure there's another team anywhere with as much big play potential (as evidenced by their stellar highlight reels).
I'm sure they were as excited as us to play this game, both because it's a good match-up, and because they wanted to notch their first win against since, I believe, regionals 2004 (my freshmen year).
They had a first-round bye as they'd finished first in their pool, but they still came charging out of the gates, securing two early blocks and playing some very impressive deep defense. We struggled to adjust to an opponent that consistently pressured our deep looks and they made play after play. They had their share of turns, but were winning the big-play battle significantly and the game was quickly getting out of hand.
At 2-5 we took a timeout and adjusted. We had to stop hucking; they had our deep game on lock down. They had drawn us into a shootout that we weren't going to win against their bevy of athletes.
We worked the disc down the field patiently on the next point, then broke the subsequent point to bring it back within one, 4-5.
Spicer got a block on the next point and we broke again to tie it up 5-5. SLO held to 5-6 then broke to half on a tipped deep huck by big freshman, Mason Kiefer.
We got back into bad habits in the first point out of half, getting yet another deep shot blocked, and they broke to take an 8-5 lead.
We put a complete moratorium on hucking and re-committed to the patient, break-mark game. We traded to 9-11 before finally getting one of our breaks back to bring it back within one, 10-11. They held to 10-12 and in the ensuing point SLO's coach, Peter Raines, came over to speak with me about the cap situation. I hadn't paid any attention to the time and we had gone past hard cap without any horn sounding. Had Peter insisted the game was over after that point, which we scored to make it 11-12, I couldn't have argued. However, since the cap horns hadn't sounded, Peter offered to play out the final points, a very appreciated and classy move from a great coach.
We stacked a D-line to go for the break to force universe and managed to do just that, 12-12.
We would be pulling for universe with a large crowd watching, as we had gone beyond the start time into the next round due to the horn situation. One of the Ultiworld crew actually came over and periscoped the final point.
They stayed patient, worked through our force middle then put up a nice space hammer for the score and win, 13-12.
I've already said more than I need to say about this game, but SLO is such a great opponent. I wish them the best in their season; their ceiling is as high as any team in the country. I hope they reach their goals.
Game 7 vs Arizona State (semis of the 5th place bracket)(4-2)
We hustled over to our new field to play our second game against ASU. They had finished third in our pool, then upset Cincinnati in pre-quarters before falling in quarters to eventual champion Stanford 11-13.
We knew the matchups, we knew who their players were and we also knew we had a deeper roster. All weekend we had rotated 25 players though our games (26 when Pode snuck onto the field). We had tightened lines up slightly for Washington and SLO, but we'd had contributions from every single player and knew it was going to pay off in these late Sunday games.
The first few points were sloppy, as we adjusted to a slightly breezier field, but our young guys stepped up and showed excellent energy after a physically and emotionally draining game vs SLO. We traded to 3s before going on a run to take half 7-4.
In the second half, we kept the energy up and rolled to 12-6. We sent out the closers, but this time around the first years couldn't put the game away and we traded to a 13-7 final.
Game 8 vs Oregon State (finals of the 5th place bracket)(5-2)
Oregon State seemed out of gas. They were coming out of two universe point games in their last two rounds and they just didn't seem to have enough left in the tank to run with us.
We cruised through the first half 7-1. They cleaned it up a bit in the second half, as we rotated heavily through our younger core, but weren't able to secure any breaks to climb back into the game and we finished with an efficient 13-7 victory.
Based on their previous results, I would say OSU is a better team that score indicates. They played tight, tough games all weekend and, after we started the game with four straight breaks, they somewhat conceded. Admittedly, I'm somewhat biased for the Beavers as my good friend and college co-captain, Chad P, was an Oregon State transfer.
Final Record 6-2 - 5th Place Finish
We were very happy with our tournament results. We were content with our performance across all of our games and were able to play deep into our roster and get every member of the team valuable tournament experience. A fifth place finish isn't the most impressive feat, but with how the seeds were set up to largely allow for the most out-of-region play, we knew we'd likely end up with a tough quarters match-up.
In a couple of weeks we'll be back in Southern California at the President's Day Invite hoping to build on our experience in Santa Barbara. Thanks to UCSB for hosting a fine event and props to all our opponents - best of luck with all of your seasons.