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Pro-Elite Challenge 2016: Tournament Recap

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Denver Molly Brown’s Megan Cousins. Photo: Ken Forman – UltiPhotos.com[/caption]

DENVER – The Pro-Elite Challenge was as competitive as it’s ever been this year. With nearly every top Women’s team – and many of the top contenders in the Men’s and Mixed Divisions – in attendance, it was a great weekend to take stock of where the club season stands. Here’s a look at some of the top action as we get ready for the Pro Flight Finale next weekend.

Men's Division

Truck On Pace For Semis Breakthrough

Truck Stop made quick work of their bracket competition at the Pro-Elite Challenge and looked every bit the team we thought they could be heading into the season ((They were the preseason #4 ranked team)). While it wasn’t complete dominance – they lost to Bravo on Saturday by three and let Guerrilla score nine on them – you have to remember that this was their first tournament of the year.

Captain Peter Prial spoke after the tournament about the O-line’s versatility this year. With the addition of Sean Keegan and John Wodatch this offseason, the offense gets two very talented players that can operate as both throwers and cutters alongside veterans like Tom Doi, Prial, and Jeff Wodatch. That frees up some of the team’s best talent – Alan Kolick and Nicky Spiva – to primarily play on the D-line. It also allows the offense to mix and match who handles, initiates, and continues, sowing confusion for the defense and creating mismatches.

Truck’s offense was clinical against Bravo in their rematch in the final, and Bravo had no answers defensively. Their straight man got scorched in the first half; junkier looks in the second half merely slowed the time it took the offense to put in holds.

As noted in the finals gamer, Truck has all the tools to crack into the elite tier, much like Machine did last season. To be fair, they are already in the elite tier, but until they earn a semifinals berth at Nationals, there will be plenty of skeptics.

It will certainly be exciting to watch Truck get a shot at the Division’s behemoths – Revolver and Sockeye – at the Pro Flight Finale in two weeks.

Bravo Building Quicker Than Expected?

The chatter around Denver before the season was not exactly about winning: “total rebuild,” “new year, new team,” “changing of the guard.” While that makes sense, considering the team’s significant roster turnover, it’s beginning to look like the team undersold itself a bit.

As easy a narrative as it would be, that’s not all because of Jimmy Mickle, one of the game’s most dominant players right now. Mickle didn’t play a couple weeks ago at the Elite-Select Challenge; Bravo made the final.

He did rejoin the team on Bravo’s home turf and help lead them past a red hot Chicago Machine team in semifinals, but it wasn’t just a big dose of #Micklemania that got them back to the finals. Veterans like Owen Westbrook alongside fresh faces like Mark Rauls have started to put together a very solid offense, and the defense – save for their game against Truck Stop – has been quite good, weathering the loss of standouts like Ryan Farrell and Nick Lance.

It’s fair to say that the team’s ceiling isn’t as high as it’s been in recent years – perhaps they cap out at semis – but given their major disappointment at Nationals last year, I’d bet they would gladly take that.

Midseason Malaise For Machine, Ironside

Machine and Ironside – two teams stacked with talent, seeded one and two at Pro-Elite – did not bring much zip in their step to Denver.

Both teams were flat and played well below their abilities, especially Ironside, who lost 13-6 to High Five in surely one of the team’s most embarrassing losses ever as a program. While Ironside took some lumps last year, the team’s roster was stripped down compared to this year’s Championship-chasing one.

Machine had a strong showing on Saturday, outscoring their opponents a combined 39-20. But on Sunday morning, they had to grind out a 14-13 win over Madison Club (they pulled on double game point) and then looked lethargic against Johnny Bravo in the semifinals.

Ironside, conversely, had a pair of games – the final round of pool play against Madison Club and their quarterfinal against High Five – in which they played outright badly. Although they mounted a second half comeback against Madison to make it close, they never mustered any fight at all on Sunday morning.

“We came out asleep,” said Ironside captain Will Neff, “and quickly convinced ourselves that we were going to lose. I think it was a real mental failure for us.”

Neff went on to say that the team is still searching for an identity and that they need to get back to basics.

There is no question that both teams have the talent to not just compete for a semis spot but to win a championship this season. But for whatever reason – the thin air at altitude, the lack of urgency of a July tournament – neither looked championship worthy in Denver.

Quick Hits

  • Reports of Doublewide's death have been greatly exaggerated. They may have a lot of new, unknown players on the club scene, but they still have a strong system and some star power in Chase Cunningham and Ethan Pollock. They finished 4-2 with losses only to Truck and Ironside.
  • Like so many this weekend, High Five looked like a different team on Sunday than on Saturday. After getting bruised by Machine, they barely got wins over Prairie Fire and Inception. But on Sunday they waxed Ironside, lost to Truck in semis, and then nearly upset Machine in the third place game. Their defense is for real; if they can find some consistency out of their O-line, they will be a sleeper in October.
  • A short-rostered Madison Club was a bit inconsistent, but they continue to look like a real threat in 2016. They went 1-1 against Ironside, 1-1 against Rhino, and 0-1 (on DGP) against Machine. Once they have a full squad? Dangerous.
  • Rhino took a big step forward and got some important wins to solidify their bid hopes in the Northwest. Interestingly, Rhino plays a lot of tight games; aside from their five point loss to Ironside, all of their games (three wins, three losses) were decided by three points or fewer.
  • PoNY was the best of the rest, beating Patrol (twice), Ring of Fire, and a winless Temper.

Mixed Division

A wild season in the Mixed Division veered around some more turns in Denver as historically strong teams like Chad Larson Experience and Mischief didn't even crack the semifinals and surging upstarts like Love Tractor and Steamboat continued to impress.

We already wrote at length about the finalists, Love Tractor and Metro North, in the game recap, but it’s worth noting that the two teams were undoubtedly the best at the tournament. Tractor clearly benefited from playing at home with a full roster and perhaps the deepest bench at the tournament, while Metro North still looked like the revitalized team we saw at the US Open (and they were missing two key pieces in Kendra Frederick and John Korber).

Love Tractor had already looked solid behind a Jack McShane-led offense at the Elite-Select Challenge; they won this weekend thanks to a much-improved D-line, both on defense and offense. David Protter was a real pest for Metro O-line handler Chris Mazur – it’s easy to see how Protter led the team in blocks (8) at the Elite-Select Challenge ((Statistics were not kept at the Pro-Elite Challenge)).

Of course, questions remain about their ability to replicate the success they found on home turf. They went 4-3 in Columbus, and weren’t competitive in some of those games. They lost by four to Steamboat two weeks ago; they beat them by seven on Sunday.

Steamboat A Clear #3

After breezing past their pool on Saturday, Steamboat showed that their strong performance at the Elite-Select Challenge was no fluke by beating CLX and Blackbird on Sunday to finish third. It’s also worth noting that Steamboat had only 20 rostered players this weekend, compared to 24 a short drive from their home city of Cincinnati at ESC.

While Steamboat did lose soundly to Love Tractor, they sure look like the team to beat in the Great Lakes, although the UPA, who beat them in the Regional final last year, is lurking in the shadows.

Steamboat, though, has to feel confident. They have just one loss on the season – the PEC semifinal v. Love Tractor – and have wins over CLX (twice), Love Tractor, Blackbird, and Alloy.

Don’t Worry About Blackbird

Blackbird won back-to-back championships in the Mixed Division in 2011 and 2012 before ceding the crown to Drag’N Thrust. Every year, Blackbird packs a roster with talent, and every year their regular season results leave a lot to be desired. That trend continued in Denver, as the Southwest powerhouse lost big to all three teams that finished above them.

But the Mac Taylor-led squad had similarly mundane results last season before dominating Sectionals and Regionals ((At Nationals, they lost by one to eventual champion Drag’N Thrust in the prequarters)).

So don’t read much into the team’s so-so performance – they will be dialed in when it counts in September.

Cosa Nostra Starts Slow, Settles In

Austin’s top mixed team opened up the Pro-Elite Challenge looking like a team that was just seeing its first taste of elite competition. They got pummeled 13-6 in back to back games against Metro North and Mischief and were in a win-or-go-to-the-losers-round-robin situation. A 13-10 win over Platypi got them into prequarters, where they knocked off a hot Alloy team 13-11.

On Sunday, a close loss to regional rival Love Tractor dropped them into the fifth place bracket, but they made the most of it, taking down CLX and Ambiguous Grey, and all but ensured at least two bids for the South Central. ((The SC could get three bids if shame., a Fort Collins team, holds onto to its strong ranking thanks to a close loss to Love Tractor in June))

The mental fortitude Cosa showed to bounce back from some brutal losses and an 0-2 hole is a good sign for the team looking to reemerge on the elite National scene.

Quick Hits

  • Wild Card got off to a great 3-0 start, then lost a heartbreaker to Blackbird in quarters and melted down, dropping the next to games to Ambiguous Grey and CLX by increasing margins. They also hurt their chances of earning a bid for the Northeast. Could the region end up with just two bids?
  • Ambiguous Grey was clearly below the top tier at the tournament, but nearly knocked off Metro North. All in all it was a good bounceback after a rough US Open.

Women's Division

After the unmatched dominance of Boston Brute Squad at the US Open, it was reasonable to expect more of the same in Denver. But a lackluster performance from Brute -- and a sizzling one from Seattle Riot -- opened up new questions about which team is the front runner heading into the Pro Flight Finale and Nationals.

Can Riot Finally Get That Elusive Title?

It’s been over 10 years since Seattle Riot last won a National Championship (2005). For years they were just a step behind the juggernaut that was San Francisco Fury. Then came the Washington DC Scandal era in '13 and '14. And, last year, Brute Squad was unbeatable at Nationals.

Perhaps Riot can finally get back to the top of the podium. They have been squarely in the elite tier of the Women’s game since they won their back-to-back championships in the mid 2000s, but, this year, the pieces are all there: strong offense led by a Rohre Titcomb and a consistent unit, an elite defense with multiple effective looks that wreaked havoc in Denver, and an experienced coaching staff of Andy Lovseth and Gwen Ambler.

Riot’s offense wasn’t perfect against Brute Squad’s defense (the best in the Division), but it did well enough to keep the D-line on the field for stretches and build a comfortable lead.

But the defense – with aggressive switching, various zone and junk looks, and an attacking mentality – was superb.

Look no further than Riot’s 13-8 dismantling of Denver Molly Brown – who had looked so good in their quarterfinal against Scandal – as proof of the defense’s abilities.

The real question for Riot will be how they are able to handle their opponents’ adjustments at Nationals. Riot has had plenty of regular season success, only to come up short in the semis or finals of the October Classic. Teams have generally found ways to hurt Riot’s offense with changes to the marking schemes or defensive structures.

If they can avoid falling victim to those adjustments, Riot will have a great shot at claiming the crown in Rockford.

Brute Squad In A Mid-Summer Swoon

While Brute Squad’s defensive line continued to perform admirably, even in the team’s loss to Riot in the tournament final, the O-line lacked precision and made too many mistakes to beat a team playing as well as Riot.

Perhaps there were some fatigue issues due to the high altitude and the tight rotation. But it could also just be that Brute was feeling a “June swoon” in late July.

“Getting broken is not something that we’re used to having happen and there was a lot of that,” said Brute Squad O-line handler Leila Tunnell. “There was a lot of resting on our laurels a little bit."

Even in games they were winning fairly comfortably, the offense wasn’t its usual self. There were plentiful throwing mistakes, often unforced by the defense.

But don’t expect this from Brute going forward. With Tunnell, the reigning Player of the Year, and a cadre of stars surrounding her on the O-line, the talent is simply too good to continue to struggle. Brute might even still be considered the favorite to win Nationals in two months.

“I think we really needed that [loss],” said Tunnell.

Brute will have a chance to regroup at the Pro Flight Finale next weekend.

Molly Brown: Tier I or Tier II?

Brute Squad and Riot have clearly established themselves as two top tier teams in the Women’s Division. But which other teams join them in that rarefied air? While Molly Brown may be accustomed to the high altitude, it’s not certain that they – the clear #3 team in the country – belongs as a member of that elite tier.

Molly Brown is a combined 1-6 against Brute Squad and Riot over the past two seasons (since they made massive talent acquisitions, including Opi Payne, Crystal Davis, and others). They defeated Brute Squad 13-11 at the Pro-Elite Challenge in 2015 and has not beat either team since then.

This weekend, Molly Brown looked truly dominant against Scandal in the quarterfinals, a game that seemed like it might be close. It wasn’t. Molly Brown won it going away, 13-6, with suffocating defense and crisp offense. They looked ready for a challenge against Riot in semis.

Instead, they laid an egg, losing by five.

To be clear: Molly Brown is a great team. They are almost certainly going to make the semifinals this year, and Claire Chastain could be the frontrunner for Player of the Year. They are tremendously talented. But, for whatever reason, they haven’t been able to hand a loss to the top two.

Molly Brown knows they are a deep and talented team. The question is: when they get out on the field against a Riot or a Brute, do they believe they will win?

Quick Hits

  • Fury played some great games at Pro-Elite, including a strong comeback against Traffic to win their quarterfinal. But an aging core has seen Fury sliding back a bit for the past few seasons. They took losses to Brute Squad and Molly Brown to close out the weekend and are firmly sitting at #4 in the Division.
  • Washington DC Scandal had a short roster in Denver and couldn't keep up offensively with the best teams they faced. Jenny Fey is one of the best in the Division, but she needs a few more pieces around her to get the offense clicking.
  • Traffic won the games we thought they'd win and lost they ones we thought they'd lose. Hanging on for the win against Fury would have been a nice way to cap off the weekend. But for their first tournament of the season, it was a solid start.

Originally published at: https://ultiworld.com/2016/08/11/pro-elite-challenge-2016-tournament-recap/