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Why Each Contender Will -- Or Won't -- Win Nationals: Men's Division

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Could Kurt Gibson be the missing piece for Boston Ironside success in 2016? Photo: Kevin Leclaire – UltiPhotos.com[/caption]

Ultiworld’s coverage of the 2016 Club Championships is presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the authors. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at Spin Ultimate!

This offseason, the rich got richer in Men’s club ultimate. Nearly all of last season’s semifinalists added significant personnel to their already stacked rosters, creating a seemingly insurmountable gap for the rest of the pack. Yet here we are in late September with as deep a group of title contenders as we’ve seen in years.

We asked our writers to make the case for why they believe each contender will win the 2016 Club Championships – and under what circumstances they will come up short.

Boston Ironside

Why They Will Win

This is the year. 2016 is the year that tortured teams and fan bases find redemption. Cleveland has a title, the Cubs are the best team in baseball, the Vikings are being propelled by the ghost of Prince, and Ironside, who have suffered more than any other ultimate team over the past decade, are finally going to find salvation.

Ironside is going to win this year because they have the final piece of the puzzle: Kurt Gibson. Not only is Kurt either #1 or #1a on the list of best players of his generation, but he brings something to the table that few players on Ironside actually have: championship experience.

One of the things that has made Ironside so great is their consistency. With the exception of 2015, they were never a team that had big roster shakeups, instead building a program that played and performed with largely the same personnel and style year-in, year-out. Even when dealing with a mass exodus of veterans last season, most of the new players they brought on were young, Boston-area guys who had been getting ready to play in that patented vert stack for years.

While this consistency can be good for keeping a team elite every year, it can also sometimes contribute to a monoculture. When all that your players know is how to lose important games, unhealthy habits can start to develop.

Bringing aboard a veteran leader who can get fresh eyes on the situation and see what the players who have only ever existed in one system can’t is helpful. But even more than that, bringing the resolve, experience, and confidence of a player who has won titles with two different programs before will be crucial.

The notable exception that proves the rule on Ironside is Josh Markette, who won a title in 2009 with Chain Lightning. The candid Markette has acknowledged the struggle of getting his teammates into the championship mindset, and the fact that, after so many years at the top, Ironside only has one core player with a history at Nationals of anything other than failure is telling. With Gibson on board this year, the team has the talent they need. But they’ve always had the talent to win. This year, they have the know how to do it.

Why They Won’t Win

Look, there are a lot of reasons you can point to for why Ironside is vulnerable, both tactical (a lack of height on the roster could make it tough to contain a guy like Nick Stuart from really going off on them) and mental (Ironside is probably the team most likely to have a complete meltdown because of the demons of the past eight seasons).

But honestly – for me – I just don’t think Ironside can overcome the sheer narrative of their lot in life. Normally I find F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous line rather hackneyed, but there just might not be a second act in Ironside’s life.

Really, Ironside has been playing the “will they, won’t they” game with a National title every year this decade like a tragic literary character, and that might just be who they are.

During Revolver’s two titles in 2010 and 2011, Ironside got close with Nationals. They found out they like the same music, they also happened to “accidentally” run into each other on the street, and one night something almost happened in a dimly lit corner booth. But the timing was wrong, Nationals was already spoken for. Finally, in 2012 it seemed like the window might have opened, but a vaudevillian comedy of errors led to Nationals hooking up with Doublewide instead, while Ironside ended up on the outside looking in.

In 2013, the window closed when Nationals got back together with Revolver because “we’ve learned from our mistakes and it will be so much better this time.” Of course that didn’t last – it never does – but when opportunity arose in 2014, Nationals fell for Johnny Bravo’s short skirt, high-heeled, cheer captain super team, not the t-shirt wearing, be-sneakered bleacher dweller.

Ironside tried to change itself for Nationals in 2015, got rid of some old baggage and relationships. But when Nationals was finally, maybe, perhaps, ready to commit… Ironside slept through semis and didn’t show up to the finals. Nationals was just left there, waiting in the rain for a future that was not to come. That’s when ex-flame Revolver rolled up and gave Nationals the look, like Don Draper seducing a world-weary elementary school teacher. Nationals got back with Revolver, not believing things would be better or even different this time around, but rather consigned to its fate as the protagonist in a Tracy Chapman song.

So let me ask you, after all that, you think this has a happy ending? Yeah, me neither.

By Pat Stegemoeller

San Francisco Revolver

Why They Will Win

Do I really need to go into detail on this one? Despite not being the number one seed, many would consider it surprising if Revolver didn’t win again in 2016: they’re simply too stacked with talent and have too strong a pedigree. While they have shown a little less dominance than in 2015, Revolver’s offensive unit remains arguably the strongest in the division. ((Ironside and Sockeye also having compelling arguments)) Read through the names and it sounds like murderer’s row: Simon Higgins, Joel Schlachet, and 2015 POTY Cassidy Rasmussen have been their typical unguardable selves. Newcomer Grant Lindsley has been exceptional this season, racking up goals at a frenetic pace, while Eli Kerns has transitioned nigh-seamlessly into Ashlin Joye’s former “king” role. And, of course, Beau remains one of the most dominant players in the game.

And yet as good as Revolver’s offense is, it’s their defense that will win them their fifth national championship since 2010. There’s no debate here: Revolver’s D-line is the strongest in the country. Take a unit as talented as 2015 and add one of the best players in the world to it? It’s Kevin Durant going to the Warriors. But the comparison is a little less apt when you realize that Durant’s role and impact for the Warriors is still up for speculation. George Stubbs, on the other hand, knows exactly his role: running the show and unleashing pinpoint hucks on a turn. Lucas Dallmann, Nathan White, Russell Wynne, Greg Cohen… Revolver’s embarrassment of riches also means that they have the deepest D-line in the country. Even if a team were fortunate enough to gain a few breaks on Revolver, it will never be considered insurmountable. Not against this defense, not against this team.

Why They Won’t Win

This is… slightly more difficult that the previous section. But if Revolver has one weakness in 2016, it’s that their offensive line has been much more breakable than previous iterations. Part of this is due to an influx of new personnel and an exodus of players who dominated touches (Ashlin Joye, Robbie Cahill). Losing Joye is substantial, even for a team as stacked as Revolver. He was (is) arguably the most talented thrower in the world, using his trademark shimmy to break marks and his powerful hucks to find deep cutters (typically Beau) with ease.

We saw it last Nationals, in perhaps the best game of the tournament. Quarterfinals against Truck Stop, Revolver receiving going upwind. Everyone and their mother knows what Revolver is about to do, and yet no one can stop it. Joye receives the centering pass, fixates on Beau, and unleashes a gargantuan forehand that Beau has little difficulty reeling in for the goal and the win.

Eli Kerns, as good as he is, is not that kind of player yet. A new field general takes some adjusting to, and some of Revolver’s early season struggles can be traced to players adapting to each other’s styles. Cassidy Rasmussen, while still one of the best players in the world, hasn’t been as dominant this season as he was a year ago. Many of Revolver’s best players played at WUGC and could have been dealing with a bit of burnout in the regular season.

While it’s more than likely they’ll have sorted out the bugs for Nationals, their offense remains the most susceptible part of the team. Opponents hoping to topple the titans will need to break and break early, especially since Revolver’s defense is capable of absolutely locking teams down in crunch time. Should a team rattle Revolver’s O-line at the outset and manage to hang on down the stretch, an upset could happen.

By Charlie Enders

Washington DC Truck Stop

Why They Will Win

Truck Stop will win Nationals because they are the team that is best equipped to beat Revolver, because really when we say, “Can they win Nationals?” what we are actually asking is, “Can they beat Revolver?”

We saw it last season, when the team came oh-so-close to knocking off the behemoths from the Bay in their quarterfinal showdown, which was by far the closest anyone came to upending Revolver all weekend. After that defeat, Truck Stop came back even stronger in 2016, putting up the best regular season in the team’s history, highlighted by their win at the Pro-Elite Challenge in Colorado. The roster has been bolstered with an influx of youth, and the team’s big name pickups have had time to coalesce with the veterans to form a terrifying display of talent and chemistry.

Truck have arguably the best top seven of any team in the country, featuring a host of US National Team players. It’s not just the talent and pedigree of these guys that makes them the thorn in Revolver’s side; it’s the flexibility. Guys like Peter Prial and Nicky Spiva can beat you all over the field with their throws and cuts, David Cranston is one of the best deep defenders in the country but also has the quickness to guard handlers and exploit the mismatch off a turn, and the devastating handler corps can beat you with a lightning-quick ground game via Alan Kolick, bulldoze defenders with Sean Keegan, or have Markham Shofner bomb you back to the Stone Age.

This flexibility is the key to beating Revolver, because as Sockeye found out in the finals last season, once Revolver figures out what you want to do, they will squeeze you until you can’t do it anymore. Revolver are like a video game boss that you need to beat in stages: they will keep changing and forcing you to play a different way until you can’t any longer. Because of how well-rounded they are, Truck are the team that has best been able to keep up with them, and have the best chance at actually slaying the boss this year.

Why They Won’t Win

Some of that flexibility took a hit when D-line standouts Nate Castine and Brad Scott went down with injuries earlier this season, which knocks Truck’s defense from “terrifying” to merely “really, really scary.” There is a ton of talent at the top of the roster, but with those injuries, it’s stretched a little thinner, and now the team will have some important decisions to make regarding how many O-line players they can put out on defense without sacrificing their offensive efficiency.

And while they might be a team with a good track record against Revolver, they still haven’t beaten them. In fact, Truck still hasn’t really won anything yet, or even made semis. It’s an adage that’s as old as club ultimate, but there is some real truth to the idea that you can’t win a title without making semis first. The last Men’s Division team to win a title without making semis first is… who exactly? Maybe DC’s quarters game last year felt like a final, but we need to be careful about overstating the importance of what may have just been a trap game for a Revolver team that had their eyes set on the semis and finals.

If you want to get specific, part of the reason Truck hasn’t won the big game yet is that they lack a true alpha dog. Look at their roster: who is The Guy on this team? Who is it who at the end of a close game grits their teeth and says, “there is just no effing way we are losing this game,” then proceeds to shape the results to their will. Revolver has Beau, Ironside has Kurt, Bravo has Jimmy, Truck has… a banged up Nicky Spiva? Peter Prial is a top 10 player in the division, but that is more a product of his all-around consistency than his ability to truly dominate. Alan Kolick doesn’t have the same big game experience at the college and club level most of these other guys have in spades.

Either Beau, Jimmy, or Kurt has won the title every year since 2010, and unless someone on Truck takes the leap in Rockford, that trend will likely continue.

By Pat Stegemoeller

Denver Johnny Bravo

Why They Will Win

Lest we forget, Johnny Bravo snagged a title in 2014. Colorado stalwart and top world talent Jimmy Mickle was instrumental in the run. He’s still a focal point in 2016, but here’s a slice of who’s missing from that gold medal run in 2016: Kurt Gibson, Nick Lance, Brett Matzuka, Sean Keegan, Brodie Smith, Ryan Farrell, Bart Watson, and Josh Ackley. And yet, Bravo will arrive in Rockford as the tournament’s fourth seed, with a win over Revolver already in hand. Plus, they’ve already beaten Chicago Machine and Houston H.I.P., two of their three pool play opponents.

Even while installing a new vertical stack offense – one that looks a lot like the system that helped Mickle’s 2014 Colorado Mamabird win a college title – Denver’s offense has looked as smooth and dangerous as any attack in the country. With Mickle, Mark Rauls, and Ben Lohre at the helm, Bravo has destroyed defenses with excellent cross-field throws that open up lanes on either side of the vertical stack, and excellent deep looks to talented, isolated receivers.

Bravo’s defense uses athleticism and some switching to lock down opposing deep shots, and rookie Tom “Cupcake” Tulett has been pulling extremely well for the D-line. There’s nothing complicated about what Bravo does well on defense – they generate pressure by winning matchups underneath, and keep their offense after the turnover nearly as smooth as the O-line.

There’s a ceiling for this younger version of the recent champs, but they’ve yet to hit it this season and could snag a title with the right path through the bracket.

Why They Won’t Win

On double-game point in their semifinal match with Truck Stop at the Pro Flight Finale, the Bravo O-line received, turned the disc over, and put the wrong force on Nicky Spiva when he picked up the disc. Spiva pivoted into a backhand that went flying downwind for the score, the game, and a berth in finals.

Those sorts of mistakes are the hallmarks of a team with less experience in big games. Despite the excellent resume put together by this young Bravo squad over the course of the season, they’ve lacked communication and an adherence to their gameplan in critical moments so far this season.

While Bravo ran through the competition at Regionals just weeks after Pro Flight, the pressure of Rockford will be different. The grueling pace of each point at the Club Championships won’t necessarily be new for Denver, but they’ll be slotting in younger and newer contributors to high-pressure roles. Miscommunications can quickly result in losses and much harder paths through the bracket, a more challenging mental task at a three or four-day tournament.

With every competitor pushing hard to win every point and Bravo’s play-style now well-scouted, Denver might have a much harder time beating the right teams to win a championship in 2016.

By Simon Pollock

Chicago Machine

Why They Will Win

The Men’s hometown favorite has plenty going for it heading into Nationals. Chicago’s experienced draw of excellent players up and down the roster with very little turnover from 2015 wedges them right back in the title conversation in 2016.

Critics may write off Machine’s victory at the US Open back in July owing to the proximity of the tournament to Worlds and the early season challenges faced by the other top teams. Regardless of how people may view Chicago’s performance in Rhode Island with the hindsight of an entire regular season, Machine showed just how dangerous it could be this coming weekend.

Brett Matzuka and Bob Liu remain a deadly pair of all-star handlers. At this point, one has to wonder what throws we haven’t seen from Matzuka – the man has them all and plenty of great targets to choose from downfield. Jonathan Helton and AJ Nelson create significant matchup problems with their size and power as receivers. On the defensive side of things, Chicago has plenty of elite contributors who can make life very difficult for their matchups. Walden Nelson, Travis Carpenter, Von Alanguilan, and the rest of Machine’s athletic D-line can not be underestimated.

Coming in to Nationals as the Great Lakes Regional champion and the two seed in Pool D, Machine is in a prime position to head into the bracket provided they take care of business against H.I.P. and Furious George and bring their best game against Johnny Bravo. Machine’s roster hasn’t experienced much turnover and the chemistry between their players has been steeped over two years with a disappointing prequarters exit in 2014 and a semifinals appearance in 2015 against eventual champion Revolver. For the vast majority of Machine’s roster, Nationals is more of the same; been there, done that. This time, they have a home-field advantage and the celebrations to complement the kind of crowd they’re likely to have in Rockford.

Why They Won’t Win

Simply put, Machine has a history. And while looking at trends with any elite team based on past seasons can be a bit misleading – especially with Nationals predictions – Machine’s history of regular season success followed by Nationals disappointment is still something that shouldn’t be overlooked.

To say Machine peaked at the US Open is probably overstating it. They brought a roster of 19 to a tournament that highlighted the struggle of other elite teams trying to put together their pieces in the wake of Worlds. Machine looked great, but looking great at the US Open does not a champion make. In Rhode Island, Machine looked jittery on offense to start their game against Ironside. Their semifinals exit at the Pro-Elite Challenge was followed by a shaky performance at the Chesepeake Open against teams that a roster as talented as Machine’s should be able to take care of; they endured losses to Ring of Fire, GOAT, and PoNY.

It is quite possible that the double peak of Worlds and the club season is taking its toll on Machine’s top players; that does not bode well for a team that will need to play its best just for a chance at the finals. It has been a long season for Helton and Matzuka. Even at their US Open win, Chicago often relied on Matzuka to create something from nothing on their O-line; when they lose, there is a pretty good chance it’s because their star handler had a bad game. If their superstars are not performing at their best right away in Rockford, Machine will have trouble getting through the weekend, especially when the new Nationals format is unforgiving to teams who fail to win their pools.

By Hugo Sowder

Madison Club

Why They Will Win

Madison Club is in the midst of their most successful season ever, and has shown the ability to hang with and beat many of the top teams in the nation. They’ve taken care of Dig, Furious George, and Prairie Fire fairly easily, split a series with Patrol, and pulled out a squeaker over HIP. But it’s their wins over Sockeye and Ironside that speak to this team’s peak potential.

In those wins, Club’s offense was prolific, but it was their stifling defense that was the difference. Andrew Meshnick, Dave Wiseman, and Peter Graffy are all big, athletic, and skilled: together they form an incredibly potent deterrent to deep shots. If you’re going to huck against Club, you’d best make sure it doesn’t float: these guys will gobble it up.

The team is also extremely deep, receiving contributions from every player on their roster. Lesser-known guys like Kevin Petit-Scantling, Jadon Scullion, and Scott Richgels will be key in facilitating a deep run. They might start slow, but Club is the type of team that will only get stronger as a tournament goes on. If Brian Hart, Colin Camp, and the Brown brothers can keep Club’s offense humming, and if their defense can produce the kind of efficiency they showed in their 15-7 Regional semifinal dismantling of Prairie Fire, this team can hang with – and beat – anyone.

Why They Won’t Win

Madison’s offense has a tendency to get a little huck happy at times, leading to some unnecessary turnovers. While having deep targets like Camp and Ross Barker would give anyone a lot of confidence, Club found themselves in a hole early in their Regional final against Sub Zero due to their overzealous hucking. Madison is absolutely stacked with big, tall athletes; they want teams to try to huck against them. A patient offensive team, willing to work the breakside and unders, could give their defense fits.

Not only that, but when the offense turns it over, Mad Club has difficulty getting the disc back. Against Sub Zero, Madison’s O-liners simply couldn’t pressure the patient Sub defensive line handlers into making mistakes. That kind of deficiency does not bode well for Club’s chances of surviving the gantlet that is the Club Championships bracket, where streaks of serious offensive pressure are almost an inevitability.

As much as anything, this is a team that lacks a championship pedigree. Playing as the outsiders with nothing to lose is a great way to earn some upset victories over complacent favorites, but it is not a recipe for sustained excellence game after game. Getting to the semis would be a big step forward for this program, but anything more than that may be dreaming a bit too much.

By Charlie Enders

Seattle Sockeye

Why They Will Win

For years, Sockeye owned the buzzword “small-ball,” bending and breaking opponents’ defenses with lightning-quick lateral movement that opened up lanes all over the field. Defensively, they swarmed in and out of zone and junk looks that caused turnovers constantly. They built all of this on top of their championship pedigree. Since 2000: Three titles, three runners-up, and two tied for thirds.

In 2016, Seattle has only become more dynamic on offense. Danny Karlinsky and Mario O’Brien have the six-footer Simon Montague to send the disc through, along with Montague’s Minnesotan target and all-around cutting threat, Nick Stuart. Instead of a team that only looks to punish defenders with blinding speed, they have Stuart, Matt Rehder, and the bidding Zane Rankin to own the deep space. When the offense clicks, it does so at a world class pace.

The defense is supercharged, notably adding master defender Trent Dillon and the highlight-reel blocks of Husayn Carnegie. While Sockeye can and will throw out different looks to confuse an opposing offense, they have more athleticism and foot speed to win individual matchups than ever before.

And they’re just putting it all together. Northwest Regionals acted as the team’s second full tournament together ((They were missing several parts at July’s US Open)), where they dispatched all foes easily. Sockeye will arrive in Rockford as a recently molded, ready-to-win machine that can win points in any way they choose.

Why They Won’t Win

Talent isn’t something you can press like the NOS button in an illegal street race. When Sockeye has struggled in recent years, they’ve been caught looking ahead to other games (see: Rhino in prequarters, 2014), assuming their crown atop the Northwest (Rhino again in 2015), or expecting everything will work out as it “should” (Pro Flight Finale in 2016). They couldn’t just look out the driver’s side window, realize they were letting a game slip, and turn on the talent.

Sockeye has struggled in critical moments to focus on what they can control. It manifests in weird little drops on routine unders and flat cuts across the lane, ill-advised deep looks, and blown forces or switches. As Charlie Eisenhood put it during the surprise prequarters loss in 2014, Seattle’s play was “oddly casual, with Sockeye somewhat more vulnerable, coughing up the disc on their first three possessions.” That’s exactly how it looked in 2016, when the team took an 8-13 loss against Revolver at Pro Flight and missed the Sunday bracket entirely after being seeded second on arrival.

Northwest Regionals just a couple of weekends ago showed a team that had looked inward and realized that no one was going to hand them their place on the national podium. When Sockeye remembers that, they’re golden. When they forget it, it’s curtains.

By Simon Pollock

Originally published at: https://ultiworld.com/2016/09/27/contender-will-wont-win-nationals-mens-division/