Thursday, November 7, 2013

Uncovering the Next Best Teams

There is only one tournament with "Next Best" in the title this weekend, but rising teams across the country are looking to make a statement this weekend. In the first of a two part preview for this coming weekend, I'm going to look at the Next Best West Invitational and Lone Star Cup.

Next Best West Invitational
Like the highly successful "Bottom of the Bracket" tournament in Houston last season, the Next Best West Invitational aims to directly facilitate competition between Western teams looking to make the jump to elite status. Attending with ambitions of securing a tournament victory are the Santa Barbara Blacktips, Riverside Quidditch, the Long Beach Funky Quaffles and Thundercats Quidditch. With Western Regionals two weeks away, and 11 spots to give out, teams at Next Best West can improve their seeding and get valuable experience against the teams they'll be battling for World Cup spots with. Added Santa Barbara Blacktips captain Evan Bell, "We also just wanted to have a tournament with some balanced competition. I expect to see mostly snitch-range games, which should be really exciting."

Breaking into the top-tier in the West is difficult and it is not going to get any easier. Long time powerhouses USC and UCLA recruit from a giant pool of interested players and/or sometimes show up to tournaments with Olympic athletes. As more and more of the best college graduates look to play quidditch for a community team, it looks like the Lost Boys are going to have a stranglehold on experienced, talented players moving to the nation's second largest city. With two of the West's purely middle tier teams existing in the state of Arizona, it's difficult for California teams looking to make the jump from the third tier to get competition against teams that are slightly better than them.

Bell identified disadvantages in the beating game as the main obstacle for Western teams trying to break into the top tier. "[Top-tier Western teams] have a long history of strong beating programs that consistently churn out elite and top tier beaters," said Bell. "Second and third tier teams have to play a lot of catch-up with learning the constantly-evolving aggressive beater play present in this region."
Photo by Kat Ignatova/IQA Staff
Bell's Santa Barbara Blacktips are widely considered to be on the brink of becoming a top-tier team. The Blacktips defeated the Skrewts, the Funky Quaffles and Riverside at SCQC Fall Tournament en route to a semifinals appearance. Rookies Ren Bettendorf, Ben Harding and Justin Fernandez each tallied point totals in the triple figures. Once the rookies gain experience and have fundamentals drilled, the Blacktips should be able to raise the tempo creating a very scary team. If the Blacktips can develop a fast break attack and a generally quicker half court offense, they would standout in the slow-playing West. Developing a more disciplined, deeper beating corps is a good place to start for the Blacktips though.

"I think our team absolutely has the talent and drive to become a top-tier Western team by World Cup VII, but it's not going to be an easy path," said Bell. "Our passing game is developing really well (especially considering that a majority of our roster is rookies), so expect to see that aspect only continue to improve. But we're going to need to spend a lot of time focusing on defensive strategies and developing our beater play if we ever expect to compete with the Big 3 in our region."

Best Case: Santa Barbara's chasers and beaters are able to play better defense, and the Blacktips walk away with the Next Best West victory. The Blacktips get a one seed for Western Cup and avoid playing the powerhouses in pool play.

Worst Case: Upset by one of the other three teams, the Blacktips end the day at 2-1. Opposing teams hold bludger control more often than the Blacktips.
Photo by Kat Ignatova/IQA Staff

Rivals Riverside Quidditch are right behind the Blacktips currently. While I don't see an big influx of talented new recruits for Riverside, star player Tye Rush has certainly stepped up his game, providing more physicality and explosiveness than ever. Michael Logue, a tall keeper, worked well Rush at the offensive point and Riverside's female chasers are the best out of the group at Next Best West. Chasers like Maria Torres and Alyssa Burton are prepared to fight for goals and are comfortable taking the quaffle up the pitch. Again though, beating is a weakness. With Rush locked into a tackle with an opposing chaser, the beaters were often late or absent. Bludgers flying all over the place resulted in a lot of "no bludgers" scenarios where the opposing team could score easily as long as they got by Rush. 

Best Case: After only losing to the Blacktips by a snitch catch at the SCQC Fall Tournament, Riverside ends up on the right side of the snatch this time, winning Next Best West.

Worst Case: Riverside's beating inconsistencies create situations against the Blacktips and LBFQ where each team's respective seekers have too much time with the snitch. Riverside goes 1-2.
Photo by Kat Ignatova/IQA Staff
The Long Beach Funky Quaffles had a quiet, but respectable day at SCQC. After losing to the Lost Boys and UCLA, the Funky Quaffles defeated Cal and played even with the Blacktips before a Santa Barbara snatch broke the 70-70 tie. Rookie Kyle Epsteen, a strong, powerful player who put in solid performances at chaser and beater, is going to be very important for the Funky Quaffles as the season progresses. Getting an extra tournament under Epsteen's belt before Western Regionals is smart, as he could be a 2012-13 Tony Rodriguez-like difference maker come April, but won't get the chance to showcase his talent if Long Beach doesn't punch their ticket to Myrtle Beach. Right now, Long Beach will rely on chaser and leading scorer Anthony Hawkins. Beater strategy for the Funky Quaffles is questionable, but Epsteen certainly brings athleticism and a great arm when wearing the black headband.

Best Case: Long Beach Funky Quaffles go 3-0 improving their Western Cup seeding and building confidence.

Worst Case: Falling to Riverside and Santa Barbara, LBFQ looks as if they'll be battling for that eleventh spot to go to Myrtle Beach.
Photo by Kat Ignatova/IQA Staff
Notice that I've barely mentioned Next Best West's fourth participant, Thundercats Quidditch. Formerly Sierra College, this team played their first games at Cinco de Mayo Cup and a few players were at FireMercs 2, but Thundercats Quidditch is largely unknown. Unlike the other three teams at Next Best West, the Thundercats are kind of isolated from the elite Western teams. Star player Nebraska Huggins brings the thunder at keeper for Thundercats Quidditch. Tearing through tackles, none of the teams at Next Best West have tackling form that is good enough to stop Huggins, so watch for him to just truck his way goals. Depth might be a problem though as the Thundercats only have 15 players on their roster for this weekend. 

Best Case: Huggins can power the Thundercats to snitch range games, and the Thundercats sneak out a win for a 1-2 record.

Worst Case: The lack of depth and strategy results in the Thundercats going 0-3 with all games out of snitch range. It looks as if this Northern California community team is going to really have to fight for a World Cup ticket.

My Prediction
Blacktips 3-0
Funky Quaffles 2-1
Riverside 1-2
Thundercats 0-3

Lone Star Cup II
At the University of Texas' second Lone Star Cup, and the first tournament hosted by a defending World Cup champion since the Middlebury Classic in 2011, twelve of Texas' best teams will compete for the title. In the Southwest, the top teams are constantly vying to be the next best team. The top team in most rankings is always going to be the most recent winner of a Southwest tournament. Right now, Texas A&M is on top (or should be) after winning the Wolf Pack Classic at the beginning of last month. With dominating scores and great performances from new players, the Aggies games are on YouTube for the quidditch world to see and analyze. Lone Star and Texas have had almost a month to think and prepare for Texas A&M and Baylor has momentum coming off a Cowboy Cup III victory. While it's easy to talk about why Texas A&M is going to stay on top, or why Lone Star is going to win the Lone Star Cup, I want to focus on the teams who have not yet solidified their place at the top of quidditch's toughest region.

Second tier Lone Star Cup II teams can mainly be divided into two categories: JV teams for powerhouse programs and regular university or community teams. Obviously, the JV teams are big disadvantage potential-wise because no matter what happens, teams like Austin Quidditch, the Silver Phoenixes, and the Brazos Bruins are never going to have the top 21 players their recruiting pool has to offer. Recruitment is "crucial" according to Cougar Quidditch's Hank Dugie. "You can not create a top tier team without athletic players," said Dugie. "A teams potential is not determined by how hard you practice or how bad you want success, but by the cumulative physical gifts of your players."

UTSA's Craig Garrison agreed that recruitment would be a priority for a team looking to break into the Southwest's top tier. "As a new captain for a team that wants to make it big, I would recruit athletes first," said Garrison. "Then play as many games as possible with those players. Don't expect to win any of your first games and stay humble."

There is no shortage of competition in Texas, with rising teams frequently getting the chance to play very talented teams as well as teams at their own level. Unlike in the West, huge gaps in beating strategy were not referenced by the Southwest captains that I talked to. Leadership and experience seem to be bigger obstacles in the Southwest. A team can't get anywhere in the Southwest without a lot of athletic players who will not shy away from physicality.

Once a Southwest team has recruited enough athleticism, they can begin to look at refining strategy. "The Southwest is highly physical, we all know this," said Garrison. "UTSA has had athletes since the beginning. The conditioning of the top teams is at a high level and UTSA was right there with them. The best thing that UTSA has done to break into the top level create a game plan and follow it as a team."

Photo by Lauren Carter
UTSA's Breakfast Taco finals appearance seems to have all but given UTSA top-tier status in the Southwest. While many have them ranked in the top 15, some are still hesitant to rank the Roadrunners that high solely based on an unofficial tournament with weird pools and questionable reffing. The fact is that UTSA has a deep chaser corps full of athleticism and Jacob Wilson and Abel Costilla are an exciting beating duo. UTSA's players have been tested and praised from tournaments last year to fantasy tournaments this summer. The Roadrunners should look to take advantage of a UT team that looked shaky at Breakfast Taco and were beaten badly by Lone Star at the Wolf Pack Classic. 

Best Case: UTSA beats Texas in pool play and advances all the way to the finals before losing to a dominant Texas A&M team. Hype builds and UTSA bursts into the top five.

Worst Case: UTSA loses to UT, and either Texas A&M or Lone Star in bracket play. Perceptions of the Roadrunners do not change much as the Roadrunners are not expected to beat powerhouses.

From the University of Houston, many are wondering whether Cougar Quidditch is the next great quidditch program. Hank Dugie, a former UT chaser, has taken the reigns of the program and is confident in his team's abilities. "Cougar Quidditch has enough athletes to create waves this season," assured Dugie. "This weekend we will make strides towards reaching our full potential. We plan on playing physical, southwest-trademarked defense and refuse to lose any games due to a lack of hustle or desire."

Dugie insists that the Cougar Quidditch has recruited well, and after playing around 21 spectacular players last year, I'd trust Dugie's assessment. The question is how deep is the Houston team. If Cougar Quidditch is going to beat out Texas State and Austin, I'll be writing about more players than just Hank Dugie, his brother Justin Dugie and Kelby Brooks in my recap.

Best Case: Cougar Quidditch gives Texas A&M and unexpected challenge with great understanding of the game, performances from new players, and a Southwest combination of speed and power. 

Worst Case: Falling to Texas State and Austin Quiddtch, the majority of the team have trouble dealing with more experienced players. Too much burden is placed on the Dugies and Brooks.
Photo by Monica Wheeler
Sam Houston State narrowly missed qualifying for World Cup VI, but ended up winning the Division 2 championship. SHSU, who also won the Bottom of the Bracket tournament early last spring, are lead by explosive chaser Adam Bell. Surrounded by chasers with different kinds of skills and body builds, Bell isn't playing with chasers that are physically built like him all the time. Overall, SHSU seems more likely to reach a Texas State-like level and stay there, than to follow a Baylor-like trajectory to stardom and become a regional championship contender. SHSU is probably not going to be able to do much at Lone Star Cup II as they have Lone Star and Baylor in pool play.

Best Case: SHSU keeps point differentials respectable against Baylor and Lone Star with good defense and not notches one win.

Worst Case: Looking slow compared to other Southwest powerhouses, SHSU is blownout by the faster Baylor and explosive Lone Star.

My Prediction
Big Games in Pool Play: UTSA def. UT, Lone Star def. Baylor, Cougar Quidditch def. AQ, A&M def. Texas State, Texas State def. AQ
Quarterfinals: A&M def. AQ, Baylor def. UT, UTSA def. Texas State, LSQC def. Cougar Quidditch
Semifinals: A&M def. Baylor, Lone Star def. UTSA
Finals: A&M def. Lone Star

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