Monday, April 14, 2014

Worlds Away From Kissimmee: Introduction and the University of Texas

World Cup VI was perfect. We understood the results. The best team won. The second best team placed second. The winners decisively beat all nine of their opponents, blazing a trail of dominant blowouts through pool play and bracket play. We got an amazing finals match between the two best teams--a match that I would show to anyone who asked me about quidditch for the next year. The World Cup's signature Cinderella team upset several highly ranked teams, igniting a frenzy of regional pride before falling to the eventual champion. The most memorable match, Lost Boys versus BGSU, was a match that even the losing team could remember positively. The crowd was active in all three Final Four games, providing energy for the teams to keep sprinting through the hot Kissimmee air and forming tunnels to congratulate the players at the end.

World Cup VI was a feel good story all around and it made sense. Although in sports, there are always winners and losers, the losers at World Cup VI either embraced their accomplishments and accepted defeat or used their elimination as motivation for World Cup VII.

A whole year passed. Summer fantasy season. An interesting fall season. Several regional championships. Winter fantasy season. The spring season highlighted by Diamond Cup. A quiet March. And suddenly, we're all in the strange town of North Myrtle Beach. Suddenly, Texas is crowned back-to-back champions.

World Cup VII was weird. The results toyed with my emotions and opinions, and I've been fighting to keep that from clouding my judgement. With physicality playing a bigger part than ever, teams that appeared to play more physically were cast as villains. Teams that played an easier pool play or bracket play schedule were cast as villians. The Southwest, the first region to contain both World Cup finalists since the Northeast at World Cup IV, was cast as a villain.

Emotionally, I've never had so many ties to so many different teams. The number of people that came up to me and told me that they loved my blog was truly humbling. I worked closely with an incredible staff of writers, who sacrificed their time and energy at World Cup to advance the coverage of our sport and paint the IQA World Cup VII website with fantastic game recaps. I wanted to see so many different people succeed in North Myrtle Beach. Having joined Facebook as "Jack ThePhan" after World Cup VI, I had never followed a team's journey throughout the entire season before. I had never read lengthy, emotional, post-tournament statuses before. I had never been exposed to players' World Cup expectations and their intense training regiments before. Watching heart-breaking snitch catches and one-sided defeats, I could almost hear the disappointed post-World Cup VII statuses in my head.

In terms of my opinions on teams, I've never gone into a World Cup with so much knowledge on the competing teams before. I've poured over countless hours of video, especially of elite teams, and attempted to analyze so much. Going into World Cup VII, I felt that I had a strong grasp on the abilities of contending teams. I thought I had it all figured out. 

My pre-tournament confidence was quickly shattered, timeslot after timeslot. I was repeatedly shocked by results, especially once bracket play started. As bracket play progressed, the lists of surviving teams grew smaller and deviated further away from my pre-World Cup bracket. However, I realized that very few teams had surprised me with flashy new strategies or freakishly athletic pickups. That's what made World Cup VII so confusing. So weird. Teams played like I thought they would, but produced results that nobody predicted. World Cup VII made me think "but how??" and "why this time??" and "what changed??" After controlling my emotion and examining the matchups, as well as injuries and other variables, World Cup VII can make perfect sense. And that's what I hope to do.

The first installment of my Worlds Away From Kissimmee series is below on the back-to-back champions, the University of Texas.

University of Texas Finish: 1st
The champions. The back-to-back champions. Weird to say, huh?

Almost immediately after Margo Aleman pulled the snitch for Texas to take their second championship in a row, I went into a state of denial. How could a team that I had essentially counted out of the race for the World Cup title have won? I denied that Texas had rightfully earned its championship. I didn't believe that Texas was the best team. 

Messing With Our Hearts
Leaving Kissimmee, the consensus of the quidditch community was that UT's 21 players at World Cup VI were the best roster ever assembled. It was a great feeling to have a team that we, as the quidditch community, could hold up on a pedestal. Texas was the clear, rightful winner and the perfect team to end Middlebury's dynasty. We celebrated their victory like we all bled burnt orange and marveled when the UT tower was lit in honor of their championship. With a growing sport, the community expected that the champion of World Cup VII would earn the same invincible aura in our hearts and our minds. The 2013-14 Texas squad did not. 

It's undeniable that emotion played a big part in why UT's victory at World Cup VII has not been as universally celebrated as their World Cup VI title.

As the weekend progressed, Texas was cast as the "bad guys" by spectators and players alike. UT showed off a highly physical, no-nonsense style of play (in the chaser game and the beater game) that was very effective. From what I can tell, at the beginning of the season, Texas brought in a horde of fearless, motivated players. Seeing the dedication of their newest recruiting class and knowing it would lead to success, UT's captains probably encouraged their new players to use lots of physicality.  
Photo by Monica Wheeler
However, when UT's first-year players debuted outside the Southwest, a region where high doses of physicality is the norm, spectators and players questioned the legality and rulebook-knowledge of the new faces playing for Texas Quidditch. While some of the criticism was definitely warranted, some of it was unwarranted. In quidditch now, spectators and players interpret lots of physicality, yellow cards and fouls as indisputable evidence that a certain team plays dirty. Dirty seemed to be the label Texas obtained due to a mixture of some illegal plays, but more so a bad reaction from non-Southwesterners to UT's first-year players. 

The bad reaction to Texas' physicality reached new heights during UT's semifinal against A&M. The two Texas schools, separated by only 100 miles, traded blows early in the game, living up to the game's high expectations with the entire quidditch world watching. UT played physically and A&M passed terrifically. The game had all the makings of a classic until Texas A&M captain Drew Wasikowski went down. In obvious pain, Wasikowski needed assistance to get off the field, all but guaranteeing that he wouldn't return.

At that point, the game was never going to be the same. The void left by Texas A&M's captain and star player could only be filled by giant asterisk placed next to the eventual result. After Wasikowski's injury, the quality of the game and how we will remember it went downhill at a feverish pace. Both teams began to play completely out of control and it resulted in serious injuries, high tensions from the benches, desperate play from both teams and a feeling of unease around the stadium.
Photo by Kat Ignatova
First, UT chaser Cody Tadlock suffered a violent fall and needed to be carried off the field on a stretcher. Tadlock's "hook 'em horns" sign provided some degree of comfort to the worried crowd, but that comfort was quickly torn apart when A&M beater Rachel Harrison went down injured only minutes later. Harrison also had to be taken off the field on a stretcher but was not able to give the crowd a sign. 

Between seeing players on both teams visibly upset and watching two ambulances leave North Myrtle Beach Park and Sports Complex, I could sense a bad taste in the mouth of the crowd. The back-to-back injuries and lengthy delays allowed the crowd ample time to form opinions on UT and A&M, but more so on the state of injuries and physicality in the sport of quidditch. 

Watching Texas in North Myrtle Beach, I saw the same glaring weaknesses that I had thought would eventually doom the team. I denied UT's championship because I couldn't believe that Texas had won the World Cup VII title despite the weaknesses. 
Photo by Ben Holland
For one, Texas' passing game was significantly worse than the aerial attacks of the 2012-13 Texas and UCLA teams and the 2013-14 Texas A&M and Lost Boys teams. Only a select few of Texas' players were able to execute an efficient passing game, while the remaining players resorted to bone-crunching, ground-shaking solo drives. Secondly, while the unit definitely improved from the beginning of the season, I didn't see domination from Texas' beaters. I didn't see a complete mastery of beating strategy or smart, calculating play like we saw from Jacob Adlis, Colin Capello, Lauren Carter and Hope Machala at World Cup VI. The Texas beaters were rarely in full control of entire games.

I've always believed that a superior passing game and a dominant beating corps were a necessity for success in quidditch and Texas flat-out proved me wrong. Having your prediction about a team at a specific tournament proved wrong is one thing, but having the basis of almost all your opinions about quidditch proved wrong is crushing. Naturally, I looked for explanations about why an inferior passing team with a proficient, but not dominant beating game was able to hoist the seventh annual IQA World Cup.
Photo by Kat Ignatova
In examining UT's games with Maryland, Baylor, Texas A&M and Texas State, I found four "opportunities" that Texas seized. I put opportunities in quotes because a spectator or an analyst or another team would never view some of the following things as opportunities, but that's what they were to Texas. There was a clear strategic problem in the way of UT's World Cup title defense and something happened that either eliminated or neutralized the problem. And all due credit to Texas--the defending champs were able to seize all of the equalizing opportunities presented in order to unexpectedly win World Cup VI.

Texas vs. Maryland
Problem: Harry Greenhouse has a reputation for being one of the most dangerous seekers in the IQA. Greenhouse's seeking makes Maryland a very undesirable opponent for Texas, especially as early in bracket play as the Sweet Sixteen.

What Was Opportunity/How Was It Seized: Maryland was playing some of their best quidditch of the year and energized by his team's performance, Greenhouse could have pulled the trigger. However, Greenhouse did not play at World Cup VII due to an injured thumb. In dodging the bullet of an aggressive, clutch seeker, Texas did not have to shift their strategy or play defensively in the seeker game. Instead, Texas was able to rehearse their regular seeking strategy in preparation for close games against Baylor, Texas A&M and Texas State.

Texas vs. Baylor
Problem: In the Diamond Cup semifinals, Baylor beater David Gilbert applied heavy pressure to Texas' offense. The clear MVP of the game, Gilbert cut off UT's drives, forcing the Longhorns to pass around Baylor's effective zone defense.  UT suffered from poor passing execution, committed many turnovers and lost to Baylor in a blowout. Going into World Cup VII, Gilbert appeared to be UT's kryptonite.

What Was Opportunity/How Was It Seized: David Gilbert was injured in a collision with a sliding Margo Aleman on brooms up. While Gilbert eventually was able to return to the game, the stoppage of play required that Gilbert leave the field and Baylor inserted their back-up beater into their zone defense. With Gilbert out of the game and a less-effective performance from Baylor's back-up beater, Texas was able to dictate the style and pace of the game and jumped all over Baylor, going up 50-10. Texas held bludger control and drove right down the middle of the field on every possession, blocking bludgers before powering through Baylor's strongest defender, keeper Jacob Bruner. Texas hadn't looked so dominant against an elite opponent since the finals of World Cup VI. 
Photo by Ben Holland
The fact that Texas capitalized on a five minute window to face Baylor's defense without Gilbert turned out to be crucial. Gilbert re-entered the game and shifted the momentum in favor of Baylor almost immediately. Seizing bludger control, Gilbert and Brittany Ripperger were able to get into a deadly rhythm. The Baylor tandem fended off UT's aggressive beaters and put an abrupt halt to UT's offense. Texas' offense, including facilitator and captain Augie Monroe, seemed to be completely at the mercy of Gilbert's aggressive tactics. While Gilbert's performance was fantastic, he needed to press harder and take a few more risks to make up for UT's early 40 point lead. Gilbert created an abundance of fast break opportunies for Jacob Bruner and Trent Miller, but Baylor was never able to level the score and ended up falling out of snitch range when their male beaters shifted to the snitch.

Texas vs. Texas A&M
Problem: Texas A&M captain Drew Wasikowski has repeatedly shown that he can carry his team through adversity, providing both a calming effect and high levels of energy to his teammates at just the right times. Wasikowski is also a top point defender, a scoring threat and has kept his Texas A&M squad playing one step ahead of their opponents all season through his direction of the offense.

What Was Opportunity/How Was It Seized: The loss of Wasikowski to an early game ankle injury was understandably a sucker punch to Texas A&M's confidence. All season, Texas A&M seemed to be one step ahead of their opponents, but suddenly, with Wasikowski gone, UT caught up. Texas began to anticipate and intercept Texas A&M's passes and drives. For many minutes in the middle of the game (and even longer in real time due to the injuries), Texas A&M's offense was stuck at 50 points. It was almost as if the Aggies just slowed down. The College Station squad came antagonizingly close to goals, but because of the slightly decreased offensive pace, the closest UT defender had time to swoop in and deny the shots.

In the eyes of UT, Texas A&M was outside of their comfort zone. Texas A&M's "one-step-ahead-of-you" style of play had led to blowouts all season and without the emotional leadership of Wasikowski, Texas A&M might not have been prepared to face a new opponent (the World Cup VII semifinals was shockingly the first official meeting of A&M and UT of the season) on equal footing.  Texas A&M's bobbled catches and slightly-off passes allowed UT's defense time to recover. In response, UT collected turnovers and converted on offense. Texas A&M was built to play "one-step-ahead-of-you," not a back-and-forth slugfest. As they built a lead, it became clear that Texas was built to play a back-and-forth slugfest.
Photo by Nicole Harrig
Texas vs. Texas State 
Problem: After the emotional, physically taxing game against Texas A&M, UT could easily suffer a let down, even with the extra time to recover.

What Was Opportunity/How Was It Seized: I hate to be blunt, but going into the game, the opportunity for UT was getting to play Texas State. But we need to back track first.

To reach the finals, Texas State seized a couple of their own opportunities. Instead of playing (what would have been) a confident Lost Boys squad in the Sweet Sixteen, Texas State faced a regional opponent in LSU, who seemed to be content with a loss after their epic Round of 32 win. Texas State then avoided playing a team that could easily match their physicality in Michigan, who was eliminated by rivals Ohio State on a snitch catch. Finally, Emerson took out BU in the quarterfinals. BU was probably a better conditioned team than Emerson and maybe could have rebounded more completely before facing Texas State. All of the opportunities that Texas State seized led to a big opportunity for UT. Instead of facing BU or the Lost Boys, the only thing standing in the way of Texas' second straight World Cup title was a team they had destroyed 160*-10 at Diamond Cup.

The final "opportunity" presented to Texas, a date with Texas State in the World Cup finals, proved to be the most difficult. Texas State showed immediately that they were a completely different team than the squad UT mawled two months before arriving in North Myrtle Beach. As Texas State jumped ahead 20-0 and maintained a lead throughout the seeker floor, whispers began to circulate around the fields...could Texas State really win the World Cup? 
Photo by Monica Wheeler
The answer was no. Although it took some time and Texas State fought valiantly, UT eventually figured out and took advantage of Texas State's mediocre passing game. Turning Texas State's turnovers into goals, Texas went on a 60-0 run. Goals by Eric Reyes and Tyrell Williams kept Texas State within striking distance of overtime, but ending what could have been an exciting struggle to stay in snitch range, the snitch was caught quickly by Aleman.

Came and Took It
After flying out of Myrtle Beach, returning to my regular high school routine and beginning my spring break, I've concluded that some people will separate their emotions and pre-World Cup opinions from the results of World Cup VII and some will not. While emotion and opinions are a huge part of sports, I'm going to try to let go of the parts that might cloud my judgement as a writer. Texas cleaned up opportunity after opportunity and earned their second consecutive World Cup title. Setting the stage for an exciting 2014-15 season, Texas seems to have a very good chance to defend their back-to-back titles in their hometown of Austin, TX at World Cup VIII. 
Photo by Ben Holland

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