Saturday, May 10, 2014

Worlds Away From Kissimmee: The Pool of Death

 The Pool of Death is the second (overdue) installment in my Worlds Away From Kissimmee series. The introduction to the series and the first installment can be found here

At World Cup VI, there wasn't a defining pool of death. Saturday in Kissimmee had its moments, but will be remembered more for suffocating heat rather than shocking results or intense round robins. Sure, Marquette floundered in pool play, but the over-confident Midwestern champions managed to sneak into bracket play despite embarrassing losses to Florida State and Ottawa. LSU, Miami and Arizona State played some great games against each other on the Championship Field but all three teams advanced to bracket play. I've said it before, but pool play at World Cup VI was a snooze. I left Austin-Tindall Park at six o'clock yearning for more excitement.

While bracket play at World Cup VI was pretty awesome, my desire for more pool play quidditch craziness was finally fulfilled on Saturday at World Cup VII. BGSU appeared to be in trouble before Team USA seeker Sam Roitblat caught snitches in regulation and overtime against Florida and IQA Gameplay allowed a replay of its loss to Virginia. Harvard and the Utah Crimson Fliers, who returned to World Cup competition after missing World Cup VI, defeated regional champions and pot one teams Maryland and Miami. But even with so many shocking results to talk about, Pool 5, the pool of death, stole the show.

The Perfect Formula
In many ways, Pool 5 was the perfect formula for a pool of death. The NYDC Capitalists had earned their pot one status, having only dropped three official games all season, but with semifinal losses in Turtle Cup and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Championship, there remained just enough doubt to open the door for a pool of death. Austin Quidditch and the Santa Barbara Blacktips followed the Capitalists into Pool 5, solidifying its pool of death status before the pot two team was even chosen. The final team selected to Pool 5 was Michigan, a relatively unknown Midwest team.
Photo by Ben Holland
With their decisive Bottom of the Bracket victory and unexpected win over LSU at the Southwest Regional Championship, AQ had vaulted into the Southwest's second tier during the Spring 2014 season. AQ displayed a fluid passing game, athletic ball carriers and a consistent beating game. However, upon joining the upper echelon of the world's most dominant region, AQ's World Cup journey was accompanied by an unstoppable hype train. IQA Correspondent Beto Natera predicted that if AQ was "transplanted into the weakened South or Midwest regions," the team would make the regional finals. In the NYDC Capitalists and Michigan, AQ was scheduled to face two teams from "weakened" regions who failed to make their regional finals.

Maybe the only team that had more hype going into World Cup VII than AQ was the Santa Barbara Blacktips. In a region with a wealth of respected analysts, rookie chaser Ren Bettendorf, flanked by the experienced Chris Lock and fellow rookie Ben Harding, had received raving scouting reports. The Blacktips' prolific "OT3" offense was joined by former UCLA beater Andy Abayan at the Gold Medal Invitational, where the Blacktips defeated the Silicon Valley Skrewts. With Abayan in their arsenal, only depth and seeking stood in the way of the Blacktips at World Cup VII.
Photo by Kat Ignatova
And then there was Michigan. With NYDC, the Blacktips and AQ being considered locks to make bracket play prior to Selection Monday, the community seemed to slowly fixate on Michigan as the team that would perish at the hands of the pool of death. I remembered that Michigan had given first-ranked Texas A&M a serious scare at World Cup VI and I knew that the chemistry and athleticism of Andrew Axtell and Evan Batzer were the closest thing the Midwest had to BU's Brendan Stack and Michael Powell. Still, I fell into the trap of underestimating and dismissing a team I knew nothing about because I knew nothing about them. Michigan wasn't the "B Team" of the defending champs, nor did they have rookie superstars or a team stacked with former college captains. Michigan was viewed as just another middling Midwest team. Slowly, but surely, Michigan was dismissed.

Shark Bait
The build-up to the IQA World Cup is always crazy and I had a wide variety of things on my mind as I departed Philadelphia International Airport. Arriving at the Avista Resort multiple hours behind schedule thanks to a delay in Charlotte, I barely had time to think before I was trying on my World Cup VII Volunteer shirt the next morning. After the Opening Ceremonies and getting the other writers settled, I finally sat down for a close contest between Miami and Macaulay. Even with the excitement and controversy in Miami-Macaulay and nine fields of World Cup VII action finally underway, my mind strayed to the pool of death. I felt like I was biding my time, waiting around for the big boys to come out and play.

As the 10:20 time slot approached, I found a seat high in the bleachers of Field 1 and waited with anticipation for the Mid-Atlantic's top community team to square off against the darlings of the West. With the hard boundary, rows of folding chairs and rows of bleachers separating me from the field, the Field 1 set up made the high-speed, exciting action on the pitch feel distant to spectators in the bleachers. Quidditch fields, with energetic spectators lining the sidelines, usually enhance gameplay, but Field 1 during pool play had the opposite effect. I felt like I was at a Philadelphia 76ers game. But even with a non-World-Cup-worthy atmosphere for what was labeled as one of the biggest pool play games of World Cup VII, the show went on.
Photo by Kat Ignatova
On brooms up, NYDC star and two-time Team USA selection Michael Parada connected with Steve Hysick for a beautiful goal. On that play, I saw what I expected from NYDC--strong chemistry between former teammates and experienced, smart players. As the seeker floor progressed, NYDC's half court offense began to play inconsistently, a consequence of rusty and ineffective play from the keeper position. As NYDC's half court offense continued to struggle, the Capitalists turned to using sheer muscle and speed in the fast break. However, Bettendorf, the Blacktips' rookie sensation, made a series of open field tackles against fast-breaking NYDC chasers and keepers. Not only were Bettendorf's defensive stops huge motivators, but the Blacktips' offense converted against the Capitalists' defense. 

The minutes passed. The Blacktips piled on the goals. As Bettendorf and the other Blacktips played outstanding transition defense, the Capitalists' transition defense deteriorated terribly. Ultimately, the Capitalists weren't killed by Bettendorf, but by their own lack of urgency on defense in transition. A set, ready defense does wonders against an inexperienced chasing corps and NYDC failed to provide it. The Blacktips lead reached 150-70 at its height and although Parada subbed in and scored three goals before the snitch catch, it proved to be too little, too late.
Photo by Monica Wheeler
Even sitting in the nosebleeds with divided attention, the emotion and body language of both teams was clear. The Blacktips were ecstatic and NYDC felt distant. Distant from my position in the bleachers. Distant from their outstanding performances at Turtle Cup against Emerson and Tufts. Distant from the team I thought they were. With their 90 point loss to the Santa Barbara Blacktips, NYDC had dug themselves into a hole. However, because Michigan's dominating pool play performance was largely unforeseen and not much was thought of its 190*-0 blowout of the New York Badassilisks during the 9:00 timeslot, NYDC still seemed to have a good chance of making bracket play if they recovered.

Setting the Stage
As I wandered the fields over the next few timeslots, taking in games, meeting new people and keeping the IQA World Cup Coverage chugging along, only one thing was certain: I would be at Field 2 at 1:40 for the Capitalists' all-important match against Austin Quidditch. Timeslots passed. NYDC-AQ drew nearer. Upon arriving at the fields to watch the end of warm-ups, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. NYDC didn't look like a team that had just suffered its worst defeat of the season in its first game of the World Cup. AQ didn't look like a team that had lost to Michigan less than two hours before. NYDC-AQ was predicted to be a clash of titans and one of the highest-quality games of Saturday. It was not predicted to be a match between two winless teams.
Photo by Nicole Harrig
To their credit, NYDC regrouped well and played Austin Quidditch with a renewed sense of urgency. The number of mental errors decreased and NYDC's defense was anchored by a solid beating performance from mid-season pickup Michael Musatow. However, even with NYDC playing closer to their full potential, Austin Quidditch edged the Capitalists in the beater and chaser game. As skeptical as I was prior to World Cup, AQ's performance against NYDC provided great supporting evidence to the "as-good-as-a-regional-finalist-in-weakened-region" claims. During the middle stretch of the game, AQ's stars shifted into another gear and the Southwest squad dominated. Several times during that stretch, I looked over at the scoreboard expecting AQ to be out of snitch range. NYDC had defensive lapses and dysfunctional possessions against AQ, but their performance against the Southwest's darlings was a far cry from the meltdown they suffered against Santa Barbara. When AQ's bright young stars began to pour on goals and the game looked bleak for NYDC, the Capitalists continued to fight hard on both ends of the pitch. Ultimately, they were rewarded with a snitch catch from the undeniably clutch Freddy Varone, giving the Capitalists a 110*-80 win.
NYDC had leveled their record at 1-1 while AQ fell to 0-2, setting up a do-or-die game against the Santa Barbara Blacktips at 6:20. At that point, all of the pressure in the pool of death should have shifted to Austin Quidditch. However, the pool of death buzz at North Myrtle Beach Park and Sports Complex continued to be about Santa Barbara's destruction of NYDC and AQ's 0-2 start stayed quiet. Players and spectators wanted to see a pot one team fall and with NYDC, there was blood in the water. 
Photo by Monica Wheeler
Meanwhile, Michigan had followed its win over Austin Quidditch with a 100*-30 victory over the Santa Barbara Blacktips at 3:40. Clinching a spot in bracket play, Michigan had seized the opportunity of playing against a hurting Santa Barbara squad. With Chris Lock, Ben Harding, and Andy Abayan having all sustained injuries versus NYDC, the Blacktips' already small roster could not afford to send a seeker off pitch. As Michigan's well-oiled chaser machine opened up a 40 point lead, off pitch seeker Robert Morgan returned to the pitch triumphantly around the 13 minute mark, with victory in his hands.
After destroying the Capitalists, Santa Barbara suddenly had to prepare for an apparent do-or-die game against AQ. Michigan's final test would be against the Capitalists. By 5:00, I was hot, mentally and physically tired and very hungry. My dad picked me up from the fields and we headed for Friday's. While cooling down and filling up, my mind was zeroed in on the pool of death nightcap--Austin Quidditch vs. the Santa Barbara Blacktips at 6:20 and the NYDC Capitalists vs. the University of Michigan at 7:00. I pondered questions like, could NYDC complete their turn-around from 0-1 to 3-1? Would Santa Barbara have enough left in the tank to send AQ packing? Could AQ get their first win so late in the day and still advance to bracket play? I had heard and read about Michigan's dominant start, but I hadn't seen the team in action. I wanted to see how Michigan had knocked off two teams that entered World Cup VII with unmatched hype. Before I knew it, I was hopping into our rental car and jogging back through the gates at North Myrtle Beach Park and Sports Complex. 

The Nightcap
Photo by Monica Wheeler
Immediately, I was thrown into thrilling World Cup action on Field 6. The snitch was on the pitch and the AQ and Blacktips seekers were both closing in. With the game having already deteriorated and become a free-for-all for the snitch when I arrived, I didn't attempt to analyze the action and just took in the sights and sounds. The morning and afternoon at World Cup VII was definitely interesting, but with teams on the brink of elimination, the stakes were higher and every snatch attempt evoked a loud reaction from the crowd. At the same time, NYDC and Michigan warmed up on the adjacent field. When Austin Quidditch pulled the snitch to win 120*-70, my eyes darted between the four pool of death combatants. AQ's bench stormed the field an mobbed its seeker, having finally notched their first win of World Cup VII. Believing that the loss had ended their World Cup VII run, the Blacktips were visibly devastated. More or less, NYDC continued going through their warm-ups. The Capitalists obviously seemed intrigued by the result, but also seemed as if they weren't aware of the implications. Michigan, safe from elimination, continued their warm-up, seeming very focused.

I did some quick calculations and realized that NYDC was in serious danger. I ran over to Field 8 and alerted the Capitalists of the situation. If the Capitalists lost to Michigan, they would not advance to bracket play due to the negative point differential accumulated during their loss to Santa Barbara. As the news spread, more and more players and spectators gathered around the field. What followed was a war of attrition. Neither team played close to perfect. The beginning of the game was a slugfest. Amazing feats of athleticism were followed by bonehead mistakes with a healthy dose of sloppiness in between. Sometimes, only luck separated a successful possession from an unsuccessful possession. When the stalemate finally broke, ushering in an onslaught of goals, NYDC desperately tried to hold on and keep the game in snitch range. The atmosphere was a mixture of pandemonium and hypnosis. Regional affiliations were obvious and the warm Southern air carried the cheers and groans of crowd. But at the same time, what was unfolding on the field was stunning. Where had this Michigan team come from? What was wrong with the Capitalists?
Photo by Ben Holland
The rest of the game--snitch Kyle Carpenter fending off the seekers, vicious beater battles around the snitch, Michigan opening up a lead--was a blur for me. With regional bias, personal relationships, and not wanting to be proved wrong (I had NYDC as my longshot Final Four team), it was admittedly hard for me to be impartial. About a week ago, I dug up film of parts of the Michigan-NYDC game (Part 1; Part 2) and began dissecting NYDC's demise. If film surfaces of the Capitalists' games against the Blacktips or AQ, I might revise this list, but from memory, a lot of the stuff here applies to the other games too. 

1. The Alex Linde-Michael Parada-Steve Hysick line didn't live up to its potential. The possessions the line ran weren't complex enough for a trio of their caliber. The line's half court offense seemed just a little bit off. Passes were thrown slightly behind the receiver and the offense rarely clicked. Most importantly, Parada didn't play a big enough role. Playing chaser, Parada wasn't getting the touches he needed to make a difference in games. NYDC needed their top line to come through and a mediocre performance shifted pressure to the second and third lines.

2. John Gaffigan seemed to be one of the IQA's rising stars at Turtle Cup, but the Capitalist keeper came out rusty in North Myrtle Beach. Being the primary ball-carrier on his line, Gaffigan's struggles impacted his whole chasing unit. Gaffigan's line ended up playing a constant, frantic, semi-transition offense. The result was rushed passes, shots into traffic and short possessions for the NYDC offense. 

3. NYDC's female chasers were irrelevant on offense. During the duration of the first video, an NYDC female chaser was only targeted once. Michigan's female chasers were also underutilized, but the Midwestern squad adjusted, switching to an all-male chaser lineup and an all-female beating corps. The strategy worked perfectly, as Michigan's chasing corps blew open the lead and its beaters held bludger control.

4. An issue that plagued the Capitalists all season, NYDC's beaters put virtually no defensive pressure on Michigan's point players. The Capitalist beaters reacted slowly, failing to make beats on tackled players and receivers until it was too late. As a result, Michigan was not punished for its mistakes and could revive dead possessions. Michigan's offensive beaters were also successful in distracting NYDC's beaters. Despite not having a consistent, reliable performance, players like Michael Musatow, Freddy Varone and Kerri Donnelly were able to make impressive, goal-saving beats at times, but it wasn't enough.

5. Prior to World Cup VII, I had raved about NYDC's seeking corps. Freddy Varone came through in a vital SWIM situation against Austin Quidditch, but ultimately, the NYDC seekers couldn't convert against Kyle Carpenter. In my praise of the Capitalists' seeking corps, I had emphasized their depth and versatility. However, it seemed like NYDC gave Varone and Billy Greco a disproportionate amount of minutes. I'm no expert on snitching or seeking, but I believe an aggressive seeker like Steve Minnich or Steve Hysick would have fared better against Carpenter. Losing chaser/seeker Mo Haggag, whose large wingspan could have caused problems for Carpenter, to a knee injury against the Blacktips also hurt. In NYDC's marathon semifinal versus Tufts at Turtle Cup, Minnich and Haggag consistently put more pressure on snitch Harry Greenhouse, who like Carpenter, uses extraordinary upper body strength to fend off seekers. 

A Quick Death
So there you go. A full month later, I've tried to answer the question I could only hypothesize about as I lay awake in the Avista Resort on the night of April 5th--how could a pot one team, a team that impressed me during the regular season, have fallen so hard? Before the brackets came out, I knew the Capitalists were done. My day two schedule, which I had expected to include several NYDC games, was going to be much different. Nevertheless, the pool of death's Saturday action supplied enough bracket play questions to fill the void left by the Capitalists' elimination. Still awestruck by Michigan's 4-0 performance, I contemplated wild possibilities for the Midwest squad. Could they advance to the Elite Eight? Final Four? Were they World Cup VII's Cinderella? Were they more than a Cinderella story? Was Michigan a title contender? When I first saw the brackets early on Sunday morning, I ignored LSU and labeled Michigan as the team with the best chance to knock off the surging, dominant-in-pool-play Lost Boys.

By Saturday night, the hype surrounding Austin Quidditch and the Santa Barbara Blacktips had died down. While AQ appeared to be gaining momentum at the right time (AQ ended pool play with consecutive wins over the Blacktips and the Badassilisks), Southwesterners did not expect AQ to lose to teams from the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. The Blacktips were suffering from injuries that shattered their already-fragile depth situation, but chaser Ren Bettendorf was turning in the performance of a lifetime. Bettendorf's World Cup performance was mesmerizing. He rose above the other 13 players on the field in a way that could only be comparable to players like Lost Boys keeper Tony Rodriguez or Baylor beater David Gilbert or Texas seeker Margo Aleman.
Photo by Kat Ignatova
AQ and the Blacktips earned the 32nd and 36th seeds, respectively, but after only a quick glance at the bracket, I knew both teams would be done well before noon on Sunday. If they could defeat Penn State, the Blacktips would face fourth-seeded Lone Star Quidditch Club. While there was an inkling of hope that on the back of some supernatural, game-for-the-ages from Bettendorf, Santa Barbara could shock LSQC, AQ's fate was cruelly sealed by their scheduled Round of 32 matchup with Texas. With NYDC gone and AQ and the Blacktips facing near-impossible roads to the Sweet Sixteen, I realized that if the pool of death roller coaster was to continue on Sunday, it would be with seventh-seeded Michigan.

Simply put, the pool of death teams could not carry the excitement they produced during pool play into Sunday. Santa Barbara fell in the first round to Penn State, a result of an abysmal half court defensive performance, and didn't get a shot at Stephen Bell, Kody Marshall and company. AQ advanced past Minnesota, but yielded to its title-bound, championship-hungry varsity team as expected. Michigan's 180*-120 victory over Tennessee Tech landed it in a familiar place: a game against Midwest/B1G Ten rivals Ohio State. Eager to prove its collapse against the Lost Boys was a fluke and justify its 3-0 record against increasingly-hyped Michigan, Ohio State came out strong against its rivals and fought hard from brooms up to the snitch catch. The complete, determined effort from Ohio State was something Michigan didn't get from the Blacktips or NYDC in pool play. Michigan was outmatched and just like that, my wild bracket play predictions for Michigan were dashed. Stubbornly, before viewing any film or letting the rest of the tournament play out, I etched in Michigan as a top seven team in my post-World Cup VII rankings.

Living On
My desire to rank Michigan so high was just a manifestation of the hype surrounding the pool of death coming into World Cup VII. The puzzling, eye-opening results it produced increased my inclination to ignore the bracket play downfall of its participants. I found it symbolic that I was walking by the Michigan-Ohio State field when the snitch was caught, officially eliminating the last pool of death team from championship contention. While the pool of death games were an amazing source of excitement and suspense on Saturday, in the grand scheme of World Cup VII, it would be easy to "walk by" the pool of death in our memories of WCVII two to three years from now. The pool of death only put one team into the Sweet Sixteen and zero teams into the Elite Eight. However, (while I didn't catch most of Ohio State-Michigan) I was fully immersed in the pool of death on Saturday--the athleticism was astounding, the resilience was inspiring and the storylines were captivating. A pool of death as good as Pool 5 at World Cup VII is something that we might not see again for a couple of years.
Photo by Nicole Harrig

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