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Florida Warm Up

02/15/2011, 2:40pm CST
By Zach Alter and Eric Alexander

Hodags start season with 3rd-place finish in Florida.

After three months of circling the track in preparation for their first tournament, the Hodags arrived in Florida excited to begin their season against some of the country’s best teams. As has become customary, travel mishaps ensued. 24 players, one coach, and 20 car spots forced injured team father, Scotto, to shuttle players back and forth across Tampa to hotels, fields, and eating establishments. The first day of competition matched the Hodags against South Florida, Cornell, Virginia, and Colorado.

The Hodags arrived early Friday morning to try and make up for the lack of throwing in the past 3 months. Against South Florida, the Hodags started slow on defense and failed early to convert South Florida’s turns into breaks. South Florida hucked on offense for 5 first half goals, but it was Wisconsin’s offense that dominated, only turning it once the whole game. Pat, Cullen, Brian, EA, and Colin were open at will, catching free unders and continuing deep for uncontested goals. Trading until 6-5, the Hodags stacked a D line and broke for half 7-5 as Cullen caught his second goal of the game. The D line had many first half opportunities to punch in breaks, but the strategy of Feldman throwing skyballs to double poached deep cutters didn’t work... for some reason. Coolidge owned the second half with two nasty layout d’s and bookends on the last one, and the Hodags rolled the second half and finished 13-7. Bergen led the offensive unit, but Dan Park’s hucks and Tanner’s ability to get open for free resets helped the offense finish a virtually perfect game.

Next up was a Cornell team that made semi-finals in 2010. Cornell was the first team to throw zone on defense and had some fast cutters, taking many chances on risky hucks and break throws. The game started with two Hodag breaks, the first a huck to Coolidge and the second a  Rainman footblock and easy goal. The young D lines began to pressure Cornell’s offense and make plays while the offense remained a dominant force. Rainman and Kelsen put great backfield pressure on the Cornell handlers and were close on a number of bid attempts in this game. They played great defense and had very few turns all weekend, an encouraging sign for the D handling core that was inexperienced at the position coming into the weekend. Throughout the game, whenever the O line turned the disc, it seemed that Tanner, who made the team last year as a D line cutter, would bail them out with clutch under and backfield layout d’s on unsuspecting players. He played out of his mind all weekend with only a few turns and led the team in layout d’s by a longshot, and was close on many more. The defense cruised for the rest of the Cornell game with strong downfield pressure and team defense, and the O line cutters continued to show that they were going to be tough to stop this year.

With spirits and confidence high, the Hodags got ready to battle Virginia, who played them tough last year but was now without former captain Tyler Conger. The game started strong for Wisconsin as they went up two breaks early, 3-0, on plays by D line handlers Dayu Liu and Spidey Alexander. They then traded until 5-3, unable to convert on a shoulder-high layout poach D by Bergen, and the O line was broken for the first time of the tournament on the next point. Virginia had great break throwers and were coming down with every contested catch, preventing the Hodags from pulling away. Coolidge made one of the best plays of the tournament to help break for half - a breakside around layout d right outside Virginia’s endzone. Without Jerry, Keith, Scotto, Wiseman or Alter, 5 of the top 8 D cutters, Coolidge had to play almost every D point and made plays over and over despite always having to match up against the opposing team’s top cutter. Though some miscues and drops from the offense allowed Virginia to take a 10-9 lead, scrappy D ultimately reigns in the Hodag victory on universe, 12-11.

For the last game on Friday, Wisconsin faced a rematch against Colorado Mamabird. In the finals of Missouri Loves Company during the fall, Colorado had given the Hodags a rather thorough defeat, using a seemingly inexhaustible fount of energy to wear away a Wisconsin team that had just come off a no-breaks battle with Minnesota. In their fourth game of the day in Florida, Wisconsin sought to overcome the fatigue that had killed them in November. Things seemed to start well as Jordan snagged a second-chance huck from Simmons, breaking to take the lead at 1-0. Unfortunately, that was to be the only break and only lead of the game for the Hodags. Throughout the game, Colorado’s consistent verging on automatic break throws exposed the D-line’s inexperienced marks. Meanwhile, the O-line could only go a few points before making an unforced turn in the form of a drop or throwaway that Mamabird was only too happy to take advantage of. Despite a handful of Bergen to Hart connections and Pat laying out for a disc through two colliding defenders and hucking to a wide-open EA, Colorado seemed to more or less coast to a 8-13 victory.

Despite the disappointing finish of the previous day, spirits were high when the Hodags arrived at the fields on Saturday, especially looking forward to their second game against Carleton. They did not anticipate a surprise from a Harvard team that was missing grad student handler Adam Fagin and had lost soundly to both Colorado and CUT the day before. As before, everything seemed to start out fine. The D-line made Harvard work to go ahead 1-0, and the Hodags answered quickly with a huck from Pat to EA. Zach “Turtle” Ehler, coming off a Friday airplane with fresh legs, completed bookends with a strike to former cutter Simmons to go ahead a break, 2-1. Then, after tying at 2-2, Harvard made the defining decision of the game by deciding to test the indoor-bound Hodags with a junky 3-3-1 zone. Having played real ultimate only twice since Blue-Black in December, all indoors, Wisconsin hadn’t even thought about zone offense in months, and it showed. Mostly through the Hodags’ lack of patience and vision, Harvard took half 4-7, and eventually the game 13-8. Similarly to the Colorado game, Wisconsin did not get a break after going ahead 2-1.

Next up was regional rival Carleton, who made finals the last two years and won in 2009. It was a game the Hodags had been looking forward to all winter. Energy was the highest it had been all weekend as the game started. The game was incredibly intense in the first half, but both teams failed to convert on break opportunities. After turns on offense, the Hodags played great team defense and got several d’s by Tanner and the cutters to get the disc back. Carleton had a quick duo of cutters (Grant and Julian) that kept their offensive unit from being broken in the first half, and CUT had two goal line stand d’s that prevented the Hodags from breaking. The battle continued into the second half as the teams traded until 9-9. Stacking the D-line with B-Hart and Bergen, the D forced a CUT turn and quickly worked it up field. Brian Hart finished to Feldman for the first break of the game and the sidelines went crazy. With the CUT offense tired, the Hodags loaded up another big line and got another pressure D. Kelsen picked up the disc and threw a sweet break to Simmons, who put out a long flick to a cutting Jerry. Jerry caught it left handed, instinctively tucked it away (Arrowhead football 2008 REPRESENT!) just before getting clobbered by PBob. Jim Rome maintained possession and spiked the disc as the Hodags went crazy. Up 11-9, Jordan got a d and Feldman quickly threw to Jerry for another break, 12-9. After a hold by the Carleton O-line, the Hodags finished with a stall-nine hammer from Dan to EA for the 13-10 victory--the first against Carleton for many of the younger players.

After a long bye round, Wisconsin began to warm up for its 6pm showcase game under the lights against 2010 National Champion Florida. Without many of its big defensive cutters, the Hodags were unsure how they would match up against the size of the Florida team. Starting on D, Jordan, the fastest player on the team, sprinted down and got a d on the hitch after a hesitant handler couldn’t gauge Jordan’s speed. Wisco quickly punched it in for a 1-0 lead. Florida put great pressure the Hodag O line, who got broken twice in the first half after stupid turns, one being a floaty stall three double helix scoober to the back of the endzone that was D’d by Troll. Nice! After being down 5-3, the defense broke back after D’s by Simmons and Jerry and assists by Feldman and Bergen. Half was 7-6 Wisco. The Florida offense turned it a few too many times in the second half, as the Hodags broke 3 more times on hucks to cruise to a 13-9 defeat of Florida. This was the first time winning this match up since the 2008 national championship, and confidence was high. A 5-2 record with victories over Florida and Carleton was impressive for a young Hodag team in their first tournament, though not surprising in the least because of their athleticism and size.

Sunday started with the final game of pool play at 8 AM against UNC-Wilmington. The Harvard coach was seen talking to the Seamen before the game and it was clear that he’d passed on a few pointers by the fact that UNCW threw a zone for most of the game. Though this created some initial problems for both lines, it ended up playing right into Wisconsin’s hands. After going down a couple breaks in the first half, the Hodags began to use the game as an opportunity to iron the kinks out of their unpracticed zone offense. By the end of the first half, the handlers were swinging the disc better than they had all season, the pistons were stretching out holes for the poppers, and the poppers were capitalizing on throws through and over the cup that led to easy goals. In the second half, Wisconsin was able to go on a good run highlighted by more Coolidge and Jerry D’s, a huge Turtle flick assist, and some great handler movement by Dayu and Timmons. The game ended 13-7 for the Hodags, who finished the pool play round with a 6-2 record and earned another game in Semifinals against Carleton.

Wisconsin’s second match up with CUT wasn’t as clean as their first. From the beginning, the Hodag miscues on offense were easily converted into breaks for Carleton as they cruised to a 3-0 lead. Finally scoring on offense and giving the D a chance to break back, the D got a turn and worked it up to near the end zone before Ben Feldman spiked the disc on the 1 yard line thinking he had scored, a la DeSean Jackson. The Hodags never looked the same thereafter, despite some of the best plays of the weekend. Kelsen got a layout D at 6 feet after a pick was called, Alter got a layout D under on PBob, and Lion Hart got a two-handed catch D under to prevent a break. Down 5-7 at half, Wisco never could catch up and lost 13-7. The game exposed many weaknesses that will be worked on in the coming months, but didn’t put too big a damper on the weekend.

On the whole, the weekend was a successful one for the Hodags. Lasting through a three-day tournament showed that they are on the right track as far as physical conditioning goes. Hiccups with zone offense, marks, and swinging the disc exposed weaknesses that can now be strengthened going into the spring season. Inexperienced players got playing time in important games and gained some appreciation for the mental fortitude it will take to beat teams of the highest caliber. Most importantly, the Hodags showed that despite injuries, despite being indoors, and despite having less practice time than probably any other team at the tournament, they have the athleticism, talent, and drive to beat any team in the country. Expect some heads to be turned come the Stanford Invite.

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