The Eighth Man

Countdown to Kissimmee: UCLA

Credit: Vanessa Goh

Credit: Vanessa Goh

UCLA entered this season on a roll. After losing a close match in the finals of Western Cup III, they took their first major tournament victory at the Cinco de Mayo Cup.  Unfortunately, their road to world cup domination met with a couple of hitches in the fall semester, and they stumbled out of the gate against elite competition, losing snitch catch games to both USC and Miami at Hollywood Bowl, then being played unexpectedly close by the Western merc team at the West by Southwest before getting annihilated in the finals by a University of Texas team they had defeated the day before. Since then, UCLA has clearly worked out whatever kinks were bothering them, and have come storming back, beating everyone in their paths and allowing a single opponent within snitch range. On the back of such strong play,  UCLA has re-emerged as a legitimate World Cup contender. Best Wins: vs. USC 150*-40 (Jan. 26), vs. University of Texas-Austin 90*-40 (Nov.10)

Worst Loss: None.

Key Players:  This is an extremely difficult thing to isolate for UCLA, as one of their biggest strength is their amazing teamwork and almost seamless integration of new players. But still, there are definitely some standouts.  On one end, you have Adam Richardson, whose incredibly strong point defense keys UCLA’s defensive game.  Richardson made the play of the tournament in the finals of the Western Cup, stonewalling Lost Boys keeper Tony Rodriguez, driving him back several feet, and stripping the ball before scoring a crucial goal in the game.  T On the other end of play, you have a strong seeker in Michael Maben who emerged from their B team during Western Cup III to make the catch of the tournament.  You have keepers Alex Browne and Zach Luce, who offer two completely different styles depending on what’s needed. In Browne, they get a phenomenal, strong defender who works as one of the best quaffle-handlers in the game, threading perfect passes to his supporting chasers, always looking for the assist instead of the goal.  In Luce, they get someone a little less sturdily built than Browne, but whose incredibly lanky build allows him to cut down passing lanes immensely well, Offensively, Luce looks for his own goals much more than Browne, and he can be very difficult to slow down, but, if you concentrate all your effort on stopping him, he’s perfectly capable of dropping accurate passes off to his teammates. That doesn’t even mention Team USA chasers Missy Sponagle – the power – and Vanessa Goh – the speed – who, along with Katelynn Kazane, give UCLA such a fearsome line of female chasers that they’ll frequently be seen playing in two male-beater sets. On top of everything else, their beaters are fantastic, moving up and down the pitch to help both their offense and defense, and working in nearly perfect unison with each other to consistently get and maintain bludger control.  The beaters work so well together as a unit that it’s nearly impossible to pick out a single impact player from their corps. Player to Watch: Of course, I said nearly impossible, as the one player who catches all eyes when watching UCLA is beater Asher King Abramson.  Asher is a natural crowd favorite, as his tall stature makes him hard to miss on the pitch, and his cannon of an arm delivers some of the most painful beats in all of quidditch.  His arm isn’t what truly makes Asher a special player, though.  Asher brings every single physical skill a beater could want to the table, reliably catching well-thrown beats or hitting other beaters if necessary, but his mental game and positioning is where Asher shines the most.  He moves up and down the pitch, using his great speed to always be affecting the play, and he’s learned to adjust the power of this throws when necessary to increase the chances of recovering his throw.  In the finals of the Western Cup, whenever he was on the field, he utterly dominated the game, locking down the defense for his team, and even delivering a couple of easy goals for his team with beats as far forward as the opposing team’s keeper zone. Strategy: Strategically, UCLA is a chameleon.  Their roster is so deep and with so many different strengths that they can match other teams in almost any style they want.  They tend to look at the other team and see what they think will work best, and then adjust their strategy mid-game until they’ve found the offensive and defensive touches they’re looking for.  They have plenty of gritty, strong defensive players who have learned to make good cuts and get open and will simply kill you in half-court sets.  They have elite athletes who will wear you down and try to turn the game into transition plays.  And they have good shooters who can punish teams for trying to pack in their defense and play compactly. Strengths: The primary strengths of UCLA are their versatility and their depth.  The scariest thing about their versatility is that it forces their opponents to at least be competent in roughly every component of the game, or risk them honing in on your weaknesses and repeatedly abusing them.  UCLA’s depth means that players are always fresh, and seeing almost no dip from the top line down to the bottom line allows everyone on UCLA to play at full intensity the entire match. Weaknesses: I have, at times, seen UCLA get out of sorts, as they seemed to ong the second day of the WxSW Interregional Showcase.  If their passing game isn’t quite in sync, and their beaters can’t retain control, their offense will struggle, and it’s even possible to blow them out, as Texas did in the finals. More realistically, though, from teams that aren’t elite at every level, if you combine strong point defense with a keeper good at cutting off passing lanes and long shots and beaters who can maintain control near the keeper zone, then a team may be able to slow down UCLA’s offense enough to stay in snitch range. Other than Richardson, they also have shown some struggles bringing down some of the more elite tank-like quaffle-carriers in the game, like Rodriguez, who was very effective against them in the Western Cup finals. Prediction: This team went to the quarterfinals in World Cup V, and with how well they’ve been playing in the run-up to World Cup VI, I find it hard to believe they won’t make it at least that far.  This Bruins, however, are a true title contender this year.  I expect to see them in the semifinals of World Cup, and to challenge any team they play there, possibly going as far as winning the entire thing.

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