The Eighth Man

The Finals: A Video Analysis

UCLA vs. Texas

Author’s Note: Credit to Chris Seto for originally editing this and making this article make sense! He deserves as much credit as I do for this article!

At last year’s World Cup, the University of Texas – Austin proved itself to be the sport’s dominant side, easily taking down rivals Texas A&M and LSU en route to the finals. On the other side of the bracket, UCLA was similarly dominant, advancing all the way to the finals without a single match in snitch range

In the end, Texas showed it was the best team in the world, beating UCLA handily by a score of 190*-80. Although the score indicates a lopsided victory, the Bruins were actually tied with the Longhorns eight minutes into the game. I decided to look back at the game tape to see how and why UCLA kept it close early, and speculate on how UCLA could’ve kept itself in the game longer, maybe even long enough to swing the result

Before we get started, please keep in mind that video quality was far from ideal. I also was not at the World Cup, so there were probably many things that I missed. I tried to do the best I could with what I had. Also, one game does not define a player or a team; I am only analyzing and reporting what I saw for this single game.

UCLA Offense vs. Texas Defense

The biggest takeaway from the match is that UCLA, with one of the most esteemed beater corps in the country, didn’t have bludger control for a single second of this game. We know how important bludger control is to a game. In previous analyses, bludger control was a huge factor in who had a higher chance to score on any given possession.

Having seen games where possession of bludger control changes regularly, a lot of credit needs to go to the UT beaters for keeping control for the entire 30 minutes of game time. However, I also think that UT’s chasers and overall scheme should get as much credit for UT’s ability to keep bludger control. Due to having some of the best quaffle defenders, UT’s beaters could afford to play conservatively without having to wander far from their hoops and each other. Throughout the game, the Longhorn beaters definitely prioritized keeping bludger control, at times giving UCLA a better chance at scoring rather than risking losing a bludger.

UCLA’s offensive strategy took advantage of that fact. Let’s see how UT and UCLA line up in the half court:

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UCLA keeper Zach Luce brings up the ball, with Vanessa Goh behind the hoops, captain Brandon Scapa next to Luce for support, and chaser Jeff Lin (#17) near the hoops. UT has a pair of point defenders, one for Luce, and one guarding Scapa that can bring additional point defense if/when the initial point defender is beat.

I’m not sure if this is because of Goh’s reputation or her placement behind the hoops, but UT has her own defender Sarah Holub behind the hoops (UT defender is denoted by the red arrow. Vanessa is out of the screen, denoted by the yellow arrow). Contrast this to the sort of treatment that UT gave A&M’s female chaser earlier in the tournament:

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Here, the A&M chaser is left wide open, without any UT player within 10 feet of her or looking in her direction. Whatever UT did against Goh worked – she probably had her worst game of the tournament. She didn’t seem very comfortable in the game, and when she got the ball, she either got beat or tended to take mid-to-long range shots that were fairly easily blocked by UT’s keeper/chasers, such as in the clip below.

In her defense, she did play almost the whole game, and probably most of her earlier games, and a few of her shots just barely missed, hitting the hoops.

UCLA regularly brought a beater with a bludger up to facilitate its offense as well as to try to regain bludger control. Here is my list of possible outcomes when utilizing this strategy, ranging from great to disastrous:

When challenging for bludger control on offense, there are 5 common outcomes.

  1. Bludger Control WON. Goal SCORED.
    You beat the opposing beater, your partner without the ball grabs that bludger, AND your team scores.
  2. Bludger Control WON. Goal NOT SCORED.
    You beat the opposing beater, the other beater with the ball on the opponent’s side beats your chaser with quaffle and you lose possession. You haven’t scored, but you have gained bludger control.
  3. Bludger Control NOT WON. Goal SCORED.
    You beat an opposing beater and the other opposing beater beats you or your beating partner. Although you don’t regain bludger control, you give your team a good chance to score by occupying both opposing beaters. However, one beater with the ball MUST get back before the other team gains possession or risk a bludgerless defense.
  4. Bludger Control NOT WON. Goal NOT SCORED.
    This is the same as the previous outcome, except that although you gave your team a good chance to score, they were not able to. Maybe they missed a makeable shot, or the defensive chasers made a good play. Again, one beater with the ball MUST get back before the other team gains possession in order to aid defense.
  5. Bludger Control NOT WON. Goal NOT SCORED. Left hoops WIDE OPEN.
    Same as No. 3 and No. 4, but a beater is unable to retreat quickly to their own hoops with a bludger, leaving your hoops wide open and likely leading to a dunk and a probable score for your opponent.

UCLA achieved outcomes 3 and 4 often, with hints of outcome 5. However, the lack of ability to force outcomes 1 or 2 happened, and more instances of outcome 5 later in the game was how UT broke through and turned a close game into a blowout.

In a typical possession, Asher King-Abramson, UCLA’s male beater with the ball (#4), cleared 1 or 2 UT point defenders up top (circled below).

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Then, with one of the best arms in quidditch, Abramson either beat the UT beater up top, usually Colin Capello (picture below), or later, even more effectively, faked the throw to Capello, forcing him to throw his ball back to his hoops in fear of getting beat. Sarah Simko, UCLA’s beater without the ball, harassed the female UT beater, Hope Machala. To Simko’s success, Machala often threw her bludger at Simko.

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With both UT beaters having thrown their bludgers to make sure that they didn’t lose control, the UCLA beaters — mostly because of UT’s respect for Asher’s arm — opened up a small window of a bludgerless UT defense for UCLA’s Luce to drive the ball and either take a mid-range shot or pass to an open teammate. Of course, scoring on a UT defense even without bludgers isn’t easy. Luce did well to start the game, and possessions like the ones below led to UCLA scoring on four of its first five possessions of the game.


Texas’s Conservative Beating Strategy

Another reason why UCLA had such success scoring on a team that had bludger control was UT’s beating strategy. From past analysis, teams on half-court possessions against two-bludger defenses tended to score in the 20-40% range, and almost never had the kind of success UCLA had early in this game. So was the anomaly due to the UCLA offense, or the Texas defense?

Probably a little of both. Jeff Lin’s putback shot to begin the game wasn’t an easy shot, and Luce hit some nifty mid-range shots. However, what stood out most to me was how conservatively UT played its beaters. They didn’t turtle literally right next to the hoops — a la Johns Hopkins — and made good beats to prevent UCLA from scoring. However, their fear of losing their bludgers led to some plays where, at times, the UT beaters made decisions that led to easy scoring opportunities.

Here’s the first UCLA possession of the game. After Zach Luce misses on a mid-range shot, a UT chaser tips the loose ball in, and UCLA chaser Jeff Lin retrieves it after a short scramble for the ball.

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While fellow Capello is fending off Simko’s advances, Machala never looks back behind the hoops, even after the ball was shot. While her confidence in her teammates to grab every loose ball is admirable, she should’ve been running back as soon as the quaffle was shot to possibly prevent the goal.

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As shown here, throughout the game Capello decided to throw back his bludger whenever Abramson faked a throw at him. Upon Abramson beating the point defender, Luce goes in and is met by a point defender and Machala – except that Machala never reacts to Luce driving towards the hoops, despite being less than five feet away from him.

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Machala reacts about four seconds later than she should have, and Luce hits an admittedly tough shot. The decision-making behind that play is puzzling – Machala just beat Simko, who is running back to her hoops. The third bludger, denoted by the blue arrow on the left, is behind the hoops sitting peacefully, while Colin Capello is successfully outwrestling Abramson to steal a bludger on the other side of the field (white arrow). There was nothing to gain by playing conservatively on this play.

In the end, the defense and strategy worked beautifully for the Longhorns en route to a championship. However, this is a strategy that I can’t see being overly successful against top tier offensive squads without the types of elite quaffle defenders that UT has.

Texas Offense vs. UCLA Defense

UT scored on its first five half-court possessions before the UCLA defense settled down a little and had five successful defensive possessions. Here was the typical half-court setup:

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Using a point defender, UCLA was leaving one UT chaser, this time circled in red, open. At other times, the UT chaser behind the hoops (circled in yellow) was open.

Using a point defender is ideal when there is a weaker chaser on the other team who the defense can leave open for periods of time, as long as the defense is in sync on who to guard. However, as we’ll see later, with some of the best quaffle players in the country, the Longhorns were able to expose this strategy.

It’s also a good idea to use a point defender when the opposing beaters are aggressive, so that the defending beater can stay back nearer to the hoops, as Abramson is doing here. In the end, having a point defender gives more of the defense’s responsibilities to the chasers, and especially the keeper, who must be aware of the open chaser’s position at all times.

Against a team like the Longhorns, it might’ve been better to have only the beater as a point defender as opposed to using a chaser, even if Jeff Lin of UCLA is an excellent point defender. Doing this allows UCLA’s chasers to each mark a UT chaser, removing the option of easy passes to teammates. The idea is that passes to teammates, forced by the point beater, must be thrown higher in order for them not to be deflected or stolen, which then gives time for the defense to react and get into proper position

The downside of using a point defender is when chasers are left open that can take advantage of the opportunity given to them. UT exposed this hole, and their ability to consistently find Audrey Wright and Sarah Holub open behind the hoops led to easy goals. For example, in the clip below, Wright catches the ball behind the hoops and beats Luce to easily score.

This clip above also highlights another problem: UCLA often committed a point quaffle defender AND Abramson up top. Without bludger control, this essentially turned the possession into a 3 on 3 chaser battle, an advantage for UT. Look at where the defense is before the pass to Holub:

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As you can see, She is wide open next to the hoops. She’s also good enough to catch the ball and score consistently on just about any keeper 1-on-1.

Given Abramson’s ability to fake beats effectively, he was able to force many errant UT passes to covered players, leading to easy turnovers

Here’s a quasi-fast break for UT, a situation that they’re usually deadly in, which is turned away by some great fakes by Abramson, the only defender on ball:

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The first fake gets the quaffle out of keeper Augustine Monroe’s hands. Abramson does a good job of quickly getting to Cody Tadlock, who now has the quaffle.

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The second fake leads Tadlock to get rid of the ball in the general direction of Holub (circled in red). The UCLA chaser in yellow, James Luby, does a good job of deflecting the pass, thus ending the UCLA possession.

Here’s a final clip that shows pretty bad defensive positioning by UCLA and the problem of using a point defender that isn’t effective. Here, the UCLA defense is positioned well to start the possession:

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However, the point defenders, both chaser and beater, of UCLA are sorely out of position, when UT’s Stephen Bell (#3) runs to his left. Here is where the possession is a few seconds later:

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There are three problems here. First and foremost is that the UCLA point chaser defender doesn’t actually touch UT’s Bell. As shown in the previous article against A&M, having a point defender who gets easily beat puts tremendous pressure on the rest of the defense. It essentially turns the possession into a 4-on-2.

The next problem is that although Abramson starts in between Bell and the hoops, Bell ends up somehow behind him. Bell isn’t looking at Abramson but was probably aware that a throw was coming soon.

Which leads to the third problem. In the screenshot above, a UT chaser is behind Luce with the orange arrow. Goh, the person guarding said chaser, is under the blue arrow. A chaser defender needs to stay in between the hoops and the person that they are guarding. This positioning leads to an easy pass and score for UT.

UCLA Depth

One of UCLA’s biggest strengths up until this point had been its depth and versatility. The only positions that were not two deep were female chaser and beater, positions that were played excellently by utility player Missy Sponagle. However, by the end of the World Cup run, many of its players were either injured or looked fatigued at times in the finals. Keep in mind that this was both teams’ fifth game of the day, in addition to pool play games the previous day.

It should go without saying that luck is a huge factor in single-elimination tournaments, and that injuries can occur to anyone at any time. However, being in good shape also helps prevent injuries, as fatigue leads to bad form and higher risk of injury. A lot of credit should go to the Texas players’ fitness levels, staying quick on their feet and playing through a lot more pain that most people realized from their performance.

All in all, the drop off for UCLA from first-string to second-string is almost undistinguishable and even arguably an upgrade. The drop off from first-string to third-string, however, was fatal for UCLA.

One of the most detrimental injuries to UCLA was to Alex Browne, the starting keeper of UCLA. Browne’s counterpart, Zachary Luce, is an All-American and was probably UCLA’s best player, scoring mid-range goals and blocking shots to keep UCLA in the game. To underscore his importance, his first substitution at eight minutes into the game with the score tied 50-50, the next offensive and defensive possession for UCLA go like this:

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First, a long unfruitful possession resulting in a shot fading away from past the keeper zone, with no chasers around for potential rebounds.

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Then, in the very next possession, an easy pass from the Longhorns keeper to a chaser behind the hoops past keeper Niran Somasundaram’s arms, leads to an easy shot. UCLA having a chaser serve as a point defender means that one of UT’s chasers should be open. And without bludger control, it’s usually up to the keeper to make sure that the pass right behind the hoops isn’t an easy one.

Although Luce only took a three minute break, UT outscored UCLA 20-0 to take a 70-50 lead, and the game started to slip to slip away from UCLA. Luce, with his superior midrange shot, was the better matchup for this game, but not having Browne’s experience and overall well-rounded game hurt UCLA.

Another injury that robbed UCLA was that of Andy Abayan, who some claim to be a more consistent beater and all-around better beater than Abramson, the unanimous All-American

Where Abayan’s absence was most felt, as with Browne’s, was when Abramson subbed out at the 16-minute mark of the game. It was clear that he was beyond tired and needed a sub, so Ryan Donahue filled in. During the two-and-a-half game time minutes that Abramson was subbed out, UT extended its lead from 90-60 to 120-60, all but sealing the deal.

It’s tough to pin this all on Donahue, but there were some inexcusable mistakes for a team that at the time had a thin margin of error, which led to Texas scoring on all three of its possessions in those precious minutes. In one instance, Donahue beat a bludgerless Capello instead of focusing on the quaffle, and there were also two other missed beats.


Abayan’s ability to play in the rotation would’ve improved Abramson’s play just by giving him some time off. Abramson clearly pushed himself to exhaustion staying in far longer than he could effectively play due to Abayan’s absence. Abramson would’ve been able to hustle back on defense and stop a few more goals instead of playing to conserve energy and still tiring long before he subbed out.

I also think UCLA’s refusal to play Sponagle at beater ahead of the inexperienced Simko and the injured Levis was a mistake. UCLA’s female chasers, Goh and Sponagle, didn’t make a difference in the chasing game so they could easily have afforded to put in Katelynn Kazane or Tiffany Chow (neither of whom saw significant minutes) in Sponagle’s stead. Sponagle, although not a top tier beater, would still have been a big upgrade at beater over Levis and Simko.

Having Abayan, who had a heat stroke, would’ve also given UCLA the opportunity to run a two male beater set — which UCLA can easily do due to having Vanessa and Missy. The Bruins could’ve used his superior mobility over Simko and Levis, who was playing on a torn PCL, in order to regain bludger control.

Other notable injuries include All-American Adam Richardson, one of UCLA’s strongest offensive and defensive chasers, who only played a couple of minutes through a back injury and was nowhere close to the dominant form that made him the man of the match in the Western Regionals final. He was one of only a couple of players who could have brought some sorely needed physicality after Tieman’s ejection.

We should also give a ton of credit to UT, who played through injury more than they showed. Although people talk about depth being an important factor in a team, it’s in my opinion that save for unfortunate injuries, depth is an overrated factor in most games and tournaments, which are usually won by the team with the best top 12-14 players.

Depth doesn’t become an important factor until World Cup, where teams have to play at least 8-10 games in two days in order to hoist the championship trophy. UT’s superior training and depth led them to be the best World Cup team. But if these two teams had played each other at full strength, it would probably be a much closer game than what was exhibited in the finals (and also a game that I would pay to see).

Conclusion

With UCLA never gaining bludger control, they couldn’t afford to fall behind, and the stretches of the game without Luce and Abramson, combined with Jake Tieman’s red card  — he had been playing a fantastic game until his ejection — led to UCLA’s demise.

Soon after, the snitch came back onto the field. With UCLA never gaining bludger control and the snitch game generally more chaser-oriented, UT pulled away to become the champs, and the best team quidditch has seen thus far.

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