The Eighth Man

Monday Water Cooler: And They’re Off

Anyone else wake up with an adrenaline rush Saturday morning? I know I did, and I wasn’t even playing. With the LA Gambits victory over the University of Northern Colorado, seven straight weeks of competitive quidditch officially began. Finally, all of the rumors, hypothesizing and speculating were ready to play out on the pitch.

But while it can be difficult, it is important to remember to temper your reactions to results so early in the year. Seven months is an incredibly large amount of time, as long or longer than the season of any college or Big Four professional sport in the country, and with the exception of rankings and seedings, a win or loss today means little to nothing come April, when we finally crown a champion in Rock Hill.

Still, there are headlines to be made and story lines to be followed, even this early in the season. So, let us dive right in.

Texas-Sized Announcement and Breakfast of Champions
It was only fitting in today’s sports climate that the biggest storyline of the weekend came off the quidditch pitch and on Twitter. While the announcement of No. 2 Lone Star Quidditch Club’s roster on Friday may have lacked style, it made up for it in substance. Along with the long-hyped addition of recent graduates–including Team USA’s Drew Wasikowski and Becca DuPont–the sport’s premiere community team also added three current students of No. 5 Texas A&M: Kifer Gregoire, Sean Fry and Tyler Sessions.

The topic of poaching is worthy of an entire article by itself, and our site has touched on the issue in recent months, so I am not going to get into that debate here. But, suffice to say, such a move had the effect it has had previously with both UTSA and University of Houston: the world’s best community team got stronger, while the school–which in the Aggies’ case will be returning just six players–struggles to return to its former stature.

This was all a lead-up to the opening tournament of the Southwest’s calendar–the unofficial Breakfast Taco. Lone Star, with its new firepower, played even with both No. 1 University of Texas–Austin and No. 7 Baylor University in the semifinals and finals, respectively, and used a pair of snitch grabs to vault the squad to its first tournament victory since last season’s Breakfast Taco. Texas A&M, meanwhile, looked underwhelming in a 100-90* win over No. 4 Texas State–who sent two teams and is still tinkering with its roster–in the quarterfinals before bowing out meekly to Baylor in the semifinals, 160*-60.

Last year, the Southwest expanded from its historical “Big Three” to a “Big Four” of Lone Star, Texas, Baylor and Texas A&M. But it seems that we might be reducing it back down to a Big Three when all is said and done in the 2014-15 season. While the Aggies suffered sizable losses, Texas looked strong yet again with Augustine Monroe still on the field and at the emotional helm, and Baylor’s defense continued to frustrate opponents with David Gilbert at its heart. But Texas A&M does not have the benefits of retaining the stars that took the team to its former glory, and captains Keegan Adlis and Sam Haimowitz have a tall task ahead of them.

It is silly to count Texas A&M out too soon, as the Aggies are one of the sport’s proudest programs. But when all is said and done, I think this turns into a two-team race between Texas and Lone Star. Baylor needs to prove it can sustain itself in games where the opponent is maintaining bludger control or breaking down their zone; A&M needs to prove it can develop a new generation; and Texas State needs some results in its own region that prove that last year’s World Cup run was no fluke. Breakfast Taco may not have provided all of these answers, but for an unofficial tournament named after a morning delicacy, it sure asked some big questions.

A Cardinal Rule (At Least For The Moment)
There are not many weeks where an unranked team taking down back-to-back top 20 squads would be relegated to second fiddle, but that is the case here with Ball State University’s Cinderella run to the Tournament of the Stars II title.

Then again, Ball State is not exactly your typical unranked squad. Boasting one of the Midwest’s most athletic squads for years now, led most notably by Devon McCoy, the Cardinals have long put up hit-or-miss results at major tournaments, even once peaking as the top team in the IQA’s official standings. For a team possessing so much individual talent–talent that was shown off all summer at fantasy tournaments across the country–it was sometimes hard to connect it to the on-pitch performances.

But that all changed over the course of about two hours on Saturday, and I believe the departure of McCoy, who graduated last spring and is now with Florida’s Finest, played no small part. McCoy’s style of play, especially as a primary ball carrier, harkened back to an old era of hero ball from the sport’s most athletic players, an era Midwest teams have a worrisome habit of falling back into. It did not matter that Ball State could put a decisive advantage in athleticism on the pitch if they were not making use of it across the board.

On Saturday, in the team’s first tournament without McCoy, Ball State showed a willingness to aggressively adjust their strategy on the fly in order to gain a leg up on the opposition. After a 120*-30 shellacking at the hands of No. 6 Ohio State in pool play, the Cardinals completely switched their game plan for bracket play. The team trotted out an almost exclusively two-male beater set, even though that meant moving Melinda Staup, one of the region’s most respected female beaters, to chaser; prioritized gaining and retaining bludger control; and generally tried to drain the pace out of the game.

On Twitter Saturday night, I referred to what Ball State did in the semifinals against Ohio State and the finals against No. 14 Bowling Green State University as “Kansas-ing,” based on second-hand information. Having now had a chance to watch the finals tape, I would not say they quite went that far, though whether they were even slower paced in the Ohio State game is something I can only speculate. While they were quick to reset the quaffle if things went bad offensively, that is not cowering in fear of the opposition, it is intelligent ball control. Some of the longer possessions were less about draining the clock and more about an inability to create much in the way of offensive options in their two-female chaser set.

What impressed me most about the Cardinals in the finals tape was a deep, athletic male beater core. Led by Trevor Campbell, the beaters stayed tight to the hoops with bludger control, eliminating passing options and goading Daniel Daugherty and Bowling Green’s other ball carriers into long-distance shots. It is no coincidence that Bowling Green failed to complete a single pass in the attacking end for the first eight minutes of the game, putting them in a 0-20 hole that made getting out of snitch range almost impossible.

While Ball State earned a well-deserved victory on Saturday, I would not go as far as to say they now sit on the Midwest throne. They audibled into a new strategy mid-tournament and reaped the rewards for it. But just over the course of that final, Bowling Green had already started to find some cracks, pressuring high with bludgers on defense and creating beater havoc on offense. And if the Cardinals are going to stick with this strategy, they are going to need to develop their female chasers quite a bit, as they were largely bystanders offensively.

Still, for a tumultuous program, a tournament win of this caliber was huge, especially in proving that the squad will survive despite its losses. And who knows, with the right combination of talent and ability to constantly adapt, maybe Ball State is finally ready to shock the quidditch world.

Tale of Two Rochesters

The University of Rochester and RIT have passed the crown of best in the Snow Belt Conference back and forth for years. Last season, it was RIT who made an impressive regional run, losing a close match to Boston University in the semifinals, while Rochester made noise right before cup by upsetting a number of the Midwest’s best teams.

One thing both teams share is a heavy reliance on a small cluster of highly-talented players, and both teams were forced to deal with the aftereffects of key graduations last spring: Shane Hurlbert for RIT and Patrick Callanan and Kyle Sanson for Rochester. But RIT has benefitted from Hurlbert’s return to the team, while Rochester seems lost.

In their first head-to-head match up of the season, it was all RIT, who built up a 90-0 lead before a Rochester suicide grab. It definitely appears that early on, a lack of offense is going to be what plagues the Thestrals the most. While Devin Sandon remains a game-changing player, Callanan was his best passing option last season, with no clear secondary option to speak of. Sandon is well aware that the days of hero ball are over and will need to quickly develop some offensive weapons around himself.

RIT, meanwhile, seemed to be in cruise control, even with the loss of top beater Josh Kramer. A team heavily reliant on pace control in big matches last season, they have worked hard on more of a passing game all summer, and the results definitely reflect the ability to put points on the board. Not only did they put down 90 quaffle points on Rochester but also another 90 on a SUNY Geneseo team that also beat Rochester and looks like it could be this year’s upstart from the area.

If RIT has in fact outgrown its conference, and honestly it is too early to say that now, it will be their job to make sure they get out to enough tournaments to continue to develop. An inability to do that has largely contributed to it developing at a slower pace than Rochester in recent seasons. But if they can, with the Northeast picture truly wide open, there is no reason they could not make a run at it.

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