The Eighth Man

MLQ Preview: How Will the West Be Won?

Photo by Tayyeb Mubarik

The MLQ West Division has a lot to prove this season. Even though the Los Angeles Guardians boasted a number of former Team USA athletes last summer, the West failed to send a single team to day two at the 2016 MLQ Championship. With the region recently experiencing similar disappointment at USQ Cup 10, players will likely be working harder than ever in the coming months to finally put an end to the West’s downward spiral. With the Guardians losing the vast majority of their elite players, other teams in the West stand a genuine chance of dethroning the reigning championsand an increase in close, high-intensity games might be just what the division needs to push itself harder and find the success it failed to accomplish the last time they traveled to League City.

Only eight players from last season’s Guardians returned to play for the team this season. While picking up undeniably elite players like Peter Lee and Vanessa Goh is huge for the program, it is impossible to deny that losing Tony Rodriguez, Alex Browne, Missy Sponagle and Margo Aleman will drastically reduce the level of quidditch we can expect from the Guardians. Head coach Chris Seto made sure to fill more than half of the new roster with his fellow Lost Boys and players who have played for his USQ team in the past, which might help provide an answer to the often-asked question of whether chemistry is actually more essential to a team’s success than overall skill.

While both the Salt Lake City Hive and San Francisco Argonauts are equipped to give the Guardians much closer games than they did last season, the Hive versus Guardians series has to be the most anticipated for the West Division. The Hive managed to give the Guardians their only regular season loss last season, and with the Hive now boasting superior ball-carriers in Cameron VomBaur and George Williams, they might be able to improve on that memorable performance. It definitely won’t be easy, though—the Guardians still maintain an edge with their beaters, and with Dan Howland’s departure from the Hive and the Guardians’ acquisition of Justin Fernandez, the reigning champions are favored to win snitch-range games. The Hive notoriously trained incredibly hard last season, with several more team practices and workouts than their fellow West Division teams, yet still came up short in League City. They’ll likely need to work even harder if they want to steal Los Angeles’ crown.

Photo by Badal Chandra

Last year’s Phoenix Sol squad was problematic at best. The Sol struggled with their dwindling roster and the extreme heat which kept them from being able to practice regularly. They failed to play their series against the Guardians, and couldn’t earn a win in League City. This season, they still only have 19 players compared to most other teams’ 30, but several of those players are skilled and—perhaps just as important—dedicated. While the Fighting Farmers failed to qualify for USQ Nationals, Shane Bouchard played exceptionally well at the West Regional Championship and proved that he may be among the region’s top drivers. Alexander Makk’s name has long been known in the West for his driving and tackling ability, and utility player Jarrod Bailey proved his skill when he helped Arizona State University dethrone the Los Angeles Gambits. If Phoenix can actually show up to their games and give their top players the lion’s share of playing time, they might not be the throwaway team some are expecting based off of last season’s performance.

Photo by Alex Beaulieu

Guardians chaser Justin Bogart has been playing quidditch longer than any male player still active in the sport, so it’s fairly unbelievable that he is still relatively unknown for his skill. He’s a surprisingly consistent and solid tackler despite his slender frame, and his movement off-ball on offense makes him difficult to cover.

Fellow Guardians chaser Michael Richardson has been dramatically improving each season as both a ball carrier and a constantly-moving, off-ball player, and while the Guardians surprisingly didn’t put him on their roster as a keeper, his hoop coverage may actually be the best the West Division has to offer. Both players will give the Guardians the much-needed defensive presence the team is lacking with the departure of players like Rodriguez, Browne, Brandon Scapa and Jake Tieman, and they will be instrumental on offense as well.

Each team in the West Division has a handful of players that are going to be absolutely essential if they want to see any sort of success during the regular season. Perhaps no player is going to be as important to his team as Kyle Epsteen, starting keeper for the Guardians. The Guardians’ beaters will surely be creating plenty of no-bludger opportunities for their team on offense, but they are slightly lacking in skilled drivers. Epsteen has the size, athleticism and fearlessness to capitalize on the opportunities gifted to him by Lee and Seto, and, assuming he knows well enough to be selfish and hold onto the ball when passing would be unwise, will surely put up a good majority of the team’s points whenever he’s in the game. His unrelenting optimism and positivity as assistant coach will be similarly important if the Guardians hope to stay focused and motivated to keep their title of West Division Champions.

Photo by Seabass Photography

The Guardians may have lost several of their best players from last season, but that won’t keep them from staying champions this summer. They’ve got several new large or tall additions which will give them a size advantage against their Western opponents;  a number of their players have been playing for more than four years; and they boast the division’s most intimidating beater corps. It will be incredibly surprising if they finish the regular season undefeated, but it will be just as surprising if they don’t emerge as repeat champs.

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