The Eighth Man

MLQ Preview: Can the North Handle the Intensity?

Photo by Jessica Jiamin Lang

Of the four MLQ divisions, three have clearly defined storylines. Out West, how will the Los Angeles Guardians cope with the loss of some of their elite talent and will the other teams step up to compete? Can the Austin Outlaws make a stronger push for the Benepe Cup out of the South? In the East, can the Boston Night Riders stay undefeated for their lifetime? It is almost understandable to forget about the North, but don’t worrythe North remembers.

The North Division has, arguably, the most parity in MLQ. At the top, last season the North came down to a battle between Indianapolis Intensity and Rochester Whiteout and there is little indication that will change this summer. The Whiteout has retained its core from USQ Cup 9 runner-up Rochester United and played the Intensity dead even in their matchup last season, while the Intensity look equally strong with the shiny new addition of Andrew Axtell at chaser. Both teams may not be considered favorites for the Benepe Cup, but each can make a good case for the third best team in the league.

That said, the rest of the North won’t be a cake walk. The Cleveland Riff are 2-4 with three snitch-range losses a piece to Indianapolis and Rochester in the regular season. But with a much more diverse roster than Riff renditions of the past, Cleveland could finally have enough to compete for the division title. Two-time last place division finishers the Detroit Innovators proved their mettle at the 2016 Benepe Cup with a stronger showing than most expected from the fourth place team with a short roster. The Innovators have now had two seasons of slow starts and stronger finishes. If they can start out hot this time around, there is no reason why they couldn’t steal games from Indianapolis and Rochester and, potentially, the series from Cleveland.

The series between the best two teams in the North is also the series with the longest travel time, a fact that has shown in the past two seasons. Intensity brought a notably short roster to Rochester in 2015 and was promptly thumped in two losses sandwiched around a snitch-range victory. Whiteout’s trip to Indianapolis in 2016 was more competitive, with a more robust away roster from the Whiteout that provided three snitch-range games. The home-field advantage proved too great, however, as Intensity sealed its North Division title with a 2-1 victory and evening the all-time series record to three games apiece.

Assuming Indianapolis is able to bring all of its key pieces, this series will be the one to follow in the North. The addition of Axtell can play out in a few different ways, depending on how each side handles him offensively. Rochester will likely stick Solomon Gominiak or Shane Hurlbertwho spent more time at chaser this USQ season than years prioron Axtell away from the ball, which has the unfortunate effect of taking one of the team’s best tacklers away from keepers Blake Fitzgerald and Nick Kaufman. Rochester will need to prove it has the athletes in the quaffle game to hang with Indianapolis’s best theoretical lineup, otherwise, the onus is on Hurlbert and Jon Jackson to be hyper-efficient on offense to keep the score close.

The pendulum swings further in Intensity’s favor once the snitch comes on pitch. For the second straight season, beater Tyler Walker will be coupled with both 2016 Team USA seekers Jeff Siwek and Jason Bowling. Few teams have one seeker that can perform at that level, let alone two, and Walker has proven to be one of the best beaters in the country in the midst of chaos. On paper, the matchup leans away from Rochester. But, when you consider the 14-hour drive and the odds that  Indianapolis might be short one or more of their key pieces for the series,  speculation gets suspect and the series gets more interesting.

Do not underestimate the Detroit Innovators. The starting six of Barnard, Tawfik Abbas, Krystina Packard and Hannah Katshir with a double-male beating duo led by Jim Richert creates a simple but deadly offense. Almost every team in the North will have to commit two chasers to stop Barnard consistently, leaving three excellent off-ball options essentially unguarded. Detroit’s defense is still a question mark, but scoring shouldn’t be a problem. Don’t let history fool you with this team: the Innovators have always saved their best play for the end of the season, and if they can find a way to qualify for the Benepe Cup, top teams can find themselves in trouble with a  first round matchup against an offensive machine with nothing to lose.

Photo by Jessica Jiamin Lang

Sam Beeler is arguably the most underrated player in the Great Lakes. Beeler’s name on Riff’s roster did not raise any eyebrows, but if utilized correctly, she will determine where Cleveland ends up in the standings. Originally from Miami University Ohio, Beeler can play both beater and chaser at a high level. Beeler has been playing for five years, most recently with Ohio University. While both Miami and Ohio are good programs, Riff is undoubtedly the best team on which she has rostered. With Miami, she was paired with average male beating or in dual-female beating sets. Pairing her with elite and experienced beaters like Max Mcadoo or Matt Eveland could push her to be one of the best beaters in the division. While she is a stronger beater, Beeler gives Cleveland even more flexibility with her ability to chase. At chaser, she always finds herself at the right spot. The ball carriers on Riff can and will make successful passesif Beeler is able to insert herself into the offense, expect a lot of points from her.

Jackson and Hurlbert create one of the best duos anywhere in the sport, and one of them could easily walk away as Divisional MVP. While Hurlbert traditionally gets the nod as the leader with his strong scoring stats and Team-USA selection, Jackson is arguably even more dangerous. . Offensively, Jackson is a much better off-ball option, getting himself in great positions to slam home alley-oops off Hurlbert’s drives. Jackson also spreads the ball around tremendously and forces the defense to also spread in varying directions. Defensively, he may not create the highlight reel hits you sometimes see from Hurlbert or Cody Keefer, but he can take just about anyone down. He is Rochester’s best spacial defensive keeper, covering huge amounts of area to snag errant passes or shots that the other two don’t reach. Finally, saying Jackson doesn’t score as much as Hurlbert is kind of like saying Klay Thompson isn’t as good a shooter as Steph Curry. You’re basically splitting hairs at that point, and there are more than a few games where that’s flat-out just not true to begin with. While Hulbert is an incredible athlete, Jackson is the most valuable player based on the sum total of his skills.

Indianapolis is the only team to win the North Division title thus far. Last year their lone “weakness” was the lack of a hero-ball scorer when the chips were down, but now they have added Axtell. With that addition and all of their major pieces returning, this team is the favorite. Until further notice, to win the North Division, you’ve got to beat the Intensity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *