Ultimate frisbee fly at Nationals

Sam Griffiths and Amy Niven report on a promising trip to Nationals for ultimate frisbee.

Sam Griffiths
3rd December 2018
Image- Wikimedia Commons

Last weekend saw the Newcastle Pies Mixed first team make the trek down to greater London for Nationals. Having qualified for division 1 by coming 2nd in the Northern region they were surprised to find themselves seeded 20th, aka last. Despite the low expectation set by UK Ultimate, Pies went in determined to break seed and demonstrate what the North has to offer.

This year’s team were graced with some new additions. Chloe O’Loughlin, a masters student who played with Leeds during her undergrad and fresh-faced fresher Emily Atkinson, who played GB under 17s, have both joined the squad and have added new strength to the team. Also Newcastle Pies very own Yasmin Gill was brought into the fray after impressing whilst captaining the 2nd team at regionals.

At regionals the Newcastle women had been described as ‘intimidating’ which is, partly down to the fearful captain and vice combo of Amy Niven and Kate Gibson, Newcastle’s very own GB representative. The men were also looking strong with names such as Sam Griffiths and captain Alex Thompson returning from years abroad in Canada and Japan, having learned secret frisbee tactics to catch other teams off guard. As well as this, the returning strength of Chris de Leewue and David Steedman from last year looked to make this a well balanced team, despite their lack of playing time together. Newcastle alumni and now Coach Ivan Mladjenovic was also on hand, offering his expert insights to the team and providing a powerful one man sideline over the course of the weekend.

The venue presented pitches that were unlike anything Pies had played on before, with the end zones being double the size which Newcastle were used to. This meant that the team had to make a series of tactical adjustments as they were unable to use a lot of the defense that they had spent the year training and their offence strategies had to be tweaked. It was clear that at this tournament, the games would be won by teams with offensive players who would utilise the extra scoring space.

The team’s first game was against Strathclyde, the eventual tournament winners. Newcastle started sluggishly against the Scottish side and even though they were missing their key player, Ian Tait, Strathclyde’s ‘match-defence’ was stronger than anything the team had come up against in the North. Strathclyde took the win but gave the Newcastle team some valuable lessons for the next game.

Next the team played Reading who sat comfortably at ninth seed. In this game the offense started to flow and gel a lot better with the weave generating lots more space than it had against Strathclyde. Newcastle’s zone defense managed to shut down Reading’s isolation plays allowing Pies to come out as victors, proving they weren’t deserving of their 20th seed.

After a long break for lunch Newcastle’s next game was against Bath. In this game Newcastle struggled to start with enough intensity which led to the team going down early with not enough time to claw the game back. This loss meant Newcastle had to win their final group game in order to break out of the bottom 8 bracket.

Facing a Nottingham side which had beaten Bath earlier in the day, Pies knew they had to come out strong. Nottingham had no answer for Newcastle’s slick offensive movement, along with the ‘G-Pez’ end zone play, named after Newcastle legend George Perry. Over the course of the weekend this led to countless scores with the bouncy Alex Thompson reaping the benefits. This victory meant that Newcastle had come 3rd in the group, and were heading into Sunday as the 9th seed meaning they had a chance to cross up into the top 8.

A 9am start was not what the doctor ordered but Newcastle arrived nice and early to prepare for the day ahead knowing that a space in the top 8 was within reach. Unfortunately the doctor did order captain Amy Niven to go to A+E after she received a disc to the eye socket in the pregame warm up, meaning Newcastle were down a captain in their most important game of the weekend. The crossover was a re-match against Manchester who had defeated the team a month ago at regionals. Tensions was high and Pies were determined to show how much they had improved since then. Despite the captain shaped void on the pitch Newcastle rallied together and brought an intensity to their first game which had been missing the previous day. As other teams arrived for their games they got to watch the North’s top two teams compete with Newcastle edging out the victory 10-8.

After this victory, a space in the top 8 was guaranteed and the Pies were starting to get altitude sickness from all the climbing they were doing.

The next game saw Newcastle go up against the first seed, Birmingham, with a chance to seize the top spot. The northern underdogs came out strong and took an early lead, possibly surprising the strong Birmingham side who had been relatively unchallenged up until this point. They started to trade points with the Birmingham side and continued to look strong both on offense and defense, forcing turnovers and staying composed on the disc. The side-lines continued to fill with crowds who were excited to see the bottom seed making Birmingham side sweat and fight for the game. The game was literally David (Steedman) vs Goliath (they had a player who was 6ft5) and there was exceptional play from both sides. Birmingham had an  incredible sequence in which their Goliath dived full extension, otherwise known as a layout, to catch a pitch length disc for a score. This play completely swung the momentum safely into their hands with just a couple of minutes left on the clock and Birmingham managed to take the game.

This had been Newcastle’s best game and they walked away with their heads held high. Both teams agreed that it was the best game they had played and it was incredibly well spirited. Newcastle and Birmingham had both displayed perfect examples of how to combine spirited and intense play at a tournament.

A difficult and uninspirational game against KCL followed. The team had lost their intensity due to a long break between the games which allowed KCL to dictate the game and uncharacteristically Newcastle’s offense was struggling to create any space. Along with Newcastle’s inability to force turnovers KCL were able to get the win.

Next was the team’s final game against Bangor, who had claimed they could ‘wreck’ the Newcastle zone defence after having had a tip off on their playstyle from regionals. Newcastle subsequently decided to stick with their ‘match defence’ which had been working so well the whole weekend. Pies were able to shut down Bangor’s weave offense and G-Pez was in fine form in the endzone, confusing the Bangor defense and generating score after score. The game finished 14-7 to Newcastle meaning that they had climbed even further into the top 8 and finished the tournament in the 7th seed, 13 places higher than they had started.

Newcastle succeeded in defying the expectations of both UK Ultimate and of themselves, whilst also establishing themselves as one of the top university teams in the country. The team’s efforts in training and warm up games this season have paid off and Pies can now go and confidently prepare for the outdoor season that lies ahead as well as Men’s and Women’s indoor nationals which are both taking place in February.

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