By Matt Goisman
San Diego, Calif. (Oct. 26, 2019) – Seattle Sockeye has been the top overall seed all year.
They’ll try to win their fourth USA Ultimate National Championship by beating a team that had never even competed in the title game before this year.
Sockeye overcame a three-point halftime deficit to beat Raleigh Ring of Fire 14-13 in the second semifinal Saturday night at Mira Mesa High School, setting up Sunday’s championship match up against Chicago Machine, who knocked off defending champion Pride of New York 15-10.
Sockeye, who lost in the semifinals last year, returns to the championship for the first time since 2015 and will go for its first title since 2007. Machine tied for ninth last year and was playing in its first semifinal since 2015.
“This is where the road stopped last year,” said Sockeye’s Trent Dillon. “This one was another level of emotion, and I think we broke through that. I think we reached another level of belief and intensity that we’re going to carry through tomorrow.”
Sockeye’s defense forced just one turnover in the first half and couldn’t capitalize on it, as Ring of Fire went to the break leading 8-5. But Ben Snell blocked a pass from his spot in the cup on Sockeye’s second D-line point after halftime, Billy Katz providing the break with a short backhand to Nathan Kwon to pull within one at 9-8.
Both teams held over the next four points, then Duncan Linn broke up a pass on Sockeye’s side of the field and completed a forehand huck to Christian Foster. Foster quickly found Snell in the end zone to tie the game at 11-11.
That evened the breaks at two apiece, but not for long. Liam Searles-Bohs tried to find Jack Williams (six goals) on a long shot to the end zone, but Dillon got position, went up and batted it away.
John Randolph converted on the other end with a pass to Mitch Kulczak for Sockeye’s first lead at 13-12.
“Jack’s an incredible player in the air,” Dillon said. “I think I got lucky to get a paw on that, but I’m happy I did.”
Noah Saul (one goal, four assists) forced double-game point for Ring of Fire with a backhand to Dillon Lanier, but Sockeye’s handling combination of Phil Murray, Matt Rehder and Dylan Freechild wouldn’t be denied. The trio worked the disc down the field on the final possession, and Freechild (three goals and four assists) eventually found Brice Dixon for the game-winner.
“You can feel the energy shift,” Freechild said. “They brought incredible energy in the first half. When that first turn happened, you can feel that deep breath happen, that shortness of letting it out, and we sensed that.”
Ring of Fire jumped out to a 2-0 lead, as Sol Yanuck recorded a hand block on the second point, and Austin von Allen completed a scoring strike to Lanier. Von Allen added a diving D later in the half, setting up Yanuck’s long forehand to Alex Davis for the break and 8-5 halftime lead.
Machine also led 8-5 at halftime, breaking PoNY three times in the first half and twice more in the second. Johnny Bansfield assisted on four of Machine’s defensive points, twice diving to haul in deep hucks from Kurt Gibson and then quickly tossing to Walden Heiwa Nelson for the quick score.
Bansfield’s fourth assist saw him miss the disc, watch it get deflected but not batted down, adjust and haul it in while hitting the turf.
“Johnny played the best game I’ve ever seen him play,” said Machine teammate Joe White. “Playing against their defense is kind of like playing against our defense, because all they do is sit in spaces, so we’re pretty used to it. Some of those points got a little hairy towards the end, but we’re used to having to just swing it over and over again.”
White finished with three goals, two assists and one D, catching a forehand huck from Bansfield after subbing in on an injury following a PoNY turnover. His D came in the second half after PoNY’s defense had forced a turn, White reading a swing pass, running in and swatting it down.
Yiding Hou finished the possession with a throw to Pawel Janas (three goals) in the end zone for the hold and 11-6 lead.
“Joe is unstoppable,” Bansfield said. “One of the best deep threats and cutters in the country.”
PoNY had already overcome one halftime deficit at Nationals, coming back from 8-4 at halftime to beat Rhino Slam! 15-14 in the quarterfinals. But that comeback was predicated on a fast start out of halftime, as PoNY’s defense broke Rhino Slam! on the second point and did so again five points later.
Machine didn’t follow the same pattern: PoNY’s defense got one goal on Sam Little’s hammer to Jack Hatchett to go up 2-0, but Machine’s offense held on every subsequent point until Jeff Babbitt broke up a huck to the end zone on game point, and Little threw another hammer score, this time to Conrad Schloer.
Machine won it one point later on Keegan North’s forehand to Jesse White.
“A ton of credit to them, they played an incredible game,” said PoNY captain Jimmy Mickle. “The biggest thing is they made a lot of plays after we turned the disc. I was really happy with how we played defense, and I thought they continuously made a lot of plays.”
Tune in to the men’s division final at the 2019 National Championships, live on ESPN3 and in the ESPN app, Sunday, October 27, at 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT.