By: Eliza Pugh
The 2018 National Championships begin this Thursday, Oct. 18, in San Diego, Calif., where the nation’s top 16 women’s teams will compete for the title of the year. Returning to San Diego for the first time since 1999, this event marks the 50th anniversary of the sport. It is the final tournament of the Triple Crown Tour, and while there can only be one winner, all teams will also vie for placement in order to gain entry into top tournaments next year. All preliminary games will take place at the Surf Cup Sports Park in Del Mar, Calif., before the semifinals and finals move to Mira Mesa High School in San Diego. Follow along with all the action via ESPN/TSN, USA Ultimate’s Facebook page, Ultiworld, the USA Ultimate App (iOS, Android) and #USAUNats.
What to watch for on day one (Pool Play):
Brute Squad (1) – Nightlock (8) – Heist (12) – Schwa (13)
Boston Brute Squad will be expected to hold down the number one spot in pool play. As the winners of the U.S. Open Club Championships and Pro Championships, as well as being semifinalists at the World Ultimate Club Championships this past summer, they will be hungry to reclaim a national title after losing by one point to Fury in the finals of last year’s National Championships. In addition to formidable person defense, they have honed an offensive system this year that integrates new key cutters into their style of play as many of their veteran stars remain behind the disc and dictate play. Nightlock has had a strong season, but they’ll have to bring their A-game to hold seed in their pool. If anyone does challenge Brute Squad on Thursday, it would likely be them, and that game will be live streamed at 4:30 p.m. EST on the USA Ultimate Facebook page. Nightlock went head to head with Heist twice at the Pro-Elite Challenge. They lost to Heist in pool play there, but beat them when it mattered more in the fifth-place bracket. Nightlock also beat Schwa at the Bay Area Invite in August. The Heist v. Schwa match up could be exciting, as they have not seen each other yet this season; although, for what it’s worth, Heist finished higher than Schwa at both at the Elite-Select Challenge and Pro-Elite Challenge.
Fury (2) – 6ixers (7) – Phoenix (11) – Traffic (14)
Fury is looking to defend their 2017 National Championship title and should hold seed in pool play without a hitch. They were barely challenged at the U.S. Open, only losing in the finals to Boston Brute Squad 15-11. It’s hard to predict how the 6ixers, Phoenix and Traffic will stack up at the end of the day. None of these teams have played the 6ixers this season, which could play to the 6ixers’ advantage. Their graceful athleticism and strength in the air carried them to the semifinals of the Elite-Select Challenge and Pro Championships. The live-streamed games from this pool, Traffic v. 6ixers and Phoenix v. 6ixers, should be exciting matches. Tune in live to the USA Ultimate Facebook page at 2:15 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. EST, respectively, on Thursday, Oct. 18. After missing out on Nationals last year, Phoenix 2018 has had a stellar season. Entering the Pro-Elite Challenge seeded 15th in the tournament, Phoenix upset Traffic, who was seeded third, in pool play and made it to the semifinals only to lose to Seattle Riot (3). Later in the season, Phoenix beat Nemesis (9) to win the Elite-Select Challenge. Traffic is bit of a wild card as they have lost to lower-ranked teams throughout their season, including Phoenix, but their loss to Fury at the Bay Area Invite was a more exciting game than the 15-11 score indicated (Traffic broke Fury twice in the first four points), and they had a huge upset win over Riot at the same tournament.
Riot (3) – Ozone (6) – Rival (10) – Pop (15)
Riot sits comfortably at the top of this pool, with only Ozone posing a potential threat. While Ozone had a shocking upset against Riot in the quarterfinals of the 2017 National Championships, the 2018 Riot squad has made few errors. They not only won Worlds this year (15-8 over Colombia’s Revolution), they also took first place at the Pro-Elite Challenge. Riot is not invincible, as they posted losses to Traffic and Fury at the Bay Area Invite, but it would take another shocking upset in the last pool play game of the day, when Ozone plays Riot at 6:45 p.m. EST (filmed by Ultiworld on tape delay), to pull off any surprises. The pool’s other games will also pose exciting matches. Ozone has exhibited demonstrated improvement over the season, finishing eighth at the U.S. Open and then a month later tying for third at the Pro Championships. They played Pop and Rival early on this season, winning against Rival handily and beating Pop by one point. While they certainly have the talent to hang with the top teams and perhaps pull out a later upset in bracket play, they shouldn’t look past Rival. Just as Ozone has gotten better, so has Rival. Rival lost to Pop in pool play at the U.S. Open, but proceeded to beat Pop later that weekend in placement play. While Rival may not have the wins in the book, nearly all of their losses to top Nationals-level teams have been by narrow margins of one or two points. Despite head-to-head losses to Ozone and Rival early in the summer, Pop had a moderately strong showing at the Elite-Select Challenge where they lost by one point to Phoenix and the 6ixers but garnered wins over Showdown and Wildfire. They’ll need to capitalize smartly on any opponents’ weaknesses to pull out an upset in pool play.
Molly Brown (4) – Scandal (5) – Nemesis (9) – Wildfire (16)
As usual with the four v. five matchup, the Molly Brown v. Scandal game could be day’s most exciting, as the only pool play game in which two top-five teams play each other. The game will be streamed on USA Ultimate’s Facebook page at 6:45 p.m. EST. Molly Brown has consistently performed on par with the top three teams in the country, and Seattle Riot (3) is perhaps their biggest nemesis. Molly Brown lost to Riot in the semifinals of the World Ultimate Club Championships in July, in the finals of the Pro-Elite Challenge by one point and the Bay Area Invite by two points. That said, just as Molly Brown has been practicing and gunning for a title, Scandal has also put in work. Scandal has significantly improved over the course of the season, and while they lost by five to Molly Brown in the third-place game at the U.S. Open, a month later they put up 10 points on Brute Squad in the finals of the Pro Championships (Molly Brown has put up as many as 13 on Brute Squad this season). Both Scandal and Molly Brown have beaten Nemesis in regular-season pool play games. The 2:15 p.m. EST Scandal v. Nemesis game will be filmed on tape delay by Ultiworld. Nemesis has had a slightly underwhelming performance this season. Despite early wins against Pop, Rival and Ozone, they would go on to lose to Schwa and Phoenix at Elite-Select. Yet perhaps Nemesis’ momentum from an exciting Great Lakes Regional double-game point win over Rival (10) will give them the energy they need. As for the last-ranked Wildfire, they have nothing to lose in what is a home tournament for them. Wildfire gave themselves a challenging season, making them better as a team. But despite facing top teams at the Pro-Elite and Elite-Select Challenges, they haven’t gotten a win against any top 10 teams this season, and their only notable victory is a regular-season win against Schwa. However, they have yet to face any of the other three teams in their pool at all this season, which could allow for some surprises. They will be looking to take advantage if other teams falter, to prove they belong.