Alun Pinder makes his writing debut for the ShowGame, by taking us through what is traditionally considered one of the strongest regions – the Midlands
Last year, the Midlands region looked like anyone’s game. This year, the competition seems even closer, with two National Divisional champions, along with a pair of top ten Division 1 finishers all out for the top spot. They’re seeking to add to the five golds won by Midlands teams (from an available six) since the BUCS league was implemented. Let’s meet the teams.
Two years removed from their almost total domination of the University Ultimate scene, things seemed to be on the slide for Birmingham last year. Dropping their third game to Loughborough marked a first ever league defeat. But time, and uBu, make fools of us all, and come the end of the season, they found their way back to the top of the Midlands courtesy of a big win over Warwick to take the title by a big points difference margin, and followed up by slotting straight back into the top four at Nationals. Around half of that squad returns this year, and Captain James Firth reckons they have “every reason to be aiming for the top once again”.
By their own admission, this year’s incarnation of uBu lack some of the star names of past years, and of some other teams in the region, but with “no weak players”, they will look to outclass other teams right down the roster. A potential X-factor could be new handler Tom Williams (GB U20), whose pre-existing chemistry with former junior international teammate Elliot Parnell offers an extra dimension to an already potent team.
Arriving in the top tier last year, Loughborough started with a bang, notching an opening win over reigning national champions Nottingham. Victory over league winners and national bronze medallists Birmingham soon followed. The phenomenal beginning couldn’t quite last, with a loss to Warwick creating the three-way tie they fell in the middle of, but a top ten finish at nationals cemented Haze as an elite team. This year, maintaining Division 1 status is the aim, despite the loss of Alex Walsh (EMO) and Matt Hill (JR) to graduation, and Sam Wilson (EMO, GB U24 Men’s) taking a year away on placement.
Seven members of the returning Haze squad featured in A-tour this summer, and will be relied on to fill the shoes of the departed core of last year’s team. A potential incoming highlight is soon to be 19-year-old Alvaro Iturmendi, who featured prominently for Spain u20s at EYUC. He will likely be spoiled for choice when it comes to athletic receivers to throw to.
Warwick Bears were unlucky enough to boil out at the bottom of last year’s three way tie at the top, despite delivering Loughborough’s only league defeat. A loss to UBU in which they felt they threw the game away saw title hopes fade. This year sees sweeping changes though, as all but two of that team move on, along with Coach Andrew Hillman (Clapham). For most universities, such a loss would be crippling, but not Warwick. The gaps left by graduating players will be filled by last year’s Warwick seconds, a group strong enough to place fourth at Division 2 last year, on the back of a strong team identity and chemistry. They will look to those traits to carry up to the highest level this year.
Watch out for Adam Carver (EMO), one of the two returners. Captain Willem Garnier describes him as “a beast of a lockdown defender” and with plenty to offer after then turn. Elsewhere, keep an eye on Jonah Varney, who, despite choosing not to play EMO or trial for GB U24, has the potential to dominate in any game, against any matchup.
With a second title under their belt in two years, albeit a division lower than in 2016, Nottingham are back and looking to return to their accustomed spot at Division 1. Despite the depth of talent at the top of the region, Nottingham will take comfort in what President Tom Kirby describes as the “reasonably comfortable” way they topped all comers to remain unbeaten at UMON since the current league format began. Last year’s coach, and previously star player, Ben Poole (EMO) has moved on, but his place as coach will be filled by Kat Cheng and Pete Garnett, who will look to spur a talented squad on to new heights.
Keeping their strongest players seemingly endlessly has been a trend of late for Nottingham. Other Midlands teams will no doubt be troubled to hear that GB U24 men’s squad member George Gayton (EMO) and club stalwart Joel Miller are returning for a further three years as they each study for PhDs. Their speed, skills, and years of experience and chemistry pose problems for any opponent, and they will be backed by strong new faces moving up from the second team who finished as runners up in Midlands 2B last year.
In what is becoming a recurring trend in the Midlands, Oxford stormed through 2A last year. Going largely unchallenged, OW! proceeded to win Division 3 Nationals, and ended the year undefeated. This season brings a return to the top table, and a step up in quality. After learning from some tight games at Nationals, Captain Ian Roper believes the series of “nail-biters” they played have helped develop a deeper squad than in past years. This year’s aim is a first appearance in Division 1, the only division OW! are yet to win. Their main obstacle in achieving that may come, not from the opposition, but from the lack of Wednesday afternoons off limiting player availability.
Of course, in addition to that drawback, being Oxford has its privileges. This year sees another reliable influx of overseas talent, notably the returning Aidan Penn, who will be kitting up for a second year (after a year off). Home names to watch include Roper (Deep Space), and the seemingly eternal students Hamza Alawiye and the ShowGame’s own Harry Mason (both Reading).
Nottingham Trent (Trent)
The new boys on the scene, Nottingham Trent are treading uncharted territory, with promotion guaranteeing their first UMON appearance. After a strong display in the lower leagues, losing only to Oxford in the cup, Trent topped 2B to banish memories of a disappointing fourth place the year before. This year, survival is the first objective, as they aim to play the long game for a strong first showing at nationals, and of course, look to pick up some scalps. The big target will be Nottingham, in a now much more serious city derby.
The passing years have meant that many players who worked to build Trent up to this level have moved on before getting to experience it, including the losses of Michael Paul and Sam Pitt (Flyght Club). A new generation have stepped up to take over, with captaincy team Kai Birch and Frazer Leigh intending to fill those gaps, and make the distinctive pink a fixture at the national level.
Last year goes to show that predicting the Midlands is a fool’s errand, but here we go anyway. Warwick’s huge player loss will be hard to overcome, while Oxford’s issues with player availability will keep them just short of breaking the top half. Nottingham Trent’s only result against any of these teams is a medium loss to Oxford, which doesn’t bode too well for them. Elsewhere, Nottingham’s retention could see them slide upwards, and after last year, who can bet against Birmingham finding a way to wind up on top again?
- Nottingham Trent