University Ultimate 2016: Mixed Indoor Nationals Div 1

Harry Mason brings his thoughts to the table for Mixed Indoor Nationals in the premier division. 

As the university season marches ever onwards, we arrive at the first nationwide test of the season; Mixed Indoor Nationals. Despite it being first, I have always viewed selection for this tournament as the most prestigious of any in the university season. A captain has to select only the very top 4/6 boys and 4/6 girls out of an entire squad. When you’re selecting that few people, there doesn’t tend to be much of a plateau. You don’t get any easy match-ups. The victors of tournaments like this tend to be those able to: play proper mixed, make the fewest mistakes, and use all their players in the most impressive fashion (rather than just individual player strength).

So, with that in mind, what does the tournament have in store? Eleven out of the Twenty teams in Division 1 were there last year. Last year’s silver medalists (Dundee) failed to make and nationals this time around. Strathclyde and UEA have gone from failing to make Divison 2 last year to make Division 1 this year. And Loughborough 2 qualified (convincingly) in the Yorkshire and East Midlands region, becoming only the 2nd non-first team to do so in the new regional structure (after Leeds 2).

If you want a recap of how regionals went down, please check out our discussion piece here – Right now, I’m going to jump straight into predictions and discussions of how I think the tournament will go down.

Fall of Birmingham
Birmingham have been the top dog in Mixed for three years running now. Last year they started to look a little vulnerable (Heriot-Watt in particular running them very close in the quarter final). However, they showed skill, class, and great depth of team to see off the tournament safely in the end. However, most of that team (including all of the guys) have now graduated.

So this year looks a little different. With big losses in Tom Hodgett and Ben Burak the Men’s team failed to win their regional final against Warwick, and the Women’s team has also lost several key players, notably the force of GB U23 players Kim Owen, Meg Price and Jess Cowley (although they’ve still kept Emma Klima, Helen Roberts and Grace Owen – yes, all of them were U23s last cycle too). Don’t get me wrong, they’re still very strong. After all, they held off Warwick at Mixed Regionals, a team with a decent number of EMO boys and Punt girls; and handily disposed of Cardiff too. Then their Women went and destroyed all opposition at Women’s Regionals. Despite this, I can’t see them holding onto the title this year.

At least two Scottish teams in the top 5
Glasgow must be ecstatic right now. Not only is the average age of their team the lowest in decades (we miss you Rory Curran), but they’ve taken home victories in both Men’s and Mixed Scottish Nationals so far. No surprise, given Axal Ahmala, Duncan Webster and Iain Campbell have all just returned from European Clubs with Glasgow Ultimate. Their women may not be quite as strong, but given a third place finish at UWIN last year and a 4th place at UWIR this season, but you can be sure they won’t be weak. In my eyes, they are a definite challenger.

Edinburgh and Strathclyde round off the Scottish teams. Edinburgh appear to have forgone tradition and qualified actually made their first team the strongest this time around. They’ve been rewarded with a Div 1 spot. The addition of SMOG player Hannah Rodgers to the roster can’t have hurt, especially with Black Eagles regular Tasha Lim still around. It’s no wonder they won Women’s regionals last weekend. But after coming in 2nd at Women’s, Strathclyde will now basically be looking to prove they’re the best team in Glasgow. They took a classic six guys and four girls roster selection approach to regionals, so don’t worry about waiting for hand signals to guess their gender split choice on offence.

In all, Scotland are looking very strong this year, across the board. Expect to see them pushing for a fifth bid. Although it’ll be interesting to see how Heriot-Watt and St. Andrew’s dropping out from Div 2 and Div 1 respectively affects the bids for next year, regardless of results.

Dundee getting up at Mixed Nationals last year. Photo by Claire Baker.
Dundee getting up at Mixed Nationals last year. Photo by Claire Baker.

Loughborough 2 will beat some teams
Loughborough 1 vs Leeds 1 is a game I really wish I could have seen. In any division (they’ve both qualified first teams in every division), but especially in mixed. Both teams have very good depth (in Men and Women), and have experience at the highest level. Leeds have Will Carter (GB U23 Mixed), Rob ‘Cracker’ White (GB Adult Mixed) and Rachel Naden (Reading Mixed, European Champion). Also Nick Peters (Ireland Open). I could mention more. I’m not going to.

Because they were beaten by Loughborough, a team formed on the training grounds of JR. Ruth Nicholson, Rupal Ghelani, Omar Khan and Sam Wilson all played a role in getting JR to the mixed tour trophy, nationals, and to the European Championships. With almost all the rest of the team cutting their teeth on JR2 during the summer they’ve essentially been training together since last Uni season, in a move some might describe as ‘unfair’. Oh, and they have Alex ‘Walshy’ Walsh too, who dabbed when he got MVP of the final at regionals.

But it is this depth of training which reflects in their second team. So many of them have kept playing together over the summer (guys and girls) that it’s not surprise to see them handily dispatch (9-1) of 4th place Sheffield. The firsts may be soaking up the star players, but the squad easily has enough depth that they can take on any team who takes them lightly. Huddersfield round off the region, with Mixed being the only indoor national tournament the team qualified for.

South East/South West will be playing three girls
Out of the four teams from these two regions, only Oxford actually qualified a Men’s team at UMIR (narrowly – beating Chichester in the game to go to Division 2 after losing their quarter). Exeter, Bristol and Chichester failed to qualify any team. Exeter finished 6th, not even in the game to go. Bristol 1 finished 9th, below their second team.

As a result, it’s not too much of a guess to say these teams will be relying on the strength of women to bring them through. No surprise, given the rosters. Oxford have Iceni’s Joyce Kwok. Chichester’s Amy Watson was a former GB Netball junior, and translates that skill very well to the Frisbee scene. Exeter finished 2nd at UWON last year (with Jess Taylor remaining as one of the key players from that squad). Bristol have access to one of the best Women’s development scenes in the country in Nice Bristols (something captain Hannah Smith will be very aware of). Chichester, Oxford and Bristol all qualified handily for the single division Women’s nationals, with Exeter missing out on the game-to-go.

This is not to say that the guys on the teams are weak. I can’t speak for Exeter and Bristol, but certainly the strength of Chichester Men comes in their awareness on field, their ability to create space and be useful, while allowing the women to also control their play. Oxford’s Men did qualify, but it’s their humility and patience (rather than outright ability) that makes them good mixed players. I would not be surprised if the same held true for the others.

UEA, as winners of the East & London region in mixed (but also failing to qualify in Men’s) may well fall into this category too. Especially after their Women’s team qualified for nationals for the first time in years. I would also add UCLan (with Kim Wardell – a player with more UKU medals on her own than some entire teams) here.

Manchester and Imperial to rely on older players
Sometimes, you lose a player after only three years. If you’re Scottish, you’ll hold on an extra year at least. A science student can add a placement/master’s year to get a bit more Ultimate in. But in the end, you tend to lose players eventually. Most of the time.

Manchester and Imperial are both exceptions to this rule. With Imperial receiving a boost of grad players this year (Rolo Turnell-Ritson, Dave Ray) in addition to the ones they already had (Phil Sandwell) it was no surprise to see them win Men’s regionals and grab a Div 1 spot in Mixed.

Manchester have had Steve Dixon for a long time now. He’s still really good. He returns from Euros (Chevron Action Flash) with DPhil student Gina Kuippers (JR mixed) to a squad already lined with experience (Pepe Espinosa, Katie Brown, and Olly Gray). This squad is strong at full strength. If they turn up in force, be worried.

There’s always a wild card
This article was fully written and typed up. And then Sussex managed to nab an extra spot. While their ascension is perfectly reasonable (after all, only consecutive sudden death losses to Oxford and Chichester saw them drop down, despite their arguments that a previous win vs Chichester in the semis should carry through) it’s also very annoying. See, Sussex already had a strong line of mixed players (Vicki James and Chun Lee being two I’ll highlight as already rather good). But Ashley Yeo was unavailable for selection at regionals, due to him having to take the weekend off to run GB Open beach trials. With him back, expect some people complaining about their pool seedings.

Be prepared for some good Ultimate
Self explanatory.

1. Glasgow
2. Loughborough
3. Manchester
4. Leeds
5. Edinburgh
6. Oxford
7. Birmingham
8. UEA
9. Sussex
10. Exeter

Featured image by Claire Baker.