Alun Pinder previews the men’s version in Nottingham this weekend which again sees a strong Scottish contingent coming south with high hopes.
February comes, and UMWIN rolls round again. Indoor season is finally drawing to a close, but before we can all move on to outdoors, there remains the small matter of crowning some champions.
Division 1 arrives in Nottingham with 20 teams looking to prove they are the best the country has to offer. This year we have the advantage of an early schedule release, so let’s look at them pool by pool, with the opportunity for quadruple the wildly inaccurate predictions.
Title holders Glasgow return as the first seed, with a Scottish regional title already claimed. After a weakened team finished dead last at UXIN, this weekend will be an opportunity to remind everyone south of the border what a full strength Glasgow looks like. Word from the north is that they could be putting out one of the strongest crunch lines at the tournament, headlined by the likes of Joel Terry (Glasgow Ultimate). Having the depth to back up that top line may be the biggest obstacle to finding their way through a stacked bracket, and might cap off hopes of a repeat.
Sheffield come in as Yorkshire and East Midlands champions, and with a growing base of club level experience with both Manchester Ultimate and LeedsLeedsLeeds. Able to create multiple different isolations every stall count, the Sheffield offense is hard to pin down, and with an array of height available they can look for cheap bailouts when they do start to get trapped. Coming in with top half aspirations, they won’t be a team to take lightly.
2017 champions St Andrews sit at an uncharacteristically-low third seed in the pool, having fallen from the regional podium. The classic hard, aggressive Saints Ultimate remains, but the big names of yesteryear have for the most part moved on, and the current squad may be further depleted with rumours of a captain unable to make the trip south. Another title may be beyond this year’s team, but they could easily end anyone’s title bid, and have the benefit of a relatively open pool to play with.
Surrey fought through a universe semi-final loss and a tough game to go at regionals, and will arrive with valuable experience of the sort of tight games that define nationals runs. Star veteran Sam Fowler (Fire) is the standout, but the team will mostly look to their cohesion to carry them through. Tipped for big things by their regional rivals, they will be looking to match their top 10 performance at UXIN.
At the bottom of the pool, Cambridge will be looking upward hungrily. A self-proclaimed team that plays outdoors indoors, the smaller hard courts of Nottingham may slow their offence, but will give the already formidable defence an extra edge. Watch out for iso-stopper Russell Petry, and Niall Jackson (Fire). Half the team filled the Christmas break with yet more indoors together, and that extra competitive experience could be a tipping point in a very tight pool.
Overall, Pool A looks a tough one to call. Plenty of teams with ambitions of making the bracket, but very few who’s rivals back them to go on and threaten semi-finals. This one could go to multiple ties, but Glasgow’s championship experience should carry them through.
Strathclyde finally shrugged off their “bridesmaids” tag and took home a title at UXIN. With that duck broken, they could certainly make it two titles from two this year, despite a close loss to Glasgow in the regional final. Plenty of height, and high-level experience in the shapes of Cameron Mackie (Black Eagles) and Ian Tait (Glasgow Ultimate) could take them deep into the bracket, and a proven willingness to travel south in strength means their customary podium finish looks very much on the cards again.
Another team with their eye on the prize, Durham beat all the other nationals qualifiers at Northern regionals. GB u24s Fraser MacDonald and Dylan Spiers, GB Open senior training squad member Steve Gillman, and not-quite-GB Will Collier form one of the most powerful top ends in university Ultimate, and a strong iso play keeps points flowing quickly. Durham will also have their eye on the spirit prize after two strong scores at regionals, and claim to be “the most fun team anyone will play all weekend”.
Bristol return to Div. 1 after a few years’ absence, and will be hoping to keep moving upwards. Advertising themselves as keeping it simple and living off strength in depth, they still feature some star names, including Nathan Sanders (GBu24) and favourite target Ed Hanton. Strong keep-disc Ultimate may serve them well come Sunday, but surviving in a stacked pool will be a big challenge.
Bangor came out second at West Mids and Wales regionals, behind only Birmingham, with only six players. Wales’ only representatives in Nottingham bring a very tidy iso play, often looking for big lateral gains over the high ball typical of indoors. The throwing of Dom Knight (SMOG, GBu24) and the speed of Quinn Kuiper (Fluid) make a dangerous combination for any defense, but late dropouts mean a small squad may struggle again with the fatigue that seemed to hold them back in the regional final, and a lack of height compared to many teams and the cramped smaller pitches may cause some issues.
Bottom seeds but with top ambitions, Loughborough are hoping to rubbish their current position and push for the semi finals spot they so narrowly missed at UXIN. Already holding a win over Bangor from that weekend, their trademark vertical-cum-iso setup continues to befuddle defences at the highest level. Bringing three current u24 players in Harry Moore, Andy Kay and Alvaro Iturmendi (Spain u24), along with veterans of deep Nationals campaigns gone by, there is plenty of depth in this squad, but they have been broken down twice by Sheffield already this year.
Pool B looks extremely dangerous, and could bring about the early demise of a top level hopeful. Strathclyde look like they will prove too much for anyone else to handle, though, in what could prove to be a preview of the tail end of the tournament. Behind them, expect a bloodbath, as whoever comes out fourth will count themselves unlucky to be eliminated so early.
Top of the pool, and holding the third seed they earned last year, Birmingham are out to upgrade their previous bronze. Only losing two players from that team, they bring in two already experienced replacements to complement the already-deep squad. Three GBu24 selections in Elliott Parnell, Eddie Mason and biggest man in the midlands Adam Vaslet form the backbone of a dangerous group that will hope to make major waves on Sunday.
While best known for their women’s team, Aberdeen’s men have stepped up this year, helping to win mixed Regionals and crack the semi-finals at men’s. Star man Daniel McElderry will do much of the heavy lifting, and they will be out to atone for a disappointing showing at UXIN which saw them miss the bracket from top seed. Known for a strong horizontal stack, the tighter spaces in Nottingham may force them out of their comfort zone on offence, but pool C looks more forgiving than most for some adjustment room.
Sussex came through two universe-point games at the end of Sunday at regionals to take the title, and will hope to make the most of that experience. They add a few players who missed regionals, and reckon they can find an extra gear to pull away from teams that have given them trouble thus far. Dom Burnham produced a huge performance in the final, with a stat on every Sussex point, but they will need to find more contributors to make a deep run at Nationals.
Newcastle usually sit on the border between divisions, but have come out on the higher side this year. After taking a draw against Manchester in power pools but falling short in the bracket, this team has a high ceiling but can be caught out by lax moments on defence. Ross Nugent (Fire) is the biggest name on a slick offensive line, but they will have to be near their best to reach the top half.
A new name on the national stage, UWE produced some major upsets before dropping a semi-final against a Bristol team they beat in pools. Armed with a suffocation zone, UWE will benefit from small pitches and teams more used to 3G indoors, but after avoiding Bath at regionals, will have to face up to a new level of pressure on offense. Star man Dan Moss will be the go to on both sides of the disc, and they will be hoping to pin down a nationals spot for years to come.
Pool C looks the most likely of any at the tournament to go to seed. Birmingham look a cut above the field, while UWE may struggle at a level many of their players haven’t seen before. In the middle, a hot performance from Newcastle could mix things up, and Sussex’s hopes may depend on how well founded their confidence in stepping up since November is.
Edinburgh are the third Scottish team to top a pool coming in, and have their eye on still being that high come the end of Sunday. They call themselves a faceless army, but outsiders may pick out ex-St Andrews players Lochlan Fisher and Gabe Schechter (both ex-GBu24) as major threats. Hoping to take a patient approach to offense, and a wild one to defence, they will want to prove that third in Scotland is still enough for third nationally.
Outdoor champions and perennial top-eight threat Bath return to Nationals with no intention of dropping down from that standard. Allegedly in a rebuilding year, they cruised through Regionals relatively unchallenged, although facing only one Nationals-level opponent. The team features a few names from the Bath 2 squad that won Regionals a few years ago, and will look to use that experience this weekend. Luke Beddow returns from a year out to dominate big match ups, and captain Ben Giles remains a standout. Medals may be achievable, but pool play could prove to be a pitfall.
Manchester fell short against Durham at regionals, but have a record of big Nationals performances. Steve Dixon (Chevron) returns again, while GBu18 Seamus Turvill is a strong addition to a dangerous squad. Failing to put away Newcastle in power pools suggests there is work to do on defence, but big game experience can be crucial in February, and Manchester have plenty of it.
A dangerous prospect lurking low in the seedings, UXIN runners-up UCL have huge upset potential. The strong iso play from mixed and big names like Russell Howd (Truck Stop), Axel Ahmala (past GBu24) and CJ Colicchio (of YouTube fame) haven’t gone anywhere, and the powerful defence that broke down top teams will be out again in full force. An unbeaten run through Regionals means only a very select group have got the better of UCL in any division this year, and the rest of pool D will have a big job trying to join.
Finally, the storied Warwick programme rounds out pool D. Falling out of the Regional final and undergoing considerable player turnover in the last two years, Warwick will be out to enjoy themselves, which they feel is when they play best. Stars Felix Martin and Neil McCulloch will put in a big effort, but a tough pool may keep them trapped at the lower end of the division.
A true pool of death, pool D has four potential contenders scrapping for three chances at the bracket. While Warwick look likely to struggle, the top spots are anyone’s to claim. UCL’s exceptional record so far this year makes them perhaps slight favourites, while the three tenured programs alongside them could fall in any order.
Based solely on my pool predictions, here is my surely-hopelessly-wrong best guess at the final top eight standings:
Featured photo by Sam Mouat