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An Unforgettable Night of NC Ultimate

There are moments in sports you don’t forget. The college championships were full of them this weekend from to UNC Wilmington’s spectacular performance against Pittsburgh to UNC’s quarterfinals comeback against Wisconsin, to the stand out performance of Jaclyn Verzuh. The college championships brings out the best (and sometimes the worst) of the programs competing for a title. On Sunday, every North Carolina ultimate fan got treated to one of the best games of the tournament in the semi finals of the College Championships between UNC and UNC Wilmington.

 

At a personal level it seemed like a game destined to happen. The last time UNC and Wilmington played one another in a college semis, it was at Mason High School only a short ride away from the 2017 showcase field. It was the game in which Jonathan Nethercutt threw himself onto the front pages of ultimate media and Jack Williams became one of the most respected receivers in the country. It was six months before Raleigh had a pro ultimate team that could bring together the best talent from both programs and well before the current generation of players taking the field in Cincinnati had title aspirations. A lot has changed in the past three seasons since UNC and Wilmington first faced each other in Mason in 2014. UNC now holds a national title. An entirely new generation of players now hold the destiny of both programs in their hands. There’s considerably more polish in how the teams operate and in how they play. The semi played on Sunday smacked of a classic rivalry matchup with new faces, and for both teams, a chip on the shoulder. On UNC’s sideline, Flyers coach Mike Denardis and captain Jonathan Nethercutt were at the helm looking to guide UNC back to the finals for the first time since UNC won a national championship in 2015. For Wilmington, Brian Casey (Flyers #22) the semis was a validating opportunity to showcase Wilmington’s new look as a program. His arsenal of players had been limited by injuries, but Wilmington still boasted Callahan nominee Jack Williams (Flyers #28) and former UNC defender J.D. Hastings (Flyers #3).

UNC Wilmington before the start of the semifinals.

 

It was easy to underestimate the firepower Wilmington possessed. They were missing their three best mids. They lacked the defensive systems and the talent pedigree of UNC which was loaded with youth players from across the triangle. The game started as it was expected to start. UNC put on a dominant first half performance keeping Wilmington on their toes and capitalizing on turnovers. Wilmington’s cutters were somewhat stagnate to open the game forcing their throwers to work hard in the backfield. The game was going as expected. UNC was in control and Wilmington just hadn’t found that extra gear. Jack Williams remained regulated largely to a backfield role and the momentum of the game was not going their way. The key ingredient keeping Wilmington in the game was belief. Belief that they were still in the game and that their season would not end in the semis. Darkside held onto their lead in the second half, keeping Wilmington at arms’ length. With UNC within striking distance of the finals at 12-8 the clock was ticking for Wilmington to make a move.

 

UNC Defender Nathan Kwon catches a goal past a bidding Wilmington defender

It didn’t feel like a comeback at first. It’s completely normal for an offense that has had to work hard through a long grueling tournament at nationals to get broken in the second half. You shrug it off and play on. At first that’s what seemed to happen. It seemed inconceivable that Wilmington could complete a 4-0 comeback to tie the game, let alone win it. It wasn’t until the game was 12-11 and Wilmington was poised to tie the game that you actually could sense a shift in momentum.

Jack Williams (Flyers #28) rises up over two defenders during Wilmington’s comeback.

 

Without a commentator to tell you just how many goals Jack Williams was throwing it just seemed like routine for him. He was the best player on the field at that moment and hitting receivers up and down the field. It wasn’t out of the ordinary. It was what you expected from a fifth year with his season on the line playing his cross state arch rival. Their could only be one winner in the mind of the fifth year. That winner had to be Wilmington. When the game was tied, it was still inconceivable that Wilmington would win. When they punched in their fifth break in a row to make the game 13-12, you finally understood the magnitude of what was happening. You could see the belief in the eyes of Wilmington’s players, sense the validation for Brian Casey as he called out another line, hear the disbelief in UNC’s fans in the stands as the game turned slowly against them. It was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve had watching or covering a comeback, and I’ve seen quite a few over the past year. UNC locked in a hold to tie the game and take Wilmington to double game point.

 

 

UNC’s defense came down desperate to contain Williams and the Wilmington backfield. A swing pass to Williams sailed almost too high over his head on the backhand sideline and two Carolina defenders came swooping in to contest the pass. Williams just barely recovered the disc and the Carolina defenders sagged away from Williams trying to cover Hastings. The miscommunication between the defenders left Williams completely unmarked with a straight shot down the sideline into the end zone. Rick Henninghausen (Wilmington #9) was already barreling down to the end zone as Jack wound up to unleash the shot that would send Wilmington into the finals for the first time since the 1990s. It was mesmerizing. Williams and Henninghausen were untouchable in that moment. The night belonged to Wilmington and every single player and spectator knew it.

 

 

It was a mistake to underestimate Wilmington in the semis just as it had be a mistake to underestimate them when they beat Colorado in pre quarters at nationals in 2013, or when they ended Pittsburgh’s season in 2014 on double game point or when, coming into 2017, everyone believed that Wilmington would not be able to recover from the loss of Xavier Maxstadt and company. Needless to say, North Carolina programs are no stranger to being underrated. There’s a history that teams from this state draw upon in big games, an underdog mentality that powers teams through adversity and gives their players that key element that can only be learned in adversity: the will to win. It’s a history the Flyers are proud to be able to draw upon and represent on our roster. When players from all across the landscape of the North Carolina ultimate scene take the field together with the Flyers, they are representing a storied tradition of grit, passion and brotherhood. When Williams and Hastings return to the field for the Flyers in June, they’ll continue to carry their legacy as North Carolina ultimate players into the future.

-Hugo Sowder, Flyers Media, Author @ Ultiworld

Photos courtesy of Doug Ellis & Hugo Sowder

June 1, 2017 | Uncategorized | Comments Off on An Unforgettable Night of NC Ultimate

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