Lazy sportswriters have relied on finding a team to slap with the Cinderella label as a default storyline for some time now. I am certainly not above being lazy, but UPenn's performance over Memorial Day truly fits the bill and is one of the more remarkable runs in recent memory. In the short time that UPA has been maintaining scores on their score reporter, the only other run that can compete with what UPenn did this year is Northwest's 2007 performance that nearly landed them in the semifinals.
Coming into the tourney as the 20th seed, Venus more than justified the UPA's decision to expand the field to 20 teams this year. What they did this year will undoubtedly inspire future upset-minded teams to do the unthinkable and give fans a lot to chat about.
I emailed Marc 'Doc' Stachowski, the head coach of UPenn Venus, about their run to get a firsthand account of their successful showing at the College Championships. In his third year as head coach, Stachowski was recognized as the Metro East's coach of the year. As a player, Doc has qualified for mixed Nationals five times, twice with Donkey Bomb and is currently on a three-year run with AMP.
FJR: Before we get to the big run in Columbus, how did you and the team leadership prepare for the College Series?
Stachowski: Sunday at sectionals was the first time all season that our entire team was on the field for a game. Our 5th year player and main handler, Raha Mozaffari, is in dental school and was barely able to make it to any tourneys at all this season. That meant a couple of things: 1. One of our main cutters, Whitney Viets, had to handle all year in Raha's place. 2. As a result of that, and the fact that I couldn't care less about things like RRI, we were a complete unknown even to our regional rivals and maybe even to ourselves.
Regardless, the mantra for our team is always "play our game". We talk a lot about making high percentage plays and factoring risk vs. reward in decision making and our players really bought into those concepts. So heading into regionals, it was all about making sure we were only thinking about the next point, and concentrating on playing our game. The only time we were rattled out of our game was in the semi vs. Maryland where they blew us out 15-4. As lopsided as that sounds, I felt like we were in every point and that most of our turnovers were mental mistakes. Fortunately, we had a great circle after that game and team captain Whitney Viets, who had a huge huge effect on team morale with her speeches, was able to rally the troops and leave everyone feeling confident and upbeat about the following day. "Three more!", was the cheer.
FJR: After a surprising upset win over Maryland (an underrated team who placed 11th at the 2008 College Championships), how did you keep the team motivated going into Nationals?
Stachowski: Prepping for Nationals was... interesting. Chaos, is probably a better word for it. As it turns out, the 2 weeks after regionals were finals weeks for everyone. And then school let out the week before Nationals. So basically, we had 1 or 2 practices between Regionals and Nationals... both of which were thinly attended. Naturally, our team was completely euphoric about our dramatic win vs. Maryland, and to be honest I was a little worried that we'd settle for just having made nationals. I basically told the team that making it wasn't enough: the whole nation thought we were lucky to be there... thought we didn't deserve our spot... nobody was giving us any respect. I told them we needed to go to Columbus and earn our respect one point at a time... with our game... the way we play it... our huge and active sideline... the whole works. If we won some games... so be it... but either way, we'd be able to hold our heads high if we just showed teams we could compete with them.
FJR: What were you and your team's expectations going into Nationals?
Stachowski: I'm a big believer in setting team goals. Our goal for every season I've coached (this was my third year) has been to play our game throughout the series... one point at a time... and ultimately make it to Nationals. So qualifying for Nationals at all would make our season a huge success.
Now that we had actually attained our goal, I had no idea what would happen next. This was the first Nationals appearance for Venus in 13 years. That, combined with the fact that we hadn't faced any other nationals qualifier left me with a lot of uncertainty as to where we'd ultimately place. I was encouraged by the fact that we had beaten Pitt, who had beaten NC a couple of times during the regular season. But beyond that, i had no idea what would happen or how good the competition would be... other than really good.
When the seeds and schedules came out it definitely seemed like we could make a run at pre-quarters if we could pull a couple of upsets... so that became our new goal: "Make pre-quarters!" We would play the 9 (NC) on Friday morning, then the 4 (Ottawa) on Friday afternoon. Then Saturday we had the 16 (Iowa St.) in the morning, and the 5 (Stanford) right after that... with a potential pre-quarters game in the evening. So, we planned to go all out for the two morning games... and if we won, we'd sub deep into our roster for the games against the 4 and the 5 to rest our starters for the potential pre-quarter matchup. That was our overall tourney strategy going in.
FJR: Opening the tourney with a win over UNC was the first surprise of the tourney and obviously huge for your team's confidence. What were the keys to winning against UNC?
Stachowski: Judging from the information we got from fellow ME teams that had faced UNC and/or had seen them play I thought we'd match up pretty well with them. The game plan going in was to poach the lane every time their main thrower Leila Tunnell had the disc, force her to give it to another handler (preferably on force side sideline) and then completely deny a reset back to her. Obviously, you can't keep the disc out of the hands of a player like Tunnell all the time, but I liked the pressure we were applying and the coverage we had downfield. I felt like we did a great job of coming out strong on D and mixing in our break mark/short game with our long shots on O.
Unfortunately one of the turning points in the game was a bad injury to one of UNC's main defenders, Kaitlin Baden. There was a long throw and Kaitlin was going stride for stride with Octavia "Opi" Payne on Penn. Both made a bid for the disc but Opi landed on Kaitlin in an awkward tangle and the play resulted in a torn ACL for Kaitlin. Seeing any player go down to that kind of injury is deflating to both teams. Nobody wants to see another player get hurt... and be reminded just how random and easy it is to be injured yourself. Without question and understandably, UNC was affected more. Kaitlin, along with her teammates had been doing a nice job covering Penn's main cutters Opi and Whitney. With her out, I feel like Penn gained a bit
of an edge both on the field and psychologically, and we were able to pull away in the second half.
I have to say a couple of things about UNC: I have to admit i groaned a little when i saw that we'd play them. Not only because they're good, but also because of that bad rap that teams from North Carolina get... "too intense"... "dirty players"... etc. Well i'm here to say that UNC was the MOST spirited team we played at Nationals. Our game was hard fought, physical, and completely fair. There were very few calls and almost all of them were uncontested. There was no "working" the rules, or ticky tack calls on bumps that had nothing to do with the play. Just ultimate being played at a high level with exciting plays everywhere. The coaches, Lindsey Hack and Brian Dobyns are class acts and their team is a reflection of them. Intense? YES! Fair? Definitely. Spirited? Unquestionably.
Also, in a display of courage that says all you need to know about the women that play this game, when I went to the sideline between one of the points in the UNC/Penn game to seek out Kaitlin Baden and offer my sympathies, she looked up from her chair, huge ice pack on her knee, shrugged, smiled gamely and said simply: "It happens." What a baller. Seriously Kaitlin, my hat is off to you. Come back strong!
FJR: After the upset win, UPenn lost to Ottawa, took care of business against Iowa State and then lost by a huge margin against Stanford, giving them a 2-2 record after pool play. UNC still had a chance to knock Venus out of the pre-quarters with a win over Stanford. Can you describe the anxiety of watching the UNC/Stanford game (knowing that UNC winning would drop you out of the pre-quarters)?
Stachowski: At that point in the tournament, our die was already cast. We had already accomplished everything we wanted to do at Nationals: Upset some teams, get some respect, and get everyone on our huge roster [FJR note: 28 players!] into a game. Of course I wanted us to continue on to pre-quarters but I was satisfied that we had done all we could to put ourselves in a good position. The rest was up to Stanford... and they managed to gut out a huge comeback win against a determined UNC team. With the Stanford win guaranteeing our appearance in the pre-quarter game, another goal had been attained. Time to reset it again: "Lets make quarters!"