By Cameron VomBaur, Christopher Dewing, David Sager, and Randi Jamer
The West Region descends upon Arizona as nine teams look to cement their bids for US Quidditch Cup 10 in Kissimmee, Florida at this coming weekend’s West Regional Championship.
Seven Players to Watch:
1. Margo Aleman — Los Angeles Gambits
Losses during the Los Angeles Gambits’ first two years were largely marked by an inability to secure early snitch catches. Enter one of the sport’s most talented seekers, Margo Aleman. Aleman has a history of clutch grabs on big stages: Quarterfinals runs with Arizona Quidditch Club (AZQC) and the Lost Boys, dealing Quidditch Club Boston its only 2015-16 loss with a 14-second grab at the Bat City Showcase, and a world championship with the University of Texas at World Cup VII. His monstrous physical presence as a chaser/keeper, especially on defense, only bolsters the most impressive quaffle corps in the West. It is his seeking, however, that may make the biggest difference to a Gambits squad hoping to reach new heights in 2017.
2. Nate Western — Crimson Elite
After a long-standing ACL injury to George Williams came to light, Nate Western has found himself as Crimson Elite’s starting keeper. In his second year of backing up Williams, Western has still shown some of the streaky shot selection and frustrating passes that plagued him during his rookie season. However, in his first full tournament as a starter at the Tegan and Sara Invitational, he demonstrated the poise and patience typical of Crimson’s offensive style. A quick, wiry 6’5”, Western has the physical tools to make the drives and defensive stops necessary for a breakout performance and US Quidditch Cup 10 bid, if his mercurial decision-making can be controlled.
3. Andrew Burger – The Long Beach Funky Quaffles (LBFQ)
At the forefront of Long Beach’s rise to national recognition is Andrew Burger. Burger gained a good deal of recognition playing for Major League Quidditch’s Los Angeles Guardians over the summer, alongside the more established Steve DiCarlo and Chris Seto, of the Gambits and Lost Boys, respectively. It may have been this summer of experience in a high profile setting to get Burger noticed as being among the elite tier of West beaters. His highly aggressive offensive style, often playing to the edge of the opponent’s keeper zone, has given the likes of DiCarlo and Seto trouble. This most famously occurred in the Long Beach Funky Quaffles’ program-defining upset of DiCarlo’s Gambits, but was also on display in two hard-fought, snitch-range losses to Seto’s Lost Boys at Anthill Funkdown (90*-50 and 80*-30). His play will determine Long Beach’s fate as it seeks to return to the national stage.
4. Ryan Pfenning — Cal Quidditch
Ryan Pfenning is a second year keeper who continues to have strong development. A key member of Cal Quidditch’s resurgence over the past two years, he opens new opportunities up on the field as he gains experience. Characterized as lanky last year, he has bulked up and become the focal point of Cal’s offense. One of the more physical players on Cal’s team, Pfenning primarily drives and often finishes with a signature jump and dunk that is hard to defend. He was one of the main reasons Cal went 4-0 at the Silicon Valley Showdown in December, carrying both the offense and the defense throughout. Expect his impact to be among the greatest of any Northern California player.
5. Shane Bouchard — The Fighting Farmers of Arizona
In his first season in the West after a very successful collegiate career at the University of Kansas (KU), Shane Bouchard has made his presence known. Bouchard was a versatile player for KU, most commonly utilizing his athleticism and stamina as beater and specializing in 1.5 (or napalm) beater play. With the Farmers, however, Bouchard has become the most dominant scoring force in a quaffle corps filled with imposing physical presences (Dan Marovich, Ben Harding, Richard Hatch, etc.). His power and quickness are at work in his point defense as well as his offensive driving. While the Farmers have had inconsistent performances, Bouchard has been the most consistent source of goals. Notably, he put in a clutch performance in a double-overtime thriller against the Skrewts at the Tegan and Sara Invitational, scoring relentlessly while the snitch was on pitch and getting a walk-off brooms-up goal in the second overtime period to seal the win. For the Farmers to return to a deep bracket run at the West Regional Championship, Bouchard will need to be at his best.
6. Emily Webster — Northern Arizona University Narwhals (NAU)
Emily Webster, now in her third season, has shown constant progression on the pitch. Primarily a beater, Webster has also been used as a chaser this season. When chasing, Webster is an offensive threat behind the hoops who has a tendency to score enough points to give the Narwhals a sizeable advantage in the early stages of the game. Coupled with her ability to be the physical front woman on NAU’s defense, she can slow down, even shut down, the opposing team’s quaffle carrier. Webster is also one of NAU’s best beaters; she is smart, physical, not afraid to make a long beat within her range, and will put enough pressure on the offense or defense to help carry NAU to win the games it needs.
7. Connie Henderson — Anteater Quidditch
It is incredible that a player can play for three seasons now (four if you include an unofficial one) and still fly under the radar as her team enters the regional championship as one to watch. In seasons past, it was hard for Henderson’s potential to be seen as the Anteaters struggled to put even a few points on the board. However, Henderson could be considered one of the better female chasers in the West. She was a legitimate contender for a spot on a very competitive Los Angeles Guardians roster and her performance with the Pink Team at the summer fantasy Funky Fiesta proved that she adapts to the players around her constantly and learns on the go. She is frequently underestimated despite the physicality she brings on defense; she is not afraid to body up and does not hesitate to throw herself onto the quaffle if she sees the opportunity to regain possession. When she is used effectively on offense, Henderson is a solid catch-and-dunk quaffle player. The regional championship will be the first time where her performance will actually draw attention to herself, but if things go well for Henderson and her team, it definitely will not be the last.
Five West Storylines
1. Different Tournament Structure From Previous Years
As a result of having a large number of bids in years past, the West was awarded quarterfinalists bids to US Quidditch Cup 10, with the remaining bids awarded from the consolation bracket. With only nine bids this year, however, a tournament that awards bids to semifinalists and then the remainder via the consolation bracket will be a big change for teams. The West’s consolation bracket has traditionally been a white-knuckle drawn-out affair – expect extra fireworks this year as teams will have to battle late into the afternoon on the second day to secure a bid. A single victory will no longer suffice. It is here that the more experienced teams will likely be able to pull out victories, and teams that rely on a small number of star players might suffer. Look no further than last year’s consolation bracket where a University of Southern California team simply got worn down by the experience of the Silicon Valley Skrewts who had been through the rigors of the consolation bracket before. USQ Cup bid campaigns by the Anteaters, Silicon Valley Vipers, or Arizona Jackalopes may suffer as a string of strong results will be necessary. Expect upsets, but at the end of the day those headed to Florida may seem familiar as practice does make perfect.
2. Can Cal Make an Impact Outside of Northern California Quidditch Conference (NCQC)?
Cal Quidditch rose from the ashes of a near last place finish at the West Regional Championship in 2015 to qualify for the second day at US Quidditch Cup 9 in 2016. The question remains for 2017: is Cal ready to challenge top regional teams, or is it still a step too far from NorCal opposition? A comprehensive out-of-range victory over a diminished Long Beach Funky Quaffles roster at the Silicon Valley Showdown in December seems to indicate so. Cal has good paired beater play, a stout physical defense, and an offense that is able to produce quality passes and execute on the openings they provide. Cal has a deep roster at all positions and can keep its top players fresh late into a second day.
However, a high frequency of penalties may derail the team as it strives to contend. At the most recent NCQC tournament, over five Cal players were given yellow cards in each match and it had at least one player red-carded, including star keeper Ryan Pfenning in the team’s victory over the Vipers. This cavalier attitude toward the rules could prevent Cal from consolidating hard-fought advantages against better teams. Another question is whether its beater tandems can match the cohesion and talent of top beaters in other locales. Once again, Cal’s lack of play against top West teams leaves it as a bit of a wild card headed into the regional championship. Cal has definitely improved since last year, but the jury is still out on whether it has made the next step.
3. Can the Farmers Come Together?
Although the Farmers are clearly a talented team, most of the Farmers are dispersed throughout the region, with a few of their players living in Phoenix, and others as far away as Northern California. A mediocre performance at the Tegan and Sara Invitational also does not bode well for their US Quidditch Cup prospects. That said, they have a prospective roster stocked full of talent that has tremendous potential. The question that will follow them around all weekend, though, is whether this talented group of players can overcome a lack of chemistry and succeed.
4. Can Arizona State University (ASU) Win it all?
Although ASU is currently ranked third in the USQ rankings and has an 11-0 record, the question remains: can ASU win it all? Arizona State has not traveled outside of the state this season, with its only out-of-state opponent being the Long Beach Funky Quaffles. Despite a surprising run to the finals at the regional championship last year, a blowout loss to the LA Gambits suggested it wasn’t quite ready for the stage. Combined with some very strong performances from numerous Southern California teams this year, ASU could find a bumpy road even before the semifinals. An early test against Crimson Elite in pool play should serve as a decent barometer. Overall, ASU has a high potential of doing well at the regional championship, but it runs the risk of letting its confidence of going into the regional championship as the No. 1 seed get the better of it.
5. Year of Upsets/Parity: What Does the Regional Championship Have in Store?
The West has certainly experienced a year of parity with top teams suffering upsets, afterthoughts in previous years showing improvement, and a mix of unexpected results from the mid-tier teams. There are quite possibly as many as 13 or 14 teams that would acquit themselves well in Florida that are fighting for just nine spots to go there. Outside of top-tier teams, the results from pool play and point differential will be crucial in setting up favorable seeding for the second day. While seeing ASU, Lost Boys, or Gambits square off in the final against one another will not surprise spectators, the possibility of a Cinderella semifinalist or even finalist should likewise not come as a shock. Individual teams have shown a strong ability to play to their strengths in punching above their weight this season.
Rematches between LBFQ and Gambits, Lost Boys, and Anteaters in pool play should provide early guidance about how much the major upsets this season were indicative of parity or whether they were one off lucky occurrences. Pool D will also help sort out just how competitive each of its top three teams are this year. Cal, UCLA, and the Farmers each could top the group, but convincing performances from any of those three teams could set them up for a clear run to the semifinals. Any team that is able to blowout another quality team will reap the benefits of such performances with its Day Two seeding.
Among the many the many teams out there, the Silicon Valley Skrewts stand out as a team that could make the semifinals or miss a USQ Cup bid all together. Striving for their sixth consecutive USQ Cup bid, they have twice had to battle to the final round of the consolation bracket to secure their ticket. Mediocre showings at the Silicon Valley Showdown in December and the Tegan and Sara invitational in January suggest that they could be ripe for an upset. Whether they can duplicate the shock results of Anteaters or LBFQ will depend on their veteran chasing and beating corps that is the envy of many teams in the region, and could very well carry them deep in this year’s tournament.
Three Teams Looking to Qualify That Weren’t at US Quidditch Cup 9
1. Anteater Quidditch
Can they pull off another upset, like they did at Anthill Funkdown in January, and snag a bid using their impressive clock-management and decently-strong beater corps? They will get their chance to replay the Lost Boys during pool play; this will be a second chance to prove that their first win was not a fluke.
Anteater Quidditch has long been a basement-dweller in the West. The team’s first two seasons held records of 1-11 and 1-17, with only five of those losses coming in range. However, this year, the Anteaters have compiled a much-improved 6-8 record, culminating in a phenomenally stunning 100*-60 victory over the Lost Boys, who have long been one of the region’s titans. Led by fearless chaser Joe Robles, Henderson, an intuitive chaser with a wide skill set; and Austin Sharp, who can orchestrate their offense, the Anteater Quidditch may be ready to finally produce consistent results. Despite its victory over the Lost Boys, it has also lost to less competitive teams like the University of Arizona this season. If it can consistently compete, it could battle for one of the final US Quidditch Cup 10 bids, but its first step will simply be to make Day Two.
2. Long Beach Funky Quaffles
After a year in which they didn’t qualify for US Quidditch Cup 9, the Long Beach Funky Quaffles are in the midst of a statement season. Big wins over qualifiers from last season include an out-of-range victory over UCLA, in-range victories over the Silicon Valley Skrewts and the Utah State Quidditch Club, and a 110*-80 result over the reigning Western Regional champion Los Angeles Gambits, one of the most stunning upsets in recent memory. Long Beach will be looking to prove that it is more than a one-game wonder, though. With more official games played this year than any other team in attendance, the Funky Quaffles have been building experience against diverse teams, playing in Northern California, Southern California, and Arizona. The team relies heavily on a double-male beater set, led by Burger, with Jake Malloy and Sam Weisser in the rotation. Goals tend to come from the powerful drives of keepers Anthony Hawkins and rookie Darrell Miller, or from quick dishes to a litany of talented support chasers. Long Beach has demonstrated that it can play up to the level of the region’s top contenders, but it has also played down to teams that it has the potential to outplay. Early losses to every major contender in Arizona, plus a January snitch-range game against the Wizards of Westwood (100*-40) indicate that, even with a win over the Gambits, the Funky Quaffles can struggle to dominate games. Despite having only one out-of-range loss on the season (a slightly shorthanded 150*-40 loss to Cal), Long Beach’s 6-6 SWIM record is cause for some concern. While Shea Hillinger is a very talented seeker, Long Beach will likely need to do better than 50 percent in tight games to advance to the semifinals or emerge from a cutthroat consolation bracket.
3. Arizona Jackalopes
The Arizona Jackalopes are a first year community team that are hoping to break the curse of the Arizona community teams in the past by staying active for multiple seasons. Led by two captains that hail from the South and a solid group of veterans, the Jackalopes have the potential to finish their first season strong by qualifying for US Quidditch Cup. Their main challenge is the size of their roster. At Tempe Brawl, they fielded a roster of just 13 players. At the 5th Annual Lumberjack Invitational, the Jackalopes fielded a 15 player roster. The Jackalopes’ starting line is solid, led by keeper Paulo Pena and beaters Adam Treichel and David “Stix” Sager. However, the lack of practice time and depth can lead to trouble further down the roster. The Jackalopes have shown that they put their hearts and souls into every minute of every game, but is that enough to secure a trip to Kissimmee, Florida without a full roster?
One Regional Champion
Los Angeles Gambits
Despite parity and some shocking results this year, the favorite for the regional champion are the LA Gambits. Led by Tony Rodriguez, the Gambits are a national contender, not just a regional one. They will have their strongest roster of any tournament so far, and they have already completely dismantled regional competitors such as UCLA, Utah State Quidditch Club, and Crimson Elite in past tournaments. Increased beating depth and quaffle players such as Tyler Ortiz, described by captain DiCarlo as one of the best local offensive chasers the Gambits have ever had, will help build on these impressive performances. Yes, they lost to LBFQ and likely will have to face down their perennial challengers the Lost Boys, but the regional championship is where the Gambits bring their best game, and that should pay off.
One aspect that should also help is their improved record in SWIM games this year. Last year, extensive snitch-on-pitch periods drained the energy out of core players at US Quidditch Cup 9, and provided some tense moments against the Farmers at the West Regional Championship. This year, with only one SWIM loss against LBFQ and plenty of time to train against the further deployment of such tactics, snitch periods favor the Gambits.
The Gambits likely feel that anything less than a three peat would be a disappointment, and barring more crazy upsets, they will be going back to Los Angeles with the trophy to keep it safe for another year.