2017 Northwest Regional Championship Preview

By Misha Whittingham, Cameron VomBaur, Austin Wallace

The final two bids at US Quidditch Cup 10 are on the line at the Northwest Regional Championship this weekend. With just six teams in attendance, the Quidditch Post breaks down who to watch in the round robin tournament.

Seven Players to Watch

1. Matt McCracken ― Boise State Abraxans

Without any tournaments outside of Boise or Utah on the season, Matt McCracken’s talent has been a relative secret to those who have seen him firsthand. While not technically a rookie, his 2015-16 experience was limited to a single week of practice before travelling to US Quidditch Cup 9, where he played a supplemental chasing role in Boise State’s surprise quarterfinal run. Relying solely on raw athleticism and general sports experience then, his game evolved exponentially during the fall semester. At his first tournament, Crimson Cup, he played almost exclusively as beater, employing an extremely physical style. However, by the Top of Utah Classic and Tree City Tournament (two and four weeks later, respectively), he was unleashed as a chaser and seeker. His dominating physicality was often the sole driver of Boise’s goals while he was on pitch, and his newly-displayed seeking skill yielded a 6-0 SWIM record after Crimson Cup.

2. Sierra Whipple-Padgen ― Utah State Quidditch Club (USQC)

After a rookie year that saw her develop into one of Utah State’s most potent scoring threats, Sierra Whipple-Padgen is continuing to expand her role for USQC. In the 2015-16 season, Whipple-Padgen was limited to being an alley-oop maestra, finding holes in the defense and calling at her teammates to feed her the quaffle for dunks into open goals or over keepers. This was best displayed in a five-goal effort against the University of Miami in a 130*-100 loss that ended pool play at US Quidditch Cup 9, which saw her finishing drive-and-dish plays and cleaning up broken offensive possessions with quick hands and a nose for the hoops. This year, while maintaining her form on the wing, Whipple-Padgen has also become a capable distributor at the top of the offense. Her guidance as a captain has given USQC a deep rotation of high-scoring female chasers, including Madison Ransom, Amber Zehner, and Janelle Slater. Constantly demonstrating a penchant for clear communication between quaffle players, Whipple-Padgen’s performance will be key to keeping Utah State’s sometimes-stagnant offense humming.

USQC chaser Sierra Whipple-Padgen playing against DCQC at USQ Cup 9. | Photo Credit: Sofia de la Vega Photography

3. Justus Berg ― Provo Quidditch

The younger brother of former Provo beater Jackson Berg, Justus Berg has demonstrated that he is more than capable of leading Provo’s beating corps. Taking a role as beater captain after his brother’s departure from the team, Berg has developed an effective conservative style at a position where most of the top players are known for aggressive play. He holds onto his bludger longer than many, aiming to only make very accurate beats that count. While this does not always translate to quick turnovers and dynamic offensive beating, it does enable Provo to more easily retain bludger control while he is on pitch. Further aiding this is Berg’s skill in catching bludgers, which returns control to Provo in the rare instance that an errant beat turns it over. He is not a loud, commanding presence on the pitch, and struggles in some higher-paced snitch-on-pitch battles. However, Berg has established chemistry with all of his beating partners and has a unique and cerebral approach to beating that has proven to be very effective in countering more aggressive beating teams.

 4. Megan Boice ― Western Washington University Wyverns (WWU)

A crucial part of the new leadership group at WWU, Megan Boice has slowly built herself up as a considerable threat as beater. Boice was drafted in the first couple of rounds in multiple fantasy tournaments over the summer and has kept building on her abilities and reputation this season. Her ability to solidly anchor any given beater pairing has given the Wyverns the freedom to successfully utilize their highly aggressive beating style. It is this success in the beater game that has really propelled WWU past expectations this year, and Boice being on pitch for nearly half of any given game makes her a vital part of that.

WWU beater Megan Boice protecting her bludger. | Photo Credit: Tasha Kiri Photography

5. Jake Ronhaar ― Rain City Raptors

Amongst the roster instability that has plagued Rain City all season, Jake Ronhaar has been among the team’s most consistent players. The lanky keeper is a highly capable driver; however, it is his control of play and passing ability that makes him such a major offensive threat. Along with Ross Schram von Haupt’s physical prowess, his ability to orchestrate the offense is what makes the Raptors able to execute the beautiful passing plays that have become the cornerstone of their attack. Without his longtime teammate von Haupt to shoulder the other half of the playmaking burden, Ronhaar will have to step up to upend the new challengers in the Northwest.

6. Jacob Keith ― Western Washington University Wyverns

Jacob Keith has done something entirely unusual, not just for the Northwest but for quidditch in general: the top beater on the region’s top community team last year, the Rain City Raptors, decided to go back to his college team, WWU. This is his final year of eligibility for WWU, and while he remains competitive and one of the top beaters in the region, he wanted to give back to his school before he graduated. Give back he has: after struggling mightily last year, WWU has exceeded all expectations, in large part due to Keith’s skills on pitch. Without Keith and Boice, captain Abe Nurkiewicz’s young chasing corps would not have been able to flourish like they have. WWU is not expected to make bid-level noise, but if they play spoiler, it will be Keith leading the way.

7. Nicholas Ryder ― Emerald City Admirals

Nicholas Ryder is a Seattle immigrant with a history of quidditch at his alma mater, Tufts University. He is a hyper-aggressive beater that is all over the pitch in both offense and defence, but his greatest strengths lie after the 18-minute mark as a seeker. As one of Emerald City’s starting seekers, he will be counted on to make or break a game as his team will try to be a darkhorse to snag a bid for US Quidditch Cup.

Five Storylines to Keep an Eye on

1. The Southern Invasion

On Jan. 12 and 23, respectively, the Utah State Quidditch Club and Provo Quidditch announced that their regional transfer requests were approved and both teams would be competing at the Northwest Regional Championship, rather than their native West. USQC was approved on the basis of distance (Logan, UT is about 160 miles closer to Kennewick, Washington than it is to Peoria, Arizona), and Provo was approved under USQ’s “extreme circumstance” condition, as most of its players are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and their religion bars them from play on Sundays (West Regional Championship was a two-day tournament, but Northwest Regional Championship is only taking place on a Saturday). While Provo’s presence is less likely to make waves, USQC’s results so far on the season indicate that it is a major threat to take one of the region’s two bids from a native Northwest team, something that may not sit well with the Northwest. As a region that already struggles with being taken seriously by the rest of the country, having at least one bid potentially taken by a non-native team may make the Northwest a subject of ridicule once again.

USQC and Provo seekers at Crimson Cup. | Photo Credit: Tayyeb Mubarik’s Photography

2. Upset Alerts

While Boise State and USQC are certainly the two favorites to earn bids to US Quidditch Cup 10, and Rain City is the only team with clear ability to play to their level, other teams in the region have demonstrated the potential to beat out teams above them and qualify. Provo was leading Boise by an astounding 80 points at Crimson Cup. Eventually, a masterful snitching performance from Stew Driflot and a surge in snitch-on-pitch quaffle play got Boise back in range, and the Abraxans pulled for a 280*-270 win in a 41:48 game. While their rosters are very different now than they were in September (Boise brought a measly 10 players to Crimson Cup), that performance, as well as an impressive 130*-60 victory over Rain City at Tree City Tournament, cannot be ignored. While WWU has not competed against Boise or USQC, the team’s recent matches against Rain City are another demonstration of a lower-regarded team beating a higher-regarded one. The Wyverns stunned the Raptors 90*-80 at Subdued Excitement Showdown 2: The Streets and took them to overtime three weeks later at QCON #5 in a 130^-110* loss. Furthermore, Emerald City managed a transitively notable performance at QCON #5, with a 80*-50 win over WWU that seems to indicate more parity than many perceive among the Seattle-area teams.

3. Quest for Relevance

Coming into US Quidditch Cup 9, the Northwest was the subject of much derision. The three qualifiers were seen as highly untested, with the exception of Boise’s five snitch-range thrillers against Crimson Elite in the fall semester. Boise and Rain City earning Pot 1 bids due to geographic isolation and dominance was heavily criticized, as neither was considered to be a true Pot 1 team, particularly compared to top Pot 2 teams like Texas Quidditch, Texas State University – San Marcos, RPI Quidditch, and Maryland Quidditch. However, while Rain City’s USQ Cup 9 tournament ended in a disappointing 0-4 showing, Boise became one of the tournament’s biggest stories in clearing out its pool with a 4-0 record and advancing to the Elite Eight. Representing the West last year, USQC went 1-3 to narrowly miss advancing out of pool play, including three snitch-range losses to District of Columbia Quidditch Club, the University of Miami, and Texas Cavalry. This year, the bid-winners will look to once again quell doubt about the region’s legitimacy. If they qualify, Rain City will be aiming to improve on last year’s letdown, Boise will look to regain top form despite heavy losses from last year’s Cinderella squad, and USQC will hope to show it can close in tight games to advance to bracket play.

Rain City beaters with bludger control at last year’s regional championship. | Photo Credit: Tasha Kiri Photography

4. Boise Deals with Loss

Boise has lost much of the corps that carried the team to its last two regional championships and a surprise quarterfinal finish at US Quidditch Cup 9. The most obvious of these losses is the graduation of Stew Driflot. The Northwest’s first and only Team USA representative, Driflot has been absent from the region after moving to Boston and joining QC Boston, besides a 10-game snitching effort at Crimson Cup and an appearance at the Utah Snow Cup fantasy tournament. The team also lost its two most prolific male beaters in Joel Johnson and Lang Truong. Johnson in particular was a force during snitch-on-pitch play, sometimes using flashy beats to control the seeking game. One of Boise’s hallmarks during the 2015-16 season was its non-male chasing strength, as Casey Thompson, Amy Carney, and Lily Henderson consistently created mismatches and goals; they have all moved on from Boise, too. Beater Kevin Kelley (who served as beater captain for the Boise State Thestrals last year, Boise’s B team) and veteran quaffle player Bryan Bixler have done very well in new leadership roles, cultivating new talent and creating a tight-knit team culture without these program legends.

5. It Can’t Be Worse Than Last Year, Can It?
The 2016 Northwest Regional Championship (NWRC) had some of the worst weather in recent memory. Dubbed “Mud Cup” by those in attendance, the tournament featured fields that were virtually unplayable. Beyond even normal muddy quidditch conditions, the grass did not so much wear out as it completely gave way at the first sight of a cleat. The pitches were more than uncomfortable, as many players suffered ankle injuries (including one head referee), cleats were sucked off of feet, and the underside of a cleat tore clean off. While this year looks to be much drier, with only mild rain in the forecast, another element of last year’s NWRC looms in the minds of many in the quidditch community: the mid-tournament format change. Because the conditions were so unbearable (and borderline dangerous to play in), and the region had two clear-cut tiers of contenders for the region’s three bids (Boise, Rain City, and University of British Columbia [UBC]) and non-contenders, the structure of the tournament was changed partway through the day, leaving the top teams and bottoms teams to play in round-robins. This move was seen by many as absurd, with half of the teams simply forfeiting their chance at qualifying for US Quidditch Cup 9. In 2017, with less muck and more parity, the Northwest Regional Championship ought to be a much more spirited and competitive event.

Last year’s Northwest Regional Championship was dubbed Mud Cup. | Photo Credit: Tasha Kiri Photography

Three Questions for the Contenders

1. Which Rain City will show up?

Rain City’s vulnerability as a Northwest powerhouse started at the beginning of the season at Team Instinct Invitational, where the Raptors barely won on a snitch catch against UBC (a team they have historically beaten) before losing to that same team in the finals of that same tournament. This trend seemed to stop when the Raptors went back to decisively winning games at November’s QCON games against Simon Fraser University and Emerald City Admirals, but a shocking loss to WWU at Subdued Excitement, cemented the doubt of Rain City’s guaranteed success at the regional championship. On paper, Rain City’s roster has improved from last year, acquiring key players from the now defunct Portland Augureys team, as well as recent graduates of the WWU program. This unexpected decline may have something to do with lack of chemistry, or the increasing level of play in the region, but an extremely sparse practice schedule combined with spotty attendance from top players is most likely to blame. This week, Rain City is missing Ross Schram von Haupt and Nicole Jackson. To overcome the limitations of its roster, Rain City will need its stars to step up and shoulder the load as in years past. The round-robin tournament format may help, as Rain City’s fast-break-heavy style can catch teams by surprise, and the lack of bracket helps an upset go further towards securing a bid.

2. Can USQC seek?

USQC’s greatest weakness throughout program history has been a lack of a clear-cut talent at seeker. In its inaugural 2014-15 season, Utah State went 0-4 in SWIM games, including two matches at the West Regional Championship that would have secured a bid to USQ World Cup 8 against Northern Arizona University Narwhals and Wizards of Westwood. In last year’s sophomore campaign, USQC found some success with David Bullock, who managed a 3-3 SWIM record in games he played. However, with his absence at US Quidditch Cup 9, the team missed bracket play with its aforementioned 0-3 snitch-range record, obscuring an otherwise impressive national debut in which it was not put out of range at any point. This season, USQC has only been put out of range once, in a 180*-40 shellacking at the hands of the Los Angeles Gambits. However, SWIM results have been similarly poor: 5-8, with only one of the five wins coming after Crimson Cup, the first tournament of the year. At Crimson Cup, Paul Davis had a breakout 4-1 SWIM showing, despite coming into the tournament as the second-string seeker. However, he and the rest of the seeking corps have seemed to cool off since, with their only other catch coming from Blase Barker to secure USQC’s only win at the Tegan and Sara Invitational over the Fighting Farmers of Arizona. Whether it is Davis, Barker, or someone new, Utah State may need a clutch catch to qualify, and will certainly need one if it aims to win its first-ever regional championship.

USQC seeker Paul Davis preparing for seeker release. | Photo Credit: Tayyeb Mubarik’s Photography

3. Has Boise lost momentum?

While Boise is riding a very impressive nine-match win streak, with three wins over USQC and two over West Regional Championship semifinalists Crimson Elite, the team has been inactive since. It cancelled attendance at the only tournament it had planned to go to in the spring, Subdued Excitement Showdown 2: The Streets, leaving it with only one September and two October events going into the regional championship. The Abraxans have gone over four months since their last match, a thrilling victory in the Tree City Tournament final over Crimson Elite. This is a stark contrast to the well-travelled Rain City Raptors, who have stayed fresh with QCON events and a visit to the Silicon Valley Showdown in December, as well as USQC, who travelled to Santa Barbara in November and Sacramento in January to take on quality West competition. Last year’s very successful squad was also competitively isolated, also only taking part in Crimson Cup, the Top of Utah Classic, and Tree City Tournament before winning the 2016 Northwest Regional Championship following a three-and-a-half month hiatus. However, last year’s Rain City and UBC were less tested than this year’s Rain City and USQC, and the difference in recent play may become apparent.

One Regional Champion

Boise State Abraxans

Boise must be considered the favorites to take a third consecutive regional title, despite its previously mentioned losses. Initially, the Abraxans looked to have lost a step at Crimson Cup, overcommitting in the beating game, failing to take advantage of no-bludger opportunities, and recording a mediocre 2-2 SWIM record. However, the team rebounded tremendously in its next two tournaments, winning every game and fixing many of the simple mistakes that plagued it at Crimson Cup. One of the greatest keys to success for Boise is the way it chooses to play McCracken. His speed, dodging ability, and rocket arm are all fantastic tools when he beats, but they seem to have a greater impact when he chases. Boise has often found itself down and out-of-range when he beats, only to see him put on a white headband, score enough to pull the team back in range, and then sub in at seeker and catch a snitch to win. Most of Boise’s goals are the result of hyper-aggressive offensive beating from Brenden Bixler and Dylan Schilling, who boast a speed and quickness advantage over virtually anyone playing against them. Once they clear a path, whether from a set offense or a fast break, any of a litany of powerful quaffle drivers, led by Bryan Bixler, is capable of bowling through defenses. While USQC has shown itself to be a worthy opponent, with a 170*-130 win at Crimson Cup, and has often led the Abraxans in quaffle points, the more recent results do not lie. Boise took both of its matches at the Top of Utah Classic (120*-100 and 110*-90) and its match at the Tree City Tournament (100*-70). It’s a close call, but look for Boise State to remain the only-ever Northwest regional champs.

Boise’s Bryan Bixler protecting the quaffle. | Photo Credit: Tayyeb Mubarik’s Photography