Tuesday Toss: Week 7 recap | Thin margins, massive moments

June 11, 2024
By Evan Lepler

No one knows thin margins like Oakland Spiders Coach Dan Silverstein.

“In a one point victory, I think there are many plays or moments you can look to and say, ‘we probably wouldn’t have won without that play,’” remarked Silverstein. “You can definitely say that about Jonah’s goal. No doubt.”

The Jonah he’s referring to is Spiders rookie Jonah Malenfant, a University of Minnesota alum who had never previously scored a goal in the Ultimate Frisbee Association when he took the field with his teammates trailing 16-15 against the Summit midway through the fourth quarter on Friday night. Oakland’s O-line had just been broken, and the Spiders were behind for the first time, having let a four-goal lead slip away.

For Malenfant, it was just the second time in his four career UFA games that he was on the line for an offensive point. Little did he or anyone else know that he was about to make perhaps the catch of the year in the world of ultimate frisbee. 

“I remember swinging the disc middle and going down the line and noticing their defense didn’t really see me,” explained Malenfant. “Then, when I saw Eli [Kerns] get the disc, I pretty much just started running because he’s got a cannon and I knew he would throw it.”

The situation in the game was somewhat dire, considering how Colorado was currently riding a 4-1 run and completely in control of the momentum. Another Spiders turnover would likely bury the home team’s chances, and Kerns’ majestic throw seemed to be floating forever.

“I remember thinking it would stall out and I could run onto it and by the time I realized it was coming in really fast, I had no idea where the back of the end zone was so I had to really just lay out and hope,” said Malenfant.

Sprinting full speed, somewhat unaware of his location on the field, and having scored exactly zero career goals in the Ultimate Frisbee Association, Malenfant launched his body out and upwards towards the precious plastic. As you undoubtedly know already, he heroically made the play, the type of epic snag that you immediately know will become the number one play in the Week 7 Top 10 and get featured in awesome highlight reels for years to come. 

“Once I felt the disc hit my hand, I really just blacked out,” said Malenfant. “I was really only thinking about making sure I didn’t drop it cause I knew I was gonna hit the ground pretty hard. Once I got up and saw that it was a goal, I might’ve been in more disbelief than anyone in the stadium, and then to see my teammates coming out and mobbing me and the stands going wild felt really cool. Definitely one of the most hype and exciting plays I think I’ve ever made, and to have it in front of all the fans in a home crowd and my team and my mom watching was really special.”

Malenfant’s spectacular game-tying grab didn’t decide the game; there were still six minutes left, and there were plenty of other meaningful little moments that ultimately led to the outcome. But, as Silverstein said, without Malenfant’s massive moment, the Spiders could have very well endured their second one-goal loss of the season rather than earn their third one-goal win. Dating back to last season, by the way, that’s now 11 of the Spiders’ last 18 games that have been decided by single score (or been tied at the end of regulation). 

“I think it’s worth repeating,” said Silverstein, evoking his message after Oakland’s pair of one-goal wins in Week 3. “If there’s a Spiders game in the fourth and you’re not watching, what are you doing in life?!” 

Oakland’s Chris Lung caught the go-ahead goal to cap a turbulent three-turnover point with 38 seconds left, giving the Spiders an 18-17 lead. But the Summit still had time to find an equalizer, and Colorado’s Alex Atkins had the disc near midfield, about to wind up and launch a potential buzzer-beater to send the game to overtime. 

Oakland’s Aaron Rosenthal was ready.

“I knew there were only five or so seconds left, so once I saw him cock his arm back, I think we all knew what was coming,” said Rosenthal. “Just left my feet early and the disc happened to hit me squarely in the hands. My first thought was, ‘did that really just happen?’ Pretty surreal moment for me.”

Indeed, Atkins’ last-second bomb was abruptly blocked by Rosenthal right after the release, and the affectionately nicknamed Win-By-One Warriors stormed their East Bay home field after yet another exhilarating late-game sequence. The result lifted the surprising Spiders to 4-2 in the West and painfully dropped the Summit to a stinging 1-3 as they embarked to Utah for another titanic challenge against the undefeated Salt Lake Shred. 

“As a team, we had multiple discussions on how to best push forward,” said Colorado’s Jay Froude. “Essentially we erased our thoughts and gameplay from Oakland and had a mental reset before going into Salt Lake City [...] Mentally, we all knew we had to be better when things aren’t going as planned. We wanted to make sure we still found our ‘joy’ in playing Colorado Ultimate.”

It was tough to remain joyful as the Shred scored nine of the first 13 goals on Saturday night, but somehow the Summit maintained their composure, capitalized on some uncharacteristic Salt Lake mistakes, and quickly battled back, transforming an early 9-4 deficit into a one-goal game late in the half. 

“Our D-lines finally found some momentum and helped mitigate the pressure on the offensive side, which was a big confidence booster for Summit overall,” said Froude. 

But despite the second-quarter surge, Colorado still got outscored 5-3 in the third and trailed 17-13 heading to the fourth. Staring a brutally disappointing 1-4 record directly in the face, the Summit frantically rallied back, creating four breaks in the final 10 minutes to shock the Shred 20-19, handing Salt Lake its first loss to a West Division opponent since the 2022 playoffs. 

“Rivalry games like that always promise a little bit of chaos,” said Shred Coach Bryce Merrill. “Probably about time one of these one point games didn’t fall our way.”

The Shred managed just two goals in the fourth quarter, their lowest scoring quarter the franchise has ever endured in a regular season game. 

“Our immaturity showed a little bit Saturday night,” said Merrill. “We’re trying to make that transition from young plucky underdogs to consistent performers, and the variability of the former was on full display Saturday as we experienced some really weird execution errors and some baffling decisions. We hucked it 17 times—almost three times our usual rate. Seven of those came in the fourth. And while our red zone conversion was again above 90 percent, we only made it to the red zone 11 times, and not a single time in the fourth quarter. That’s just not the recipe to consistently win games, especially since we had the clock on our side. Credit to the Colorado defense for taking us out of our system and baiting us into taking those shots; they’ve got the athletes to win those battles, and I think they took down about every single 50/50 on the night.”

The final 50/50 might have been the most dramatic. The Shred had just 16 seconds left after Colorado’s Atkins connected with Nick Snuszka to give the Summit a 20-19 lead, but Sean Connole still launched a decent-looking backhand toward the end zone that gave his team a reasonable chance for a buzzer-beating equalizer. That’s when Atkins, who came up short on the final play the night before, skied the entire pack for the game-sealing interception.

“Lotta heart in this squad,” Atkins said, shortly after his block closed out Colorado’s unlikely win. 

To celebrate, Atkins emphatically spiked the disc three times in nearly the exact same spot where New York’s Ben Jagt first executed the controversial triple spike during last year’s regular season showdown against the Shred. Though some of the Shred tried to come after Colorado’s polarizing and talented star, the spicy situation quickly diffused as Atkins raced toward his sideline, and Merrill mentioned that he had no problem with Atkins’ actions.

“Kins is gonna Kins,” said Merrill. “No lost sleep on our end over his well-deserved celebration. That was a clutch play to end a rivalry game. And I though the callback to the triple spike was cute.”

Despite the defeat, the Shred still woke up in first place the next day. And the Summit, though they may have gotten some of their mojo back, were still just 2-3 and presently outside the top three in the West. But they clearly found something on this particular road trip, shifting a bunch of personnel around and giving more of their young rising stars an opportunity to shine. 

Notably, Nanda Min-Fink and Zeke Thoreson, who had never played a UFA game prior to their Week 6 matchup with Atlanta, both worked primarily on the O-line and combined for 155 completions and two throwaways across the two games. Another youngster, second-year Summit cutter Atkin Arnstein, made his 2024 debut and also played superb offensively, producing six goals, two assists, four hockey assists, and 66 completions in the two games, 50 more completions than he produced in six games played last season. And then there was Chuck Cannon, who made his Colorado debut at Salt Lake, playing 12 O-points and finishing with three scores and over 200 yards with no throwaways.

“Zeke and Nanda are seasoned in terms of playing in high pressure situations,” said Colorado Coach Mike Lun. “Chuck has led teams in very meaningful games. He probably gets the most praise in our team slack because of how amazing of a teammate he is and how he always does the little things well. I’m a firm believer that young players are capable of just as much as experienced players when they’ve prepared well.”

Jonathan Nethercutt also completed 46-of-47 throws against the Shred, passing for 504 yards and completing all three of his hucks, helping to anchor the Summit’s O-line with so many new pieces mixing in. Colorado’s offense was still broken 11 times in two games, but the dramatic road victory over Salt Lake on the second night of a back-to-back certainly helps emphasize just how high the Summit’s ceiling can be. As they embark on another two-game road trip for upcoming interdivisional battles with Madison and Minnesota, Colorado will seek to build on Saturday’s potentially season-shifting victory.

“Takeaways from the weekend for me: We bonded,” said Lun. “We probably needed a win to help with that [...] It would have been nice to go 2-0. We had opportunities to do that, but we’re still alive and have something to keep working towards. It’s amazing how razor thin the margins are at times. Not even just for a team’s results, but for our ability to feel joy during the process. I think that’s a valuable lesson to remember when things don’t go our way. I really do believe it’s a choice. Frisbee is fun and we should remember how awesome it is to get to compete at this level.”

The Full Field Layout

Aside from Colorado’s pair of thrillers, four other contests in Week 7 were also decided by two goals or less. The most meaningful of these was certainly DC’s narrow 16-14 victory over New York.

The Breeze built an early three-point lead, but the Empire closed the opening half with a 4-1 surge to tie the game at halftime. A hold to begin the third put New York in front, and suddenly DC was in danger of losing a game they very much felt they should win. 

“I was definitely frustrated at halftime because as a team it felt like we had outplayed them, but we were tied,” said DC’s Andrew Roy. “I would say the game always felt like we controlled the outcome, but that it wasn’t a comfortable win.”

After falling behind 8-7 early in the third, the Breeze scored six of the next eight goals, recreating a three-goal advantage that would never shrink smaller then two throughout the fourth. New York’s Antoine Davis registered three blocks, but the Empire went just 2-for-9 on their break chances and went just 9-for-14 in the red-zone. 

“Our biggest struggle was in the red zone, where we had our lowest conversion rate of the year at 64 percent,” said New York Coach Anthony Nuñez. “Our offense managed to reach the red zone, but made some key errant throws, allowing DC to fast break and convert five out of [seven break] chances.”

Nuñez credited DC’s smart transition defense and poaching for the Empire’s struggles, and the Breeze were also particularly proud of their end of quarter success, an area where New York has typically dominated DC in the past. 

“Our end of quarter work at practice is paying off,” said DC Coach Lauren Boyle. “I was really proud of our EOQs in Boston, and to see us be strong two weeks in a row is stellar.”

The significance of DC’s victory cannot be overstated. New York had previously won 11 of the last 12 meetings, and this was the Breeze’s first win over the Empire since 2021. Furthermore, the Empire, having also dropped their Week 6 home game against Boston, have suffered back-to-back losses for the first time since June of 2018. The Empire are now just 3-3 in their last six games after going 61-4 in their previous 65. 

“I felt like our our O-lines and D-lines struggled,” said New York’s John Randolph, who played almost exclusively on the Empire O-line on Saturday against the Breeze after having been primarily a D-line engine in his previous 21 games played, dating back to 2022. “The game made it clear to me that we need to be more systematic on O, especially in our reset structure, so we need to spend more time getting that drilled into everyone’s heads. We are also holding the disc for too long. DC did a good job of providing defensive pressure throughout the game [...] They also won several end of quarter situations, so we need to practice those as well.”

But even with a 4-3 record, the Empire are nowhere near panicking. 

“It has been really refreshing to lose,” said Randolph, who went 22-0 in his first 22 games played with New York before this recent slide. “It has put some fire under our asses. It is much preferable to be playing games with the mindset of trying to win as opposed to the mindset of trying not to lose. And if we turn the ship around and end up winning the championship, it will be much more satisfying this way. I think this will actually be a positive thing for our mindset as we go into the big games at the end of the season.”

As New York recalibrates, DC is gaining confidence. It seems significant that new Coach Lauren Boyle is now 1-0 against New York, especially in the aftermath of the Breeze going 1-11 vs. the Empire over the course of the past half-decade. 

“When I interviewed for the Head Coach position, [Breeze Owner] Ty Simpson asked how I planned to beat New York,” remembered Boyle. “My answer from back in the interview room was on full display, as the players each took ownership of how to implement common understanding of the strategy and how their strengths help us be the best Breeze. I am incredibly grateful for how the Breeze organization is bought into the messaging of this year and how much they have supported me. I am hoping this win is a reset for us to continue to make playing New York feel less big.”

Although the Breeze and Empire still are looking up at Boston in the East Division standings, DC embarks on their two-game Canada road trip with a huge monkey off its back, even if they also understand that New York is currently in the midst of a transition and will be better when they collide again in July.

“Obviously, this is a very different New York team than last year, and they certainly didn’t have all their pieces, but it’s still a meaningful and confidence-earning win,” said Roy. “We know we can be the best team in the division if we execute crisply. It’s just a matter of playing up to our potential and not getting away from our systems.”

Coming up later today in “Seven On The Line”, three first place teams impressively take care of business, Seattle rises up to rout LA, and several other improving programs experience narrow but very meaningful victories. Also, Detroit’s losing streak turns 80.