This article was originally published on Ultiworld
MYRTLE BEACH — Down 11-6 in the semifinals to #12 Minnesota, Michigan looked like a team that had watched their luck run out. A string of execution mistakes had sunk them into what appeared to be an insurmountable deficit. They were already playing without one of the team’s key players and leaders, Matt Orr, who appeared to suffer a ligament injury midway through the first half. They were supposed to lose. Somebody forgot to tell Michigan.
An incredible 6-0 run, powered by a gritty effort from the defensive line, vaulted Michigan back into the lead. They would hang on to win 14-13 before carrying their momentum into a stunning 15-13 victory over Pittsburgh in the finals to take the 2014 Easterns title.
“In the Minnesota game, we were making some mistakes, but they weren’t really bad decisions — they were just execution errors,” said Michigan offensive handler Eli Leonard. “And the D line came out for us and absolutely stomped them back. And the O line just rode that through that last game in the Championship.”
At the start of the finals, it looked like Michigan may not have enough left in the tank to take on a Pittsburgh team that looked very sharp in their 15-10 semifinal win over North Carolina. MagnUM gave up a break to start and Pittsburgh’s offense was on cruise control against everything Michigan’s D line was throwing at them.
Despite being outplayed for most of the first half, Michigan’s offense found a way to keep it close, despite turnovers, often shaky resets, and frequent stoppages for pick calls. They kept Pittsburgh’s edge to a single break thanks to some big plays from Ryan Schechtman, who skied two Pitt defenders in the endzone to tie the game at 6-6.
On the following point, Michigan finally had an opportunity after Pittsburgh made an unforced turnover on a reset miscommunication between Saul Graves and Trent Dillon. Michigan’s Sam Greenwood hurried to the disc and looked downfield for a moment before bombing a forty yard hammer into the wind to Daniel Lee for the break.
Michigan continued their nearly perfect defensive conversions on the next point, where a Pat Earles slip gave MagnUM the disc at midfield. A quick shot downfield to the 6’9″ Jesse Buchsbaum right on the goal line made for an easy score to Schechtman and a two point halftime advantage for Michigan.
“We relied on our D line the whole day,” said Leonard.
Michigan’s offense continued to find ways to hold to start the second half despite turnovers, and their defense eventually added to their lead after another small Pitt mistake. With the score 11-8, Michigan suddenly looked in control.
Pittsburgh came storming back, however, using a four man cup and very aggressive zone to good effect. Pitt tacked on two breaks to tie the game at 12-12, led by great play from Trent Dillon and Marcus Ranii-Dropcho. The game tying score came after Greenwood dropped what should have been an easy score in the upwind endzone.
Unfazed, he came back out to the line on the following point and pulled down a huge score with a full extension layout to put Michigan up 13-12.
Both teams held on offense as the cap made the game a battle to be first to 15. Michigan had an opportunity to break for the win after a Ranii-Dropcho huck to Pat Earles missed the mark. After getting to midfield on a bailout catch from Wes Chen, Noah Backer fired a flick to the endzone that was easily blocked by Pittsburgh’s Christian Pitts.
Pitts brought it to the line and threw a short flick intended for Ranii-Dropcho, but Backer made the play of the game — and perhaps the weekend — by shooting the gap with a huge layout block right at the front corner of the endzone to earn the disc back for Michigan.
After a timeout and a number of false starts due to violation and foul calls, Michigan avoided giving it back to a suffocating Pitt defense, swinging it across the field, and eventually putting up a prayer into the right hand corner of the endzone that Chen, not the intended receiver, launched into the air to grab for the game-winning score.
The exciting finish highlighted what even Michigan players were quick to admit: MagnUM caught a lot of lucky breaks.
“A lot of discs went our way,” said Leonard. “I can’t argue that. We had a lot of bailouts to our bigs.”
He was referring, particularly, to Buchsbaum, who came down with a number of 50/50s, even against Pittsburgh’s Ranii-Dropcho, their toughest deep defender. Buchsbaum had a huge impact in his first tournament of the spring, not only providing a pressure release valve downfield, but creating space underneath as well.
“He was, well, huge,” said Leonard of his 6’9″ teammate. “This was his first tournament back and we expected some rust. But, wow, we got quite the performance out of him. He opens up the inside and the deep.”
Michigan’s win over Pittsburgh capped off an unbelievable run through the Championship bracket that included double game point wins over Harvard in the quarters and Minnesota in the semifinals. They did it with hard-nosed, opportunistic defense and an offense that continued to find a way to put the disc into the end zone despite often struggling just to get clean dumps away.
“I think that’s this teams comfort zone: the tough, gritty mentality,” said Leonard. “The heart of this team is just grinding.”