We have a champion! The overall one seed, the Middlebury Pranksters, pulled out the victory, claiming their second national championship title. They edged out Air Force 15-12 in a hard-fought championship final game in College Station, Texas.
The day started out overcast and calm. It was still Texas humid, but conditions in the first round of the day were pretty favorable.
One of the most anticipated quarterfinals in the men’s division pitted the overall top seed, Middlebury, against the defending champions from Bryant. In the end, the game didn’t quite live up to the hype. Bryant was clearly the more tired team, having had to play in the pre-quarterfinal round yesterday afternoon, and Middlebury mounted a lead early on the back of incredibly clean play from their O line. Bryant played a better second half, actually tying Middlebury 6-6, but the 8-3 lead the Pranksters had built by halftime propelled them to the semifinals.
The round’s streamed game between Missouri S&T and Richmond provided a little more excitement, though it didn’t always look like it would be the case. Richmond’s offense is definitely the more polished of the two, while Missouri S&T plays more of a grind-it-out style of offense. After shaking off some initial jitters, Richmond found their stride and controlled the pace of the game seemingly from start to finish. They advanced to the semifinals with a 15-11 win.
Carleton College-GoP and Air Force each earned 15-10 wins against Luther and Bowdoin, respectively. Luther put up a fight early, but three breaks in the middle of the game was all GoP needed. Luther couldn’t make up the ground, and GoP closed things out. Air Force got their breaks earlier on, building a comfortable buffer of 8-5 by halftime, which expanded in the second half and got Air Force their spot in the semifinals.
Middlebury v. Richmond may have been the most exciting game of the tournament. Richmond was coming off a game that helped them settle in, a huge help when you’re about to face the top overall seed. But Middlebury played well in their quarterfinal as well and had a little extra time between games to rest and rehydrate. On the first point of the game, a fluke bit of contact had Kai DeLorenzo’s heel getting stomped which also ended up affecting his ankle. He sat out for nearly the entire first half, a huge blow for Middlebury. The Pranksters got the first break, but the teams traded them through the first half and ended up going into the break back on serve, with Richmond in front 8-7. The best news for Middlebury coming out of the half was the return of DeLorenzo. He started crossing between lines, typical for him and for Middlebury, which helped the Pranksters get back in front. That is, until a third Middelbury TMF gave Richmond the disc at the opposite brick mark. Richmond converted the break chance, a lead they held until double-game point. Needing a break to win, again, the presence of DeLorenzo was critical for Middlebury. Richmond hucked early in the point, but it was run down by Strenski, giving the Pranksters their chance. They worked their way up the first half of the field with short passes on the open side before Levitt boosted one to a crowd. DeLorenzo skied the lot of them to come down with the game winner and Middlebury’s ticket to the final.
In the other semifinal between Carleton College GoP and Air Force, Air Force went up early and maintained a buffer of at least a few points for the majority of the game, with their biggest lead of five hanging around as late as 12-7. A first-throw error for Air Force gave Carleton a convertible break chance to bring the score to 12-9 and increase their and their sideline’s energy level exponentially. A couple of unforced Air Force turns followed, and GoP capitalized on their newfound energy, with the help of some monster hucks from Noah Robiner, narrowing the Air Force lead to 14-13. Receiving on the next point, Alan Villanueva had seen enough. A first-throw huck to Michael Delatte closed out the game for Air Force 15-13.
As you would have expected, the stars for each team really showed up in the championship final. But there were also major contributions from players who may not have been as well know, at least before this game. For Middlebury, no one loaded the stat sheet like Kai DeLorenzo. But the underclassmen were irreplaceable for the Pranksters. Leo Sovell-Fernandez, a standout defender and contributor on the 2018 U-20 National Team was able to severely limit the impact of Alan Villanueva, a big accomplishment by any measure. And Walker Frankenberg wracked up an impressive number of assists, including three during Middlebury’s four-point run to go ahead 13-10. He also spend some time matched up on Noa Chun-Moy and did a great job limiting his effectiveness, particularly in the space around the disc. For Air Force, Matt Frierson was a consistent downfield target. He was clearly hobbling a bit later in the game, but earlier on, he tallied a couple assists and a goal. Jeremy Moran was also a deep threat for Air Force throughout.
But back to DeLorenzo. After suffering an ankle injury early in their semifinal match up, he sat out most of the first half. But he managed to treat it, get it wrapped and play through it. If he’d had to sit out during the final, Middlebury would have had to replace his five assists, one goal and two D’s, plus all his cuts to initiate the offense and some pretty spectacular plays that don’t have columns on the stat sheet. He started crossing over to the D line pretty early on and had a big impact there as well. And as always, Dylan Salzman was huge for Middlebury as their center handler, and the person who typically fed DeLorenzo on those initiating cuts.
As is pretty typical, the game started a little shakier for both it ended for both teams. In the first eight points, there were four breaks. That calmed down considerably as the game progressed, and points were traded from 4-4 to 10-10. That’s when Middlebury went on that four-point run. Whether or not it’s coincidence, it’s worth noting that the run started after Noa Chun-Moy started cramping badly and had to sit out for several points. His incredibly important presence as Air Force’s main D-line handler aside, Chun-Moy also brings incredibly energy and intensity to the team.
With Middlebury up 13-11, Air Force got one break back. It took them three tries, which they had thanks to two D’s on up-line cuts from Chun-Moy who was never going to not get himself back in the game. But that was the only break they could get back. Middlebury held for 14-12, and after Alan Villanueva just barely missed on an amazing shoulder-height layout bid, Middlebury marched down the field with Air Force looking like they had absolutely nothing left in the tank. Middlebury got one more break to win their program’s second Division III College Championships.
Expect to see Middlebury at the top of the division for a long time coming. They are graduating very few seniors, and their underclassmen are already battle tested and ready to bring more hardware home to Vermont.
For senior Alan Villanueva and Air Force, it was a second straight championship finals loss, but they got an end-of-season highlight when Villanueva was named the 2019 Donovan Award winner.