Lady Flames upset No. 1-seeded Virginia in conference final, advance to seventh regionals
Home-field advantage helped Liberty University’s women’s ultimate team upset top-seeded, nine-time defending champion University of Virginia, 10-9, in Sunday morning’s Virginia Conference Championships final at the Liberty Mountain Intramural Complex.
“It was a surprise for everybody, especially UVA, which hadn’t even lost a game in the past nine years at this tournament,” Lady Flames Head Coach Jonathan Mast said. “UVA’s a class-act team. They were very spirited, and it was a great game with very good sportsmanship on both sides.”
It was Liberty’s first time hosting the conference championships and the first time it has ever beaten UVA, which came in at No. 25 in the USA Ultimate national rankings while the Lady Flames (16-5) were unranked.
“We were excited,” Mast said. “It was a final for the ages. This is really going to shake things up for regionals and I am very excited about our chances.”
Liberty, which has never been seeded higher than 10th, should rank in the top five at the 16-team Atlantic Coast Regional Championships, set for May 7-8 at the Smith River Sports Complex in Axton, Va. It will be the Lady Flames’ seventh consecutive regional appearance, but first since 2019 as COVID-19 canceled the past two tournaments.
Seeded third out of seven teams in the Virginia Conference, Liberty dominated VCU in Saturday’s opener, 15-1, before overcoming a slow start to defeat William & Mary, 10-7, to win its three-team pool and advance directly to the championship match.
“We made some little mistakes and (William & Mary) started with three breaks before we came back and played with poise under pressure,” Mast said.
The Lady Flames carried that momentum over into Sunday’s final, which it pulled out with a hard-cap score after the second-half horn had sounded.
“UVA’s system is still the same and they are still the most dominant team in our conference,” Mast said. “We know them well and we formulated a strategy. We knew we had the team to beat them this year if we did a couple things correctly. We didn’t play our best, but we never deviated from our strategy.”
He said UVA is known for playing very aggressive defense, but the Lady Flames used their speed and long throwers to counter that tactic.
“We have a couple people who can launch the disc long and a couple really good (cutters),” Mast said. “Our release valve is going to be deep passes, and we set ourselves up to attack deep. UVA started throwing zones to try to stop that, and we handled their zones so well.”
Handlers Lydia Vernon, a senior, graduate McKayla DiSarle, and sophomore Vanessa Vallette found ways to penetrate through the zone.
“Our cutters would dink and dunk, and it worked like a charm,” Mast said. “They tried zone for two points, and we shredded it both times.”
Virginia broke Liberty on the game’s opening point, causing a turnover on the Lady Flames’ first throw and scoring within the first minute of play before the teams traded points and were tied at 4 and 6 before UVA seized an 8-6 lead by halftime.
“We switched defenses from man to zone at the start of the second half to try to throw a monkey wrench in their rhythm, and we broke them right out of the half and again to tie it at 8,” Mast said. “They scored to go back up, 9-8, and we went back to man and held to tie it at 9 with a very good, clean point.”
That set up the hard cap with the next team to score declared the winner after the horn had sounded.
“They turned it over three times and we gave it right back to them, but on our last possession, Vanessa Vallette finally connected to Chloe Stow for the game-winning score,” Mast said. “My heart was in my throat.”
He said several alumni players, both women and men, came to support the Lady Flames.
“It was pretty crazy when Vanessa threw that last goal and Chloe caught it, we all stormed the field,” Mast said. “Some of the ladies were so focused, they didn’t hear the horn go off, so when we scored that last goal and (Assistant Coach) Ashley (Mast) went out and hugged Chloe, we were all ecstatic.”
UNC Chapel Hill, which is ranked No. 1 in the nation, and Appalachian State are both in the Atlantic Region and will likely be seeded first and second at regionals, followed by Capital Conference champion Georgetown, Liberty, and Virginia, not necessarily in that order.
“We want to just stay faithful in the little things and see how the results fall,” Mast said.
With several seniors graduating that Saturday, conflicting with Liberty’s 49th Commencement, a few are planning to walk and miss the first day of the tournament.
“Obviously, it is a big year for us, and coming off a monumental win, this has been a long time coming for a lot of the seniors and they’re kind of torn and are still deciding,” Mast said. “If we can peak at regionals, it’s not out of the question that we could make it to (USA Ultimate Collegiate) Nationals. We’ll have everybody on Day 2. It’s just a matter of ‘Do we have the legs to get through Saturday?’ I don’t think that we have played to our potential. There are a lot of things we could do better, and they are completely within our grasp.”
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; Video by Patrick Strawn/Club Sports Director of Video & Media