In return to Founders Cup, MEATBALLS find their mark -- and other observations on the 2016 Founders Cup.

Monday, October 10, 2016 - 22:48

In return to Founders Cup, MEATBALLS find their mark -- and other observations on the 2016 Founders Cup.

With a hat tip to Vin Scully: a day that began with the improbable ended with the impossible.

Just 48 hours prior, under the looming threat of Hurricane Matthew, it looked like they might not even make it out of Fort Lauderdale. But there were the MEATBALLS, safe and dry in Vegas (if battered and bruised) -- 12 hours since play began in their first Founders Cup tournament in 5 years, 4 1/2 innings and 2 outs into their 7th game, and hanging on by their fingernails to a 2-1 lead over Dice..

A deep sac fly to center had not only scored the first run of the game for Dice., it allowed the speedy Joe Robertson to daringly take 2nd base, sliding in just ahead of the relay. Bodies were buckling - MEATBALLS pitcher Corey Holland limped back to the mound to end the play before collapsing from apparent leg cramps. One more base hit could send their game into extra innings for the fourth consecutive time in the tournament. After so many hours of effort to realize an ambition of years, was their luck running out?

It sure tasted that way, as a kick off the foot of Brett Stanilka found a hole in shallow left. The tying run was rounding third with a full head of steam as Dave Perry’s hail-mary throw home knuckled well offline -- and somehow found the left hip of a sprinting Robertson, cutting him down not ten paces from the plate. A Wide World of Sports promo from 1978 couldn’t pack that much thrill-of-victory and agony-of-defeat into a 10 second span. See the video above, or as #2 on SportsCenter's Top 10 Plays!

And in this unlikely fashion, the legendary MEATBALLS franchise secured their first Founders Cup championship, and the first such title for Florida since the tournament came to Vegas.

The Chances of MEATBALLS
Back in 2008, MEATBALLS might well have been the first Champs of FC’s Vegas era, losing in the final match to Frosty Balls, the franchise we would come to better know as The Situation. For the next three years, MB was a popular pick to win it all, but could never make it out of the semifinals. Then came a four-year Founders Cup hiatus, during which the competition level of the field increased steadily. Given the lack of recent WAKA stats to go by and the abundance of other proven franchises (many holding current Regionals titles), Meatballs drew a #11 starting seed… but their victory can’t be called a surprise, as a MEATBALLS team playing to their potential is threat to win any tournament they set foot in.
And talk about being tested --or maybe put through the wringer -- their path began with a pool of veteran teams, headed by #6 seed BROLA, reigning South-Central Regional champs and latest derivation of NOLA’s Oh Danny Balls. A 7-1 win for MEATBALLS in the last hour of play secured their win of Pool F, and set them up against a gauntlet of fellow contenders.
First came The Big D (#12), an array of Dallas all-stars and national-caliber recruits, considered among the best TX squads in memory. They even led MEATBALLS 1-0 into the 5th inning, when a tie sent it into extra innings, from which the Floridians would ultimately prevail. Their quarterfinal opponent, Maryland's 3-seed SHOCKWAVE (champs of FC2014 and WAKA’s 2016 Northeast Regional) were no more accommodating -- a 1-1 tie after 5 innings was followed by an exchange of runs in the 6th, ending in a bases-loaded jam from which MEATBALLS escaped unscathed. Then an MB 3-run outburst in the 7th was answered in kind by an SW rally, and the score was tied 5-5 as they entered the 8th inning (the hallowed ground of some of FC’s most memorable epic clashes). Finally, MEATBALLS put up yet another lead and this time hung on to seal it 7-5 and advance to the Semis. There they would meet The Situation (#2) in an ersatz rematch of the 2008 Championship match. This game followed suit with the rest of MB’s path, and took a 1-1 tie into extra innings for their third consecutive game. This time, MEATBALLS rallied hard and fast and closed it out 5-1 after 6 -- and their long and exhausting trip through eliminations led at last to their first Finals appearance in 8 years, and a date with Denver’s dangerous Dice. (#5).
Mountain Power: Dice. roll and Andy Dufresnes break out
While the MB/Sitch matchup was decidedly old-school, the other side of the Final 4 bracket was equally new-school, as Dice. (#5) from Denver took on Albuquerque’s The Andy Dufresnes (#17), inarguably the Cinderella team of the day. Before a semifinal pitch was thrown, it was settled that the Founders Cup final would include, for the first time, a team from the Mountain time zone.
Dice.’s 4-2 victory and ensuing trip to the Finals continued their steady forward momentum of recent years, improving upon their semifinal run at FC2015. They began the day sweeping Pool E, clinched with a 3-2 edge of The Big D (#12). They followed by eliminating BROLA (#6) 5-3 in the Sweet 16, and with a score of 4-3 got past Boston vets (and fellow FC2015 semifinalists) Pitch Intense (#4) in the Elite 8. A strong and still-improving team, Dice. must come away with confidence they have the stuff to win this whole thing some year. Their 5th inning championship rally was equal parts clutch and nails, and it took, well, THIS to stop them.
The Andy Dufresnes (#17) made their FC debut in 2012, with ambition to spare. Undeterred or even emboldened by two years of Pool Play eliminations, they continued to gather experience and talent in the venerable NM Mesa League, and at FC2014 survived for a 19th place finish. They only missed the Sweet 16 by virtue of a walk-off loss in one of the most memorable defensive duels in FC history. Last year, the Dufresnes had the rotten luck of encountering Sofa King Good in the Wild Card round, after the #2 seed dropped a pool game and ended up in the Wild Card bucket en route to winning the Championship.
This year, as it happens, Andy D and top-seeded Sofa would meet again in Pool A, in the first round of play -- and Andy took swift and sweet revenge, putting up 3 quick runs on the defending champs and holding off their late rally to secure a 3-2 win in the first (incredulously) reported result of the day. A 6-4 win over MD’s Savage Shock (#16) made it a pool sweep, and secured them their first trip to the Sweet 16. But their personal-best run (and the legend of their defensive prowess) was just getting started -- a 1-0 shutout of formidable Vegas locals Recess Rejects (#18) was followed by ANOTHER 1-0 shutout in the quarterfinals, against Evolution (#7), the much-buzzed-about Southeast Regional champs from Jacksonville. The Andy Dufresnes’ run to the Semis was a breakout performance 5 years in the making, and improved by two rounds the best finish for a team from ABQ.
The West Goes Retro (not in a good way)
The story of the 8-year tenure of Founders Cup at Desert Breeze Park was in many ways also the story of the West Coast’s rise to parity in the world of competitive kickball. In the early Vegas years, a plethora of California teams served as cannon fodder for the pools and first elimination round. Bit by bit, they chipped away at East Coast dominance -- San Francisco’s Best Coast Ballers in the 2009 Final, Sofa’s semifinals streak, the FC2013 Elite 8 bracket that featured fully HALF teams from SoCal… and finally Sofa King Good’s FC2015 championship. But 2016 brings a new venue, New Silver Bowl Park, and with that turning of a page came a startling and sudden West Coast regression, as Denver and ABQ rose to shine and Ft. Lauderdale made a return to glory.
After Sofa -- arguably hoping to pace themselves -- got their nose bloodied out of the gate by the hungry Dufresnes, it unleashed chaos in the brackets, but needn’t have been a fatal wound for the champs. After all, last year they lost in pool play to an upstart Pitch Intense, only to get the better of them in their semifinal rematch and end up winning it all. This year, Sofa recovered to advance as Pool A Runner-Up, handled Bay Area rivals NorCal Nightmare (#20) 3-0 in the Wild Card round, and then found themselves in the Sweet 16 path of The Situation (#2). A rematch of the FC2015 Final, and several of the most memorable epic matches in FC history, the #2 vs #1 game, between two perennial semifinalists, arriving as prematurely as the Sweet 16. Any outcome was possible, all equally brutal, and this time Sitch’s streak prevailed with a 2-1 win, while Sofa made their earliest exit since FC2008 (when they lost 2-0 in the Sweet 16 to, who else, MEATBALLS).
Other reliable CA franchises fared no better -- in fact, this would be the first year since FC2008 when not a single West Coast team would advance to the Elite 8. Pasadena’s multi-quarterfinalist Los Brew Crew (#9) won their pool over Southwestern Regional Champs Dry Heat (#8, Phoenix), only to be outdone 5-4 in the Sweet 16 by Evolution (#7). Sunnyvale’s South Bay Sonics (#22) survived pool play at the expense of Austin vets T.T.T. (#27), but couldn’t muster any offense against Dry Heat (#8) in the WC round. #14 Simi Truckers (of the titular Valley) began the day as they ended last year’s tournament -- losing to Shockwave (#3) by a respectably narrow margin… but they beat BEASTMODE (#19, Palm Beach) and then took down Hollywood’s Toronto Blowjays (#25) in the wild card round (who had by then outperformed their seed by tying LBC in pool play and beating Hartford’s OutsiderzPak (#24)). Ultimately, Simi was edged out by Pitch Intense (#4, Boston) 2-1 in a Sweet 16 knockout. San Diegans Balls Deep, Crazy Pitches Who Kick It and Don't Pull Out But Their Couch Does (#23) -- who we could call “The Kickball Team Formerly Known As SoCal RiOT” as an abbreviation -- drew Evolution (#7) and The Fainting Goats (#10, Las Vegas) in their pool, and escaped only to run into The Big D (#12) in the WC round and lose 3-2. BLPP (#13, CA Hollywood), edged out NorCal Nightmare for the Runner-Up Pool D slot, but lost 2-0 in the WC round to Savage Shock (#16, MD/DC), Runner-Up of the Mid-Atlantic Regional, in what would be the tournament’s lone instance of a 3rd place Wild Card team beating a pool Runner-Up.
Outlasting them all, the only Pacific time zone team to reach the Elite 8, were local heroes The Fainting Goats (#10). The Vegas stalwarts tied Evolution 3-3 in their pool game, and advanced as Pool Winner by tiebreak: 4 RA/14 RS to 4 RA/13 RS. They then proceeded to topple Phoenix’s best hope, Dry Heat (#8), in the Round of 16, before running out of steam and losing 8-2 in the quarterfinals to The Situation (#2).
Stats corner: Parity through Defense!
As expected, this was one of the most competitive fields ever seen at FC -- partly due to the Kickball Open existing as an alternative lane, partly due to increasing participation in WAKA Regional Tournaments, and partly due to the return of teams like MEATBALLS.
Unsurprisingly, predictive accuracy of seeding took a hit this year with the unprecedented level of parity, with a 22.5% overall upset rate (77.5% predictive accuracy) -- narrowly the highest rate of upsets (by seed) since “holistic” ranking analysis methods were introduced in 2010.
For other metrics expressing this new parity, the scoring stats show a number of remarkable trends. With teams who might have played FC purely as a learning experience before now having the Kickball Open to cut their teeth on, how does that impact stats for the field at large?
MEATBALLS had the best overall best offensive average, at 5.29 runs scored per game. (Notably, when they last played FC in 2011, they averaged 10.86 RS/game.) Sitch and SHOCKWAVE follow, tied at 5 RS/G each. Those three are the ONLY teams to finish with an average of at least 5 RS/G this year -- that’s a mere 9.4% of FC2016 teams. Last year, there were 18 teams (40.9% of the FC2015 field!) to meet or exceed that mark.
For more evidence of a rising defensive floor: Last year, 19 pool games and 3 elimination games featured a team scoring double digit runs, amounting to 25.6% of FC2015 games played. This year, only 7 pool games and zero elimination games means just 9.9% of all FC2016 matches saw a team score 10 or more runs.
Last year, 2 teams escaped pool play without allowing a run. This year, none -  MEATBALLS had the best of it, allowing only 1 pool run, with Sitch allowing 2. Meanwhile, 2 teams went through pool play this year without scoring a run, which not a single team has done since 2011.
Overall, the best defensive average of the day belonged to Dry Heat (#9), boasting an average of 1 run allowed per game -- though their average 2.6 runs scored per game was the lowest among teams with a positive differential, accounting for their Sweet 16 exit. Behind them, more sterling rates: Recess Rejects (#18) at 1.20 RA/G, BLPP (#13) at 1.25, MEATBALLS at 1.29 --  in fact, 10 teams (a whopping 31.3% of the field) allowed fewer than 2 runs per game on average, up from 6 teams (only 13.6% of the field) just last year.

As far as outperforming seeding, Andy D and MEATBALLS lead the pack of this small group of teams that jumped at least 5 spaces and 1 tier:

Final Rank differential  Team
4 +13 The Andy Dufresnes
NM Mesa (#17)
FL Sawgrass (#11)
11 +7 Recess Rejects
AZ Southwest Kickball Tournament (#18)
18 +7 Toronto Blowjays
CA Hollywood (#25)
23 +5 Back in Black
AL Capital (#28)

For complete FC2016 results, see these links:
Pool play results
Elimination brackets
Elite 8 Bracket
The whole tournament, tweet-by-tweet
FC2015 Observations
FC2014 Observations
FC2013 Observations
FC2012 Observations

 -- OW!

Orion Walker (@theorionwalker) is the WAKA Founders Cup World Kickball Championship Scorekeeper, Bracketologist, Twitter-caster, and self-styled "Tim Kurkjian of Kickball."

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