Friday, June 23, 2006

Something New

The winter of ‘90 - ‘91 was a little disconcerting. There were mumblings and grumblings from just below the surface of the ultimate community in the Bay Area. Talking to Tom, he apprised me of the actual implications of the possibilities.

These were the facts: the Boot had underperformed at sectionals and regionals, Tsunamis was aging and needed new blood, East Bay was stagnating and needed to start looking in a new direction. The Boot roster was a smorgasbord for either team. There were certain players that had not yet gotten full competitive exposure, but were certainly ready to start contributing in a big way to the lucky team that corralled them.

Sometime in late December 1990 or early January of 1991, I got a call from the captains of East Bay. They wanted to have a kind of “friendly” scrimmage on a Saturday at Stanford. They thought it might be a good way to tune up for the coming season and, maybe, become a little more familiar with each other.

I was in a quandary. I knew what the basic idea was. It was a preliminary tryout for a new team. I was reasonably sure that they - the powers that controlled the East Bay team - had earmarked me for the team. They did, after all, call me directly. The bigger problem, for me, was this - I liked the team I was playing on. Sure, The Boot hadn’t performed up to its potential last year. Sure, there were a few players that, maybe, weren’t exactly going to strike fear into the hearts of other teams at Nationals. But it was the group of guys that I had been with through thick and thin for two years. We had experienced some highs and many lows. And we had almost always had fun.

Wasn’t that what this was all about?

Tom and I talked about it. As he pointed out, we were committed to nothing if we just invited both team’s rosters to come down for a day of scrimmaging. All we were saying, essentially, was, “It’s a nice day in January, and we feel like playing ultimate.” I hesitantly agreed.

Deep down, I knew what the result was going to be. After all, the teams had played against each other enough times to know. There were certain players on East Bay that I would be more happy to have on my sideline rather than match up with them across the field. But I also knew that there were going to be casualties. Players from both teams that wouldn’t be included. They would be left out and, basically, told, “You helped us get to this point, but we’re going on without you.”

I didn’t really care about the East Bay players that got left out. But I literally lay awake at night wondering how to justify excluding some of my favorite teammates from The Boot.

The fateful day in early January arrived. Not all the Boot players showed up. I guess some of the East Bay players had opted out or seen the writing on the wall as well. Either way, we still had a relatively big turnout - certainly enough for two complete squads in a couple of long scrimmages on Stanford’s Roble field. I formally introduced myself to the East Bay captains. We methodically distributed the players close to evenly from both teams according to handlers, middles, deeps, defenders, throwers, height, and speed. They had obviously given a fair amount of thought to this beforehand since they had a definite sense of the strengths and weaknesses of most of the players on The Boot. I had a more organic kind of sensibility. I hadn’t been as precise in my categorization of the East Bay players. In fact, there were some of their players that I had little more than a passing knowledge of. If they weren’t fast and relatively short (in other words, someone I would have typically covered), or if they weren’t their big, game-breaking players, I realized that I didn’t have much of an impression of them.

We cycled through the scrimmage, and the skill and intensity level was already beyond most of the practices that we had ever had on The Boot. And this was January. I found myself struggling to cover on defense and having to work hard to get open on offense. While it was not exactly personally encouraging, it was an eye opener. If we could rise to that kind of weekly intensity, what would the game time performance be?

The teams mixed politely on the sidelines. There were a few heckles and cheers thrown out for consideration. Overall, the impressions from my side were mostly favorable. But I still wondered how the potential new team would be picked and worried about the Boot players that would be left out.

Tom was more direct in his assessment. “If we don’t do this, we are definitely going to lose Dave Smith, Seth, Dilly, and Teddy. They are going to play for South Bay or East Bay.” Left unsaid in his accounting was the fact that he, too, would probably jump to one of the top teams. He saw the writing on the wall. I had to be driven kicking and screaming to read the large print.

As a result of that day in early January, it was decided that a team comprised of both East Bay and Boot players would attend the Tempe New Years Fest in late January - early February. It was time to see if we could actually play together in tough conditions against other teams.

If I remember correctly, the roster for that first run was open to all players on both teams. The phone calls (no email back then) leading up to the tourney showed a distinct trend. None of the Santa Cruz kids would be making the trip. The geographic separation that had been stretched taut in holding the Boot together had finally snapped. This new team would be composed of players north and east. South Bay would reap the harvest of the Santa Cruz talent.

The Saturday of Tempe finally arrived. The fields were no more pleasant than ever. The heat was still merciless for so early in the season. The competition was still tough. But our team did well. It quickly became apparent to me what the East Bay contingent brought to the table. They had a better sense of strategy, they had a core of better handlers, they were a little more experienced overall. And they were tall. Very tall.

The Boot group brought our own valuable assets. Fierce defensive intensity, youthful legs and a willingness to hurl our bodies after any disc tended to add fire to the East Bay methodical approach. We also added another intangible but equally important element. We had fun. We knew how to enjoy playing, how to goof around between games, how to liven up a bye time, and how to make most any team dinner or drinking session something to remember - or maybe forget if you were on the wrong side of the jokes.

As Boot players, we may have been a little self conscious of our talent or experience on the field, but in the realm of chapping or joking, the East Bay guys were down right lame. At least most of them. But they were willing to learn, as befitted their generally high educational backgrounds.

I think we managed to win our pool on Saturday, playing under the name of ... Purple Avengers? ... or something equally strange. Sunday, we went into our quarterfinal and I felt the old anxieties from pervious seasons welling up. We just needed to win the game. Battle hard, don’t give in, fight for every disc ... just about every disc cliche was playing on an endless loop through my head. The East Bay guys didn’t seem too concerned. Of course, they had a habit of winning quarters and losing in semis, whereas we generally lost in quarters and watched semis.

We won our quarterfinals match pretty easily, I believe. I know I was a little shocked and also a little giddy. That wasn’t so bad. Our offense rarely seemed to get bogged down mainly because our handlers were a good mix of possession workers and, especially with Barney, a few big throwers. And we had the deeps to win the fifty-fifty discs down field.

Our reward for winning our semifinal ... we got to play New York. Big, bad, legendary New York, New York. While it would not be their full squad, and they would certainly not be in top form, they did not like losing - ever. It would be my first chance to see them, let alone play against them. I knew nothing beyond the fact that they were the reigning national champs, having won the trophy twice in a row, and the fact that they were said to be intense to the point of cheating. I knew nothing about any of their players.

We took the field with an attitude of nothing to lose. It was our first tournament as a team. Indeed, it could very well be our last tourney as a team. They were expected to win while dismissing all challengers with ease. They didn’t know us, many of us didn’t know them.

The game was surprisingly tight. Early on, I remember lining up against them on defense and taking the shortest guy on their team. Seemed logical to me. Height for height. I think either Dave Barkan or Andy Gould said something like, “You sure you want him?” Of course I was sure. He may be thick, but I’d run him into the ground.

I sprinted down on the pull and it became clear that he was one of their main handlers. NY was feeding him the disc and I was surprised by how quick he was. As the disc moved down the field, he was lengthening his cuts and their throwers were getting a little less precise. Finally, after having been beaten for three or four completions, I saw my opening on a swing. I closed, launched, and snuck in for the block. The sandpaper Tempe fields greeted my arms and chest, my teammates cheered wildly. Energized, I bounced up and sprinted down field. We scored the point.

Later in the game, the score was tight and New York was making some shaky calls. Tempers were rising as it became clear that we were not going to back down and they were going to loose only over our dead bodies. The game was beginning to feel more like regionals than the second day of New Years fest. There was a small crowd gathering as our game lasted longer than others in the round. People were migrating over to see New York getting challenged.

I had been alternating covering a few of their handlers, but the shortest one, Kenny, was giving me the biggest trouble. He was dangerous with the disc, but he would also bust deep if I fronted him too much. He caught a couple of scores on me and made sure I knew he relished the moment. I was determined to make a play.

I think the situation was something like this: they were in a stack, the disc had stagnated near the middle of the field, the count was getting up. Kenny faked out and cut back on the break side. I had stayed home on his out cut because I could see I had tall help down field. As soon as he cut in back towards me, I turned and launched for the disc. They had been throwing most of their passes before or immediately as a cut was started. The down side, as a defender, was you had no time to react. As Worm has told me countless times, “You can’t be reacting out there. Either you know where the disc is going, or you’re going to get burned.”

I heard the “UP” call after I was in the air and had already seen the inside-out disc heading for me. The simple act of reaching out and knocking it down was almost anticlimactic compared to the difficultly of being in a position to get the disc. The block got a big response from the crowd, but we lost the game.

Afterwards, Kenny introduced himself and congratulated me on getting a couple blocks on him. I appreciated his sportsmanship, but I remember thinking to myself, “I get a couple blocks on a lot of players.” Which was true, way back then. I just didn’t realize that I got these two on Kenny Dobyns, whose talent and intensity I would come to both hate and admire in the coming years.

Yes, the new team had not won the tournament, but we had made a good accounting of ourselves. And, maybe more importantly, we had fun together. It wasn’t quite as wild and goofy as being with the Boot, but then again, winning games does compensate for some things. It was beginning to look like this group might just fit together.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Losing and Winning

Despite The Boot’s poor showing at Sectionals, our team outlook was relatively up-beat. Never a group to brood or ruminate, our collection of a couple of has-beens and a bunch of never-weres dove into our few remaining practices before 1990 regionals with determination and passion. One particular practice, the weekend before regionals, sticks out in my mind.

We were gathering at Stanford’s intramural fields planning for about 2 or 3 hours of some intense drilling, a bit of strategy, and a light scrimmage. Our numbers were distressingly low as the start time of practice approached. I was still the figure-head captain, and some of the little things kind of got to me occasionally. If any of my old teammates are reading this, they are either laughing knowingly, or screaming at their monitors, “‘Some’ things, ‘Occasionally’!?!”

OK, so I admit it, I am a little uptight, especially when compared to the vast majority of ultimate players. Still, to this day, I can’t quite grasp the concept of, “ultimate time.” I mean, what is the point? Just show up on time and finish on time. Seems easy to me.

Needless to say, in 1990, as a neophyte captain of a team trying to scratch our way to our first nationals, I was not thrilled with a late start for our last practice heading into our do-or-die tournament. I think I was pacing around the fields as Worm and a most of the rest of the team warmed up their throws or stretched.

“It’s most of the Santa Cruz boys that are late,” Worm pointed out. He was trying to minimize the range of the guilty. “They were probably all crammed into Richie’s car. Not exactly reliable transportation.”

He was right of course. Richie’s car had somehow been christened with the name of The Tuna Boat. It was a big, old, beaten up Buick or Oldsmobile. If properly packed, it could fit a starting seven of UC college kids without too much cramping. It was also prone to road trouble and oil leaks.

Just as I had given up hope and decided to start the practice shorthanded, the thumping bass, spitting gravel, and roiling dust cloud announced the arrival of The Tuna Boat. Skidding to a stop as the doors were thrown open, an overwhelming mixture of sensations rode a blast wave onto the sidelines. Laughter, dust, a cloud of pot smoke, and burning engine oil, were the background to a visual medley of grins, arms, legs, field bags, and launched discs.

The Boys had arrived.

Richie, Seth, Teddy, Kenny, and Walter all tumbled out of the vehicle. I think Seth already had his cleats on and was loudly proclaiming that his team would “CRUSH!” in the scrimmage. Richie was giggling and, upon seeing my expression, explained it all away by saying, “Billyeeeee ... come on ... Hot Box in the Tuna Boat! That’s all. Just a little love. A little Box. We’re here now so let’s get to it!”

How could I stay mad at these stupid, silly, talented punks?

The practice went well, relatively tight. People actually appeared to listen as Barney and Dan reviewed the basic approaches of our offense and defensive sets. They pointed out that regionals, being in Bellingham, Washington on the outskirts of Seattle, was most probably going to be cool and wet. We weren’t much of a zone team, but we could use it effectively on defense occasionally and our offense worked surprisingly well considering how few experienced throwers we had.

The concept of being sure of every catch and reigning in the risky throws under wet, windy weather was brought up. For a team playing all its practices and the vast majority of games in northern California, cold, wet weather was a foreign phenomenon. Generally, from mid-May to mid-October, it will not rain one day in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Not once. That makes rain practice a little difficult to come by.

At this particular practice, someone, I can’t remember who, had a brilliant and fun idea. As we gathered for the final scrimmage, two big buckets of water were placed at quarter points along the longitudinal middle of the field. The game was typical ultimate, except it was make-it-take-it. Also, the scoring team had to dip the disc in the nearest bucket of water to start the point. Additionally, if any subsequent passes were completed near a bucket, the disc had to be dunked and play continued seamlessly, stall-count still ticking.

As play progressed, each team would helpfully point out when the other team was required to dunk the disc in a near, or relatively near, bucket. Shouts of, “Dip-able!” were soon raging for just about every throw. I remember Seth screaming down the field, “Dip-able! Dip-able!” as Kenny Leiserson tried to fight his way to the nearest bucket with Worm hanging on his leg as the stall-count escalated.

After the practice, Barney had, “one more thing to say.” Yet again. Groans all around. But this time, he was brief and to the point. I don’t remember everything his pep talk included, but I do recall this - he stated that getting this team, The Boot, to nationals - simply qualifying - would be a more satisfying achievement for him than winning it all with Flying Circus five years before.

At the time, I thought he was either loony, or employing a little hyperbole in an effort to psyche up the troops. Either way, I hoped it worked. We needed all the help we could get.

We flew into cloud shrouded Seattle with energy and hopes overflowing. Saturday morning, we walked out onto some beautiful fields at the base of a massive granite tower and surrounded by green pine forest. As I gazed way up at the eagles effortlessly riding the thermals near the face of the granite wall, the rain started. Most teams began moaning and scrambling for their rain gear, we started laughing with multiple shouts of, “Dip-able!” ringing out up and down our sideline. We were in a positive mind frame. Now we had to play the tournament of our lives.

Our first game was against Santa Barbara. Our greatest conquest at the previous year’s regionals, but not exactly the team you want to play first in a 16 team double elimination format. As I headed out for the pre-game flip, a few of the Condors came up to me and half-jokingly whined, “What the hell happened to you guys at sectionals?” Our fourth place finish at sectionals had resulted in this match-up. A game that neither team was eager to start off with.

It was nearly as intense as last time. Neither team gained more than a two point advantage, the lead changing hands a couple of times. The wind and wet contributed to a sloppy, slow game, but the effort was all there. As the cap approached, they were up something like 10-9. The details are fuzzy, but I remember a critical layout block - probably by Mikey G that would have given us the disc within a few yards of their endzone. There was a call. An argument. The whole game had been intense but clean. Noone wanted it to be decided on a contested call. In the end, the Condors retained possession. The cap was on. We needed the point to extend the game. We didn’t get it. They scored. We were in the loser’s bracket with no more room for error.

To their credit, most of their team seemed genuinely distressed that we had lost a brutal first round match-up in a controversial way. We were trying to re-focus and concentrate on our next opponent.

We were wounded, but not done yet. We re-grouped and took our frustration out on, I think it was a Humbolt or Portland team. We crushed them. I don’t remember our next opponent, Salt Lake City? Pheonix? Either way, we won that game handily and closed out our first day of regionals better than we started.

Next morning our first game is against ... great ... the Rhinos. They had been beaten by Tsunami or LA in the front door semis. Double elimination brackets close out quickly. They lose and drop down to face us. We win and crawl up to face them.

It was heated and physical on both sides. The rain had cleared, so the athleticism of both teams was on display. Both teams were desperate. We knew from the year before, that we could beat them. I doubt they thought we could pull it off twice.

I recall one particular play that summed up the game. It was near the end of the game, score close and each team waiting for the break it needed to get the upper hand. We have the disc, but their intense man defense is starting to grind us down a bit. They are getting closer and closer to lay out blocks. I am towards the back of the stack, having just cleared and knowing the count is getting high. I simply plan on doubling back and streaking in for the disc and a new ten seconds. As I plant and turn, I see Kenny with the disc, trying to work his marker, but with a little of the “deer in the headlights” glaze to his eyes. He was young back then and not as confident with his breaks at such a critical point.

I also see that Worm is breaking to the open side on a direct comeback cut. His defender is practically on top of him. As Kenny releases the disc at “nine”, I notice the poacher from the front of the stack. He is vectoring directly into the path of the disc. Worm’s defender has launched in front of him for the block, the poacher has launched sideways into the throw, Worm launches directly into the collision point of both defenders. From behind, and in slow motion, all I see is the disc disappear behind a wall of the black Rhino shirts as if the gates of fate had closed on our chances to win. Worm is akimbo in mid-air, legs and one arm flailing. I can’t see his left arm. The whole mass of bodies crunches to the ground and I begin to rotate to cover my man. I hear a cheer. From our sideline. I whip my head back around. I can’t believe my eyes. Somehow, Worm has the disc in his hand, and the both Rhino defenders are trying to figure out how it got there.

Later, Kenny described what he saw, from the thrower’s perspective:

“The count is way high, and I am looking for a bail-out. I see Worm coming back down the line. He’s covered, but I don’t have any other options. I throw it hard and kinda high, hoping he can shield it with his body. Then I see the poacher. I’m screaming at myself and praying for a miracle at the same time. I see both Rhino guys get in front of Worm as the disc gets within reach. Then I suddenly see Worm’s arm. I can’t see any of the rest of him, but I can see his arm snaking through the gap between the defenders. He snags the disc just as they all collide. I don’t know how he ever saw it.” Kenny is laughing and shaking his head.

Worm says he never really did see it after he launched. He just reached out where he thought it might be ... somewhere behind a guy or two. Sometimes you get lucky. Some people seem to create the most unbelievable luck.

After that play, it seemed to me that the two teams were playing a different game. The Rhinos were struggling to keep their head above water, we were swimming for the finish line. We won again. The previous year, we had been their only loss at regionals on their way to nationals. This year, we closed out their season. We were elated and relieved to still be in the hunt. They couldn’t believe it.

Next game was against Seattle. Back then, they were a good team, consistently just below the top teams in the region. They also had a reputation for choking in big games. Since I don’t remember any high levels of anxiety entering the contest, part of me believes that we may have entered the game a little overconfident. I know, that sounds crazy for a team that had never achieved much of anything, had never won a tournament, indeed, had finished fourth at sectionals. What can I say. We were young.

Either way, the weather started to turn sour at the beginning of the game. Seattle, led by crafty veterans like Baird Johnson, Troy Frever, and CVH, loved the foul conditions. The worse the better for them. For us, we didn’t seem to adapt from our successful run and gun approach in the Rhino game to the control game we needed. They beat us, but I don’t recall it being a blow-out or a close one. Either way, we were out again and Seattle moved on to play

Eventually, we later heard, Santa Barbara managed to climb through the back door to join South Bay and LA at nationals. We didn’t see it firsthand for a couple of reasons. One, the weather had turned nasty - cold, windy, and wet - no fun for spectating. Two, our flights home weren’t scheduled until the next morning and we had a lot of drinking and partying ahead of us.

That night back in Seattle is basically a blur except for a few indelible images imprinted on my cerebral cortex. I know that we started the night kind of quiet and reflective at a nearby microbrew pub. I know that we soon shook off our disappointment and began celebrating the fun season that we had finished. I think we wandered out of the pub in the wee hours of the night. I am sure that we found our way back to our hotel, but were still too amped up to think about settling in for the night. I have fragments of memory that mostly convince me that, at one point in the evening, Brian From Hell had gotten so out of control, some of the guys thought it would be best to drag him out of the hotel. Only a couple of problems with that. One, Brian wasn’t eager to be escorted out of the building. Two, we were on the second or third floor.

I remember seeing Brian being physically dragged by his legs down the hallway. Being dragged, feet first, down at least one or two flights of steps. I remember being both repulsed and fascinated that his head, bouncing down the fire exit steps, wasn’t cracking open like a coconut. I don’t remember the end of the night or how we managed to wake up for our flights the next morning. Suffice it to say, The Boot had their fun.

After returning to the Bay Area, most of us felt like the season had been cut short prematurely. We had been hoping to still be playing in late October. I guess that is what makes the Humbolt Harvest tournament so attractive. A bunch of teams unwilling to acknowledge the end of their seasons, get together in the quiet forests of far northern California and play and party for the weekend after regionals.

We took a reduced roster team hoping to have some fun and maybe win. I drove up in a car with Worm, Barney, and Trish - Barney’s then girlfriend. I remember that Trish wasn’t too keen on ultimate or ultimate spew. Worm made occasional polite conversation with her. Barney and I spent the entire five and a half hour drive talking ultimate non-stop.

As I recall this, I shake my head and laugh at my then-self. But what can I say, I was passionate and driven for something like I had never been for anything else in my life. I can still feel the elation and enthusiasm these days, but I know I would not be able to sustain it continuously for more than five hours while sitting in a car. Ahh, the energy of youth.

The entire team, all 12 or 14 of us, crashed in Arcata at the house of a friend of Seth or Teddy. I only remember these particular sleeping arrangements (sleeping bags on the floor packed in like sardines throughout a cramped living/dining area) because of one particular resident of the house.

Our car arrived late, after 11:00 PM. I figured everyone would be asleep and we would have to sneak in quietly so as not to disturb our teammates or the owners of the home. As we opened the door to the living room, I remember noticing the low light, general quiet, and seeing a lot of prostrate bodies. Then Seth realizes we are settling in and says in his typical subdued way, “Dudes!! Welcome!! Check this out! Teddy, wake up! Where’s that cat?!”

Teddy rouses himself and looks around, rubbing his eyes. Just about everyone else is opening their eyes at this point.

“Here Fetch Cat! Here Fetch Cat!” Seth is crooning, “Come on kid, show ‘em what you can do.”

Out of the shadows comes a skinny, gray, ruffled body.

Seth frantically seizes some small object and tosses it across the room. The cat, as if imitating a guided missile, immediately leaps around and over multiple sleeping bags and bundles of clothes. It pounces on the object (maybe a wad of paper) and picks it up in its mouth. The cat then proceeds to directly return it to Seth. Dropping it next to him and backing away it is apparently waiting for another throw.

We are tired and sleepy, but we are suitably impressed. This cat fetches. After numerous subsequent tosses of various objects, there was no doubt. This was the Fetch Cat. We naturally adopted it as our weekend mascot. Making constant references the next day at the fields about, “Dude, Fetch Cat would have had that” or, “Make like Fetch Cat!” Generally, I like cats. I love dogs, but I like cats. This cat was great.

As we returned to our crash pad after an undefeated Saturday, the house was quiet. We stumbled and bumbled through the front door calling for our hero/mascot. We were greeted by the long, sad face of the owner. We got the bad news. Fetch Cat had been hit and killed by a car that very afternoon. Right out in front of the house.

We were strangely devastated. It was only a little cat that we had met the night before. But it had become part of our team culture and rhythm for the day. We offered sincere condolences and quietly grieved.

It was at least five minutes before the first joke was vocalized. “Maybe Fetch Cat shouldn’t have tried to fetch the toyota.” Then, “Who’s idea was it to tie the stuffed mouse to the bumper?” Multiple variations on the same theme. Luckily, Fetch Cat’s owner had left by then.

It wasn’t as if we didn’t care. But the need for mourning was low and the love of humor was high with that group. Why cry when you can laugh? It was, at times, a frustrating group to play with, but we taught each other a lot about what a team should feel like.

After many years of playing, I have often thought back on Barney’s speech at our last practice. I thought he was crazy at the time for saying simply qualifying for nationals could be more satisfying than winning it all, depending on the team you go with. I have been on teams where winning was expected, demanded. I have been on teams where winning the game-to-go was cause for jubilant celebration and tears of joy.

Going to nationals with that Boot team would have been incredible.

Here is the final Boot roster for 1990:

Alan Rudy
“Barney” Bruner
Benny Tanzer
Billy Layden
Bryan “From Hell” Plymale
Chuck Godin
Dan Harrington
Dan “Dilly” Peltz
“Big” Dave Smith
Jeff “Box” Bourncamp
Ken Leiserson
Kyle “Kansas” Shepard
Mark “Newt” Newton
Mikey “G” Geluardi
Pat “Hobanski” Hoban
Peter “Watsonville” Deutsch
Raymo Santangello
Richie “Dads” Zlatnich
Seth “Wahh” Blacher
Teddy Wardlaw
Tom “Worm” Glass
Walter Dodds
Wes Sanford

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Learning Lessons

For the first few years of playing ultimate, I kept a list of all the tournaments I attended each year, noting the location, dates, record of games won and lost, and other trival stuff. I wish I still had that lose pile of pages these days. I find that some memories that used to be easily recalled through idle remembrance, are now so dusty and tattered that they are frayed in the very act of recalling, if they can be summoned at all. Even so, there are a few trends a can remember from those early years.

We used to play between 10 and 14 tournaments a year, many more than most club teams seem to play these days. I don’t know why this is. There are more tourneys than ever to choose from, but it seems that most teams aspiring to qualify for Nationals tend to play less than we used to. Maybe that is just my personal experience over the past seven or eight years.

We played a large number of those tourneys in Santa Cruz (notables being Cal States in mid-May, Labor Day, and usually at least one, if not both, of sectionals or regionals.) For people that have never had the pleasure of playing at the UC campus high above Santa Cruz, you should seriously consider it at least once. It is one of the most beautiful field sites at which you can play. The party is (or at least, was back when I was going to such things) fun with a good band, good beer, and a few stories to be had for the adventuresome. And, with the recent rise of west coast ultimate in all divisions, is nearly guaranteed to be competitive.

We did very little in the way of off-day training. Most all of our conditioning was done before and after practice. Sprints, plyos, calisthenics, we did that together, as a team. I’m not sure if the top teams were doing the same thing back then, but I know it is far different now.

There was very little competition between regions. By this, I mean that most of the west coast teams spent their entire seasons playing against west coast competition, the east coast teams stayed on their right coast, and the mid west teams had to choose a direction, usually east. Back then, the Boulder Fourth of July tourney was the first and only chance for regional powers to face off before Nationals.

Of course, back in 1990, I hadn’t even heard about Boulder. In fact, I had only the vaguest idea of other great teams outside the west. We had all we could handle trying to beat the second tier west coast teams (Oregon, Seattle, East Bay, Boulder, Santa Barbara, San Diego) let alone, Tsunami or Iguana the only true National contender teams west of the Rockies. I longed to play in those big games where everyone was watching and people would know the team you played for.

Tom and I often joked that if only we could start winning some tournaments, some of the ultimate women would, maybe, start to notice us. We were, painfully, aware that there was plenty of party mixing between the top men’s teams and most all the women’s teams. Also, there was the phenomenon that local men’s and women’s teams tended to hang together. Unfortunately, The Boot was not a Top Team and was local to no particular place. We came from multiple cities, we often practiced in obscure, out of the way places. We had no “sister” team. We were like the ugly step-sisters, doomed to mop the floors while the elite attended the ball. Of course, this was just a little added motivation for us.

After The Boot’s second place finish at Solstice, we attained a bit of fleeting notoriety in the Bay Area. We had a couple more late try-outs at practice. We carried ourselves with a little more pride. We thought we might actually be getting somewhere.

We may also have been taken a little more seriously by our competition at our next tournament - Labor Day in Santa Cruz. As I recall, we played with new found confidence, but in the end we reverted to our old habit of losing in the quarters. But, we did show signs of playing better.

Instead of losing faith or being disheartened, we managed to channel our defeats into motivation. I think we truly felt we were on the verge of breaking through. At this point in the season, we were poised to make our move. We felt we had the team to actually make a run at that elusive and competitive third bid out of the huge western region. We had the young defense, a strong offense anchored by the throws of a few veterans, the constant disc movement of our exceptional Santa Cruz kids, and a few big receiving threats.

When I recall my role on the team at this point, I remember myself as being a defensive middle. I played most all the defensive points, covering a handler or middle from the opposition, usually someone that was short, fast and/or ran a lot. On the transition, I was expected to run. Run and keep the disc moving with middle continuation cuts. My throws were steady, as long as I didn’t try to do too much. Basically, I wasn’t a threat with the disc. Actually, more of an annoyance for the other team.

It may be hard for those that know me now, but I was actually a pretty good defender back then. I used to layout for anything close and often got the block. I also could run with just about anyone. And I often got matched up against some very good players.

For history’s sake, here is a list of a few the people I was trying to cover in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. They weren’t necessarily the best players in the region, or even on their own team. But, if you were to ask others that played with or against them, they could tell you that they were all great players in their own ways.

Tsunami: Bob Sick “Bert”, Kenny Kirsh

Iguana: Jeff Landesman, Cliff Marhoffer,

San Diego: “Bullet”, Clif Smith

Santa Barbara: Aengus Wagner, Sean Daddy

East Bay: Dave Barkan, Jesse Cortez,

Oregon: Jon King, “Wheels”, Jay Jannin

Seattle: Troy Frevor, Sean Federbush, Pete Barnow

This list is by no means complete, just the names that I could recall without hypnotic induction.

I am proud to say that I tried my best to defend against these players. Occasionally, I was successful. Often, I was not. They each taught me something about playing ultimate. Some of them, like Aengus, Dave Barkan, Jon King, and Jay Jannin, also taught me about being a good sportsman, a good teammate, and a better person.

Perhaps the most difficult player to cover in this group was Bob Sick, or Bert as he was often called. He was fast, as many players are, but he also had an almost inhuman ability to cut quickly. The phrase “On a dime” is often bandied about in sports. In my experience, Bob Sick could cut on the edge of a dime. He also had a quick, low throw that he threw to the break side (forehand or backhand) at will. I remember hating covering him, but trying to learn with each humiliation. I thanked the ultimate gods when he left the Bay Area for Florida. “Let him be someone else’s nightmare,” I thought when I heard he had moved.

Of all these players, one of them struck me early on as a possible role model. He was a player that seemed to have the same strengths and limitations that I had. Yet, he had managed to win the respect of his opponents and, more importantly, the respect and trust of his teammates. Sean Daddy, from Santa Barbara, may not make it into the Ultimate Hall of Fame, but to me, he appeared to be the definition of a hard working player that was competitive, fair, fun and maximized his talents. No one ever wanted to cover him. Not because he would score goal after goal or throw glory hucks or cross-field hammers. No one wanted to cover him because he never stopped running, he never turned it over, and he stuck to your hip on defense. That was the player I wanted to be.

With this team, with this new found confidence, and a clearer vision of the kind of player I wanted to be, I entered that fall series in 1990 with excited anticipation. Barney had talked to us about striving to qualify for Nationals. He had expounded on the level of sustained commitment and focused intensity that it would take to break through. I heard his words, but didn’t really understand. I wonder how many of us really had any idea. Barney, and maybe Dan, were the only players on the roster that had been to club Nationals. The rest of us respected them for that achievement, but had little clue on how to follow their lead.

We headed into sectionals that year, held in Davis, with high hopes. We expected to battle East Bay for second place. Some of us even harbored lunatic ideas of usurping Tsunami as the top team in Northern California. Why not? I looked at those guys and saw a bunch of older (late 20s early 30s) guys with fading athleticism, strong skills, and a tendency to be unfocused in our games against them. I saw an opening, a small and wavering opening.

The weekend didn’t work out quite that way. We ended up fourth - worse than the year before. We lost to East Bay in a bitterly contested semis, then we lost to a young but determined Davis team in the third/fourth game. We had lost some of our confidence and energy in our one point loss to East Bay. Davis, led by an always intense Steve Joye, were determined to knock us down another peg. They succeeded.

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Parinella Effect

Sorry to you loyal few readers. I have been so swamped that I haven't had time to run off at the keyboard lately. And next week, I'll be on business in California, so no posts from there.

One funny thing. A while back, I added a site meter to see if anyone was actually reading this or whether it was more of an on-line diary. I was pleasantly surprised that there are actually others out there besides Jim, Alex and Luke looking at this melange of rememberances.

Either way, I was even more surprised when I saw a sharp spike in the hits after Aprils Fools this year. Turns out, Jimmy P dropped a single link to the blog. It was embedded his own post recapping ShortFatGuys this year.

I guess Jim's readership is a tiny bit higher than mine. See if you can spot the day the link went up. (Hope this graph from the site meter shows up properly.)

In the mean time, somebody tell Worm to get off his lazy ass and start posting the funny stuff (Luke, you're just the man for the job).