Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Welcome to the World

Sectionals 1989: Truthfully, I can’t even remember it. I know that we hoped to come in second, behind Tsunami and ahead of East Bay. I believe we ended up third, behind East Bay, squeaking past Davis. Worm will have to fill in the details.

Regionals: The West was still one, big, monster of a region. Picture everything west of Kansas, north of Mexico, and south of Canada. That region happened to include: Boulder, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Davis, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Seattle, Portland, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco. Canada wasn’t yet part of the UPA, but still, that was a hell of a region. Three teams go to Nationals.

The tourney was held at Stanford, on the Intramural Fields near El Camino Real. Being a low seed, our first game was against Portland. They were the Oregon Donors that year. They were known to be an up and coming contender. They surely didn’t know us. We didn’t know them at all, except that they had Ronar.

Ron “Ronar” Oliner was a legend based on his performance at the 1985 Nationals. If I remember correctly, Barney told me that he had scored 15 of Flying Circus’ 21 goals on their way to winning the finals. He was huge, about 6 foot 4. And cocky. And, as both teams finished warming up, you could see that his teammates seemed to have ultimate faith in him.

First game of regionals. 16 teams, double elimination. No excuses. Got to win when it counts. We’re playing on the field near the restrooms and the parking lot. The west edge is a mixture of dirt, sparse grass, and gravel

Oregon opened the game with a series of points that mainly revolved around finding an opening for a huck to Ronar in the endzone. He pulled most of these down for easy goals. But our offense is clicking and we are matching them score for score.

I’m realizing that all the college kids are just starting to get their footing at the club level. Their throws are not only better than I personally could have imagined at their age, most of them are better throwers than me on that day. And they can run. Oregon definitely has the experience and talent advantage, but we have legs and some serious defense.

Somewhere near half-time, we have burned through our taller defenders trying to stop Ronar. Worm, at six foot even and maybe 175 soaking wet, matches up with him. In the next couple of points, the Oregon throwers force a couple of hucks into a covered Ronar. Perfect placement and float might have worked, but not these. I think Worm got one block, perhaps a poacher got another. We may or may not have managed to take a one point lead.

Regrouping on the next pull, Oregon starts working it up with a sequence of shorter throws trying to catch a look at an open huck or a long bowling alley come-back. Seth, Teddy and I are doing a decent job up front of making most of the throws difficult, denying a few cuts in each sequence. Worm is backing the hell out of Ronar, making the long throw a little risky and daring the come-back. Finally, after a swing, the sideline opens up and Ronar is churning up the alley for a full 30 yard under cut. Worm is trailing right behind him, but with Ronar’s bulk and flying elbows there is virtually no opening to get around him. Perhaps Ronar slowed up a bit just before the catch, or maybe Worm had a huge burst. Either way, the disc never got to its target. Twisting and stretching, Worm launched around and in front of Ronar. His hand slipped in and batting the disc away as he came crashing down and skidded along the gravelly dirt. No foul call - no contact. Just a burst of cheering from our sideline, a look of disbelief on their sideline, and a bloody and dusty Worm gathering himself up off the ground and trotting towards the forming stack.

We score. We have the momentum. They have not only lost their cockiness, they are starting to get on each other. Ronar isn’t even on the field for the next offense. The Donors are starting to consider the possibility of losing. We are starting to believe we can win. Hell, we don’t have anything to lose we’re seeded 13 or 14 out of 16. We’re too young and dumb to think of playing conservative now. And the captains let us go. No last minute “Old Man’s Offense” like last year. The Boot is winning or losing with the group that got us there.

We win.

The news of the upset spread quickly throughout the tourney. I think every team, with the notable exception of Oregon and perhaps their next round opponent in the loser’s bracket, was psyched that we were advancing in the winners bracket. Some might have truly been rooting for us, we were a fun team, when we weren’t drunk and heckling. But mostly, everyone saw the draw open up wide on our side of the bracket.

Next game was against Phoenix. Neither team knew each other, but they may have been a little wary of us. We didn’t care. We were on a roll. I remember the game getting a little testy. Some calls and an argument or two. Our defense picked it up and we were two and oh heading into the next round of the winner’s bracket.

LA Iguana waited for us under the shade of the eucalyptus trees. They had surely marked their schedule in the morning, aiming towards the expected first test during this round against Oregon. Instead, they get us. They are practically salivating. We, on the other hand, are familiar with this opponent. And it is not working in our favor. That loose energy and exuberance that carried us this far flees into the corners of the woods. The Iguana bats us around and tosses us aside.

We are one loss away from elimination.

Going into the next game, you have to appreciate the difference between the two teams. The Santa Barbara Condors are legends. At that point, in 1989, I think they had qualified for every Nationals since ... well ... since there was a National Championship. They have a mix of battle hardened veterans and experienced college players from the dominant Black Tide squad. The Boot has ... well, we have a couple of veterans that have been in big games, but always lost. We have one veteran that has won Nationals. We have a bunch of guys that have recently been cut from other teams. We have Worm from Chico and a bunch of college kids that are psyched to still be playing in club regionals. On paper, it is no contest.

As they say, that’s why they play the games.

It was an epic struggle between two teams desperate for a win. We were playing to get closer to our first chance at Nationals. They were playing to maintain a chance at their god given right to Nationals.

The game was to be played to 15, cap at 17. No time limit.

Most of the game has faded in my memory. How we managed to be so close at the closing points, I don’t remember. I do remember that I ended up covering Aengus Wagner most of the game. At the time, he was basically royalty in west coast ultimate. Not only was he a great athlete, but he was also known as a great sportsman and generally fun guy. The fact that I was even trying to match up with him was a thrill for me.

When the score was 13 all, we pulled to them. I ran down on the pull, especially wary of Aengus knowing they would probably be looking for him in the crunch. I remember how he tended to run with a short, inefficient gait. Lots of strides. Shuffling more than loping. Either way, he was fast. He could cut quickly. And he could catch anything and never seemed to throw it away when it really counted.

They start working it up the field with a sequence of swing throws looking for continuation and give and gos. Aengus is on fire, cutting for every other throw. If I manage to cover him, his clear cut is a serious option. I felt like I was chasing a chicken around the field - sometimes closing off a throw, only to be caught overplaying and broken on the opposite side.

He is schooling me, but I am not giving up. We need this turnover. They need this point. Badly.

They work it all the way up the field. Aengus is cutting cross field with me on his tail again. Yet another button-hook and he is heading back for a dump-swing. I can’t let him get it. The thrower looks him off. As he plants and turns to clear out, he slips. I am right behind him. I jump over him to avoid stepping on him.

At this point, everything slows down. He is still sliding, but scrambling to his feet. I am above him, trying to look for a place to safely land. As I come down, my foot clips his leg. I am tumbling towards the sideline. He is gaining his footing and heading for the endzone.

I start running before I get to my feet, he is trying to find the clear spot for the score. There is a quick swing to the sideline farthest from me. The sideline Aengus is breaking for. I am at least five yards behind him running as fast as I can to close the gap but still feeling like I am slogging through quicksand.

The front endzone corner opens up and the soft leading throw goes up as I accelerate past the thrower. Aengus is alone, but I am closing faster than the disc. He breaks hard right to meet the throw just behind the goal line right inside the cone. Staggering, I lunge for the disc. I miss by more than a yard. He claps the disc for the score. 14 - 13 Condors. Game to 15.

And then ...

... well there are turning points in all lives. Moments when things happen that resonate quietly but persistently throughout a life. Moments that may seem fleeting to one party, but may make all the difference to another.

This was one of those moments for me. In fact, I am almost afraid to attempt to commit it to written words, because I can’t do it justice. All I can do is state it simply, and hope that anyone else who has been in a similar position can appreciate the circumstances and the implications.

At the instant he caught the disc, Aengus, sweating and exhausted from the effort of not only that point, but of the entire game, indeed, the entire brutal tournament to that point, looked down to confirm that he was in the endzone. Goal.

In the next second, as I slid to a stop near him, he handed the disc to me. As the rest of his team was celebrating the crucial point, he looked me straight in the eye and quietly asked me, “Do you want to call a foul on that.” He indicated our entanglement seconds and a lifetime ago.

Here was a virtual ultimate god asking me, a nobody grunt player on a nobody team whether I wanted to take back the precious goal he had just worked so hard for. Of course I wanted to call a foul. I wanted to do anything that would get us a second chance at that point. If I had uttered the word, “Foul”, I truly think he would have not contested and taken the disc back twenty yards to where he slid and I jumped.

Instead, somehow, I overcame my selfish instincts and managed to do the right thing. I considered the situation, thought about the circumstances, and decided that it was all incidental in the sense of unintentional and unavoidable. It only took a moment, but it was a struggle.

“No foul. Nice goal.” As much as I hated myself for getting burned for such an important score, I admired Aengus for what he was willing to do to be sure that there was no question of the legitimacy of the outcome. He would rather lose than win dishonorably.

That simple act of sportsmanship has followed me, indeed sometimes haunted me, for 17 years. It has impacted the way that I attempt to conduct myself on the field whether winning or losing, whether playing a simple league game, or competing at Nationals or Worlds. It is like a benchmark that I strive - and sometimes fail - to maintain.

What would I have done it that situation?

What would you have done?

The Boot won that game.

My teammates play out of their heads to tie it up and then to push it into overtime. Game point, Ron Cootes throws a long bender up the sideline to Worm sprinting for the goal. He’s fighting to keep himself between the defender and the disc. It’s a good throw ... except that it is coming straight out of the sun. Hesitation. Uncertainty. A prayer and a lunge. Goal.

Final score. Boot 17, Condors 16. Three hours. One legend of a team losing their second chance. One upstart team staggering but still holding their dream upright.

I remember the combination of elation and exhaustion that swept over me at that moment. Two more wins, and we are going to Nationals. I recall the post-game handshake and the genuine wishes for “good game, good luck” from the Condors. After our brief and subdued group celebration, I sank down my back on the field, thankful for a moment to recoup.

Through my closed eyes, I notice the eclipsing of the sun as someone walks up next to me. Holding my hand up to block the sun, I squint at the silhouette of Andy Gould, the captain of East Bay.

“Game time is in, uh, five minutes. Who’s flipping for the pull?” He smiles.

East Bay has been on the sidelines for at least half an hour, watching in amusement as we beat ourselves near to death trying to scramble past Santa Barbara. They are rested and warmed up. We are worn out and beaten up. Nagging little injuries are slowing some of our veterans. Our kids have nearly reached the end of the adrenaline wave that they have been riding all weekend.

We begin playing less than ten minutes later. Game to 17 cap at 19. No time limit.

It was a battle of familiar enemies. We all lived in the Bay Area. Their roster tended to come from the City and Berkeley/Oakland, ours from Palo Alto and Santa Cruz. We had played against them a few times and never won. We felt they were kind of old and slow. They knew we were mostly young and dumb. They had better throws, we had better defense. They were more organized and strategic, we were going for it with the attitude that we had nothing to lose.

Once again, the minutiae of the early points is lost to me. I know that it was close the whole way. So close that it got to 17 all - going to the cap. Again. At this point, the game is past the three hour mark. We are running on fumes, desire and guts. They are playing as if their lives depend upon it. Indeed, one ultimate season would end in the next few points and one team would be within one step of their first Nationals.

We score. We are pulling to them 18-17. Game point. Despite huge layouts and pressure man-to-man, they flawlessly work the disc into the endzone. 18 all. Next point is everything. They pull to our best offensive unit. We work the disc to within 25 yards of their endzone. The disc gets swung to Ken Calloway.

Ken is a late addition to the team. A Nationals champion of Barney’s on Flying Circus, his knee brace and slightly soft mid-section speak to the fact that his peak days are past him. But his throws have been instrumental in us getting this far. Indeed, it seems like every player on the team has done something, at some point to help the team. A complete team effort.

Ken looks up for the continuation cut. Seth is blazing open to the near corner of the endzone. This has been something of a coming out party for Seth. If anyone in the club scene knew him before this weekend, it was as a slightly goofy, speedy college player. Here, he has matched up against the best that we have seen and more than held his own. Since I had the pleasure/misfortune of covering him at practice, I knew he was a nightmare. I was only too happy to see everyone else find out.

One pass more. The throw goes up. It’s a little behind Seth, the East Bay defender is tight. Seth slams on the brakes and strains back for the disc. Block!

East Bay picks it up and immediately starts moving up field against our game, but struggling offensive unit. Score. Game. Season over.

Standing on the sidelines, my head drops to my chest and my legs give way.

In two must-win games, we played over six and a half hours. We won by one. We lost by one.

Dejected and spent, we slowly gathered on our sideline. Eventually, someone, probably one of the Santa Cruz kids, yelled out, “Where’s the damn beer! Let’s start drinking and heckling!”

At first, this seemed almost blasphemous to me. We had just lost a heart breaker when we had the disc to win. We had worked all season and fell short by a game and a point. Shouldn’t we be depressed and angry? I was. A little. But, also, there was in me a growing appreciation for what we had accomplished.

We were a completely new team, less than a year in the making. We had maybe six players that had played in a big game in club ultimate. We had a bunch of crazy college kids and some players like me, that had been drifting along the fringes of the sport.

And we had fun. A lot of fun. No major political infighting. No simmering personality struggles. Just a lot of intensity. A lot of team devotion. And a lot of laughs.

I sat on the sidelines and randomly heckled the game-to-go as Oregon, coming all the way up the dirt road beat a tired East Bay team. We had the dual satisfaction of knowing that we were the only team to beat a team going to Nationals and that we probably influenced the outcome by running East Bay for all they were worth. I drank a particularly tasty beer and toasted my teammates. 1989 was one of the most satisfying seasons I ever had.


At March 30, 2006 9:17 AM, Blogger parinella said...

Even with all those many, many, many big titles, I too look back on that era with incredible fondness. We were young, it was all new to us, and we felt like we were starting from nothing and creating something. Those were the Golden Days, before the weight of the world broke us.

At April 06, 2006 5:28 PM, Blogger Billy said...

Sure Jim, use a comment on my blog to rub in the difference between our Big Game records. Let's compare wins and losses in finals of Worlds and Nationals.

You: 20 - 5 (very rough guess)
Me: 1 - 4

Not exactly pretty.

But, yes. Those early years do have a tinge of innocence and satisfaction that the later years don't. Although I do seem to be happier with the smaller victories lately (like successfully getting out of bed the day after a tourney).

At April 07, 2006 9:33 AM, Blogger parinella said...

For the record:
Me: 9-3

But the important one is that you and I are 1-1 head-to-head.

Interestingly, my semis W/N record is only 12-7. In case Corey is reading this, I'm sure that this reflects positively on me and my teammates and negatively on him and the rest of the world. Let's see, how can I frame this? Ah, in the losses, it was only our intestinal fortitude that enabled us to make it as far as the semis in some of those years, where the superior "talent" of other teams was just too much to handle.

But yeah, "innocence" is the key.


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