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.


At May 24, 2006 8:25 AM, Blogger parinella said...

Re: fewer tournaments.
1. Nationals is earlier. Not only is there less time, but teams may be less willing to devote a weekend to a random tournament.
2. Larger rosters, making practice easier and tournaments less worthwhile (less PT per person).
3. Less competition? It's hard to evaluate whether this is true or anecdotal, but the stratification of teams seems to have increased, plus coed has siphoned away the less committed and not quite talented enough from the good B teams like The Boot.
And most importantly, 4. Kids today just don't have it in them.

At May 24, 2006 12:27 PM, Anonymous john stebbins said...

At the risk of temporally screwing things up here I submit one of my lasting on-field memories of you in order to confirm your ability to run fast and far.

Exhibit A: Nationals semis Double versus Rhino game in San Antonio ('93). A bunch of teammates and Windy City guys watched from the perch at the top of the grandstands where we had a great view of both your game and the infamous NY v Boston head-but game. Of all of the incredible things that happened in your game on of the most memorable was watching you tear up and down the field. It was a clinic, just freakin' incredible. What was equally incredible - and perhaps was one of the main reasons that it stood out as it did - was your "open cut to thrown to" ratio. As I recall, you were always open but rarely thrown to. What up with that? That shit ain't right. If it makes you feel any better, Dave (Buchs) Buchanon(sp?) from Windy City was incredulous.

As for the Double/Rhino game it was one of the best games I have ever witnessed. Too bad the other game going on at the time gets all of the press. It was played at an incredibly high level, with high level of sportsmanship, and went right down to the wire - an unfortunate unforced error by John King being the difference, if I remember correctly.

But as I said at the top, perhaps have gone too far ahead.


At May 25, 2006 6:19 AM, Blogger Billy said...

It all comes down to your reason #4.

Thanks for chiming in with an ego-boosting comment. Ah, the things that keep us going. My personal philosophy these days is, "If you can't be as fast or in shape as you used to be, then tailor your memories of your glory days to make yourself seem faster and fitter 'back in the day'."

And you are correct about the quality of the '93 semis between Rhino and Double. I actually posted this as part of a discussion on rec.sport.disc regarding "greatest ultimate games ever."

At May 25, 2006 1:40 PM, Blogger worm said...

The 4th place finish was very disappointing. We were 16 all with East Bay in the Semi's. Next point wins. We pulled to them and played man to man D. We were all over them. The count got to 9 and East Bay threw swill which was caught in the back of the end zone. That point may have been the end of the boot. We really believed we could win the section. We believed this team could be around for many years competing for a spot at Nationals. Now, with our poor showing, we knew we would lose some players to South Bay. Talk started of combining East Bay and the Boot. This was a fun, talented team that could have done some damage. It is amazing how one point in a game can change the course of ultimate history. Regionals would turn out to be the last tournament for The Boot. Billy will describe the tournament in further detail.

At June 19, 2006 5:08 PM, Anonymous playa said...

it's amazing what you find when you google someone's full name. little did i realize that i have your entire ultimate history at my disposal! great reading for a rainy day.

by the way, i found my tent...will had it. and for the record, i resent reason number 4.

At June 23, 2006 12:44 PM, Blogger Billy said...


scary to think of the harm that could come to the next generation of ultimate players if they read this drivel

Glad you found your tent. I knew you couldn't trust that Will character. Just because he's an Army Ranger and he could kick my ass with one hand ...

Finally, I will believe in reason number 4 at least until the majority of young players can scorch me on the field. I mean, back in my day, no self respecting player would let a broken down 41 year old catch a disc on them.

At June 30, 2006 12:18 AM, Blogger luke said...

'kum ba yah'

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