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

7 Comments:

At June 07, 2006 12:31 AM, Blogger luke said...

kitty fetch toyota? ah yes... it's never too soon...

was rhino rhino that year, or the oregon donors?

 
At June 07, 2006 7:59 AM, Blogger Billy said...

Luke,

Thanks for the fact checking.
You are right, I believe the top Oregon team in 1990 was still going by the Oregon Donors name. I guess, in my heart, they are always the mighty Rhino.

-billy

 
At June 08, 2006 5:43 PM, Anonymous Arnie said...

Nice story. What was the name of the Seattle team that year? Poor fetch-cat. Was it the worm who cracked the first joke after the condolences were finished?

 
At June 09, 2006 11:18 AM, Blogger Billy said...

Arnie,

In 1990, I think Seattle was using the "Seattle Cattle" name, but I'm not entirely sure. They seemed to change their name every couple of years back then along with the configuration of the team. Lots of transience and team swapping was killing their cohesion back then.

Fortunately for them, and unfortunately for a lot of other teams, they seemed to stabilize in the '95 - '96 time period.

In answer to your other question, I think that Seth and/or Richie were the first ones to defame the sacred memory of Fetch Cat. I distinctly remember having simultaneous conflicting reactions of irritation at their callousness, and laughing at the jokes.

I know, scary to imagine a team where Worm wasn't even in the top two or three on the irreverance scale.

 
At June 23, 2006 11:39 AM, Blogger luke said...

olympic windjammers. oh wait. that's in the era of the overhand wristflip...

NEXT CHAPTER

 
At June 30, 2006 5:34 AM, Blogger bfh said...

that explains it

 
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