For open teams that aren’t the top dog in their region, a typical season might look like this:
- Hold tryouts after the big dog team makes cuts (try to convince their bubble players not to go play mixed).
- Set a goal to play meaningful games on Sunday at Regionals.
- Travel to a few tournaments, usually in driving distance – maybe one out of region.
- Hold practices where attendance might be spotty (varies by location).
- Do well at sectionals.
- Get knocked out of contention at regionals and focus final games on “ruining someone’s season” by knocking them out of contention.
Sound familiar or frustrating?
Enter the Ultimate Invite Championships. The UIC will be held in beautiful Sarasota, FL over the Thursday, Friday and Saturday of USAU Club Nationals at nearby polo fields (Oct. 25 – 27). The goal seems to be two-fold: hold a final competitive tournament for the top 20 teams or so outside of nationals and create an atmosphere the both inspires and teaches players to achieve the next level in their career.
Players will be free on Sunday to stake a spot in the stands to take in ultimate’s Super Bowl Sunday – the finals for open, womens and mixed back-to-back-to-back.
“We wanted to help more teams develop a sense of identity by giving them a positive goal to work toward,” said Skip Sewell, a founder of Emerald City Ultimate and captain of Seattle’s Sockeye. “I think too many teams start off their season by defining success in the negative. We want bubble teams to be able to buy a ticket to Sarasota whether or not they make club nationals and take in that awesome experience of being in Sarasota.”
The tournament is by invitation, instead of merit, since many of these teams may have players with limited funds for buying plane tickets on a short notice. But without a sense of earning a spot in a season-ending tournament, is there enough glamour in winning the UIC to attract teams who just missed the cut for nationals?
For Damien Lazar of Boston’s Garuda, the answer is yes – with an asterisk.
“This is a complicated question and not too different from the age old ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg?’” said Lazar. “Stronger teams generally don’t commit to tournaments unless other strong teams have already committed. In our case, our expectation of a high level of play due to teams that will barely miss qualifying for Club Nationals deciding to attend the UIC was a big draw for us.”
Garuda was last ranked 19th in the August USAU rankings, but failed to get the required minimum ten games for final bid rankings after two of their Chesapeake Open opponents were unsanctioned for roster issues.
Still, after going 15-2 over the season with losses to PoNY and North Carolina’s Cash Crop, Garuda heads into Regionals with strong momentum after playing Ironside to within three points. They hope to steal a bid from either GOAT or Pony to earn a spot at the Club Championships.
Garuda is a team right in the wheelhouse for who the UIC hopes to recruit.
“Simply put, this tournament will be our biggest tournament of the year,” Lazar said, citing the implications it could have for next year’s team in recruitment and invites to stronger regular season tournaments.
Currently, ten teams have committed to the UIC should their bids for USAU Nationals fall short, but Sewell said he expects to have at least 12 teams.
Sewell, who tried to launch a re-envisioned college circuit through the for-profit Cultimate in 2008, said the UIC is all about growing the sport and all costs exist just to cover the tournament’s expenses.
“These guys [second-tier open teams] have been left out in the cold for so long,” Sewell said. “This is really about our community and just something we’ve wanted to do as lifelong organizers.” Sewell added that some interest has been expressed from mixed teams as well. “If we get enough interest, we definitely have the field space to hold a mixed division as well.”
The UIC is not associated with the USA Ultimate Club Series and might conflict with or even be incorporated into USAU’s future plans. Will Deaver, a managing director at USA Ultimate, spoke about the similar goals that both USAU and the UIC have for “meaningful playing opportunities for teams at all levels.”
“In fact, our club restructuring plans, to be announced for the 2013 season later this fall, are very much focused on this goal. The new structure will provide a framework for at-level competition to take place nationally, regionally, and locally, with the opportunity to play and move between levels each year,” said Deaver. “So, it’s probably safe to say that we share similar goals for club teams, but we have our own exciting plans for how to accomplish those goals.”
Either way, there’s going to be more ultimate being played in Sarasota this year than ever before – including hopefully even more spectators on Sunday when the top teams battle out for the chance to have some glory and inspire the next round of talent to one day play on the big stage.
Feature photo of Garuda’s Damien Lazar at the Chesapeake Open (Photo by Kevin Leclaire – UltiPhotos.com)