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Lights, Camera, Nothing

by | October 4, 2012, 9:29am 0

“LA in some ways represents the failure of American capitalism.”

-Tommy Li, Claremont Braineaters alumnus

 

Will Arnold came to Los Angeles a winner.

He had just helped Brown University pull off one of the greatest comebacks in ultimate history in perhaps the most exciting college finals ever: a 15-14 universe point win against Colorado in 2005. The result stunned ultimate fans across the country who were expecting a swift Colorado beatdown and scored a victory for purists obsessed with elevating nebulous concepts like “system” over sheer flash and firepower. Arnold’s Brownian Motion teammates and Mamabird opponents read like a who’s who of top ultimate talent in the game today: Josh Ziperstein, Colin Mahoney, Beau Kittredge, Jolian Dahl, Josh Ackley, Adam Simon, and Mac Taylor.

Will Arnold celebrates a goal during the 2005 college championship final. Matt Lane Photography.

Lured to the West Coast by his girlfriend and encouraged to play club open by UCLA women’s coach and former teammate Alex Korb, Arnold was the embodiment of Brown’s structure, discipline, and intensity. He also gained several years of club experience with Chain Lightning, Sockeye, and Death or Glory, learning from the best of Boston’s aging championship core. Monster, LA’s sole open team at the time, had shown promise after forming in 2004 – finishing tied for 5th at Southwest Regionals two years in a row – and Arnold was widely seen as the leader that could bring it all together.

By 2008, he was out of ultimate altogether, his experiment finished.

And while it’s perhaps a touch hyperbolic to suggest that the work and relationship priorities of one player could somehow encapsulate decades of a city’s futility, it’s worth asking the question: what is it about Los Angeles that chews up ultimate talent and spits it out?

 

Google Maps is telling me that my 15 mile cross-city drive from Santa Monica to Silverlake will take approximately 26 minutes.

Bullshit.

On the hazy weekday afternoon that I conduct an interview for this article, the drive takes me an hour and a half. By the time I finish darting and weaving through bowel-clenching weekday afternoon traffic, I’m bitter, miserable, and tense – contemplating existential thoughts and plotting my escape from Southern California altogether.

A quick perusal of online dating profiles in the area shows a large number of people unwilling to date outside of their particular corner of the city. If people are reluctant to drive for dating or the chance of a casual hookup, what do you think the chances are of getting people to go to ultimate practice?

“Without traffic” is the daily joke that Angelinos like to tell ourselves. This is a place where multi-hour delays on the weekend are commonplace, pedestrians are cursed at for crossing the street too slow, and new bike lanes require lengthy environmental impact reports. In no other city in the United States does getting from point A to point B occupy as much mental space. I have even, on more than one occasion, attempted to get to social events after work only to give up altogether and head home. Nothing encapsulates this madness like Saturday Night Live’s The Californians, in which a group of vapid Angelinos weave the singular obsession with finding the quickest route home into every plot line:

“I was thinking of taking Canyon View Drive over to San Vincente, then make a left and get on the 405 north, and from there, just get off at Mulholland… I skipped Wilshire and took Beverly over to Santa Monica and took that all the way up… Get back on San Vincente, take it to the 10, then switch to the 405 north and let it dump you onto Mulholland… I tried to go through to Westwood but my GPS put me on Beverly Glen and I didn’t want to end up in Encino… I know a shortcut through El Segundo. Take the 105 West and get off on Culver. When you see the Zankou Chicken on the left, turn right. Take Venice all the way down, then you’re in Marina Del Rey.”

I wish I could say this was in any way an exaggeration. When it takes less time to drive from LA to Santa Barbara on some days than to get from one point in the city to another, defecting to the Condors for one or two weekends a month begins to sound a lot more attractive. Imagine trying to drive across the city once or twice a week for ultimate practice and you’ll quickly realize it’s not worth the energy, and virtually impossible to draw top talent from across the area for one team.

These are bleak times for open ultimate in Los Angeles. Renegade’s regular season record ended at 6-9, placing the young squad at 35th place in the nation – 6th of 7 teams in the Southwest region above Brawl, Phoenix Sprawl’s “B” team. LA’s second team, Gridlock, failed to meet the minimum threshold for regular season games and headed into the series without a signature win.

It would require an extraordinary miracle for either team to make it to Sarasota in 2012. Aside from 1987, 1988, and 2006, a year in which Monster crashed out with a 16th place finish at UPA Nationals and an average loss of six points[1], LA-based open teams have missed ultimate’s final tournament each year since 1977. Since 2008, the de factoyear of Monster’s dissolution, there have been six separate open teams, none that inspired much more than a shrug outside of Southern California.

Monster celebrates the 3rd bid at 2006 SW Regionals. Christ Frost Photography.

It is easy to blame 35 missing seasons — practically unthinkable for the second-largest city in the country — on the lingering inability to organize anything in a city with LA’s bewildering sprawl and diversity. But in LA, there is a maddening thread of low expectations that has carried over through a litany of schizophrenic name changes, missed opportunities, and the sheer inability to get its best players to play on one team.

 

Talent has never been much of an issue. The history of ultimate in Los Angeles traces back to the earliest beginnings of competitive, organized ultimate on the west coast.[2] Southern California was a hotbed of ultimate in the late 1970s, and the LA county region boasted eight distinct teams who would play each against each other at round robin tournaments throughout the year.[3] LA’s earliest open team (Foothill Institute of Frisbee Culture) formed in 1976 out of the LA Frisbee Club, an organization devoted to putting on frisbee events in the region. In the early days of the Ultimate Players Association, Foothill were serious competitors, losing in the inaugural Western Regional finals in 1977 and 1978 to the Santa Barbara Condors and boasting Hall of Fame Inductees Dan “Stork” Roddick and Irv Kalb as team members.

It should be noted that it was insanely hard to make Nationals at this time. From 1982, when Nationals grew to two open teams per region, to 1995, when the Western Region formally split into the Southwest and Northwest, LA teams had to compete against every major club west of the Mississippi for one of two championship spots.

For an idea of the kind of anarchy that ruled during the early days of the Ultimate Players Association, take the example of 1982 Western Regionals. The tournament was structured around four pools of four teams, and three games on Saturday determined the top two spots to move on to single-elimination quarterfinals. The Irvine Mudsharks drew the defending National Champion Santa Barbara Condors in quarterfinals, a team that had crushed them all season long. Carrying on into Saturday evening, the game was suspended on account of darkness with the Mudsharks up by two. Both teams reconvened at 8AM the following morning with the team from Irvine pulling off the stunning upset. The Mudsharks lost in double-elimination semifinals to the Portland Fun Hogs,[4] and after winning the next game were slated to play them again for the final spot. Portland says, “we already beat you, we’re going to Nationals,” and the argument carries on late enough that the game cannot be played. The next weekend both teams flew into San Francisco and drove to Chico to play one game for the final spot, which the Fun Hogs took down 21-11.

LA/SD Iguanas player Brent Russell lays out during 1990 Nationals in West Palm Beach, Florida. Brent Russell Photography.

Despite the chaotic nature of qualification, LA ultimate repeatedly made UPA Nationals in the late 80s and early 90s, both as stand-alone teams and in coordination with San Diego. In 1987, the LA Drivers became the first team from Los Angeles to make Nationals, sneaking in as the third team from the Western region under a newly-implemented wildcard spot.[5] The team would return in 1988, but failed to earn a spot in semifinals.[6] The Drivers would constantly battle it out with San Diego for a spot to Nationals, and in 1989 the teams joined forces to create the Southern California Iguanas with the express purpose of winning a national championship. The Iguanas rolled through pool play in Washington, D.C., but lost to San Francisco Tsunami in semifinals. The next year, the Iguanas finally put it all together and made finals, but lost to an intense NYNY in year two of an impressive five year title run.[7] The elder statesmen on the Iguanas, who had moved on to compete in the masters division in 1994 and 1995, were approached by some of the younger Los Angeles-based talent to join forces and compete in the open division in 1996. The merger was unsuccessful, and the driving forces behind it -including Taro Ramberg, JD Lobue, Jr., and Greg Husak – each became key members of the Condors championship teams. 1988 was the last time a purely Los Angeles-based team would make club open nationals until 2006.

 

You’ve seen it before. Team X declares in the preseason that this will be the year. They’ll put in a ton of time and energy, stick together over a five year period, and grow into a dynasty. Then the clock ticks down to the start of the season, and everyone jumps ship to the best team they can personally find, consequences be damned. It’s nothing more than self-interest, and in this case the temptation to drive to Santa Barbara is far too easy.
“If you want a good team with a solid reputation that’s been around forever, drive 90 minutes north and there they are,” says Jason Schissel, a player on LA Traffic and Monster in the 2000s. “You’ve got a perennial favorite with a great history close enough within commuting distance.”

The Condors at 2007 Colorado Cup. Matt Lane Photography.

The measure of whether a city has a good team is not just the available talent pool, but the percentage of that talent pool that actually plays for the team. Since the inception of organized ultimate on the west coast, the Condors have always been the elephant in the room standing in the way of a cohesive ultimate franchise in Los Angeles. The best players from Los Angeles have consistently defected to their more established cousins in Santa Barbara. The Condors, legendary Claremont Braineaters founder and Irvine Mudshark member Jeff Landesman tells me, carried a number of key Los Angeles-based players during their championship runs in 2000 and 2001. Landesman himself played for the Condors in 1997.

Landesman doesn’t view this as a failure for Los Angeles. If anything, he shares in the Condors success, cognizant of LA’s role in Santa Barbara’s title runs. “People are always like, well, if all those LA people just stayed in LA and didn’t play in Santa Barbara they would have had a more competitive team and would have gone to Nationals all those years,” he said. “For us, we weren’t looking to go to Nationals. We were looking to win Nationals. There’s no way Santa Barbara would have gone to Nationals all those years without the best players in LA.”

Corey Sanford, Condors member from 1999 to 2006, was one of those LA-based players: “When I moved to LA in 1999, I could not even name the team in LA, but I’d just watched the Condors lose in the finals of Nationals. I had lost in the semis with NY and all I could think was ‘man, I can’t wait to play with those guys.’” Corey remembers a few people attempting to lure him away from Santa Barbara when he first arrived, but there was “no chance to play championship level in LA, and frankly, I loved practice weekends in SB. I’d drive up Saturday at noon-ish, get there at two for a three hour practice, party all night with the guys, practice early in the AM, and be home on Sunday in LA by 3pm.  And in the summer, it was 75 degrees instead of 99 like it would be at Balboa Park [in the San Fernando Valley]. To me, it added 10-15 ‘mini-tourney’ weekends to the year, and what is more fun than tourneys?”

Santa Barbara has always had the unique ability to extract maximum results from a limited talent pool, reloading the ranks of the Condors year after year with disciplined UCSB Black Tide talent forged in the crucible of battle at the highest college ranks. UCLA, Claremont, and USC ultimate teams existed at least five years prior to the inception of an organized college series in 1984, but have all consistently played the role of whipping boy to UCSB Black Tide. That trend has continued up the club ranks, owing in large part to the loyalty Black Tide players have to the city of Santa Barbara and the rabid devotion of its residents to the sport. “Those Santa Barbara guys all come out of the UCSB system and learn ultimate in a very ‘win at all costs’ way that many other players just can’t ever adapt to,” according to Sanford. “Aside from a few Occidental guys in the early aughts, I can’t even really think of a great player that came out of a college in LA.  UCSB would reload great talent year after year.  Reloading the Condors has always been easy for them, since ultimate is taken seriously in Santa Barbara. People at USC laugh at ultimate frisbee.”

For Greg Husak, who grew up playing ultimate in Long Beach in the early-to-mid 90s before playing on the Condors for a decade, the LA ultimate scene is a “real mish-mash of personalities and playing styles. They never get a critical mass of people who think the same way about the game. Additionally, they play far too much pickup and not enough structured ultimate to develop a consistent style where everyone sees the game the same way, and therefore handles situations the same.” He contrasts this situation with Santa Barbara, where typically half of the Condors roster learned the game at UCSB. “When things aren’t working they usually agree how to fix it, or at least agree who should decide how to fix it,” he says. “In LA maybe you get four or five guys who played for the same college, which, let’s face it, is where you learn the game because you are playing over ten hours per week for a few years. When you have a critical mass of players who do things the same way, it is much easier to integrate people into that system.”

For nearly the last two decades, none of the players or coaches in Los Angeles have experienced success at the national level. Therefore no one truly believes that the leadership knows what to do. It’s worth noting that nearly every person I interviewed for this article that played for an LA club team in the last ten years prefaced their statements about leadership with “ooooh, that’s a touchy subject. I don’t want to make it seem like I’m speaking bad about anyone.”

 

By 2006, Santa Barbara ultimate was on the decline. The core of the Condor championship teams in 2000 and 2001 was almost completely gone, and opposing players no longer feared their intensity and discipline.[8] College teams in Los Angeles began nipping at the heels of UCSB Black Tide and UCSD Air Squids, and more and more players were making the decision to stay and play in LA. Will Arnold seamlessly slipped into a leadership role with Monster and as part time coach of UCLA Smaug. He brought legitimacy, an ultimate pedigree, and – most importantly – the willingness to take on the task of restoring LA’s legitimacy on the national scene.

“When I was in town I wanted to create a separate identity,” Arnold said. “In reality I thought I was going to play with the Condors before I moved, but then realized there was a lot of LA talent, and a lot of their talent was LA based. I got sucked in at sectionals and regionals with Monster, and then realized I couldn’t really sell myself or my girlfriend on the fact that I was trying to establish a life with her, yet driving to another city to play ultimate most weekends. Plus they had a kind of Yankee evil empire vibe that extended beyond SoCal. The last time I played against the Condors with DoG I felt like individuals on their team cheated against us, so I didn’t really like them.[9] At that point, I recognized that there was so much talent in the LA basin that I thought it was crazy there wasn’t a stronger team.”

Will Arnold lays out for a D against Washington at 2005 college nationals. Bil Elsinger Photography.

Arnold was successfully able to recruit much of LA’s top talent to Monster in 2006, and added several key out of town pickups, including stud Kansas handler Julian Ryba-White. From a certain perspective, 2006 was precisely so frustrating because it showed what LA was capable of if it kept its best players in town. Los Angeles finally had its leader, its organization, and the commitment to excellence.

The good vibes wouldn’t last, however, as swagger turned to discord and division as Monster crashed out with a 16th place finish at UPA Nationals.[10] The Condors thought so highly of Monster that several of their players decided to smoke out before their game in pool play. 2007 would prove to be an out-and-out disaster as Monster’s captains brought aboard many new talented players that were an improvement on paper, but lacked the dedication of the older, wily veterans. Predictably, cohesion suffered, and the young studs left for greener pastures when the promise of a nationals berth and instant success failed to materialize that year.

“Maybe we were a victim of our own success because we had a ton of people try out,” Schissel says. “Instead of sticking with what had worked, the captains had big eyes and said ‘oooh, we can choose from all these new players.’ I was told when I got cut that year that I was just as good as some of the players that made the team, but they were younger and more likely to do what they were told.”

“We made a few mistakes in retrospect,” Arnold says. “One, we retained too many guys. In previous years we had trouble getting numbers at practice, but having more guys hurt our chemistry at tournaments. Two, I got a new job and didn’t have the space to be the leader I needed to be, yet I didn’t transfer that leadership to other people effectively. And three, I think we favored talent over commitment. We had Sean Boyle, for instance, on the team (a young member of Furious George for several years), and every time he would show up – which wasn’t often – he would get a lot of playing time. I don’t regret any of the individual decisions to cut folks on the roster from 2006, but the issue is that we weren’t able to maintain the cohesiveness of the team. Either we cut too deep or the core wasn’t the same.”

Monster also missed out on taking the players that did matter. Michael Kiyoi was a promising young talent at UCLA – a skinny, speedy cutter with a knack for big layout d’s and exasperating throwaways. He had become quick friends with Jimmy Chu, a dominant d-line star during Sockeye’s championship years, as Chu was studying for his Masters degree at UCLA. Kiyoi and Chu decided to become a package deal for any prospective club team, and Arnold missed out on one of the best players in the country when he cut Kiyoi.[11] “I had cut [Kiyoi] before he had a chance to try out, partially because he missed the first tryout,” Arnold says. “I honestly didn’t think he was good enough at that point after coaching him… His athleticism was great, but his confidence wasn’t that high and he didn’t seem able to follow instructions. That ended up being very wrong. But maybe he’s a better player for it.”

“That’s the dumbest mistake they ever made,” says Chris Frost, former Monster and Condors player. “Jimmy Chu is the greatest teammate and leader. He’s soft spoken and leads the team by example, and just one of the best goddamn defensive handlers you could ever ask for. I thank Monster for doing that because he made us so much better and my experience as a player was so much more improved by playing with him.”

Sockeye star Jimmy Chu lays out for a simultaneous possession D at 2006 club finals. Bil Elsinger Photography.

It’s not the kind of move that can make or break a season by itself, but it proved disastrous for a team desperate for a big-name talent to put itself over the top. Kiyoi and Chu helped the Condors maintain relevance despite the decline of UCSB Black Tide and the retirement or defection of most of the team’s seasoned veterans. After the Condors underwent a controversial restructuring of the team in 2007, the team took on many new players from Los Angeles and moved practices 56 miles from Santa Barbara to the city of Thousand Oaks. The alliance was lukewarm at best: the Condors are known for their insularity and every player in Los Angeles can remember at least one chippy game. But the Santa Barbara captains defended the move as a way of drawing in more of the region’s top players, and the LA players relished the opportunity to play for a proven winner.

The Los Angeles players would end up leaving in a bitter split that left no doubt about who were the second-class citizens on the team. The Condors lost in pre-quarters at Nationals in an unsatisfying end to the season and LA-based players were told they could try out for the team again next year. Practices would move back to Santa Barbara for good, and the direction and leadership of the team would once again be focused on a core of locals.

“Egos are great when you’re winning,” Frost says, reflecting on his defection to the Condors. “But when you lose games they’ll become the death of you. I’m really great friends with the Santa Barbara guys, but they can be very insular. You’re in this tiny little pocket, this tiny little beach community, and so you end up hanging out with all the same guys. They weren’t super accepting of LA guys and the LA guys resented them for it. They were probably too sensitive to that. They gave me shit like they gave everyone else [from LA] but my attitude was, ‘fuck that,’ the only thing that matters is how you play. The only real goal was to win Nationals. I don’t necessarily like a lot of the Santa Barbara guys off the field but I fucking love playing with them. Some of the LA guys didn’t have that mentality. They thought you needed to become best friends with a guy to play with them. I came from a football background, and when you have 60 guys on a team you’re not friends with all of them. In fact, you hate some of them. But it doesn’t matter, because when you step on the field you’ll kill somebody for them.”

After Monster stumbled in 2007 – losing every game save one at the elite Labor Day tournament in Santa Cruz and bowing out in the backdoor semifinals of regionals to finish fourth – the team was in open revolt, as practically half of Monster left to play with the hybrid Condors squad. Monster lost all three games in regionals pool play in 2008, and were eliminated in embarrassing fashion to a University of Colorado squad using regionals as a tune up for the start of the college season. The fallout eventually affected both teams, as the Condors missed nationals in 2009 and 2010 for the first time since 1996. The returning LA players scattered to a decimated Monster, a Strike Slip team that wouldn’t live up to expectations, co-ed, or out of the game altogether, a product of burned bridges, infighting, and frustration with failing to actualize their potential. In the irony of ironies, Arnold himself tried out for the Condors in 2008 before removing himself from consideration, bowing to work and relationship pressure.

“I’m more emotionally tied to that experience than any other sports experience in my life,” Arnold says. “I feel like I didn’t quite live up to my own expectations and I was political in trying to get people to play with us. I sold people on the idea of a renewed LA team and to some extent didn’t follow through. I feel like I learned more from Monster than from any other team. If you define team as being greater than the sum of its parts, that was Monster in 2006. We played much better than we were on paper and were a truly cohesive team. Everyone knew their role, and we made mistakes but played through them together. That mix between trying to sell people and involving personal relationships and feeling let down and feeling like I let down the people that I sold was hard.”

Frost, however, despite some personal estrangement with Arnold after Monster’s dissolution, refuses to let him take the blame for Monster’s shortcomings. “Will’s way too tough on himself. The reason that we got to any level we did was because of him. Will made people believe. Before that, we didn’t have a team that believed that we could beat PBR the way that we did, that could walk in and dictate the game the way that we did [in the game-to-go to nationals]. He shouldn’t have any guilt for why we didn’t live up to expectations. I put all the credit on Will, and not all of the blame. There were too many mitigating factors for why things didn’t materialize the way we hoped.”


It’s an overcast January day in Santa Monica, and over 2,000 ultimate players on 163 teams are wrapping up their placement games at Lei-Out, one of the largest beach ultimate tournaments in the world. Players from around the country flock to the beach every year for Lei-Out, and the tournament is a showcase for the LA ultimate community and its governing body, the Los Angeles Organization of Ultimate Teams (LAOUT). LAOUT runs a beach, summer, goaltimate, winter, and womens league, and lists 26 weekly pickup games. LAOUT’s President, Andy Bandit, estimates that LA is home to roughly 500-600 active players.

LAOUT’s showcase, however, is lost on the people that actually live and work in Los Angeles. Visiting the Santa Monica Pier for Angelinos is an experience akin to Seattleites ascending the Space Needle or Parisians scaling the Eiffel Tower. Thus Lei-Out’s visibility is limited to the few tourists brave enough to head to the beach during one of the rare times that the city can be cold and blustery.

The contradiction between a robust pick-up and league scene and the lack of quality club teams can be attributed in part to this lack of visibility. Los Angeles is one of the most park-starved metropolises in the US. The city has the lowest per capita public open space and park land of any major urban center in the nation, and only a third of LA residents live within a quarter-mile of a park. Four percent of LA’s surface area is devoted to parks, where Boston and San Francisco have 9%, Seattle, 13%, and New York, 17%. Consequently, ultimate teams are constantly fighting with other sports for limited field space.

The American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) is the “bane of ultimate’s existence” in LA, according to Schissel. Monster would show up for practice on more than one occasion to find their field space hijacked by soccer games with unsympathetic players and coaches. The current weekly ritual at Tuesday night pickup in Santa Monica involves nearly coming to blows with soccer players who are upset about ultimate players taking “their” field space and demanding to see field-use permits. Only after extended chest-puffing and arguing do they finally relent.

In my experience at UCLA from 2004-2007, nearly all players on the team were born and raised in the Bay Area, having seen ultimate played throughout their childhood and sought it out on campus. Predictably, these same players head back north upon graduation. Dan Oettinger, current Condors player and several-year veteran of LA club teams, grew up in Thousand Oaks. He explains that Los Angeles has a classic chicken/egg problem: the city lacks stable, high-end ultimate talent to organize and run youth programs and therefore cannot nurture the local talent necessary to trickle up the college and club ranks. While the Youth Ultimate Frisbee Organization of California (YUFO) now runs a youth beach and summer league, the city is light years behind Seattle, Boston, and San Francisco in youth development.

For the most part, ultimate is still played by college-educated professionals that flock to cities with large technology and engineering scenes and a variety of work and play options. LA may have the attractiveness down, but for all of the talk of defense industry and growing “Silicon Beach” community, this is still a one-industry town. That, combined with the exorbitant cost of living, makes for a hugely transient city, not one that inspires its residents to stay for extended periods of time.

My father loves to tell the story of his journey from Boston to LA in 1970. He had just attended MIT during the Vietnam War campus upheavals. Boston was boiling over with protests, teach-ins, arrests, and police brutality, a city at the eye of the hurricane in a country bitterly torn apart by race riots and social protests. When he arrived at UCLA to begin his PhD studies, “virtually no one seemed to care at all. The focus was on the sun and surf. I felt like slapping everyone and telling them to wake up! Don’t you know there’s a war going on?”

Suffice it to say, “sticking it out through adversity” is an alien concept here. Toughing it out is what people in Boston and Philadelphia do, provincial cities that live and die with their sports teams and hardscrabble nothing-to-something stories. Los Angeles is a city that rewards and praises instant success, unlike cities such as New York where old money is venerated and new ideas are met with entrenched skepticism. It’s a city that accepts only championships for the Lakers, Kings, UCLA mens basketball, and USC football teams, where Dodgers fans show up in the 3rd inning and leave in the 8th to beat traffic, and where unknown actors from small Midwestern towns become megastars overnight.

The fact that I really can ski and surf in the same day (were I deranged enough to brave the commute) and enjoy 75 degree weather in the middle of February lends itself to a more than a bit of front-runner syndrome. If I am a promising young ultimate talent in Los Angeles, why would I spend the 3-5 years hunkering down with my peers in an attempt to build something from the ground up when I could defect to the best thing currently available?

It seems ironic that in a city where “content is king”, open ultimate has lacked it. But success on the national stage, unlike the movies, cannot be created ex nihilo. In other words, LA doesn’t have an ultimate program because it doesn’t have an ultimate program.

 

“Work harder!”

The blue pyramid of Cal State Long Beach rises like a hallucinatory fever dream over a brutally hot Sunday at Southwest Mixed Sectionals. Los Angeles Renegade are half-way through a scrimmage during a four hour practice next door, and the captains are imploring the team to stay focused. The scrimmage is getting sloppy as fatigue sets in and I count at least five discs that slip out of a thrower’s hand on attempted hucks.

The team is furiously preparing before Southwest Regionals, and they don’t want to hear all of the reasons why they can’t make it. Renegade was designed with a different purpose, according to founders and captains Evan Valdes and Simon Margolis. Both were commuting to San Diego and Santa Barbara respectively to play club open during the 2010 season, but spent weekdays in LA playing local pickup games and competing in the LAOUT summer and winter leagues. “While playing with these other elite teams was a great experience for us,” they said, “we found ourselves questioning why we were traveling so far when we knew, from firsthand experience, that there were so many talented players in LA. The 2010 season gave us the confidence to start a team in LA whose goal was not just to compete with the best teams in the region, but to challenge for a spot to nationals.”

Renegade founder and captain Evan Valdes skies his co-captain Simon Margolis at the Kaimana Klassik. Evan Valdes Photography.

A majority of Renegade’s players are young professionals, most of whom graduated from college within the last one to three years. While nearly half of the current roster draws from Cal State Long Beach and UCLA, the team carries representatives from almost every college in the region including UC Irvine, Cal Poly Pomona, USC, Pepperdine and Claremont. “In the coming years,” Valdes says, “we consider the fact that we have more than ten college teams in the greater LA area to be a huge asset for growth in the future.”

The team is focused on the present but was built with an eye towards the future. “From a narrow scope, our team goal is to qualify for nationals,” according to Valdes. “From a broader scope, our goal has been to help support the growth of high level ultimate in LA. Last season we had 60 plus players try out for Renegade. Early this season, the Renegade leadership played an integral role in getting the second LA team, Gridlock, off the ground. As a result, LA was the only area in Southern California to have two teams at sectionals this year. And we are proud that two of the ten open teams that qualified for Southwest Regionals are from LA. We feel strongly that anybody who wants to play club open in LA should have a team to play on, and we hope to continue to support growth of ultimate in the area.”

In a topsy-turvy SoCal Sectionals in Scottsdale, Arizona that saw relative unknown Sprawl win the title, Renegade upset the eventual champions during pool play and defeated Streetgang in the semifinals en route to an appearance in the finals. The result even surprised Renegade:

“On Saturday at sectionals, we played the best ultimate that we have ever played,” said Margolis. “There’s no doubt about it. Given our [poor] results from Colorado Cup and Chicago Heavyweight Championships, we think anybody, including ourselves, was at least a little surprised that we were able to put it all together and notch our first quality wins of the season against two very good top 25 teams.”

Renegade player Trevor Smith gets a layout D against Sprawl at 2012 SoCal Sectionals. Evan Valdes Photography.

As Renegade practices, I note mixed team 7 Figures playing on the next field over. Six players on that team played with Monster in 2006 and one was recruited but declined. Does Valdes wish they had them on the team? “No, they’re old and pushing Masters age. They’re in relationships, have children, and practice once a month. It might be nice to have one or two, but this team is young, talented, committed, and hungry.” Are the LA players on the Condors traitors? Margolis cracks a smile. “There isn’t one particular word to describe them, but it doesn’t matter because I wouldn’t consider any of them game changers.”

You have to be impressed by a team that is finally saying and doing the right things. But will it last, or is Renegade merely the latest iteration of LA’s familiar narrative?

“How is practice going?” I ask a player stretching between points.

“It’s brutal,” he says. “We’re playing a double score game to 15 with no subs and it’s really fucking hot.”

“Pretty bad,” I respond. “But not as hot or humid as Sarasota.”

He laughs.

 


[1] The team did, however, win the spirit award with a perfect score of five.

[2] Thanks to Jeff Landesman and Joe Seidler for much of the information that follows.

[3] Orange Skymonsters (unknown), Foothill Institute of Frisbee Culture (1976-79), Hot Sox (1977-82), La Mirada Ethereal Wizzards (1977-81), Pacific Coast Floaters (1977-78), The Ultimate Dogs (1977-82), Whizbo (1978-unknown), and Irvine Mudsharks (1979-1983)

[4] The Fun Hogs were a running joke at UCLA in the mid-2000s. Smaug’s captain in 2005 would get a few laughs with his motivational speeches about a mythical team from a faraway land that couldn’t lose because they hogged all the fun. I guess he wasn’t that far off.

[5] The team’s logo, a man dressed in black inside a car holding a gun, was a nod to LA’s spate of gang-related drive-by shootings.

[6] At 12-team Nationals, teams were split into two pools of six, with two games on Thursday, two on Friday, and one on Saturday (all to 21 points). The top two teams in each pool would advance to semifinals.

[7] NYNY won six out of seven championships from 1987-1993.

[8] According to Sanford, before this point, “if you were one of the very few LA players that got a look in Santa Barbara, you were getting to try out for a team that had mostly all been in the finals of college nationals, open club nationals, or open worlds every single year from 1996-2004. That’s an incredible run. By 2006, virtually all those players were done.”)

[9] Sanford responds: “Just for the record, as a long time DoG hater, I always felt like they were some of the biggest cheaters in the game. The Condors beat DoG in a game in ’98 where they have VIDEO of the Condor scoring the game winner, and DoG called him out. It’s really more of an elite east coast Ivy League snob feeling that the DoG guys project, and these “state school” kids beating or playing even with guys like Will always pissed them off. I played in New York from ’93 – ’98 and DoG were the worst of cheaters – the ones that were always spirited until they NEEDED a call, then it was always there. And yes, this has nothing to do with your article.”

[10] Five starters, including all three handlers, missed the tournament due to work conflicts and/or injury.

[11] Chu and Arnold had played at the junior world championships together before leaving for Carleton and Brown respectively, and Arnold made many friends from Carleton College during his time in Seattle. “I thought we were friends,” says Arnold, “but I saw him maybe twice during the entire time we lived in LA together. I don’t think he even ever met my girlfriend. And then I find out later that he didn’t play for Monster because of his new friendship?”

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