Being an observer has created some of the most taxing and rewarding ultimate experiences I’ve had in my ultimate career. I’ve been an observer for over three years now after being certified at President’s Day 2011, and I look forward to every new challenge that comes my way in this gig. Whether it is observing at the elite club level with Sockeye vs. Doublewide and Riot vs. Scandal or at the college level with Pittsburgh vs. Carleton and UC Santa Barbara vs. Stanford, it is exhilarating to know that I can not only watch some of the best ultimate being played in the world, but it is also terrifying that I have a role to play in how these games are played out. I have a responsibility to officiate my games fairly and in an unbiased manner, and I take that responsibility seriously. This is the story of my journey through college regionals and onwards to my first nationals as an observer.
Preparing for a tournament as an observer is largely similar to preparing for a tournament as a player. I still do all the normal things: doing laundry during the week to have clothes for the weekend, getting snack foods I like for breaks, and making sure I have enough socks. There are a couple differences of course. The only jerseys I am packing are all orange. Only one other observer is coming from my city, so we have to arrange transportation for two. We have to figure out hotel arrangements too for just us. After playing for 4 years in college, it can often seem odd to me to have only two people in a hotel room.
What is probably most different is that I’m also set to read the rules 2-3 times before Friday comes around. I will do a straight read through on Monday, review the observer manual and retake the trickier sections on my old observer exam on Wednesday, and re-read problem spots in the rules that I personally have on Thursday. Southwest regionals is generally not the first weekend either, so the observer mailing lists are bustling with activity and questions from the previous weekend of competition. Reading those usually presents unusual scenarios that we might encounter and is good to know about. I always want to make sure I am as much of an expert on the rules as possible before heading out to a tournament, and I don’t think this sort of preparation is out of the question.
Observing at college tournaments, especially in the Southwest region, can be a sort of dual headed monster. I often deal with coaches who are elite club level players who tend to know the rules very well while also dealing with players on the field who have never actually opened the rulebook. The most common issues, especially at the conferences and lower regionals level of play, are mostly second hand rules that have been passed down through the years; most of which are not real rules. Clapping your hands above your head for a bricked pull and tapping the disc to the ground after a goal are just two examples of rules that are seemingly always passed down to every single generation of players. These are the rather innocent ones though that don’t especially affect play. Every now and then we get players who believe that anything dangerous they do is permissible as long as they get to the disc first or don’t know that you can’t wave your hand in your opponent’s face to block their vision. It’s an interesting balance to keep up.
There are other challenges to being an observer, too. I know what it is like to be exhausted after a long weekend of playing ultimate. Making all the cuts, decisions, and throws is tiring on both the mind and body. While observers don’t do anything to actively dictate the game, we are still doing a lot out there. An observer never gets a point off during a game. While a player may get a point or two to get a breather and grab some water, observers need to hustle back to the line to get a drink of water if they want one since they are also dictating time between points. Then it is back to the game right after. Players often can concentrate just on a few things at once: cuts activating, handlers setting up dump cuts, and movement of the mark. Observers are watching that along with cuts that are clearing away, jostling happening in the stacks, and other players that have no chance of being in the play. Picks and fouls are still happening outside of the action, and I would certainly rather be in a good position to make a good fair call. Since we will also be observing more than eight games over the weekend, this leads to a lot of time spent in cleats. It’s a different kind of tiring, but the days are still long and exhausting.
I’ve been observing in the Southwest region for about 3 years now. It’s been a tumultuous couple years in terms of school strength. There are a couple of constants as far as the Men’s division goes. One is that UC Santa Barbara will almost always get observers requested for their games, though I have rarely seen any reason for it among their players. For the most part, Black Tide plays hard and largely clean ultimate. Anytime we have to intervene, they have been polite to observers and accept our rulings readily. The only blemish I have seen against them since I’ve been here has been a PMF (Personal Misconduct Foul) issued to their coach during a game which their players made a point to apologize for after the game. It would seem that perceptions of certain teams tend to last a long time.
The second constant is that there’s always a new team that goes to nationals. In the time that I have been observing, 5 teams (out of 6 slots) have gone to nationals: UC Santa Cruz, Stanford, UC Davis (x2), Arizona, and California. There has been one repeat in the time that I have been observing, and I fully expect a new team to make Nationals. While it could be the current favorite in UC San Diego, a team like Arizona State or Las Positas could play a brilliant weekend and make it through. Of course recent qualifiers in Stanford, UC Berkeley, and UC Davis could also make their return to Nationals, but in the Southwest it sometimes feels like new is better. With one bid and no margin for error, especially in bracket play, I expect there to be very intense games throughout the entire weekend. There isn’t a single team here that isn’t concerned about every single game they are playing. Letting up for even one game could mean losing the chance to go on to the big show in a one bid region. These are the kinds of games that I look forward to observing. The best seat in the house is in orange running on the same field as the players. Last year’s game to go between Arizona and Stanford came down to universe, and I expect more games like that this weekend.
On the women’s side, it is more varied in that there have been 6 teams to take the last 10 bids to nationals: UC Santa Barbara (x2), Stanford (x3), California (x2), Humboldt State, Sonoma State, and UCLA. I haven’t had a chance to do many college women’s games this year, but from what I have seen, UC Santa Barbara and Stanford both look like dominant forces, and ready to go to Nationals. I predict there will be a Stanford-UC Santa Barbara regional championship matchup. If their game last year is going to be repeated, I think it will be a treat for everyone watching to see another hard fought universe point game. Who gets the third bid will likely be the biggest story with both UCLA and UC San Diego vying for that spot, and I expect that the third place game will be one of the more intense games of the weekend in the women’s division. Whether another team can sneak into that game will remain to be seen, but I expect there to be a number of teams that will be giving it a good try.
At last year’s Southwest Regionals, I was lucky enough to observe the women’s regional championship between Stanford and UC Santa Barbara and then move on to the open game to go between Arizona and Stanford. Getting the chance to observe in back to back universe point games has been one of the highlights of my observing career, and it left me a little mentally drained afterwards. I’m hoping that I will be able to get bounced around from good game to good game. I wouldn’t mind at all if my Sunday turned into five rounds of universe point games!