Phoenix. 2012 US OPEN. Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The last time I was in Colorado my college career ended in the semifinals; the two tendons running from the bottom of my shin to the top of my left foot felt like shooting pool with a rope. I should’ve known better. A day into the tournament, there was a four-way tie for second with Riot, Phoenix, Showdown, and Molly Brown all at 2-1. Scandal was 3-0 after having upset Riot in the opening round 10-6. Following rounds 4 and 5 on day two, Scandal was way out in front at 5-0, while Riot and Phoenix were 4-1 and Showdown was 3-2. During the first set of games in round 6, lightning halted play and after a lengthy delay the first foursome had their games called and decided: making Riot 5-1, and Scandal 6-0.
Phoenix vs Showdown and Ozone vs. Safari had to wait until the next morning to decide their 6th round. Now, four teams have to make up round 6 at 9:30 in the morning, whereas four other teams wait to finish the last round and the last round, is staggered with games at noon and 1:30. The semis is scheduled for 4:30. Riot at 5-1 is waiting to play Ozone (1-4). Scandal at 6-0 is waiting to play Phoenix at 1:30. As Scandal sleeps in, Phoenix arrives to make up the 6th round with a 4-1 record. We have Showdown and Scandal in front of us and are guaranteed the semis as forthcoming games and overall records have that mostly decided. Only Showdown could possibly tie Molly Brown for fourth, but they’d have to lose to Aerosol who are 0-6.
Open up the lines vs Showdown, I say. Let’s self-sub or work in pods half to half and use Showdown like practice dummies and forget about the outcome. It’s a free game. Likewise with Scandal – throw every play in the playbook at them and every defensive ploy we can throw at them as well and disregard the outcome. Open the lines and play 3-3-1 and pull rollers every point. Or play them both close for a half and then open the lines up for the second halves. After all, we have a roster of 25 plus who have traveled 6,000 miles and they all want playing time. Following these two games we have at least one, and maybe one more to play for real-real. If we go 0-2 to finish pool play, we get Scandal again in the semis rather than Riot, and I see playing Scandal back to back as a plus more-so than having to play Riot who are so far in our heads the is game already over.
Meeting with the captains that morning, collectively they weren’t impressed. I guess it was like Aesop’s fable The Wolf and The Ass: they wanted to kill and not cure, that’s what they were there for, and it was put to me quite bluntly: we don’t lose to f-ing Showdown.
Flash forward to Nationals in Sarasota months later: Sunday morning 5 am and as I’m steering the rental van out of the driveway, others are just getting in after their night out as also-rans in Siesta Key. I’m returning the van to Tampa and from there driving a rental car to Orlando – to meet my family at Disney, for Halloween, where my son will get lost. One passenger in the van is one of the aforementioned future Callahan winners, the other is missing the final day to attend her grandmother’s funeral. I’m quietly waiting for the conversation and only my groggy inner chatter is talking, actually singing – wake up, wake up you sleepyhead, and trying to break down what went wrong, hoping never to see Mr. Big’s 19th Hole or the Daiquiri Deck ever again, but later, at the mercy of the Disney machine and waiting for a table at a restaurant in the Animal Kingdom Lodge, I’d regret dismissing Mr. Big’s and would almost welcome a watered down daiquiri.
Though by then I was on my own and recapping my last six hours and trying to explain why I first drove to Tampa, why no one else could return the van, why I lingered at the airport until I was certain their flights were on time. Why? Why? Why? There’s no name for it. You can’t explain it. It’s what we do. As tired as I was and with nothing to inoculate me against the Disney freak show, I only repeated myself: “It’s about the Constant Huddle and seeing it through.” And for a second, I expected Rafiki to appear and tap me on the shoulder with his walking stick and nod with approval and pride, but it was only the waitress, her eyes pinwheels not unlike a Manson girl, explaining it will be another forty-five minutes, and I may as well have been speaking another language. Which I was.
Back in the van and sensing the finality of it all, it doesn’t take my passengers long to speak up. Unlike the ride down days before, no one is dialing out with earbuds. This was the first time in four seasons we didn’t make quarters. And this is the biting issue, as if it were a birthright to ascend.
At this early hour with barely any sleep, it’s difficult to not be blunt and not point fingers. “Mention the wind, mention adjustments, and you can walk to Tampa.” Nervous laughter, but they understand. Our postseason circle hijacked by no-shows and coy indifference, they know that this is as good as it gets. Steering with one hand and holding a pin that could pop the beauty of the constant huddle if I let it, I leave it alone because with Tampa looming ahead of us, it’s this moment that makes all the investment worth it and makes the constant huddle so precious, and writing this here and now I think about all those airports, all those hotel rooms, all those rental cars and vans, all those road trips, all those discussions suspended over the open road, I think about driving back from Team USA practice in April of 2005 and getting lost in Augusta looking for James Brown’s statue, the same weekend my man DQ attended the Beth Coltman Memorial Tourney at Cape Henlopen, Pony’s first tryout, and with his car broken down – he just gives it to the guy there at Snookies Auto Sales and figured out a ride back to the city later – because this is what we do – and it was, of course, DQ who called me on that first day of March back in 2014 and asked me if I’d heard, and then I buckled and braced myself against the kitchen table, because more-so than UNCW, UCSC, UCSB, Fury, Riot, Bravo, Ring, Phoenix, Sockeye, etc, it is.
Carleton – love ‘em or hate ‘em – that transcends the idea of the constant huddle and takes it to a whole other level and I of course cannot help but think about those Carleton players setting out their cleats, their jerseys, their socks, the things they carried to a tournament they never made it to, and how that huddle remains suspended over the open road, and how fortunate you are to squeeze the juice out of this sport and ride the peaks and valleys for as long as you can.
“Mention the wind, mention adjustments, and you walk to Tampa. You showed up and played ultimate and when it was time for something else, you didn’t show up. And few things are worse than not showing up.” They stare at I-75 rolling past us. What they didn’t know and what they could not have known were the numbers. Minus Fury and Riot, the numbers I needed to see were already in. Phoenix went 4-3 and in 7 games played scored 89 points, finishing 13th overall and 8th in total points scored. Fury would be the only team to go through without a loss and of the other fifteen teams, only two stayed above double digits in ALL of their losses: Traffic with five losses and 8 games played; and Phoenix with three losses. We scored points, but somewhere the system was fractured, callow. Breathing holes weren’t enough. In pool play it went like this:
Opening round vs. Nightlock: 4-1. 6-2. 9-3. 11-5. 14-7. 14-13. We score on our second try for 14-7. We don’t see the disc on the next point, and then give up 5 straight breaks before finishing the game on our O’s second try for 15-13. Second round vs Showdown and the D2 vs D3 matchup. Our D has possession one time for 7 all downwind, but gives their O the upwinder for half. Our D has possession for 9 all downwind and again gives up the goal upwind. We break for 10 all. Showdown holds for 10-11. Despite our O’s shortcomings and the eventual finger-pointing, the O did what they had to do when they had to do it: they scored upwind in one possession to even the score at 11 all. We had the disc one time to break downwind for 12-11, but no dice. After that, we scored one time on six tries and Showdown scored three times on six tries, breaking for the game upwind on their third try and we lose to f-ing Showdown.
Third round vs Traffic: 12-7. 12-15. A five-point lead and quarters bound became suffering an eight-point run and getting bounced from the power pool. Playtime for players rewarded for being good sideline players is suddenly a tie game (insert Chris Rock logic here). At 1-2 and minus 6 in the loss column, point diff was not on our side. Either was psyche. This team was not the same Phoenix team who in 2010 was also 1-2 after the first day. Playing up from the bottom on Friday, that team rolled two for the win after being tied at 13s vs. Safari; rolled two for the win after being tied at 13s vs. Bent; then in the prequarter at 10-7, scored five on seven tries to bounce Molly Brown 15-10; and had Fury 7 even in the quarters (with no observers).
Back at the US Open and we’re down 4-6 to Showdown. Our O gets 5 on the board we run a 3-3-1 for three straight points for half 8-6. 10-7, and then they roll two for 10-9. We trade from here with neither team breaking, but Showdown scores in the hard cap to finish the game and we win 12-11. 23 total points played and we score 12 points on 25 tries in a game that goes to hard cap, and Scandal’s been in the hotel watching Wimbledon (Our first two days consisted of late mornings and Wimbledon and me watching Phoenix work on crossword puzzles and later explain how they were challenging once, until I sat beside KD at 30,000 feet en route to Potlatch and watched him destroy the New York Times crossword – in ballpoint).
Scandal came in seeded fifth among eight teams. The previous season at Nationals they lost to Phoenix in the quarters and then would go on to lose the 5th place game and 7th place games to Showdown and Molly Brown. In our quarterfinal that year, we were kicking the pants off of them until 12-6 when they came zone and our three college handlers blinked. Not so suddenly it’s 14 all and we roll the next two, breaking for the win 16-14. Later that evening at Mr. Big’s all of us reduced to also-rans, a Scandal player when told Phoenix are lining up car bombs, remarked: F Phoenix! Exactly. In 2012, there was no love lost between these two, a post-game circle was unheard of and with a 6-0 record and looking to sweep the pool, Scandal was flexing.
Despite the grind to defeat Showdown, and contrary to the strategy proposed earlier, the call was to beat Scandal and beat them by enough points to win the pull and win the tie with three teams at 6-1. So we’d see Showdown in the semifinal, the team we just tried our hardest to beat by one point. Losing, we’d still see Riot in the semis. Kill or Cure? Down a break at 2-3, we roll two for 4-3. They get back on serve for 5-6. We have the disc one time on D for half 8-7, but they score on their second try keeping the game on serve. At 9 all we earn possession one time with our 3-3-1 for the lead but turn in their red zone and it’s 9-10. On the ensuing point, our O had the disc 4 times for 10 a piece, but they break for the win and at 5-2 we moved on to play Riot in the semis.
Our first match vs Riot on the first day began competitively enough for 3/4s of the game, but with us at 2-0 and them already with a loss, suffering another upset was unlikely in the Riot camp. We hung around for a bit, down two at half, and after rolling 2 for 8-9, had four chances to tie at 9s but those missed chances quickly turned into an 8-12 hole. Final score: 9-12. Before the weather delay, Phoenix defeated Molly Brown 13-9, and Safari 12-7. We won the games we had to win to stay above 500. After the first two games the third day, we were 1-1 with a difference of 3 points in those two games and 43 total points played. Riot went up 6-0 before we knew the game had started. Our offense was 0 for 10 on six points played. Our defense did manage to gain possession the five times that we did pull, but we never managed a break. After scoring 21 points our previous two games that day, we came away with 4 to Riot’s 15. Riot went on to defeat Scandal in the finals 15-10.
Kill or Cure? When does one or the other set the standard for things to come? And how do you know when to make that call and can you deal with the immediate or long-term backbiting? I can’t say. That’s part of the fun in coaching. You take those risks and you roll the dice. Change the force to backhand at the end of the game, and a sure-handed O just might turf the around reset, on double game point. You don’t know, but you take that risk and you take bigger ones. After the US Open, Phoenix finished the year 17-5 before Nationals; won regionals on two breaks to one; and lost to Scandal at Fusion by one after dropping the break to win, but would Phoenix at 4-3 rather than 5-2 and playing Scandal in the semis and back to back hours apart have been better off over the long haul? Well, it’s like this: The day after the US Open, connecting in Atlanta in the dreadful D concourse, the loudspeaker announced last call for Wilmington, North Carolina. I wouldn’t make it. I was pinned down in a stall with altitude sickness, wiping foam and spittle from my chin. I spent the next five hours on standby and dry heaving before getting the last flight out that day. But I wish I had that weekend back.
“The early Stones were in a constant huddle, dissecting blues songs in front of the speakers and playing them back for each other and then for their few fans. They thought of themselves, not even as a band, really, but as a way of distributing music the radio never played.” Dan Chiasson. New York Times Review of Books. March 10, 2011.