College ultimate’s calendar year is packed with emotion and mid-February tournaments have a habit of getting lost in the blur. In the fall, the freshness of a new team mixes with pent up energy from a summer away from school to incite ferocious excitement. January tournaments are a microcosm of the same: teams simply tolerating the bitter cold because of the electricity they all feel when the captains talk about how now that it’s the spring, games really matter. And by March, the Series is mere weeks away and with the chance to engrave your team’s final standing for this year visible right beyond that next round of tests, expectations and resolve beget a final push.
But mid-February? These are the dog days. A surprisingly large chunk of the season has passed (need evidence? Ultiworld is four weeks into its Power Rankings) but it’s still cold enough that if there weren’t discs to throw and teammates to chase them, staying inside would be an awfully nice option. While Sectionals is closer to happening than Christmas is to having happened, playing ultimate in February can be an awful lot like going through the motions.
That the Hellfish Bonanza falls during this blown over time in the season is exactly why it is an important tournament: the good teams find a way to dig in and make it count. Tournaments this time of year are among the final tests after which teams can evaluate their performances and make big changes if they are needed. In two weeks, three at the most, there won’t be enough time to implement new offensive principles or zone looks.
Each team at the Bonanza has the opportunity to size itself up against both its perceived peers as well as teams above and below it. For top seeds North Carolina-Wilmington, Penn State, James Madison, and Carnegie-Mellon, the Bonanza will show whether 2013’s brand of play works against more than just the well-known regional opponents that regularly spur its development.
UNC-Wilmington is the Bonanza field’s most recent College Championships qualifier (2010), and the respect that teams will pay the Seamen before the first pull even goes up is a huge part of the dynamic of winning games in college ultimate. Wilmington recently played Atlantic Coast regional frontrunner North Carolina close in a set of two non-sanctioned scrimmages, and much of their strength can be attributed to the return of a large crop of seniors and graduate students– most notably among them Alan Gruntz and NexGen’s Tommy Lamar– that sat the fall out. Add in Australian grad student standout Mark Evans and it’s safe to say that Wilmington will simply overpower many of its early Bonanza opponents.
That said, the Seamen that I saw at Fall Easterns showed an aptitude for errantly hucking and lazily defending their way out of big leads, and they’ll be without coaches Greg Vassar and Tully Beatty in Harrisonburg (B team coach and Wilmington alum Brian Casey will be running the show). Wilmington’s players will need to keep their heads on straight in order to achieve the efficiency and effectiveness it takes to win a tournament.
Penn State has been at the last two Fall Easterns that I’ve covered, and while I don’t remember any faces I do remember a team of fast, defensive-minded players that are gritty enough to hang in any tough game while steamrolling opponents who aren’t in the mood to do the same. I arrived on the sideline of Spank’s Fall Easterns semifinal against North Carolina where they trailed 10-12, and while they lost 13-15 it was telling that they did not allow UNC to pull away.
At Queen City Tune-Up two weeks ago, Penn State made semis on the strength of wins over Connecticut, North Carolina State, Ohio State, and Cincinnati but fell short against Michigan, Ohio, and Harvard. A Bonanza win over Wilmington or perhaps Carnegie-Mellon would be the season’s marquee victory to date.
James Madison is a team that I’m very familiar with because of my time as a Blue Ridge Section player and, most recently, a two-day Truck Stop clinic that they participated in two weeks ago. My take on JMU is this: they’re well-rounded in their ability to gain big yards and move the disc and they have a rookie class that, while it hasn’t yet produced a consistent impact college player, is very strong and eager to improve. The Hellfish are about average size, and if they hit a rhythm they have the skill to execute at a high level. As far as weaknesses go, I’m not sure if they have a go-to playmaker or process for filling one’s absence if things go wrong, which leaves them susceptible for team-wide frustration that doesn’t have a solution.
JMU would do well to face Wilmington at some point in the tournament since the Seamen are a team they’ll need to surpass in order to contend at Regionals. It’s worth noting that JMU’s best-ever finish at the Bonanza was semifinals in 2011 and that every other year, they have reached the quarters.
Carnegie-Mellon has my attention this weekend. Mr. Yuk has been on my radar since a successful 2011 Fall Easterns (before that I wrote them off as a cupcake team that I mostly remembered from a session or two at High Tide), and after Missouri Loves Company Wisconsin coach Hector Valdivia lavished praise on captain Nipunn Koorapati that has me curious to spend some time on their sideline.
Carnegie-Mellon’s more recent results are impressive. They were among the final four teams standing at 2012 Ohio Valley Regionals, took down Michigan at said MLC, and outdid themselves by beating Pittsburgh at Steel City Showdown. A strong Regionals and wins over Nationals teams– regardless of the tournament, and especially against the National Champion– are good places to start for any team looking to make moves.
Pools rarely go to seed across the board in college ultimate, and last year was the only Bonanza wherein every one seed won its pool. For that reason I’m avoiding the strong temptation to say that each of these top four are too deep and organized for anyone to beat them; one gut feeling trumping another, so to speak. I think Wilmington, Penn State, and Carnegie Mellon will win their pools, but that JMU will be upset by Millersville (more to come on this later), leaving the home team with a semis match up against Wilmington that will bring them face to face with a chance at their best Bonanza ever (along with a leg up should the teams meet again at Regionals).
For Delaware, NYU, Georgetown, and Pennsylvania, the Bonanza will be an indicator of whether or not they have the tools to bridge the gap when their opponent has more raw firepower as well as the fortitude not to play down to those that they themselves outmatch.
Delaware has a strong recent history, having made the College Championships in 2004, ‘06, ‘07, ‘08, regional semis in 2011, and Conferences in 2011 and 2012. Sideshow is also returning ten seniors from last year’s team and has added two grad students, meaning they have the veteran presence that is usually required of a successful team. But on the downside, Delaware looked mediocre at Fall Easterns: they struggled to get open on the dump, failed to use the break side of the field, and rarely had seven guys that were all close on defense at the same time. Sideshow’s stated goal is to win the Bonanza, but doing so will require more speed and better disc movement than they displayed in the fall.
I know very little about NYU. Purple Haze made the semis of last year’s Bonanza, won Metro NY Conferences, and finished in the top half of Metro East Regionals. Husayn Carnegie, who graduated in 2011 and has since played for the Connecticut Constitution, has put NYU on the map recently but since he isn’t there anymore I don’t know what to expect or how to even take a gander at their potential.
Georgetown made waves with a run to the semis of Atlantic Coast Regionals last year, which made clear the impact of former Stanford player Ryan Thompson as a coach. Catholic Justice has only ten returners from last year and finished 13th at Queen City, where their wins over Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Appalachian State don’t reveal much but their victory against Michigan State, coming late on Sunday, is an indicator that they won’t relent and that they could pull off an upset.
Pennsylvania is another team that I know little about. Void returned to Ohio Valley Regionals last year after a year of not making it and bowed out on Saturday after nearly upset Penn State in the backdoor bracket. Captain Xiran Wang tells me “while finishing in the top half of the [Hellfish] bracket would be excellent, [but] we are primarily focused on implementing the concepts and skills developed this year. We trust that our work and our system will pay off with results later in the season.”
The bottom half of the Bonanza bracket is rounded out by Towson, George Mason, Millersville, George Washington, Wake Forest, Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth, and Mary Washington. Fighting from the bottom both here and most likely at Regionals, these teams will learn just how realistic the goals that they have set for this season and which areas of development most deserve their time and energy in March.
Among these teams, I’m interested to get a look at George Mason and George Washington because they are local DC area teams and because GW features Chris Kocher, the other NexGen team member at the Bonanza. I’ll also have an eye on Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth because I’m from the area. In Richmond’s case, I remember a Spidermonkey team that was a real Atlantic Coast contender and respect the program a lot, and with VCU I’m glad to have seen a heretofore non-factor make strides over the past few seasons.
I also want to take a look at Millersville because I have a couple of vivid early college memories of losing to teams who, like Moose, played an extreme version of a huck and hope offense. Against a run, gun, and huck team, fundamentals only go so far: unless you can step up and make some contested plays or put a stop to theirs, knowing how to dump and swing won’t always do the job. There’s a certain threshold of playmaking that every team needs to compliment discipline and game planning, and teams like Millersville shake things up by exposing those that don’t meet it.
The rest of the field is certainly not out of it. Like I said, this is college ultimate: there are too many throws, cuts, and momentum swings and not enough masters of catching, defending, and understanding the flow of a game for every team to play exactly as expected. And while this isn’t Easterns or Stanford, where the quality of teams from top to bottom makes upsets more likely, someone could surprise us.
The Hellfish Bonanza is going to show what each team is made of now that an entire fall and almost half of a spring season has passed. Whatever it is that we know this time Monday will have big implications for how teams one through 16 are doing this time in April.
For ultimate players, college wouldn’t be quite as memorable without tournaments. Fleeing campus for a weekend summit of fellow players kept a lot of us sane amidst the chaos of term papers and frat parties, and most of us still feel an inner sigh of relief when we recall melting into the back seat of a tournament-bound car on a Friday afternoon. And if attending tournaments is a big deal for individual players, creating and sustaining one is huge for entire programs.
Enter the James Madison University Hellfish’s Hellfish Bonanza, which this weekend will play host to 16 Open and 15 Women’s teams under the direction of Justin “Turtle” Kaplon and Alex Sirney. The Bonanza also gave rise to the Smellfish Beenanza, an Open B team tournament that hosted 15 teams last weekend.
Founded in February 2005 and first directed by junior Stephen “Basic” Magneson, the Bonanza is both the Hellfish’s gift to the ultimate world and an embodiment of what the team is about: a drive to compete on the field, to enjoy the company once games wrap up, and to apply maximum effort to both.
JMU didn’t win many games in the fall of 2002 and spring of 2003. Magneson and his freshman classmates, however, were frequently reminded of the legacy of the Hellfish’s 1997 founders, which led to a shared identity as members of a program that had flirted with Regionals success, competed with spirit, and always tried to win the party. “We were bad,” Magneson says, “but we had a bunch of rookies that bonded rapidly and had big plans for the future of the team.”
During a discussion with team leaders in his sophomore spring, Magneson tossed out the idea of running a tournament as a way to play against better teams, fundraise, and garner student interest in the Hellfish. He also saw it as a chance to throw a great tournament party, which in his mind was an important part of showing the community what JMU ultimate was all about. All that initially came of the conversation was the event’s name.
“Peter ‘Jar-Jar’ Anderson, our former captain and really the bridge between the founders and the current team, happened to be around,” recalls Magneson. “Being the eternal realist that he is, he said something like ‘Well, I don’t think it’s going to happen, but if it does it better be called the Hellfish Bonanza.’”
Anderson had good reason to be skeptical. If you asked the average ultimate player to run a tournament, odds are strong that he wouldn’t know where to start. Moreover, another anonymous Hellfish alum emphasizes “it’s hard to adequately frame how far the team was from hosting a legitimate ultimate tournament before 2005.”
But Magneson got to work in the fall of 2004, and after a meeting with Rockingham County Parks and Rec officials, secured field sites for both men’s and women’s divisions—crucial, he says, because a good party wouldn’t be possible without both genders. Magneson also notes that the tournament was scheduled in February largely because of the Parks department didn’t have much booked for that time, and that they helped the Hellfish out by painting lines on the fields.
The fields did require a $1,000,000 liability insurance policy, but conveniently for Magneson, getting sanctioning from the Ultimate Players Association provided for just that. Once fields and sanctioning were taken care of, other logistics like budgeting and reviewing rosters didn’t amount to much. Magneson advertised the Hellfish Bonanza on rec.sport.disc. and subsidized local teams’ bid fees to ensure a strong community event, and bids came in from there. Mother Nature was the final hurdle.
“I was terrified of rain,” he says. “We had no back up [fields]. I knew we had one shot at doing this tournament, and if it rained, it wasn’t going to happen. But it held off and the tournament went off without a hitch.”
It’s true— for the most part. “Congrats to Swarthmore, who came from a 0-2 start to win the first Hellfish Bonanza,” reads the 2005 Bonanza Score Reporter page. “I’d have the brackets up here but I’m an idiot and can’t seem to do it.”
But even with some rough edges, attracting strong out-of-region boded well for Magneson’s goal of making the Bonanza a permanent fixture on quality teams’ spring calendars. Pittsburgh, a Nationals qualifier, won in 2006, and in 2007 Ohio State made its second appearance while Delaware and Maryland made their first; all three became regulars.
The 2007 Bonanza was the first under new tournament director Andrew “Smalls” Sigal, who recalls having a rough go of it the first time around. Though a massive snowstorm was called for on Saturday night, Sigal took his chances and moved forward with hosting the tournament. Unfortunately, snow did indeed dump down on Harrisonburg and Sigal had to cancel Sunday play; it was the first time that the Bonanza was left without a champion. Aside from playing host to a disappointed group of attendees, the cancellation was particularly irksome for Sigal because the Hellfish lost their best chance of winning their home tournament yet: they had gone 3-0 on Saturday and, though this is known in retrospect, played all the way to the game-to-go at Atlantic Coast Regionals that spring.
Despite a curtailed 2007 edition but perhaps because of JMU’s strong post-season finish that same year, 2008 drew the most competitive field to date. Central Florida, Georgia Tech, and Virginia joined the field and even Florida, the country’s second best team that season, inquired about a last minute bid. Such a strong field galvanized the Hellfish Bonanza as a quality event drew premiere college talent.
In the years since, Hellfish Bonanza winners have been Ohio State in 2009, a snow storm in 2010, Virginia Tech in 2011, and Connecticut in 2012; all three played deep into their respective regional tournaments in the year that they won the Bonanza. This year’s field includes regular Atlantic Coast power North Carolina-Wilmington and Carnegie Mellon, an up-and-coming national contender from the Ohio Valley. And there is, of course, the Hellfish themselves, a team that won last year’s Virginia Conferences handily and, despite an early exit at Regionals, looks to be among the Atlantic Coast’s best in 2013.
Though their goal is to win the tournament, the Hellfish will emerge from the Bonanza with something special regardless of the outcome: for the seventh straight year, they will have played in a tournament that is theirs. That escape from college craziness that members of all of the attending teams will make? The relaxed drive and gas station pit stops and McDonald’s parking lot antics they’ll all enjoy before the tournament starts and after it ends? They’ll be doing it en route to and on their way home from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and they’ll know that the Hellfish provided the experience.
The Bonanza’s significance isn’t lost on Hellfish alumni. “There have been many Hellfish along the way that have kept the club functioning,” says the same graduate that noted the team’s inability to run a strong event before Magneson organized the Bonanza. “But few could rightly claim to be Basic’s peer from an establishing a legacy perspective.”
College ultimate programs shape the lives of those who play on them because of the culture and traditions from which they’re constructed. This weekend, the JMU Hellfish will proudly and once again share its history, hard work, and personality with the attendees of the Hellfish Bonanza.
 The Hellfish Bonanza is part of the plot from the episode in which the name Flying Hellfish has its genesis.
Rohre and Xtehn Titcomb were two of coaches that I worked with in Mexico during the first couple weeks of December. We ran clinics and seminars for Juega Ultimate Frisbee and played in Discopa. At about the midpoint of our stay, I asked each of them to write something about their experience coaching in Mexico. Anything would do, I told them; the broad goal was to give readers a glipse into the state of ultimate down there and how we, the coaches, were processing it all. Here’s what they had to say:
Depending on the time of year, I think about Club Championships between once a week and 50 times a day. Being at my best for my peak event in a given season motivates me to get better. It’s the reason I run track, work hard at practice, eat well, rest when my body needs it, take time to plan good practices…and hey, I’ll admit it, it’s often the reason I get up in the morning.
At our Wednesday night platica (lecture/talk), Justin and I were going over what kinds of fitness training people should be doing at various points of the season. We started by mapping out a season, working back from a peak event, like Club Championships, or Worlds. Rolas, a player from outside Mexico City, immediately put his hand up: “I don’t know when a peak event for me would be,” he said…
And it was then that this observation clicked for me. Without the ebb and flow of a season, without a build-up to a peak event in the year, it can be really difficult to stay motivated and driven to improve. If you don’t have a peak event, what are you working towards? There is no externally driven, time-bound aspect to a given goal you have.
This is a challenge I see for the ultimate players we’ve been working with all week. Aside from the U-23 team Alyssa and Jonathan coached on Saturday, the players we’re coaching aren’t building towards anything specific. They have a drive to get better, of course–they’re at practice, they train, they’ve come to our clinics, and they read online resources about ultimate. But they’re missing that unique motivation you get from working with your team towards a common, time-bound goal. It doesn’t matter whether it’s making Sectionals, placing at Regionals, or making quarters at Nationals–I find that having a specific time when I’m trying to peak is enormously helpful in my quest to be the best player I can be.
This will be on my mind as I talk to players, organizers, and coaches this weekend at Discopa.
In the aftermath of our Tuesday afternoon on-field clinic, a youngster ran up to me and explained that he is always catching “estar volando”, that is “in the air.” He demonstrated a jumping clap catch with his hands above his head. I chuckled. “What can I do to break this habit?” he asked. “Well,” I told him, “what you need to do is take time outside of practice to work on your catching.” I told him that he should invite different guys on different days to throw with him and to rotate through the various kinds of catches. I then asked him, “why do you think it’s good to throw with different people?” “So that I can get different kinds of throws, some here and some there,” he said. “That’s great! Also, you can share your motivation with many other players,” I added.
So, two big take-aways: first, striving to play your best at a specific time gives focus and motivation to your training, and second, practicing not only regularly but also with varied approaches can lead to a more refined game. Neither of these concepts are rocket science, but in order to understand them it helps to either have years of experience or someone to articulate them for you. I often think that good coaching is about opening doors to new ways of thinking. It might be stating the obvious to some, but to others it’s turning on light bulbs and pointing them down the well-lit hallway so that they don’t have to spend time fumbling around in the dark.
It’s a small world.
On Thursday, Pablo took me to the Desierto de los Leones, a national park atop a mountain on the outskirts of Mexico City. While we arrived by bus and then taxi, the plan was to hike back down through the forest after checking out the Carmelite convent. Long story short, Pablo decided that wasn’t such a good idea because it had been ten years since he last made the hike and he was afraid of getting lost, so we started walking the longer route back down the road.
I was down to make the trek, but we lucked out and ran into a taxi driver on the side of the road putting the finishing touches on a car wash. What he was doing shining his rims in the middle of a forest on the top of a mountain I don’t know, but when he said he would drive us back into town I was glad to hear it. Once in the cab, the three of us started talking about my first visit to Mexico, his observations on tourists from the US, and the time that he and Pablo had spent living in the States. After a few minutes the driver mentioned that he lived in Charlotte, Virginia for a year. “Charlotte?” I asked. “Do you mean Charlottesville?”
He did– he had worked various jobs there before returning home. I lived in Charlottesville for five years starting with my first year of college, and that’s where I really learned to play ultimate. It’s a small town, and the fact that a random taxi driver in Mexico City lived there for a year blew me away. I always enjoy a reminder of how easily we can all connect given the right circumstances.
The similarities between Mexican ultimate and many of the teams and organizations at home are another reminder of what we all have in common. When Xtehn and Alyssa arrived on Thursday night, we spent much of the evening hearing from Vanessa and Pepe about the challenges that their community faces. The sport is young here, so even the talented players are relatively inexperienced, and there is a dearth of knowledge in terms of how to improve. Pepe said that he often hears teams and players saying “we want to win” or “I want to get better”, but not developing a plan to make it happen. Likewise, a lot of the answers to the Next Level registration question of “what do you want to learn in the clinic?” were along the lines of “strategy and tactics” and “general ultimate.” Players here definitely want to improve, but they haven’t been taught the tools to focus on processes rather than the outcomes.
Becoming a better player in one fell swoop is impossible. If you want to get there, you have to focus on specifics: sharper dump throws, quicker movement on the mark, and more efficient footwork downfield. Winning and big plays are what first meet the eye when we play our sport, and submitting yourself to incremental, piece-by-piece improvement is daunting because of the hard work and time that it demands. Thinking about all of the ways in which you or your team could improve is overwhelming.
This challenge is compounded by the fact that many advanced players lack incentive to work on details in their games because they’re already winning. Additionally, their frustration with beginners keeps them from dedicating the time to coaching and development that would bring everybody’s level up. Furthermore, Pepe described how difficult continuity is even when enthusiasm gets drummed up. “We’ve had ultimate exhibitions in different cities and parts of town and everyone has loved them,” he said. “But after people have trouble finding places to play or people to learn from, field organizers tell us that there isn’t any interest in us returning.”
Sound familiar? It does to me. In fact, when Rohre and I gave a presentation to a group of youth players’ parents last night, I assured them that our conversation was a carbon copy of one that frequently happens in the US. These parents like ultimate, particularly that their kids’ teams are a source of leadership training and motivation to stay fit, but they worry that school administrators and other parents don’t think ultimate is a real sport. That you can get by even if you are lazy, and that ultimate doesn’t have a future. In short, they see ultimate as a sport where disorganization is rampant, and they are hesitant to trust that ultimate will ever “get there.”
Rohre and I assured them that while it’s a step-by-step process that demands patience, the change is already coming. We cited the States’ growing economy around the sport as proof that ultimate has a future, and we encouraged them to support their kids by using ourselves as living examples of people whose worlds have been opened up by ultimate. We also gave them some resources that included models for team parent organizations and websites to learn more about the game and to teach others. I’d do the same with any group of parents in any developing ultimate city in the world.
Que pequeno es el mundo.