I was in Burlington this past weekend to watch NW Regionals. A better journalist would have followed the main action and the main story line; I followed my heart. I went to watch Sockeye qualify and to support the Oregon women who were playing for Further. Somehow that got mixed up.
Sockeye and Further’s situations in the tournament were weirdly similar. Both were in a cluster of equally good teams vying for the final spot for Nationals. In Sockeye’s case they were fighting against Furious and Rhino. For Further, it was Zeitgeist (Bay 2), Schwa and Underground (Seattle 2). But expectations for each team were very different. Sockeye was going to have to work, but would qualify. It didn’t even occur to Further (or anyone else) that they were in the running to go.
Much will be made of Sockeye’s tactical failures and the execution errors that led to their downfall. This is as it should be. The beautiful clarity of 2010 Sockeye’s vertical stack, a clarity that opened up deep lanes for handlers and cutters alike, was gone. In its place was a confused, muddy mess where too often, open players were covered by their poorly spaced teammates. Their handlers settled for easy, rinky-dink resets that got a new 10, but failed to open up throwing options downfield. And Sockeye’s stars played poorly, particularly in the fourth quarter of each game, gifting far too many easy goal scoring opportunities to Furious and Revolver. Why did these things happen?
The Fish were a team without identity. The brash, take-no-prisoners attitude of the previous year was gone. It is a tough attitude to maintain two years in a row, particularly in the face of increased expectations. In 2010, no one expected a thing of Sockeye, but after World’s silver and Nationals semifinals the belief within and without the team is that they were title contenders. Not that they would contend, but were contenders. This seemingly semantic difference is everything to a team’s attitude. Being a contender is something you are. Contending is something you do. When contending is your attitude, fight and struggle is built into what you are.
Sockeye hadn’t clearly defined roles and responsibilities for individual players. Throughout the tournament, Sockeye continued to mess around with their roster and playing time. Individual playing time, especially for the bottom 20 or so players fluctuated wildly. Nord didn’t play the last 5 points against Furious on Saturday. Montague didn’t play at all, but then played 5 against Revolver. Karlinsky emerged from the bottom of the handler rotation to play serious minutes in their Sunday loss to Furious. In August, this is great. You can see who is stepping up and how the pieces will fit together. In October, that work should be done. Everyone should know their role and be able to accurately predict how many points they will play and under what circumstances. Lacking a role and a defined responsibility, an individual player has nothing to be accountable for. No job description to fulfill. Without a clear mission, there is no way to be successful and more importantly, no need to be successful.
The size of Sockeye’s roster (27) wasn’t doing them any favors, either. I know a huge team is great for practice, but are you really trying to win practice? Is that your goal for the season? The problems of team and individual identity I outlined above are compounded by too many players. The best roles are ones that fit the individual and fit together across the team. This is why teams split O and D. It is easier to define roles and fit them together with a group of 10 than a group of 20.
Much will be made of Ben Wiggins’ departure. I don’t think the team fretted about it too much, feeling like they had the talent to absorb the loss (and they did). But what was missed wasn’t on-field talent, but off-field confidence and certainty. When I played with Ben we often didn’t see eye-to-eye on tactics, but 100% tactical perfection doesn’t matter. What matters is certainty, clarity, vision and above all, confidence. This was missed.
Further is a team built in a funny gray area between the total, life-absorbing commitment of Sockeye and the no-commitment of a team like Vagabonds (who won Mixed). Coming from a small market (Eugene), there aren’t 20 women (or even 10) who are willing to commit the time, money and energy to a full club season. The team is a mix of young, ambitious players (mostly from the U of O) and older players (mostly from city league). For the most part, they come together and play because they love to play and want to play women’s.
Going to Regionals there was no expectation for this team that they would make or even contend for Nationals. They only had 13 players. The chalk was that Zeitgeist and Underground would be playing for the last spot. Further was just going to play.
With that attitude in hand, the Eugene women were unfazed by the beating Riot put on them in Round 2 (3-13). Unburdened, they walked over to their all-important game against Zeitgeist. And they won. Scratching and clawing, they pulled out the 11-10 win. At this point in the tournament, they were still very dependent on three stars (McDowell, Craley and Sharman) to carry them, but that would change.
Day 2, they again stared awful defeat in the face, this time at the hands of Traffic (6-15, but they started the game 0-5) in the 3-4 game. Laughing, they shook it off and prepared for the game-to-go against arch-rivals, Schwa. If I might digress for a moment, one of the greatest delights in ultimate is to go to a tournament with a small team, a team you don’t know well, not even a team, and over the course of seven games meld and blend and merge until you are a team. This is what had happened to Further. They only played 11 women in the game-to-go, but each of those women knew what her role was and performed it without thought and with the utter confidence that comes with thoughtlessness. The odd thing is, there wasn’t much discussion within the team of who should do what. Each player gravitated toward what they did best in combination with what the team needed. The game was tight at half (8-6), but behind blocks from Karpelowitz, Hirsch and Mahoney (all coming off of the bench) Further won going away (15-8).
A last thought. Sockeye went to Regionals looking not to lose. Further went to Regionals looking to play.
Feature image pictures Furious George celebrating as Tim Gehret stands in disbelief. Photo by Scobel Wiggins.