This is a summary article on Nationals. I will touch on what I saw, major storylines and surprises, some behind the scenes information that explains a bit of what and why things happened the way they did, and some thoughts on how I see this nationals being different from others and changes it could bring about.
I’ll start with the storylines.
First, Furious. Oh Furious. Now, I’ll just get it out of the way since everyone asked me already– yes, I was upset they lost, but probably not for the reasons everyone assumed (them beating us, losing us a bid, whatever). Those things sucked, but in the end, I know the sting of loss, of unmet expectations, of giving your all and still failing, and I felt that again, for them. I’m friends with many on that team and although they beat us, they did it fairly and with sportsmanship and (gasp!) spirit. So, after perusing RSD when I got home, it was interesting to see people’s guesses on Furious’ collapse. Personally, I believe the mental burden of a triple peak proved too difficult. They peaked for Canadian Nationals, they worked very hard and peaked again at Regionals, and I believe they were shocked to have succeeded and gotten the second bid. It’s very hard to then have another grueling month ahead of you of track and practice when you didn’t really think you would. This is conjecture– I could be wrong. But, double-peaking is difficult in itself, and triple-peaking, I think, was simply too much. Lastly, although they knocked Sockeye out, there was absolutely no joy in seeing them lose, and not just because they were not earning the strength bid. I like those guys, and seeing them underperform felt like watching us underperform again. It was sad. As an aside, their game against Machine was one of the many games I saw that were affected rather much by Observers making (and being forced to make) very difficult calls. Now, Machine certainly earned that win, but I was simply surprised to see Observers in one game and not another. There were a few calls that, had there just randomly not been observers– if they had been one field over, for instance– would have not changed possession since they were very, very close calls. I’d rather have no observers for any pool play games, perhaps, for consistency across the board.
Next, Southpaw. What a run. This team did one thing, over and over and over, and it worked well (on O, vert stack; on D, hard man). In addition, they were one of the most physically well-conditioned teams at nationals. What this tells me is a few things. First, conditioning prevails in the last games of each day and even more so as the tournament wares on. Second, having a system in which many players can be inserted into each position allows you to go deep into your roster, and you don’t rely on certain studs to perform (who will get tired and make mistakes). Finally, teams need to learn more than one junk/zone defense to force teams like Southpaw into their second game plan– I didn’t see this as much as I would have expected, and it told me that either teams did not have multiple junk looks, or they were not using them when I felt they should. Southpaw also learned its system well enough so that it could take advantage of hard man as well as poachy/switchy man defenses by finding open players quickly and taking any reset as opposed to looking for hero shots. They cleared deep lanes well and were good about starting deep cuts from close range, making hucks easier to hit. I often saw Hinnaret completing 45-55 yard hucks accurately, rather than 65+ yard hucks that stretched the limits of the thrower’s arm, often at the cost of accuracy and completion percentage. Southpaw proved that nationals is about grinding at the end of the day, since a win is a win, and with a roster like theirs (few stars, but strong fundamentals across the board, and enough youth to get lots of buy-in), a strict system can get you far.
And, Chain. God, what a weird Nationals. They went from looking like they could go out in quarters to giving a semifinals showing for the ages. In their game against Ironside, they just did not look strong, with multiple poor choices and weird turnovers, a defense that applied good pressure but couldn’t buy a block, and an offense that seemed one dimensional at best. They remained competitive because they are athletic beasts, but I was truly worried about their systems on both sides of the disc. Then comes (and I didn’t get to see it) their Ring quarters game, and boom, they looked good. Kiran Thomas was warming up for the semifinals and chatted with me a bit, and said he felt good about their trajectory. It seemed he was right. I’d love to hear more from the leaders of this team about what changed to cause such a drastic upswing. To me, this is one of the most interesting storylines of the tournament, and one of the biggest question marks– I’m sure there are some great lessons to be learned from this great and fun-to-watch team.
The Scene: Open
From my vantage point, what separates good teams from great ones is the players. Revolver, Doublewide, Chain, Ironside– these teams simply had better players than the rest of the pack. Now, this is not to say that teams like Machine, Southpaw, Truck Stop, Goat, etc don’t have some absolute studs, or even some who could play on any team in the world. What I am saying is that the top teams have more players with a well-rounded set of skills combined with the athleticism and experience it takes to separate their team from the rest.
However, what separates great teams from the best (Revolver) is trust. Others have touched on it before (Kyle, Lou), but it can’t be said enough. Doublewide, from my view, seems to have two systems competing, rather than unifying, their team, in Texas vs. Florida. The Texas system is built on chemistry and teamwork, the Florida on having role players and stars, with the role players getting the stars to the big games, and the stars winning them. Should these systems mesh well, they would be the scary powerhouse that the other top teams know they could be, but they simply haven’t shown it, with Brodie and Kurt rarely sharing the ball in the big crunch times (semis, the end of the Ironside Power pool game), and guys like David Melancon relegated to being a reset who must return the disc to a star. Chain & Ironside haven’t demonstrated a lack of trust– or at least, that is my take from the booth– but they simply don’t demonstrate the high degree of trust and humility that Revolver does. This trust is seen most especially in the throwing choices that guys take (very few bad huck decisions or “too difficult” breakside throws) as well as their demeanor after failure (when their O gets broken, or their D gets dominated, did you ever see anyone yelling at one another or placing blame?). Perhaps it is their star power that makes it so apparent, but they take the open looks consistently, and only at the end of the Revolver vs. Ironside game did it look like Cahill tried a few throws that were iffy– this to end their season at 14-10 or so. When your focus slips only at that moment, you are a dominant team.
I’d also like to mention some names of guys who, I believe, other than in their respective sections or regions, are relatively unknown but really made a name for themselves this weekend.
– Russell Wallack just rocked the entire weekend. Every team has this guy; internally, all of Ironside knows they rely on his defensive prowess and never-give-up workhorse attitude, but he is not a household name like a Nate Castine or Mark Sherwood.
– Similarly, I loved watching Chain’s Byron Liu play, especially when he was given a fast assignment like Josh Markette on Ironside. He worked his tail off and his positioning was strong.
– Machine’s Andrew Sheehan was a defensive stalwart and made impressive plays in clutch moments. Also, Mike Shiel could be on most any roster in the nation, as well as Dane Olsen.
– Southpaw’s Hirannet was a key cog in their offensive handling core, and threw fantastic mid-range hucks at an incredibly high completion percentage. These, to me, are the best hucks– they aren’t the Muffin-esque boom-headshots that sail endzone to endzone (and subsequently garner harder and harder marks), but instead, fly under the radar a bit and quietly baffle the opposition (how do they keep getting these huge gainers?? why are we getting beat deep so easily without any shot at the disc?!).
– Similarly, Southpaw’s Gaulton was a playmaker in the air. Without him they are a different team.
– The Skyd Team was all over Kolick. Zach Smith and Ian Toner couldn’t shut up about him, and he turned heads on many a team across the board.
– I was sad to see Jake “Frogger” Taylor drop a couple discs in the finals– he was just killing it for Ironside, especially for their endzone offense. When you are that long and consistently hit an around backhand for yards (and goals), you really carve apart the defense and make marking difficult for the rest of the game. He deserves recognition for sure.
– Goat had a number of standouts, but Lindquist was the real hero in their challenge of Doublewide in my opinion, as well as Anatoly Vasilyev. These guys made things happen and kept Goat working, and don’t deserve to have their names in Hassell’s long shadow.
Best/Favorite Plays of the Weekend
My absolute favorite play of the entire weekend was easily Jon Levy’s handblock on the first point of the open finals against Ironside. Lou beat me to it I see, but still, I gotta give credit where it’s due. Some background– Levy spent hours watching footage of Rebholtz beforehand. For all you kids out there– this shit takes work, and Revolver’s putting it in. I am excited to see the replays of this– I’m fairly certain he bid even before Reb wound up. Fans love the skys and the layouts, but those on the top club teams see that and their jaws drop.
Other incredible plays– Lucas Dallman’s (Polar Bears) catch over Tyler Grant (Blackbird) in the mixed finals. With that disc in the air, I’d need massive odds to bet on Dallman making that play. He didn’t have position, he is a goofy looking red-haired near-albino that I’ve never seen before, and he’s up against a player who was one of Revolver’s better defenders last year, especially on discs in the air. Ridiculous catch.
Also, Lisa Pitchaithley’s layout in that same final kept them in the game, both score-wise and momentum-wise.
Dylan Tunnell’s huuuuuge catch in the semifinals for a goal, leaping up and backwards as the huck sailed over Mahoney. Tunnell is big, and gets reeeaaal high up.
George Stubbs had two– one was perfectly set up for him to look outstanding, with a poor-choice hammer from Doublewide to a flat-footed receiver just teeing up Stubbs, who had a perfect run-up, to go huge and earn a catch D. The second is the current first or second best picture from nationals of Stubbs skying a pile that includes half of Revolver’s D line (with Mac & Sherwood in the pile).
Sherwood’s layout catch in the finals. Guy’s fast. Reminded me of a similar catch in the Revolver/Sockeye semifinal in ’09. Didn’t think he’d catch up to that one either.
Kurt Gibson’s sliding footblock in the semifinals. A rare play, a big stage, and a necessary block to keep them in a game that was quickly slipping away.
Behind the Scenes
This was a first (and hopefully a last) for me attending Club Nationals without playing. I got to see a lot of what goes into making it all happen, and I’ll tell you, it is a HUGE undertaking. Elliot Trotter, of Skyd, worked (not like “fun” work, but work worked) from 7am until 1am, every night. After calling games all day I needed a break come 6pm, and as I hung out and unwound, he continued to edit footage and copy, upload it, and prep for the next day, all while answering questions and solving problems.
And, as for Skyd’s semifinals livestream that was off and on — this was literally thrown together as quickly as possible when we realized that USAU had chosen to stream the open quarters instead of the semis. Skyd could easily have said meh, not worth it, people will complain at USAU and it will be a massive headache to even try– but instead they tried, it was only somewhat successful, and fans at home complained. I would’ve complained too, I’m sure, without any of this background info. But, that’s why I’m providing it. You should know this stuff, if for anything but to realize how and why it wasn’t perfect. Having seen the effort that went into providing whatever was possible to the fans at home and then to see those fans bitch and moan (note: understandably) I felt compelled to get across just how difficult it was to make it happen on a shoestring budget and in a manner of hours. Not easy stuff, and big props to the Skyd staff (myself not included, I just talked/watched a bunch) for even trying.
And, USAU needs to be aware that not showing the Open Semifinals is ridiculous. It is consistently the best game of the entire year. If not, it is only overshadowed by a rare and amazing open final, and heck, that means two incredible displays of amazing ultimate in a row! Showing the womens’ semifinal was a mistake in my opinion. I don’t believe that it is unequal to show the women’s quarters and the men’s semifinals year after year, and I am aware (and supportive, in fact), of the equality goals that USAU has. But they need to know that once those gender equity issues are met, the open semifinal is almost always the game of the year and should be showcased (and archived! How many people would LOVE to have the Ironside v. Chain DGP game done with Nexgen’s outstanding crew?!?!). In talking with Tom Crawford, he told me that the board should be made aware of how important this is to the fans, so, speak up! Send emails letting USAU know exactly what you want– while you may not receive a reply, know that your voices and opinions ARE being heard.
My coverage was almost primarily on the open side, so, apologies to leaving out the other divisions. For those not there, this year included some of the most impressive mixed play I’d seen, and Masters was very fun to watch as well. As Lou said, I could go on and on but I’ll only be rambling, and I fear I’ve lost coherency already. Thanks to all the athletes who made nationals exciting and fun to cover this year, and, lastly, I can tell you this– there are a lot of angry fish already preparing for next year. Looking forward to a great 2012.
Feature photo of Revolver’s Sam Kanner – Photo by Brandon Wu (Ultiphotos.com)