Club teams, even at the highest levels, break up and re-form often. San Francisco Revolver, currently the most dominant open team in the world, formed in 2006. Before that, Jam was the top team in the Bay, and before Jam there was Dbl Happiness, Tsunami, and Flying Circus—all national championship contenders. In Boston, DOG has given way to Ironside, and in DC, Potomac evolved into Truck Stop.
In 1998, Sockeye failed to qualify for UPA Nationals, so in 1999 a team called Blaze of Glory, led by Jon Gewirtz, pulled away a number of top Seattle players. Gewirtz had been a star on the dominant NYNY teams and was instrumental in getting Sockeye to the finals at Nationals three years in a row in the mid-90s, all of which ended in losses to DoG.
According to Lou Burruss, one of the captains of the 1999 Sockeye team, Gewirtz was a polarizing figure who split the Seattle ultimate community in two. “There was a group of players who said, ‘We’re not going to play with him [Gewirtz],’ and there was another group who said, ‘We can’t win without him.’ The two pieces became irreconcilable.”
Burruss calls the years between 1999 and 2003 “the dark years.” Sockeye failed to make Nationals again in 1999. Blaze of Glory made Nationals, but lost in the quarterfinals and then disbanded.
Many of the defectors returned to Sockeye, and through the early 2000s Sockeye was a solid team. However, Sockeye’s success was overshadowed by Vancouver B.C.’s Furious George, which was beginning its championship run. In 2003, Sockeye again struggled to stay together. According to Caldwell, who begins his 13th Sockeye season in 2012, the team was “agro” and “negative,” which didn’t seem to help it win. After Labor Day 2003, Sockeye decided it had to change the team culture. “We had to help [players who made mistakes] play better rather than riding them down because that doesn’t help them play better—it’s counter to your goal to ride a guy down. You want to win!”
It also helped that the fast-growing Seattle youth scene was beginning to produce players who were not only skilled throwers and gifted athletes, but who had been brought up playing the sport with a focus on fun and the spirit of the game. Sam Chatterton-Kirchmeier, Jeremy Cram, Chase Sparling-Beckley, and Alex Nord were among the Seattle natives who emerged in elite ultimate at that time. And as Sockeye established itself as a top team, ultimate talent from across the country began moving to Seattle.
To manage the many players and personalities, and to keep the team dynamics balanced between hard work and fun, Sockeye established pod practices so that players could get reps without having to pull together all-team practices. The captains also formed groups of 3 or 4 that they called “hate posses,” which were a chance for players to work out frustrations, get feedback, and organize issues they wanted to raise with the captains. Players were grouped by a combination of roles on the field and off-field friendships, which made for an inner circle within the wider circle of the team.
This structure worked for those teams because so many of the core players had played together for so long and the newer players were both talented and good at integrating into the team culture. The Sockeye championship teams of 2004-2008 didn’t need to pull everyone together for every practice because it had strong team chemistry and incredible talent. The word I most often heard when former players described those championship teams was “swagger.” Sockeye stars made highlight-reel plays look easy and loved to chant and rush the field, whether the team had scored or not.
A mental strategy built on positivity works well when you’re winning, but the real test came after the 2008 World Ultimate and Guts Championships (WUGC), when Sockeye, as Team USA, lost 15-17 to Team Canada on a rainy day at Thunderbird Stadium in Vancouver.
Sockeye lost a few players, most notably Sparling-Beckley, but according to Sewell, it was still stacked with talent. In the quarterfinals at Nationals, Sockeye was matched against Johnny Bravo, a team many considered the favorite to win the UPA title. Sockeye lost that game and fell into the 5th place bracket, where it lost to Revolver.
Many more players retired or moved away soon after the 2008 season, but remarkably, Sockeye continued to bounce back, if not as the top team in North America, at least as one of the top four. As underdogs in 2009, Sockeye made it to the semifinals at USAU Nationals, and at the 2010 World Ultimate Club Championships (WUCC) it finished 2nd. Sockeye’s WUCC must have seemed like a fluke to most observers, but another semifinal finish at Nationals 2010 seemed to confirm that, while Sockeye may not be the same team that won three titles in four years, it wasn’t far off.
One reason the Sockeye teams of 2009 and 2010 continued to win was the players’ ability to maintain that same sense of fun on and off the field. The video Caldwell made of the team’s experience at WUCC 2010 showed the simple, brotastic joy of playing for Sockeye.
However, after a number of strong finishes, but no championships, Sockeye 2011 now had expectations on its shoulders. Those expectations only became more fraught when Furious George, the third team to go to Nationals out of the Northwest Region, finished 12thin 2010, causing the region to lose a bid to Nationals. This meant that the most competitive region in the country could send only two teams to Sarasota.
Feature photo of Moses Rifkin moving the disc against Johnny Bravo at ECC 2007 (Photo by Scobel Wiggins)