Illian believed that 2011 was Sockeye’s best chance at a national title since 2008. Strong finishes at major tournaments had seasoned many of the young players and Sockeye still had stars from its championship years. Andrew Fleming, as he proved at WUGC 2010, could still make amazing grabs at full speed, and Sewell was still a fiery defensive leader. Illian, Tim Gehret, Nate Castine, Moses Rifkin, Dave Bestock, and Caldwell had all played on championship Sockeye teams and continued to perform at an elite level.
Adding to that core was a mix of familiar faces and new recruits. Nord returned to action in 2011 after taking a few years off. And a young, 6’7” Dutchman named Erik Doesburg, who the team nicknamed “The Kraken” while watching him play in Prague, had moved to Seattle for the season. Suddenly, this “small ball” team of the last couple years was much bigger, giving Sockeye a better chance of competing against Revolver or Doublewide, two teams with talented receivers who are good at coming down with big throws.
If some on the team were concerned about the losses of Ben Wiggins, Jaime “Idaho” Arambula, and Thomas Sebby, they didn’t show it. All three retired after the 2010 season, most notably Wiggins, after he had suffered one too many concussions. In those three, Sockeye not only lost talented playmakers, it lost in-huddle leadership and swagger. Sockeye of 2011 would have to find a new identity, one that incorporated the fun and confidence of teams past, while building a foundation that the younger players could carry forward.
That process began at what Sockeye calls its “combine.” At the combine, every player interested in joining the team gets to play in a round robin pick-up game that includes the other tryouts and current Sockeye players. The 2011 combine, however, was made more complicated than usual because it was part of a larger organizational effort. Led by Sewell, a group of Seattle players had proposed to coordinate men’s ultimate in Seattle by using shared resources to form teams, manage team logistics and facilitate the player development. Houston and Chicago were put forward as models. Houston, in particular, was interesting to many players after Skyd published an interview with Sean McCall. The 2011 combine would help form Sockeye, but it would also set the foundation for a second team, and possibly a third.
At the combine, approximately 90 players were placed on five teams, each one led by recent Sockeye players who were likely to make the team again. A player committee, made up of the four captains and three other players chosen by the captains—Spencer Wallis, Joe “BJ” Sefton, and Castine—who were thought to be good evaluators of talent and likely the foundation of future teams, watched the games from the sideline between the two fields.
To get the most out of the day, the personnel committee made one field what it called the “showcase field.” The idea was to create a high-pressure environment and to evaluate how certain players responded. The committee watched the showcase games closely, barking out encouragement when games were close and cheering on big plays, but the atmosphere was more fun than high-stakes. Looking back at the 2011 season, this emphasis on high-pressure performance is interesting. The combine in no way resembled a big tournament atmosphere, and I don’t remember any players buckling under the pressure of the showcase field, but knowing how the team struggled to close out games, I wonder if the captains were worried about the team’s mental make up from the beginning.
After the combine, at a Thai restaurant where the table is sunk into the floor, committee members talked about what they saw on the field and debated which players were worth investing in for another round. After a couple of hours of meandering commentary and speculation about players who may or may not have been interested in playing for Sockeye, the committee had put together two squads to take to Flowerbowl in Vancouver, BC.
Flowerbowl 2011 was the first weekend of the Stanley Cup—Canucks versus Bruins. For its “theme,” Sockeye chose “Boston,” which meant that players wore what they interpreted as Boston-related items—mostly Red Sox caps and teabags. If there had been a best costume award, it would have gone to Rifkin, who put on running shorts after the games on Saturday and jogged around waving an American flag as if he had just won the Boston Marathon. I don’t know if Furious noticed any of this cross-border antagonism, but the rivalry mostly seemed beside the point. Sockeye was about having fun its own way.
For all the teams in Vancouver, this was a tryout tournament, so winning was a secondary goal. Nonetheless, a combined Sockeye team played a combined Furious George team twice, once in a showcase game and once in the finals. Sockeye won both, and neither game felt very close after halftime. Many of the Sockeye veterans who remember a hostile crowd at WUGC 2008 and at Flowerbowls past, expected an intensely anti-Sockeye atmosphere, but the crowd, made up primarily of teams that had already finished their games for the day, seemed more interested in the dollar hamburgers.
After Flowerbowl, the personnel committee cut the team down to 26 players. Team ECU 2010 captains Danny Karlinsky and Chris Kosednar joined The Kraken, and Carleton students Simon Montague and Julian Childs-Walker, as the new Fish. The 2011 squad was younger than last year’s Sockeye. And because many of the new recruits were handlers, the rookies would have to learn quickly how to win at the elite level.
Feature photo of Erik “the Kraken” Doesburg marking up on the Buzz Bullets at ECC ’11. (Photo by Scobel Wiggins)