Chasing the Fish: Part 4 – The Lab

by | June 7, 2012, 1:55pm 0

Matt Rehder pulls the disc at ECC 2011. (Photo by Scobel Wiggins)

Dan Rivas takes an inside look at Seattle Sockeye 2011 after traveling with the team for the entire season. This is part 4 in a 5-part series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5).

As Sockeye’s season began, it didn’t seem all that surprising that a number of players were nursing injuries. Wallis, Bestock and Sewell didn’t play at Flowerbowl, and at Solstice in Eugene two weeks later, Matt Rehder and Fleming were on the sideline. Sockeye cruised through Saturday at Solstice, but as the tournament went on, The Kraken and Sam Harkness also had to pull themselves out of the lineup. Many more Fish were playing through injuries, most notably Castine, who never once during the season looked 100%.

Solstice was also the beginning of the Sockeye “lab,” an approach to experimentation that, for better or worse, would carry on throughout the course of the season. According to Illian, “The lab is discovery. We have these ideas about the team and where we can go, but we have to test them… it’s a big opportunity for us to evaluate what we can do with the team or how the other teams are developing.”

The lab was Sockeye’s attempt at understanding both the X’s and O’s, what the captains called “technology,” and the team “chemistry,” or its ability to work together to execute its technology. Sewell often talked to me about how long a season is and the team was setting its sights on building toward the USAU Club Series. All of the captains emphasized a focus on process, or how the team played the game, over results, meaning wins and losses. Process, they contended, would lead to results, but a focus on getting wins, especially early in the season, when the team was still trying to find the strategies that worked best and was still forming its identity, could endanger the team’s development.

The team goes through a similar process every year, but in 2011 the Sockeye leadership decided to add a new variable: a coach/advisor. Andy Lovseth played with many current Sockeye players on Western Washington University’s team Dirt. He also coached Dirt with Wiggins and has been involved in a number of ultimate projects including “The Huddle” and the Potlatch event Big Muckamuck. At the 2010 USAU Club Championships, Lovseth offered some observations that the captains found useful and they thought there might be a role for him as an advisor and sub-caller in 2011. Sockeye has never had a coach, but its rivals, like Ironside and Revolver, have taken on coaches and are winning. The Sockeye leadership was generally wary of this trend, but it also thought a coach was worth exploring. Solstice would be the first opportunity to test whether a non-player could help the team win over the long season.

Solstice was also Sockeye’s first tournament as a team and everyone saw it as a chance to bond and have fun. Kinley spearheaded a Caddyshack theme, which morphed into “country club.” Guys brought golf clubs and badminton rackets and, in both Saturday rain and clear Sunday skies, hacked at balls and birdies up and down the sidelines. Sockeye had an easy Saturday, beating Voodoo 13-5, Rhino 13-5, Boost Mobile 13-3, and Furious George 13-8.

After Saturday, Sewell warned the team that there were “two ways tonight can go,” but really there were only 2a and 2b. Sockeye didn’t bring flat caps, polo shirts, and plaid pants to stay in and watch Ultivillage videos. The team was there to win the party.

What does winning the party look like? It starts by showing up at the bowling alley in full costume, continues with beer and schemes to chase players on Further or Fury, and stretches into timeless night as you drive around looking for the next party, singing Backstreet Boys and hardly caring that there’s nowhere to go.

On Sunday morning, the team was on the field about an hour before game time, running half-field seven on seven. Sockeye only had 15 active players for its first game against Voodoo because of injuries, but it hardly seemed to matter as it went into half leading 8-4.

Sockeye's Julian Childs-Walker marks up on Voodoo's Elliot Trotter at Solstice 2011. (Photo by Ben Beehner)

Sockeye’s first real test came in the second half against Voodoo.  On Saturday morning, before Sockeye had played a single game, Sewell said, “This is the laboratory. If you huck the bunson burner because you’re mad, it doesn’t help anything.” The two teams traded points to 10-6 and it seemed as though Sockeye would cruise to victory, but Voodoo wouldn’t go away. Voodoo scored three in a row before Sockeye answered and the game stayed close. Voodoo scored the last goal, but the hard cap was on. Sockeye won, 14-13.

It was clear watching the second half of that game that Sockeye had lost its cool. There was some chippiness on the field, but the most telling moments happened on the sideline. Players argued with each other about poor throws and ill-advised decisions. The technology the captains were testing was pushed aside, but sudden shifts in strategy didn’t work any better.

Sockeye went on to win Solstice, beating Furious in the finals, but the Voodoo game stuck with the captains throughout the season. Sewell called the lab “an abject failure.” He thought that there were too many variables being tested and that the team too quickly discarded the lab when games got tough. “It seemed like we wanted to do the most effective things in order to get out of games as opposed to doing the hardest things. That’s not a laboratory environment.”

When I talked to Illian in July, he said that Solstice tested how Sockeye would respond when opponents made runs, but the outcome was not positive. “When we got pushed up against the wall, we hit the panic button. The team was not willing to lose that game [against Voodoo] in order to get better for the long run.”

Sockeye traditionally takes a break in July to give players a chance to heal up and take vacations if they feel the need. It’s a tradition that the captains feel is a necessity, not only to prevent player burnout, but to allow the captains to plan for the season without having to prepare for and attend practices.

The team often divided itself up this way. The captains, or what the team called “The Brain,” were often huddled up or in meetings while the rest of the team, “the Body,” ranged freely. Most ultimate captains experience this division—you’re one of the team, but you also have coaching responsibilities that separate you from the team. That Sockeye named and institutionalized that separation was interesting to me because it made the captains explicitly not part of the “body” of the team. This may not have been a problem when Sockeye was winning, but after the 2011 season some of the players complained about not being “heard” by the captains, and it’s possible that some structures made it difficult for players to find ways to speak their minds.

Sockeye's Aaron Talbolt lets a backhand go at ECC 2011. (Photo by Scobel Wiggins)

After Solstice, most of the team felt good about the early season. Sockeye had won two tournaments, beating its main regional rival four times, and with so many young players and players likely to return from injury, Sockeye expected only to get better. The captains, however, were nervous. I saw that nervousness begin during Solstice as Sewell stalked up and down the sidelines, imploring the team to be more vocal and communicate. “Our sideline is weak,” he would say, the same urgency in his voice no matter who Sockeye was playing.

From the beginning, team chemistry was something the Sockeye captains had identified as a team strength. However, going into the Emerald City Classic (ECC) the captains were continuing to test team chemistry. Although it was already August, the team added a 27th player—a young Mamabird alum named Hylke Snieder. Built like a tight end and fearless when going for the disc, it didn’t take long before the team started calling his defensive plays the “Hylke smash.”

Snieder’s obvious talent and agreeable personality helped him fit in easily, but there were other chemistry questions. The team still hadn’t formed strong conclusions about Loveseth’s role, and compounding things further, many players had not yet played together because of injury and other commitments like school and the NexGen tour.

Sockeye started Saturday with an easy and spirited win over Colombia and that momentum seemed to carry over into the Ironside game, where it jumped out to a 5-1 lead. However, four points later the game was tied and after a few back-and-forth points, Ironside took the halftime lead 7-8. The captains made a concerted effort to stay positive, telling the team that this game was more a chance to make adjustments and build team chemistry. In the huddle Kinley said, “This is us getting better… as a team, as a family.” The positive, “shrug it off” message didn’t translate into a big comeback win. Ironside continued to convert goals on defense, building a 9-13 lead that proved decisive.

Sockeye rebounded quickly against Washington D.C.’s Truck Stop, building an 8-5 halftime lead that it never relinquished. And in the fourth game, against Japan’s Buzz Bullets, the usually speedy and precise Bullets looked tired, allowing Sockeye to cruise to a 15-6 win. The result was about what anyone expected, and memories of a poor showing at ECC 2010 had the team feeling good about the day.

Eddie Feeley marks up on Ring's Brett Matzuka. (Photo by Scobel Wiggins)

Sunday morning began with DJ Khaled’s “Sleep When I’m Gone” blaring across the fields. Sockeye made quick work of San Diego’s PBR Streetgang, winning 15-4, and began looking toward the elimination round where it would play North Carolina’s Ring of Fire.

Ring is known for being emotional and physically aggressive, traits that can cause either Ring or its opponents to melt down over the course of a game. The Sockeye captains expected a close and intense game and warned the team not to engage Ring players, to let them turn any negative energy onto themselves. It was a strategy that had worked for Sockeye in the past and it left the captains feeling that same nervous confidence they had felt all season—they knew that this Sockeye team was good enough, but they still were not sure how it would react in tough situations.

The level of intensity was high from the beginning, but rather than play an emotional and potentially combustive game, Ring looked cool and focused. Ring went up a break in the first half and Sockeye got it back a few points later, going to the sidelines leading 8-7. The Sockeye defense, however, could not convert another break, and it took only two mistakes by the Sockeye offense to allow Ring to build a lead that it held to the cap, winning 12-14.

After the game the captains reinforced the idea that ECC was still only practice. In the huddle, Caldwell said, “We don’t need solutions right now. This is the observation phase.”

Now in the fifth-place bracket, and with little to play for, Sockeye was matched against Chicago Machine, which had just played a close game against Truck Stop. If Sockeye was feeling disappointed about its quarterfinals loss, it wasn’t obvious at first. The team built a 7-4 lead and was playing with high energy, but Sockeye couldn’t close out the half and allowed Machine to storm back and take a 7-8 lead.

At halftime against Ironside, Nate Castine observed, “Our offense looks a little scared.” It was the kind of thing Castine would say—he’s an emotional player, who at times gets frustrated with his teammates—but as ECC went on, the truth in what he was saying became more and more apparent. Now, against Machine, with the defense flying around and making plays, the offense had given it all back and more. In the huddle, Illian told the team that it was time to “look inward for a solution, to take personal responsibility.”

After trading points to 9-10, Sockeye finally responded, reeling off six consecutive goals to win 15-10. Sockeye’s offense gave up four of Machine’s 10 points, while its defense scored nine times, but the captains made sure to strike a positive note at the end of ECC, emphasizing the way the defense made bids and played with a lot of energy to close out that game. However, Caldwell also offered a note of warning. “When we were having success on the field, we were way up. When we were not having success on the field, we got really quiet. What that tells me is we have our eyes on the big prize, on results. What we’re playing for right now is the scoreboard, and that’s scary as hell.”

Caldwell believes that a focus on process—the many small actions that make up a tournament or a season—is the only way to get good results. As a competitive philosophy, it’s a paradox, or possibly a zen koan. In order to win, you should not be playing to win.

The fish celebrate at ECC 2011. (Photo by Scobel Wiggins)

I wondered, however, if a focus on results was really the problem. Many of the newer Fish are quieter, more reserved than players on previous Sockeye teams and seemed prone to turning inward. The quiet that Caldwell observed on the sideline and that Sewell was constantly trying to break into, may be players worrying about results, but it may also be, in part, the personalities of the players. Confidence, or a slight lack of it, may also have been a factor, and the constant cries for those players to get excited or make noise, for players who do not do these things naturally and may be somewhat vulnerable to crises of confidence, can send a panicked message. Process, in fact, may be the problem. By constantly questioning and micromanaging the hearts and minds of players, it’s possible that the captains fed players’ doubts rather than dispelled them.

Doubt seemed to land heaviest on Sockeye’s offense. In the practices leading up to Labor Day—the last major tournament before the USAU series—it was clear to the captains that the offense needed to regain its “swagger,” but when matched up against the Sockeye defense, the Sockeye offense continued to struggle, setting up an interesting problem for the team. The better the defense played, the more confident (and mouthy) it got, and the more the offensive struggled, the more it began to seem like a crisis of confidence. Things got so bad that at times the captains were imploring the offense to play better defense, inadvertently implying that they didn’t trust the offense to score without first turning the disc over.

Sockeye’s offensive structure seemed to compound this problem. The flex stack relies on precision and speed, especially from the handlers. When it’s working well, it’s an elegant offense, one that can twist good defenses into knots. However, when it breaks down, especially when resets are tightly contested and downfield cutters get bunched up or block each other’s lanes, it can look like a mess. “I think our offense created problems because handlers were expected to create a lot of the movement and we didn’t put our handlers in the best position to do so,” Kinley said. With so many handlers who were new to the team or who had been out because of injury, and without Wiggins to lead the offense, Sockeye’s flex stack broke down at the end of games, and because those breakdowns were coming as a result of pressure, not only caused by the defense, but also by the demands of the offensive “technology,” those struggles often went on for multiple points. Although the captains wanted to keep the focus on process, it was clear that Sockeye players felt both game pressure and emotional pressure, and the only way out was to prove to itself that it could execute the offense and win games when it mattered.

On the Saturday morning of Labor Day, the hills above Santa Cruz were heavy with fog. The fields felt like a cloud island in some blurry dream. Frisbees disappeared into the mist and were caught by shadows.

In the huddle before Sockeye’s first game against PoNY, Kinley told the team, “This is the test. What is the Fish heart made of?” Sewell broke in, his voice quivering, “I don’t know what we are, but we can find out today… this circle is all I know.”

Determined to make a strong showing, Sockeye beat PoNY 15-9, Johnny Bravo 11-8, and Doublewide 14-9. It was exactly what the team expected and hoped for. In the huddle, Sewell talked about how the team showed swagger and praised the offense. “We pushed them around,” he said.

Sunday began against Cash Crop, a young but talented team from the southeast. The game was a spirited, back-and-forth contest to start, but Sockeye committed a number of uncharacteristic turnovers, including a short hammer where Caldwell collided with another player and broke his nose. Leading 8-6 at the half, Sewell vented his frustration at the lack of focus on the field and in the huddle. He said, “We’re acting like we won this game. Bullshit for us.”

In the second half the turnovers kept coming and Cash Crop began to capitalize, taking a 10-11 lead midway through the second half. On the Sockeye sideline the players looked shaken, but after a point where the offense easily flowed through the Cash Crop zone, the defense took control, putting together a four-point run to finish the game 15-11.

Rhino's Matt Melius skys high over Tyler Kinley at Labor Day 2011. (Photo by Ben Beehner)

Sockeye was still undefeated at Labor Day 2011, but it had one more pool matchup against Rhino, which also had four wins, its only loss against Doublewide. As expected, Sockeye jumped out to an 8-5 lead, and extended that lead to 9-5 after the half. Rhino scored against Sockeye’s zone and then capitalized on Sockeye’s sloppy offense to cut the lead to 9-7. The soft cap went on, but Rhino kept causing turnovers and scoring, tying the game at 9-9 on a point block that it converted after three short throws. Time had run out, so the hard cap went on. The next team to score would win. The Sockeye offense again took the field, but turned the disc over on the very first throw. Rhino converted quickly. Dylan Freechild brought down a high pass at the front of the endzone to win it.

In the huddle after the game, Sewell emphasized the bond between players and tried to refocus the team. Despite the loss, Sockeye finished second in its pool, good enough for a semifinal matchup against Chain Lightning.

Semifinals was where Sockeye wanted to be, and it had no trouble regrouping to take on Chain. Sockeye finished the first half strong, leading 8-7 at the break. In the huddle, Sewell told the team, “This game is a test of our ability to hang together.”

It was another test Sockeye would not pass. The Fish came out of the half fired up and playing good ultimate. Second half scoring went back and forth, and Sockeye managed to build a 12-10 lead. But Chain broke through Sockeye’s stifling four-man cup and then converted again after a Sockeye miscue, tying the game at 12. The hard cap was on. Sockeye had been here before. The next point would win and Sockeye had the disc.

Sockeye drove down the field on a series of short throws and resets, its flex stack looking crisp as the disc approached the endzone, but when two Fish made the same cut on the goal line, the disc went in the air and the two players ended up defending each other, causing a turnover. Chain then did what it does best, putting the disc deep for a score.

Three of the four captains suffered injuries on Sunday. Sewell had benched himself because of a groin injury that had worsened over the course of Saturday. Caldwell was out against Rhino and Chain with a broken nose, but returned from the hospital to watch his team get eliminated. Kinley sustained a concussion against Chain, leaving him quiet and a little dazed.

After the game, Caldwell tried to stay positive in the huddle, but he was mostly at a loss for words. The sun was out. It was the Sunday of a three-day weekend. There was nothing more to say. Shirts came off. The team stretched. Talk turned to boat races and lifeguard costumes.

Feature photo of Reid Koss pulling at NW Regionals. (Photo by Scobel Wiggins)

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