For teams like Sockeye, Sectionals is a formality. Nine players missed the Saturday games. Karlinsky was still injured, and The Kraken and Fleming continued to struggle with leg injuries, but this was the healthiest Sockeye had been all season. Sockeye won its Saturday games handily, although Voodoo gave Sockeye trouble until 9-9, when Sockeye pulled away.
Sunday’s roster was larger, but still somewhat thin, and it got thinner when Harkness injured his knee on a layout against Blackfish. Nonetheless, Sockeye cruised to an easy 15-7 win, setting up another matchup with Furious.
In the huddle, popping caffeine pills and drinking Red Bull, Sockeye decided that, rather than coasting into Regionals, it would set out to beat Furious. At first, it seemed as though Furious felt the same way, but after some jawing on the sideline and a few close points, Furious seemed to back off, and Sockeye won easily, 15-7.
Both teams knew that the Sectionals win didn’t mean much. And with so many Fish missing games this weekend, the tournament didn’t serve as much of a tune-up. Any remaining questions Sockeye had about team chemistry or strategy would not be answered until Regionals.
Three weeks later, Regionals began with Sockeye against Furious in pool play, following the 10-team tournament format established by USAU. On paper, the format didn’t matter much. Regionals was basically a four-team tournament for two spots, and no matter where the top four placed in their pools, they would have to beat at least two of those teams to earn a bid to Nationals. Nonetheless, it was strange that the two teams everyone expected to play in the final game of the weekend, would also face-off in the first game.
Sockeye came to the fields focused, quiet scowls on many faces as players went through warm-ups and drills. In the huddle, Caldwell asked his teammates why they went through all the practices and track workouts, why they committed their bodies and time to an ultimate Frisbee season. It’s a question that doesn’t make sense when you’re 22, but for many of the players on Sockeye this series might be their last with this team, and there was this sense in the huddle that no one should let the opportunity slip away. It was part of the narrative that Sockeye has built over its history, guided by players like Caldwell and Sewell, who devote so much of their time and energy to the team—the team gives you everything because you give everything to the team. To break the huddle, Sewell led the team in a call-and-response adopted from the Seattle Seahawks rally cry during the 2010 playoffs: “We all we got!” “We all we need!”
As expected, the game was tight, but Sockeye took a 7-5 halftime lead. “Let’s win this game,” Illian said to Loveseth as they looked at the distribution of playing time. That meant that veterans like Caldwell, who so far had carried a heavy load, would continue to be called on to play a significant number of points.
Sockeye built an 11-8 lead in the second half, but again it couldn’t hold it. Timely defense by Furious and more miscues by the Sockeye offense led to an 11-11 tie and a Sockeye timeout. In the huddle, the team was brimming over with anger. Sewell said, “Put them in the hospital!” Castine added, “Let’s put our fucking foot on their throat.”
The captains and Loveseth decided to put in what they were calling Sockeye’s “double game point line”—Adam Holt, Caldwell, Gehret, Castine, Illian, Snieder, and Fleming—a line that had not stepped on the field together in any tournament game before that moment. The “double game point” line was itself an experiment. According to Sewell, the Sockeye teams he played on relied on a broad base of talent to win, not a few key players.
Sockeye’s offense gave up another break, but scored the next point and the teams traded to 14-14. This time on defense, playing the actual double game point, Sockeye could not stop Furious, and watched as its opponent chipped the disc up the field for a score.
For the rest of the day, Sockeye played much less talented teams and easily rolled past them, but the Furious game continued to hang over the captains. Caldwell worried whether this team could ever play as though it had nothing to lose and Kinley expressed frustration that the team wasn’t willing to bring the intensity it needed until they were losing. But after a cheerfully indifferent drubbing of Portland Knife Fight (15-1), there was nothing left to do but go home, rest, eat, and ice tired muscles.
The air feels different on elimination Sundays. There’s a nervous energy, the feeling of possibility, or dread, depending on what sideline you’re standing on. It is filled with feet pounding against the ground, the slap of plastic between two hands, voices and music. It’s like a college party—tomorrow you’ll remember it in fragments of pain or ecstasy, disappointment or indescribable joy.
Sunday matched Sockeye against Revolver for the first time all season. Revolver is the New York Yankees of ultimate Frisbee. It’s an organization that has recruited some of the biggest stars in the game by finding them jobs and housing. It’s a business-like team led by a mild mannered, cerebral coach. And like the Yankees of the late 90s and early 2000s, Revolver was nearly unbeatable. In fact, the team had not lost a tournament in more than a year.
The loser would have to win three games in a row to make Nationals. The winner would be in the finals. “Nothing like a dogfight Sunday,” one Fish said to another, slapping his chest.
And dogfight it was. The first point of the game lived up to every expectation I had about elite ultimate. Every throw was crisp. Every play was contested. The Revolver offense went back and forth across the field, but Sockeye refused to give in. As Revolver inched the disc toward the goal, Sockeye nearly created the turnover it needed. Reid Koss layed out for a huge block, but the disc deflected into the air and landed in the hands of a Revolver receiver for the score.
Despite that bit of hard luck, Sockeye stayed amped. The captains had decided that a lack of focus and too much scoreboard watching were the team’s problems, so the captains created their own scoreboard, tallying games to three to keep players focused on “right here, right now.”
At first, the strategy seemed to work. Revolver built a small lead, but Sockeye stormed back to build its own lead, 8-5 at the half. There was no let up at halftime, especially from Sewell, who was known for his fiery voice on the sideline and in the huddle. “Walk around, punch somebody,” he said, which elicited giggles from players and fans lined up shoulder to shoulder along the sideline.
Sockeye maintained its lead to 11-8, but then Revolver slowly and methodically began chipping away. Sockeye’s energy stayed high, but soon it was 11-10, then 13-12. The captains again challenged the team to stay focused on “right here, right now,” and behind that rally cry Sockeye gained a 14-12 lead, reaching game point. This was Sockeye’s chance to shed the late-game collapses early in the season and win one that counts, but despite putting another (and different) “double game point” line out there and holding the disc with a chance to win, Sockeye couldn’t convert its scoring opportunities, and Revolver was more than happy to do so on the other end of the field. Revolver won, 14-15.
The loss put Sockeye on the “dirt road,” meaning it would have to beat the Wolves, then Furious, and then the loser of Revolver versus Rhino. In the huddle, Karlinsky said, “The dirt road is where you define yourself.” So far, Sockeye 2011 had defined itself as a team that couldn’t win the big game, but if Sockeye could make it out of the losers bracket and earn a bid to Nationals, it would have earned an identity going into Nationals as a resilient team that’s able to grind games out when they counted most.
Once again Sockeye beat the Wolves easily, setting up another game against Furious. The rest is already well known among those who follow ultimate. Sockeye again earned a halftime lead and after taking Furious to 12-10, gave up four points in a row to go down, 12-14. Sockeye got one point back, but by then the damage had been done. Furious won again, and this win was decisive: 13-15.
With the sting of the just-finished season still in their eyes, the Sockeye players huddled up away from the main fields, bewildered and not yet ready to ask, “What happened?”
There were warnings all season, but no one really believed that Sockeye would fall this short, losing even before what players like to call “the game to go.” There was a sense in that circle that this team would look very different next year, but no one could quite imagine it. After everyone said what they had to say, most of them sounding more determined than ever to play for Sockeye next year and win, the Fish scattered to parking lots and cars which sped them back to their lives.
Months later, the question still hangs over the season. What did happen? How could a team that has been rebuilding for the past three seasons and finding ways to make semifinals at Nationals each year suddenly fall so short?
When I talked to Kinley last January, he pointed me to an article he wrote for The Huddle, where he talked about every team needing a “spirit animal.” He said, “We never decided our singular identity. Are we the hardworking team? Are we the underdog? What’s the idea that you carry through the entire season?” For Kinley, this identity was bigger than how the team thought of itself. It describes how the roster was formed, how the captains responded to players who didn’t feel as though their opinions were being heard, and the “technology” the team used at different points in the season, especially on offense. For all the talk about hanging together and the tight unity of the team, there were fractures that were never sealed. It’s possible that some of this is hindsight that comes with the disappointment of losing, but with so many losses after building solid late-game leads, it is clear that Sockeye’s mental strategy did not match its players.
One reason why Sockeye might have struggled was its adherence to the strategies and structures of the championship years. Certainly, much of what those teams did could serve as models for any successful team, but those loose, arrogant teams were built by athletes who were big and fast, and by skilled throwers who were unafraid to put the disc in the air. This Sockeye team was more subtle, both in its personality and its approach to the game. It’s confidence came from competence and chemistry rather than swagger—they were unselfish players who were easily absorbed into a team concept, but not good at yelling from the sideline. And many of the players who were the get-on-my-back-I’ll-carry-you-home types, were older or battling injuries, and had trouble asserting themselves at the end of games. The captains clearly recognized that togetherness and chemistry would be important for most of Sockeye’s players to play their best, but the way the captains implored them to be more energetic may have undermined that team concept. The team structures might not have helped either. All the ways the players were divided up—hate posses, pod practices, body-brain—may have worked against the unity the Sockeye captains were trying to build.
More importantly, the Sockeye leadership never found a way to make firm decisions and stick with them. Throughout the season the captains remained ambivalent about Loveseth’s role (Was he a coach? A line-caller? An advisor?), but that may have been a symptom of a larger ambivalence. In both strategy and team chemistry, the experimental approach the captains took late into the season didn’t allow the team to develop what it needed to win—resolve. The most clear example is Sockeye’s “double game point” line, which, as I noted above, took the field for the first time at Regionals, when the team should have been through with experiments. And because it was a mix of players from the offensive and defensive lines, the line clearly lacked the chemistry it needed to win those crucial points.
In the end, I think Sockeye can be stronger for having lost in 2011. Sewell sees 2012 as a fresh start, a chance to move out from the shadow of Sockeye’s championship dynasty and begin a new one, built this time on brains rather than raw talent. It’s the harder road—talent makes everything easier—but talent is a capricious force, and as the Miami Heat and the New York Yankees have shown recently, talent alone is not enough.
Sockeye 2012 will look a lot different from Sockeye 2011. At the time of this writing, Sockeye has not officially set its roster, but Nord, Gehret, Doesburg, Sneider, Childs-Walker, Montague, Fleming and Bestock are all out, and Illian is also expected not to return. Castine is rumored to be moving to DC and Aaron Talbot may not continue traveling from Bend to run with the Fish. With so many open roster spots, Sockeye 2012 will likely undergo a youth movement. Whether there are enough young players in Seattle to fill that void remains to be seen .
The region itself has also changed. Next year, Bay Area teams will join the Southwest Region, making the Northwest a wide-open race between three teams—Furious George, Rhino and Sockeye.
Whatever happens in 2012, I expect Sockeye to again be among the top teams in the country. The young players love being part of the team too much to let another season slip away and they are again being led by Skip Sewell, the most determined and tireless player-captain in American ultimate. When I asked Sewell why he came back to captain for another season he said, “I’m interested in bringing Sockeye back to being a championship-level team.” Anyone who has stepped on the field against Sockeye in the last 15 to 20 years knows that’s no idle threat.
Feature photo of Tim Gehret standing after Furious knocked Sockeye out of contention. (Photo by Scobel Wiggins)