Tom Kennedy is old enough to be Michael Kiyoi’s father.
Yet the intense 63-year-old Condors founder – winner of three national championships before most of the current team was born – took the time one recent summer afternoon to chat strategy on the phone with former captain and four-year Condors veteran Kiyoi. Like most Condors alumni, Kennedy maintains a close relationship with the current team.
The Condors are the oldest team in Ultimate, founded by Kennedy as the Santa Barbara Disc Connection in 1974 and assuming the Condors name in 1976. This means that if the captains need anything – anything – there are 38 years of alumni resources to call upon.
More than perhaps any other club team, the Condors are a family. They rely on this extensive network in Santa Barbara and around the country to offer workout planning, strategy, inspiration, and even bodies for weekly high-level pickup games. On any given day, two-time national champions Steve Dugan, Brandon Steets, or Greg Husak might offer advice from lessons learned in 2002, send an inspirational email, or provide an extra set of eyes at practice.
The Condors legacy is a source of pride for current captains Tyler Bacon, Blake Robillard, and Mark Elbogen, charged with navigating the team through rebuilding years and returning the Condors to its former glory.
“We understand that wearing the Condors jersey means representing the oldest and most storied club in Ultimate history,” Elbogen said while wolfing down a pulled-pork sandwich in a local diner after a grueling workout at San Marcos High School. “There’s a sense of pride knowing that people recognize you and respect you as the heirs to that kind of tradition.”
The weight of history means consistently high expectations: the team won national championships in 1977, 1978, 1981, 2000, and 2001 and a world club championship in 2002. But as key team members from the 2000 and 2001 championship squads retired or moved to San Francisco’s Jam over the last decade, the Condors’ performance at nationals slowly declined: the team went from 5th place in 2002 and 2nd place in 2003 to 13th place in 2008. The burden of expectations weighed heavily on Condors players as the team missed nationals in 2009 and 2010 for the first time since going through six straight losing seasons from 1991-96. The 2010 Southwest Regionals backdoor final against San Diego’s Streetgang was particularly gut wrenching, as the Condors lost 16-15 in a game they assumed was in the bag at 13-9.
In an attempt to shake the team out of its malaise and return to national prominence, the Condors underwent a controversial restructuring of the team in 2007. The Condors took on many new players from Los Angeles and practices were moved 56 miles from Santa Barbara to the city of Thousand Oaks to accommodate the new contingent. The shift was decried by members of the old guard as a change in the team’s core identity of being built through Santa Barbara-grown talent, but captains defended the move as a way of drawing in more of the region’s top players.
While the addition of LA-based players brought some success in 2007 and 2008, the team’s cohesion suffered. In 2009 the Condors moved practices back to Santa Barbara and built once more around a core group of University of California-Santa Barbara players and alumni.
Building a strong local youth movement is key to the Condors’ rebuilding plan. The team actively mentors UCSB Black Tide team members and attends their practices, and on June 16 hosted an Ultimate clinic with local high school students at San Marcos High School. “We’re trying to set up a program where we bring attention to the sport of Ultimate in middle and high school,” Robillard said. “We’re trying to build a long term community at that age level that will be a feeder to the colleges around here which in turn will be feeders to Condors in years to come.”
The return to roots and investment in youth paid off: in 2011, the Condors took second place at Southwest Regionals with a stunning Sunday performance, winning three straight games against Southern California rivals Renegade and Streetgang and Arizona’s Sprawl. Half of the current team attended UCSB (only four attended school in LA) and last year’s success reinvigorated the Santa Barbara Ultimate community.
This Year’s Team
This year, the Condors welcome back veterans and UCSB alumni Mike Brown, Nick Fiske, and Jeff Silverman. After 2008, three players returned with a grand total of seven years of Condors experience. This year, the Condors have 54 years of total experience. According to Elbogen, “there’s no question that [the returners] bring a different level of intensity to the team. They keep us fired up at all times in practice, and we’re hoping to see the same kind of effect in tournaments as we go along throughout the season.”
The team will try to utilize that veteran presence to make a strong run in 2012 and avoid a repeat of 2011 Nationals, where an inexperienced Condors team finished 14th. “When we got to Nationals there was a bit of googley eyes,” said Bacon. “It was like ‘Oh my God there’s Revolver, there’s Furious, there’s GOAT.’ We got into those games and came out a bit slow and a little bit in awe. We probably underperformed against those teams.”
According to Bacon, the team played well at Nationals last year when it ignored the reputations of its opponents and got back to playing intense, scrappy Ultimate. “We came up against a team like Southpaw and didn’t really know who they were, had never heard of them before, and just got fired up to beat them, fired up to win a game. It got a bit heated between some of our players and in the end we were the ones who were able to stay calm and focused on winning the game. We just have to know that our team is talented and experienced enough to compete with anybody.”
One look at individual statistics from the 2011 Club Championships reveals a reliable formula for the 2012 season: hucks from handler and UCSB alum Ian Meyer to captain and UCLA grad Mark Elbogen. Meyer had the 3rd highest assist total of the tournament with 21, behind Doublewide’s Brodie Smith and Chain Lightning’s Greg Swanson, and Elbogen placed 4th in goals with 16.
The Condors’ horizontal and split-stack offenses run through Meyer and Elbogen, but the focus for the season will be on developing a quick-strike offense that moves the disc on stalls two and three to prevent the defense from becoming comfortable. On defense, the Condors like to play aggressive man to man but employ a variety of zone looks to keep offenses on their toes. Elbogen believes that the Condors can field a defensive line “that can generate a turn on any offense in the country.”
The team has already found success in 2012 with newfound confidence engendered by last year’s Nationals berth and minimal roster turnover. The Condors won Cal States in Santa Cruz with a tryout squad on June 3 after a 6-0 romp through the tournament, beating regional rivals Renegade and Boost Mobile along the way.
The Condors attended SoCal Slammer in San Diego, the team’s first tournament with a full roster, on July 14-15. The tournament was an unofficial Labor Day tournament qualifier, and pit the Condors against all of their regional rivals save Revolver; it was viewed as a crucial early season checkpoint to gauge their progress. The club regional restructuring and addition of Revolver to the southwest mix means that the Condors will have to be successful against these teams during the series in order to capture a second or third bid to Nationals.
The Condors dominated their pool, defeating San Diego’s Seduction, Arizona’s Sprawl, and LA’s Renegade to earn a top seed into the quarterfinals. The team easily beat Tempe’s Brawl before eking out a tight game 14-13 against Streetgang in the semifinals, coming back from a late three point deficit to win on double game point. The Condors lost to Boost Mobile 13-12 in the finals after giving up four straight points to close out the game, but played without explosive defender Jeff Silverman (due to a Saturday knee injury) and Elbogen (two concussions sustained during the tournament). Both are expected to return to action within several weeks.
Elbogen was proud of the team’s performance, in particular from rookies Aaron Weaver, Grant Boyd, and Ian Chiles, but lamented a return of some of the inconsistency that plagued the team in 2011. “Both games against Streetgang and Boost Mobile were very hard fought, and both had a seeming winner, neither of which prevailed,” he said. “We know that we will need a more consistent performance against both at Regionals in order to make Nationals… [W]e expect to play better. For the rest of the tournament, we played fairly well in early game situations.”
The Condors are now gearing up for late August’s Chesapeake Invite in Poolesville, Maryland. The team must be successful against East Coast teams in order to secure an extra bid for the Southwest region because USA Ultimate’s ranking algorithm penalizes repeatedly “trading wins” against in-region teams.
Ultimately, the Condors hope to build on their success last year and “have a good showing in quarterfinals,” giving them the chance to make it to semifinals. “From what we learned last year, we know we’re a good team,” said Bacon. “We’re athletic and we’re just as good as everybody else. All of our players have another year of experience because most of them were in college this last year, so that’s going to help us. We beat ourselves in the beginning of almost every game last year [due to nerves and inexperience], and that’s not going to happen again.”
Dominant club teams are mostly built in larger cities like Boston, Austin, Atlanta, Seattle, and San Francisco. These cities offer the schools, work, and play options that attract up and coming youth players and college graduates, making it virtually certain that teams like Ironside, Doublewide, Chain Lightning, Sockeye, and Revolver will draw high-level players year after year. For the Condors, what Santa Barbara cannot offer in the form of big-city thrills is made up for with a laid back culture and lifestyle and a community that is fanatical about Ultimate. “There aren’t as many job offers down here as in the bay area,” says Robillard, “but if you can find a job here you never want to leave.”
Lest the sun, surf, and sand fool you into thinking the Condors are just a bunch of laid-back Southern Californians, Bacon channeled 36 years of team pride and put that stereotype to rest:
“Condors specialty – swoop and pummel.”