Chatter filled Nova HQ; a rustic, holiday home in Alpine Hanmer Springs, New Zealand. When teammates weren’t offering-to-help-cook-but-hoping-you-won’t-actually-say- yes, conversation invariably turned to the plays of the day. A highlight reel without the annoying accuracy of video replay. Just fisherman’s tales, player’s vivid imaginations: truthful but exaggerated. Fishermen tell good tales, but we told better ones.
The atmosphere was relaxed, even complacent, but ramping up quickly. People were in the special kind of mood that comes after beer two, and before beer four kicks.
“This guy, this guy here threw the meanest hammer…
through the gap, sorry sucker, that’s MY disc…
my foot block this, hand block that…
That D was ‘Eh-Huh-pick’…
Above the tales a nylon stringed guitar accompanied a ukulele. Hamish had brought the guitar, but it belonged to the team, and it would change hands many times that night. Tuned low, it offered a bassy constancy to the ukulele’s high strings.
Talk flowed in time, joining the progression of beer and pasta sauce . Songs and hero talk melded into the unique sound of a new team getting to know itself. We were a team yet to hang out together, to share the mutual exhaustion and pride from a successful first day. This was a true test. An opportunity to break down this last barrier to discover teammates.
Belting out an off-key rendition of “Wonderwall”, we felt entitled to blow off the steam that had been percolating from months of training. It had been a killer day, and there was a sense that, even though everything hadn’t worked perfectly, the irons were being wrinkled out and we could do it. We could win the ‘Chumpionship’.
The Chumpionship was our build-up tournament for the South Island Mixed Nationals; the team’s milestone goal. It was the chance to test our new mixed team against stiff, but less serious, competition. Our team, Nova, was a mixture of social grade teams that had produced experienced players who lacked the top level guidance necessary to compete on a national and international level. New Zealand’s ultimate community is small, and room at the top is limited. Most of the clubs in Wellington were groups of friends who ended up playing together. As years went by some became talented, while others dropped off the radar, but few had gotten past that gap between, ‘elite-social’ player and ‘semi-pro’. The goal of Nova is to take those who rose through the ranks of the social circuit, bring them together and give them the common goal of providing Wellington with a new competitive team.
We heralded from different teams with different dynamics; from the flashy but skilled Massive, to the over-the-top-bring-and-bring-back-the-biff, Penultimate Warriors. In between that there was Snuffleupadisc, who has been proving a strong contender at social grades, and the younger, fitter and more excitable Wellington High School players who would soon be playing out of High School leagues. We had been training together with leadership from some of New Zealand’s top-level players: Tom Young, John Foughy and Andy Neal. We had all improved a lot and it was starting to show. It felt good. We felt good. One more day to go, Semi-Finals then, with a bit of luck, the Finals. The first finals for most of our players.
But thoughts of semi-finals and possible finals could wait for tomorrow. The chorus for “Free Falling” floated through the superheated air and I was in the mood to sing. We all joined, stammering over the words, gearing up for the chorus and the chant:
“Free-Falling, and I’m
….Free falling, and I’m….
Free falling, and I’m….
While the chorus died down, and the opening chords for another version of “Wonderwall” were plucked, I reflected on day one.
“We will beat every team here,” Tom Young insisted in the pre-game huddle. He never took the centre of the huddle, instead linking arms at the side, but his place as our leader was absolute. He is the rare form of exceptionally talented, yet humble player who inspires confidence, and his words set the tone our day’s success.
Despite the butterflies of players new to tournament play, we easily won the first game of the tournament. Our team was well prepared and our diamond zone defence imported from the States was unknown to many New Zealand players. Gale force winds helped suppress their offense further as it lashed through the gully formed by the two ski fields, chilled by the snow.
Wellington, is renowned for its terrible weather. The wind blows all day everyday. It ruins picnics, wrecks umbrellas, and generally makes it a bit shit to live there. Strong winds had been a regular feature at our practices and made us like boxers training at altitude, our throws now suited to games in the searing winds. So, backed by our natural ally, we rolled the team to the final point.
Complacency can be deadly and has infected many a team holding a seemingly insurmountable lead. It’s not nerves. The intensity of the game is just sucked out. You stop worrying about the score or what you are doing. There’s always one more point. Last minute victories have been snatched by teams able to sense an opponent’s complacency. But not in this case. Despite having our ten point lead shaved to just four, we woke up to finish the job.
Game two proved much easier. Annoyed at the intimation of complacency, we came out looking to throttle the game, and our rival team had no answer to our defensive looks. We mixed different zones, trying some sets for the first time. They proved effective, and as the cold conditions worsened, our game improved. Our diamond defence, and 1-2-3 wall, forced high throws that were eaten by the shifting winds. We kept our throws low, trusting the wind gusts to pick up the low, powerful shots to a catchable height.
Throwing into the wind takes practice and skill. Mostly practice. But with enough practice you can whip passes through headwinds. It’s all about timing, spin and putting all your weight behind the throw. I had a personal reason to enjoy the weather conditions, Ultimate is a game that is not friendly for 300+ pounders. Unlike rugby, or NFL, there are few places where inertia becomes an asset. The only place is the large throws, the ones you need all your weight behind. Like the middle of the order batters like Prince Fielder, this is the one place where you gain an edge. That and the extra traction the sprigs give you in wet grass,thanks to the added bulk. The wind also prevented handlers throwing long, floating throws, making the game was much tighter, which is what I wanted. It reflected in the result: 13-4 with a number of upwind points.
In game three, the tidal wave we had been gleefully surfing came crashing down, and we were treated to a bit of reality. We faced a team more experienced and hungrier than us. Our two easy wins bolstered our ego and gave us no premonition of challenges. On top of our inflated sense of self the weather was improving steadily, threatening to neutralize our natural edge. But we had plenty of speedsters to fill in the gap. My notes stated, “We lost the game off the field, and played it out on the field. Something was off about the team but what? Throws were missed, targets overshot or missed, catches dropped. It was a struggle to watch.” Just before half time, Tom Young called us into a huddle. It might not have been the most inspirational speech, but it worked a little magic. We managed to rally and keep the game at a respectable score, but most importantly our spirit was intact. Now there was nothing left to do but head home, lick wounds, drink beer and listen to the guitar. We had lost a match, but had done enough to make the semis… just enough.
The next morning the house was in a state of disarray, and amidst the chaos of cleaning, Jono Cooke was worried. “When do we have to be at the fields again guys?” he asked for the third time.
I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit at the way Jono looked. His woolen hat, over-sized hoodie and youthful expression made him seem just a kid before the big game. An oh-so-British accent gave him a boyish voice which only added to the illusion. He expected to be at the fields at 9, but we were still cleaning up. He was worried we wouldn’t make the match in time and wanted to make sure we all knew we didn’t have much time to get to the fields. But he was in the right. The mood was too relaxed and we needed a reminder of the work that we had to do that afternoon.
Jono had become a vital cog in the Nova gears. His season had been hampered by injury, but now he was fit and brought an attitude to the game backed up with a bank of talent. Nova training, and guidance from our mentors had been immense and he was now a strong force on the field. He had booked flights to three other tournaments in the next few months, including a trans-Tasman match in Australia – New Zealand’s arch enemy at everything. This was his moment to shine and practice for the bigger tournaments, and he was not going to miss it because we were slow.
We made it with thirty minutes to spare. Just enough time to warm up and prepare for the semi-finals. We were playing the top seed; this game would be our toughest challenge yet. Unfortunately my first point would be my last thanks to a stark reality check in top level ultimate, even in a ‘chumpionship’.
Opposite us were ‘Big Beard’, ‘Shaggy’, ‘Stubs’, ‘Brownie’, ‘Fast Drew’, ‘Snot Top’ and a host of others hastily assigned makeshift call signs by my teammates. Nicknames in Ultimate are an interesting phenomenon; a combination of quick-reference observations laced with a slightly derogatory, but good-natured digs about physical traits and clothing. In the small New Zealand circuit, nicknames have a habit of sticking until you reach a certain level of skill and then the method takes on a more respectful tone; Tall Ryan replacing Green Pants. A title of knighthood conferred on those who have proven themselves. Our opponents from Nelson had their share of such heroes, like Fast Drew, but we had ours as well.
I drew Brownie and set about sizing him up. It seemed even, and I was positive I could keep him out of the zone and maybe pull out a D or two. The pull went up sailing into the windless morning, to hang above the back right corner of the end zone. It was a beautiful day, the snow had melted on the hills, there was no need for layering fleece over fleece over wool and tramp of running cleats filled the air as we took positions. Their offence scrambled, moving the disc to the middle of the field outside their end zone before our first mark was put on.
Home force. Their 3-4 vertical stack versus our man on. Brownie took place second in the stack. First cut. Fast Drew held the disc, faked and moved it yards up to the broken side handler. ‘Big Beard’ quickly moved it to up field to ‘Shaggy’ who fired it down range to Fast Drew. Fast Drew was already tearing up the field today and he offloaded quickly back to Shaggy before making a quick one-two cut for the return pass. My man saw an opening and headed in field but I was able to cut off his option. Frustrated he trotted back to the rear of the stack. Two passes later Brownie caught me napping. He got a pass off downfield and took off long before re-joining the stack. I followed but saw an opening as the disc came back to centre field.
Our defense was scrambling now, the force was not holding and things were not going well. The momentum had shifted and a team this good felt it. Fast Drew picked up the pass and I saw his next option. Shaggy. The same one-two play as before. I left my mark for the poach and sure enough the pass came, sailing high and I was on my way to it.
But I misjudged. The wind that had kept passes low the previous day was gone, and the calm allowed for a lot more play with the disc. It whizzed over my head and Shaggy picked it up and swung to Beardie, whose option down range was my mark, Brownie. Tom Young saw the play and picked up the free long option leaving me to mark Fast Drew. Fast Drew picked up on the mis-match immediately and took off in high gear, beating me long while all I could do was shadow his shoulder. He turned sharply. I lost my speed. He scored in the top right corner of the zone.
I trotted off the field into the anonymity of the uniformed sideline dawning on the reality of the situation. This team was too fast, too quick and would tear us up. Being a big unit in Ultimate means needing factors like the wind to work in my favor to negate disadvantages in mobility and speed. So, while I am am able to hold my ground well enough in social grades, meeting a top level team on a perfect day was an eye-opener. Suddenly, I wasn’t ready for this. The point had me wheezing at air. I was unused to this level of intensity and my lack of fitness would prove a hindrance on the long points.
Tom seemed to agree. ‘I don’t want to be a dick about this, but we are playing against really young guys…so I’ll have to call some specific lines. But we still want you here to cheer on the team and learn.” I got the message.
It was one thing to think that you are not ready for a tournament, but another to hear it from a captain you respect. The feeling is almost indescribable, but reactions to it depend on what sort of person you are. Some get angry, others defensive, some bargain and others storm off swearing vengeance on a team that turfs them out. A couple may even get violent and let things get ugly on the side-line. What really stung was the feeling that all the training hadn’t been enough. All the sprint drills and the throwing practice for nothing. It hadn’t brought me up to the mark needed. The feeling of exclusion was also new, a throwback to the days of the school yard, the last kid picked for the team. It could get to you, if you let it.
But then, that would be equally childish. What is needed in this situation is a clear head. I had seen first-hand the result of my lack of fitness and knew that I had let myself down in the last few weeks. There is no room to do that at this level, but you can never see that until you are there, confronted by people who went that extra mile.
It was the right call, and I owed it to the team to let the others who had sweated more than me show New Zealand what they had. My part, for now, was complete. After a bit of sulking –I’m not completely un-childish–I took to the sideline to cheer on the team, or call out from lines. Anything I could do to contribute other than boots on the ground.
What followed was the most exciting match of ultimate I had ever watched. The score board flicked over one by one, neither team gaining more than a one point margin. 12-12 at hard cap. Other teams long finished, started to wander over, responding to the growing tension. It turned cagey as every player fought off the mounting inner pressure, where every mistake could be the one that sees your team off. Fouls were called. Some people cheered. Others booed and brayed. None of the crowd supported either team; they just lost themselves in the moment. Finally a throw went up. We could sense this was it. An inside out scoober. A Hail-Mary school-yard throw from Andy Neal to Hamish whose defender raced not expecting such a silly pass; he was on the back foot but moving fast. Hamish went up. The defender went up. Both players matched equally for height. They both went up. The world stopped.
It’s hard to say if Hamish actually wanted it more, or if, when statistics are stripped away and sports are reduced to their moments, an unexpected throw or the gamble of catching someone off guard just works. Either way he plucked the unexpected disc out of the clear morning nimbly, securing our place in the finals.
The Final? People don’t want to talk about a final they lose. In some ways it feels that it would have been better to slide into third unnoticed. We didn’t take away the trophy, but we had all taken other things. New players had learned about playing in front of a crowd. Others had worked on defensive strategies or perfected a throw. Players always have their own lessons. I learned that I need to lose 20 kilograms to keep up at this level and focus on explosive sprinting rather than long distance running.
In a way, maybe it was better that we came second. It could have been easy to fall into that bad habit we had formed in the first game, complacency. Now we had the chance to set goals and train hard to take out the South Island Championships. My new goal, is to leave bench warming to others. I want to be there in the next final. We all want to be there. You could see it in my teammates’ faces after the finals. We all wanted to experience that magic moment for ourselves, take that match winning catch, like Hamish with ‘that catch’. That last magical catch, where the world stopped as if to draw out the sensation and savour it. A catch that no fisherman could exaggerate. We want to grasp that feeling again. The feeling of running onto the field to hoist a Nova player high after a heroic play. We wanted that feeling again. We will be drooling for it at the South Island Championships and carve a place for our new team into New Zealand Ultimate. That feeling of being together, united, excited and after the same goal. That mix of adrenaline and exhaustion.
That feeling of free falling.