5 Months of Thinking

by | June 26, 2013, 5:15am 0

It’s good to be back – I hope you missed me – I know I missed you. I had something come up this spring that needed my full attention, but it’s over so I can get back to writing. There’s no real theme here other than all the accumulated odds and ends plus a big dose of Nationals thoughts.


A lot was made of our (Oregon’s) defensive work; maybe too much. There is a ton that goes into the overall strategy for a team and without going into too much detail about Oregon’s game plan specifically, I wanted to hit on some of the issues around a defensive game plan. First of all, it isn’t just a defensive plan. Also, you should be careful; you are stepping into one of the longest running philosophical debates in ultimate – how to best play the game! On the one side is defense and the other is offense. Chaos and control, hot and cold, holistic and reductionist. This argument goes back at least as far as Boston versus NYNY. One of the seminal moments in my development as a thinker on strategy was looking at statistics from one of the classic Finals match-ups between these two giants. Boston won the retention rate going away; it was something like 94% to 89%. They had more than twice as many completed passes (almost 400 to less than 200) and they got murdered. It’s not like the control/offense philosophy isn’t successful – DoG would go on to win 6 titles and Superfly won 106 games over three years – it can work really, really well, but it isn’t the only way to play the game.

Two thoughts about turnovers.  First, when you win, you turned it over less than the other team.  Second, a turnover is only as bad as your inability to get it back, which means that not all turnovers are equal.  The most obvious implication of this is field position.  A turnover out the back of the endzone is far less damaging than one on your own goal line.  Some of the greatest club teams ever used this approach.  In their heyday, Furious George probably played the field position game better than anyone.  They’d turn it over, but to bank it, you’d have to go 70 against a nasty, physical defense.  As you increase the defensive prowess of your team (and O-line if you are split) you increase the ability of your team to play with freedom and confidence.

Oregon tried to play possession early this year, but it didn’t fit right.  Coming off of our loss in the Finals last spring, we assessed our game plan and how it impacted our Nationals performance.  We played an unbelievable number of possessions in 2012 (almost 300 in the quarters and semis alone) and by the time we got to Finals we were spent.  So it was a natural progression to try to improve our possession in order to bring down total minutes and keep us fresher.  All through the early spring we worked on this, but it wasn’t us.  It made us pinched and sour; it was like a pair of pants that doesn’t fit right.  We won, but we struggled to put teams away.  I really began to change my language as a coach starting in the semifinals of Stanford Invite against UBC:  “Shoot.  And keep shooting.”  We also talked a lot about responsibility.  I wanted the throwers on the team to take the responsibility of making the play on themselves.  Sure, they could throw a swing pass and keep their retention numbers high, but they are just passing the responsibility for making the play (and the turnover) onto someone else.  As we adjusted our strategy, our retention and efficiency numbers dropped but our conversion numbers went up.

Despite the obvious differences between men’s and women’s ultimate, I was really struck by how few of the men’s teams at Nationals set out to control the game defensively.  Part of this is technical and part is emphasis.  There are marvelous throwers in today’s college game and they set a standard of control and efficiency that is hard to match defensively.  Put simply, the impact of junior’s ultimate has been to elevate the technical ability of throwers with an obvious impact on defenses’ ability to control a game.  Still, a big part of what is going on is emphasis.  Teams stack their O-lines and roll out the scrubs for defense.  It is no surprise that O-lines aren’t turning it over; they’re playing against the junior varsity.  When everyone’s attitude becomes “let’s secure the O points and hope we get lucky on D” (thanks DK for the insight) no one is going to turn it over.

Note: Damn, this was hard to write.  It was a real challenge to pare this down to a reasonable length – there are probably 10,000 words on the cutting room floor.  If there are questions or details you are curious about, hit the comments and I’ll come around to them in a later post. 


I was blown away by the coverage at Nationals this year.  I especially liked the excellent analysis Ryan and Robyn did for Skyd and the unbelievable production of Keith Raynor of Ultiworld.  Lepler and Couzen’s work for ESPN was excellent as well – I was actually able to watch their work with the sound on – I typically turn the sound off when I am doing film work.

Beyond the quality of work is the impact it will have.  I was talking with some of the Fugue parents at our Sunday night get-together and they shared that when their daughter was in high school she watched the 2010 finals over and over again.  As I watched the footage and read the articles I was struck by the image of a 16-year-old kid watching the same footage and dreaming…

An Interesting Strategy Piece

There were three teams I saw at Nationals (Pitt men, Carleton women and UCSB women) using the Big endzone offense.  This is a system where you bring your marque big to the front of your endzone offense and let them play as a part of the 2- or 3-person dominator.  I first saw this system at Worlds in 2012; Revolver used it with Beau featured.  Revolver, Pitt (Degirolamo) and UCSB (Pitcaithley) all played this system similarly.  Once in endzone offense, they moved their big (if she wasn’t there already) into a handler position.  Then, through a series of give-and-gos and hook cuts got open and scored or assisted.  Syzygy ran it a little different.  McArdle moved to the front of the stack and provided a (usually breakside) target for the two handlers.  Every team is taking advantage of the size and athleticism of those players.  Even when their throwing skills are limited, they only need to throw dumps and swings.  There is good footage of this technique – ESPN still has semis and finals up (Pitt and Carleton) and a little Google work should get you the other two.  (Confidential to defenders in the stack: why are you guarding someone who isn’t doing anything?)

Nationals Odds and Ends

  • The fields sucked.
  • USAU’s organization was solid again.
  • The finals field was sweet…but I miss the intensity of a three-deep sideline.  People pay $1000s to sit court side at an NBA game; why would we give up that viewing experience so we can be in a stadium?
  • Fifth time in six years the deepest team won…let’s put to rest the idea that Nationals is easy because it is only two games a day.  It is far and away the most physically and emotionally demanding tournament.
  • Speaking of which, a 430 PM prequarter followed by an 830 AM quarter is brutal.  It’s no surprise those teams went 0-8.  This is one place where the collision between the old-school need to get in a lot of games and the new-school need for promotion needs serious resolution.  A scheduling shift is most likely needed; the format manual is getting a little long in the tooth.
  • UNCW wins Best Jerseys for their  green and yellow cotton tie-dyes and Most Vintage Performance for their nasty defense, tie-dyes, dreadlocks and SotG controversy.  If only they’d brought the dogs, cigarettes and pickup trucks….
  • Best Region ended up a toss-up between the NC and the NW.  NW got the win, but NC had two semifinalists.  The NW went 16-8 (0.667) and the NC went 17-11 (0.607).  Guess we’ll have to argue more next year.

Food for Thought for 2014

Like clockwork, the bid-allocation-system-and-algorithm-are-broken articles and arguments pop up every March.   Generally speaking, the system works pretty well and passes the eyeball test year-in and year-out. However, it is very vulnerable to flaws in the data, particularly insufficient data and lack of connectivity.  That was readily apparent in Victoria’s acquisition of a fourth bid for the Northwest.  They were a mere 9-1 (6-1 after the recalibration) and the bulk of those wins were January victories over U-23 depleted Southwest teams.  The effect was to float Victoria above the top of the Southwest, wherever that was. 

There is a pretty simple solution: more games.  Require fifteen or eighteen for Nationals bids.  (Most bid earners did this anyway.)  That will push National contenders to play at least three tournaments and greatly reduce the likelihood that something weird will happen.

What’s coming up

  • Colin Camp asked me, “What do you think of all the ESPN, MLU, AUDL stuff?”
  • Taylor Kanemori wrote this, this happened and rumors about a junta of elite women’s players swirl around and around.

Feature photo by Alex Fraser – Ultiphotos.com

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