During my first full day at the U-23 World Championships in Toronto, I thought I’d be able to approach the tournament like I had every other college and club event I attended. Spend the morning looking over the schedule, pick out a few games to sit down and truly take in, and the rest of the time wander between the fields. That plan was quickly nixed as I realized that the walk between fields took an eternity. Last year’s Chesapeake Invite had a great bit of separation between fields, I remember trekking between them all with Bryan Jones and Zack Smith, back and forth all day long as we tweeted out scores. This event makes that one look like a walk in the park. This means that my coverage is going to change a bit; instead of thinking I can get an equal look at every team, while wandering around, I’ve realized that I won’t be able to get to every field and every team each day. That puts the traditional recap and preview articles of pool play out of the window, at least until the championship brackets begin and the fields used reel themselves in. I’m still going to try and get to each team, but if I don’t, I apologize. My coverage is probably going to be USA and Canada centric, if only because they find themselves on the bunch of fields near tournament central more often.
I started the day by sitting down and watched the Japanese mixed team play the Austrian team. I watched as much of the NGN Worlds coverage last year as I could, and had seen the Buzz Bullets on streams or old UltiVillage tapes before, so I was excited to see a Japanese team in action. It’s a heck-of-a-lot different live. Their speed is unbelievable. The Austrians had some very fast players; while seeing them in warm-ups and making plays during the game, that much was evident. But they didn’t have enough speed between them to keep up with the Japanese team – on either side of the gender spectrum. Japan used the speed to counter almost anything, and to drive their game plan on both sides of the disc. Defensively, this meant they played a little bit looser on their assignments, but were able to generate turns by simply giving the Austrians “traps” to throw into. On offense, this meant wreaking havoc on the zone defense that Austria was set on running all game long.
To counter the zone, the Japanese mixed offense involved their handlers more than any other zone I’d ever seen before. They were almost becoming extra poppers in how much they were coming up into the cup of the 3-3-1 setup the Austrians were running. By coming up into the cup, they forced those defenders to drop to new areas, and even took the mid-mid player out of the way, allowing wide open spaces to open up for the poppers to get the disc. But should those holes not present themselves, the Japanese still had at least one handler back at all times, and sometimes even other players – such as the wings – dropped back for dump and swing assistance as well. It wasn’t always perfect though, as Austria’s mid-mids still had a field day knocking down throws through the middle that didn’t have a receiver on the other end – part of the reason I think the Austrians threw zone throughout the entire game, rarely switching to man defense. What the Japanese did in the zone worked because they had the speed, which allowed them the ability to quickly move their pieces to new holes they generated in the zone.
After the game, I did get a chance to talk to the Japanese mixed team head coach Ryosuke Shimizu, through an interpreter (who also happened to be a player). I asked what the team was expecting of themselves going into this tournament. To my surprise, their answer centered around winning the gold – but not because of the tournament setup, but instead to enact a sort of “revenge” (it was delivered to me with a smile, I think looking for the right word – so take it like I do, revenge but not with sinister thoughts driving them) on the Australians defeat of the Japanese team during the semifinals of last year’s mixed division at worlds. The coach went on to say that they knew there were some very strong teams at the tournament, from Canada to America, and others, but they were looking to win the tournament and take home the gold medal.
When asking about strategy, and specifically about their zone offense, the coach and interpreter were a little wary about giving any information out and simply told me that the team, and country, found themselves with little height compared to the much taller teams – they mentioned the USA specifically – and said that instead, their national program desires speed above almost everything else. The one thing valued more than speed? Spirit. In Japan, they would go on to tell me, spirit is the most desired trait in every level of the sport throughout the country, and Coach Shimizu felt that his team was doing very well in bringing spirit to each game and opponent they faced. This was truly obvious during their game against Austria, from the many high-fives and smiles exchanged mid-game to the various plays on the field. After the game, the teams came together to embrace in a hug, exchange remarks between captains, and exchange gifts the most valuable players. By time they finished, players from each team were trying to talk to each other and get to know each other a little bit more. That’s some of the best spirit I’ve seen thus far out of a tournament with very high spirit.
Stay tuned for more coverage from the WFDF U-23 World Ultimate Championships here on Skyd, and follow me on Twitter (@Skyd_JLeppert) for some live scores and thoughts when I can from Toronto.
Photo credit Steve Kotvis of f-go.us