Sports are fun. The basic joy of play (routinely implied through the use of that word – ‘play’ – itself) is the foundation upon which all other forms of athletic pursuit are built. That said, the investment of anything more than a trivial amount of time and energy into sport comes with a proportional need to periodically reflect on progress and purpose. Simply put, you can’t pour a ton of yourself into something without occasionally wanting to gauge what you’re getting out of it in return. So, here we are again…
A year ago, on the heels of a painful end to CUC 2012, our season recap peered into the philosophical abyss of how to define success in sports, particularly when a team’s most tangible objectives don’t materialize. There, it was eventually speculated that an evolving standard of tangible achievement is perhaps the most important barometer of long-term success. More recently, a post to kick off our 2013 campaign reasoned, in part, that success in amateur sport has more than one dimension, and that there’s nothing wrong with occasionally acknowledging abstract progress as an important stepping stone to more tangible victory. Both of these arguments tacitly acknowledge another thorny issue in competitive sports: that of continuity between seasons and the difficulty in establishing, and keeping perspective on, the relative importance of immediate versus longer-term objectives.
It’s no mistake that this post, to reflect on Strike’s CUC 2013 experience, comes 2+ weeks after the tournament’s conclusion. This author (for one) wouldn’t have felt comfortable, before now, in trying to find the perspective needed to properly reflect on how this specific tournament should fit into our team’s grander narrative arc. The problem, as it relates to the ability to make bigger-picture sense of things, was that this year’s goal was particularly specific, coveted and urgent: medal at CUC and earn a bid to WUCC 2014 in the process.
That this goal was specific is obvious; that it was coveted is understandable (it would be foolish to claim that there was anything unique, among our peer group, about Strike’s desire to earn a bid); that it was urgent is, in part, readily apparent as a function of WUCC only coming around once every four years. For Strike, however, this urgency was amplified by a couple of less apparent factors: first, that this goal had been set as soon as the dust settled on the 2012 season, with everyone involved recognizing the privilege of having enough talent and momentum, as a program, to challenge for a bid; second, that a specific group of veteran roster members had resolved to make the push toward WUCC 2014 before entertaining any discussion of heading out to pasture. That’s not to suggest that failure to meet our goal would mean automatically eulogizing the geriatric contingent, nor that anyone believed this to be the only prospective opportunity of its kind (far from it). It just meant that when we ended up falling short of our objective, it became clear that there was no consensus on “what’s next?” for General Strike.
The specifics of the road to an agonizing 4th-place finish (or, even moreso, the anatomy of the particular reasons for failure) are the subject of a lengthy discussion, much of which has already transpired over consolatory beer, hands running wistfully through hair. But, for posterity’s sake at least, let’s summarize things here.
We kicked off the 2013 tournament schedule in Duluth, MN, in early July, where we got some decent reps with different combinations of personnel, new and returning. Two weeks later, at MUDI in Minneapolis, we rode improved chemistry and the deepest roster we’ve ever fielded, to an undefeated performance (with wins over H1N1 and Climax) and tourney victory. The Chesapeake Open was next, in early August in Poolesville, MD. We had specifically chosen this tournament because it promised excellent depth of competition as a final CUC tune-up; it didn’t disappoint, offering a bunch of quality games as we notched wins over Medicine Men and Heva Havas, and fell to Garuda in the semi, en route to a 3rd-place finish. We felt good, going into CUC two weeks later.
At CUC, Thursday began with wins over Refinery and Quake, but took a frustrating turn in the last game of the day, where we squandered an 8-4 half-time lead over a Grand Trunk team led by a few key workhorses, eventually falling to them on double-game point, 12-13. Friday didn’t start much better, as we unwittingly played Washington Generals to Furious George’s Harlem Globetrotters, falling 6-15 in an embarrassing display of apparent deference and bumbling underachievement. It took until part-way through the next game, against Firebird, for us to snap out of it, finally surging to a 15-4 win and a bit of much-needed momentum going into the weekend’s most important games. Next up was Blackfish, in the last round on Friday, with quarter-final seeding on the line. Both teams made relatively few errors, with Strike capitalizing first on what opportunities there were. Final score: 14-12, in our favour.
Saturday morning’s quarter-final, against a notoriously happy-go-lucky but maddeningly good Richie & Friends team, was one of the most back-and-forth, emotionally frenetic games that any of us have ever played. Down two breaks in the first half, the Richies fought back to go up 10-8 late in the game. Strike battled back to tie it at 11s. What followed was a historically long, intense and wild double-game point: a 22-minute battle of wills that mercifully culminated with Strike punching in the winning score (12-11) and keeping its WUCC hopes alive in the process.
Our semi-final, against Furious George, was a largely forgettable affair. After the first couple of Furious breaks, Strike’s line-calling was designed primarily to share the workload and conserve energy for the looming 3rd-place tilt against Mephisto. Final score, 15-4 for Furious.
So it was that we lined up against Mephisto in the bronze-medal game, with both teams acutely aware of the WUCC implications at hand. The game, itself, is a blur: on serve to 6s, with Mephisto finally breaking first at 7-6 and taking half, 8-7. Early in the second half, a combination of factors (discussion of which is, once again, redacted here) led to the wheels fatally falling off the Strike bus, as we dug a 7-11 hole that Father Time wouldn’t allow us to dig ourselves out of. Backs against the wall, we fought back to 10-11, but ultimately couldn’t muster the next break in hard cap. Game, Mephisto: 12-10. (Hats off to them; they are a quality team, led by class acts, who played a great game that day.)
Cue the introspection associated with falling two points short, in a single game, of meeting the objective which had been our singular focus for 12 months. There was the usual set of retrospective questions that could be heard in conversations over the next few days: What happened? What could we have done differently? What if…? Different, though, than post-CUC chatter of previous years, was the notable absence of immediate discussion about anything related to the future. With the aforementioned urgency of our short-term goal having consumed the team’s collective focus, it seemed to be impossible to immediately shift the discussion toward new goals and priorities.
Now, with the benefit of a couple of weeks having passed, perhaps it’s possible to take inventory of the things we do know, in an effort to start to make that shift in perspective, toward the future:
1. There’s still a glimmer of hope for a WUCC 2014 bid. Canada has been guaranteed three bids to the tournament, but the final allocations won’t be determined until later this year. We failed to meet our goal of securing one of the guaranteed bids, but the silver lining is that if Canada should happen to be awarded an additional one, it will fall to Strike. This isn’t a particularly likely scenario, so we won’t hang our hats on it, but it does present some potential for major icing on the future-plans cake as we otherwise begin to set goals for 2014 and beyond.
2. We continue to be the beneficiaries of a (stronger-than-ever) pipeline of new talent coming out of the Winnipeg junior programs. MOFO has claimed gold (last year) and silver (this year) at the last two junior CUCs. Whether or not any of this year’s Strike veterans end up falling casualty to the vagaries of “real life”, there will be a queue of frighteningly athletic and talented young players waiting, next year, for the opportunity to claim their spots. The sage veteran among us will find satisfaction in the fact that even if his own days are numbered, the program will be in great (likely better) shape after his departure.
3. CUC 2013 was a moment in time, just as WUCC 2014 would have been. Part of the experience of being an athlete is to accept that things can’t always go your way, and to constantly look for ways to be better in future. We didn’t meet our goal this year, but by no means does that trivialize all of the pride and satisfaction that we should derive from the pursuit of that goal, nor from the satisfaction that lies ahead in the pursuit of new goals.
From time to time, we’ll focus on more immediate objectives, but the pursuit of athletic success is as much (or more) about the journey as the destination. That’s why nobody retires from any sport solely because they’ve won a championship, and why success and failure are always followed equally by the desire for more success (however that’s defined). As with any amateur athlete who invests as much of himself into his sport as we do, we’ve already proven that we derive some intrinsic value out of the process, independent of tangible success. When the 2014 season arrives, we’ll have new goals and new focus, and be excited about the privilege of being in a position to compete for whatever we have our sights set on.
Oh, and we’ll continue to have a hell of a lot of fun along the way.
Feature photo by Kurtis Stewart – UltiPhotos.com