Coaching Peaks and Valleys Pt 1

by | April 17, 2018, 9:27am 0

Pat King’s article recently came across my news feed. Shortly after NYNY won the first of their five consecutive open titles (1989-1993), we got our hands on the VHS tape of that title game.

By late 1989, I had maybe eighteen months of playing under me, and I watched that tape nonstop for the better part of six months. Pat was Johnny Dawkins, Phil Ford, Skip Brown, John Kuester, Len Bias, and Jordan all in one. His passion and pace were unassailable. In the article, Pat mentions he’s coaching the men’s squad at Santa Clara University. Because this is a fact and because he was such an inspiration to me, I was motivated to look back at the eight seasons I coached and reflect on some of the moments you wish you could have back. I navigated mostly all of the peaks and valleys on the Frisbee terrain and my takeaway is all positive, yet still those times remain when you wonder how things may have transpired had the gamble gone differently. It’s pleasure and pain.

UNCW Seamen. 2011 Atlantic Coast Regionals. Wilmington, North Carolina.

The Seamen were a 3 seed behind Virginia and Virginia Tech and looking at a one bid region. On Saturday we defeated our opposition 39-12 and our first three games averaged an hour a piece. The next morning we opened with Towson at 8:30am. After our O made the score 12-4, we rolled 3 on defense in 4 possessions to close out at 15-4, but somewhere in those last three points the trouble started. Our defense started calling fouls on their receivers and the game grew real chippy. Towson resented this and rightly so. The game was essentially over and the calls were not calls our D had a habit of making and worse, they delayed the end of the game. On game point, Towson turned the disc over in our red zone and after punching it in we moved on to face Virginia Tech Burn in the semi-finals. Virginia Tech had a relatively easy go of Saturday as well, defeating their three opponents 39-17.

We opened the semifinals holding serve on our fourth try. Sizing one another up for the next few points, we quickly pulled away and had 2 times to break for 7-2 but only managed a TMF. After Burn took three tries to cut our four-point lead to three, we rolled two to take half 8-3 and one hour in we were feeling pretty good. But you’re never up by enough. Pulling and down 4-8, Virginia Tech came zone on the second point from half and then person d on the next two points and our lead went from 8-3 to 8-6. Off the third pull, they came zone again and we were able to extend the lead to 9-6, but only after three tries and the energy expended in those three tries is impossible to regain. Adding stress to that loss of energy, Burn’s women and the Towson men’s team began crowding the sideline at this point, along with a handful other schools beyond Richmond. Their seasons over, yet their hardline heckling was just getting started.

Pulling at 9-6 our D earned a Callahan and a second TMF as well. The one sideline now packed end to end with college kids in full postseason revelry feasted on this. At 10-6 we feel like we have some breathing room, but maybe the moment fueled by unruly college kids thrilled by your every mistake was too big. Undaunted, Burn’s offense scores with a few passes and they get their D back on the field. That point took thirty seconds at best for Burn and it was clean, efficient and poised Ultimate when they needed it most.

Burn must have rostered four guys at six feet tall and taller that season playing in a 4 person cup. They came with that set the next 3 points to roll 3 breaks and knot the score at 10 even, game to 12. The women’s semi-finals began at the same time as the men’s. In those games the losing teams scored a total of 8 points to the winners’ 30. In the other men’s semi, Virginia Night Train made quick work of Delaware 15-9. In separate factions they all made their way to our field. Around noon, the locals, mostly rec league all-stars and UOA sympathizers, began arriving dressed for a picnic with their coolers and strollers in tow, though their interest wasn’t directed at the Seamen as much as the forthcoming women’s final between UNCW Seaweed and UNC Pleiades, featuring future Callahan winners.

From 8-3, we were outscored 7 to 2 in essentially thirty minutes’ time. Four out of their five breaks came on one possession and those same four came transitioning from their four person cup, after mostly uncommon and uncharacteristic doinks and mishandles. Maybe it was the chippy calls against Towson catching up to us, but I’d rather tip my hat to Burn’s defense. At 10 all and receiving for the fourth point in a row, the numbers were in our favor as a fourth consecutive break was unlikely, and Burn came down in person d. We scored quickly and when the hard cap sounded during the next point, Burn’s offense buckled and we broke for the win 12-10. We were outscored 7-4 in the second half and while we advanced to play in the finals, rarely was a victory so deflating.

Winning in the hard cap left us barely any time to readjust and get over their 3 and 4 point run. By 12:30pm we had played 42 points to Virginia’s 47, but the last half of our semi-final with the crowd pressing in and the stress of Burn’s four-person cup and one bid looming in front of us was on everyone’s faces. ‘No Weak Faces’ we preached. No palms up body language. Additionally, when you are the team everyone loves to hate, you learn to place your concern on the team in front of you and embrace indifference with the team and/or teams thus eliminated. There is a degree of the NYNY factor here: you beat up on some second or third tier teams on Saturday and Sunday morning, you exchange trash talk and call the game the way you believe the game ought to be called because after all, you are not the inferior team, and then those inferior teams, because they don’t want the postseason to begin just yet and because they for the moment possess an overblown sense of what they bring to the table, sit on half empty coolers with their women’s team and 2nd and 3rd tier friends. I’d rather be starving than sit at that table; however, seven years later here I am writing an essay in hindsight and the long journey to the middle is complete – My apologies to Lester Bangs for the device.

The minor and major factors leading up to the finals vs Night Train created a perfect storm and while they advanced and took the one bid, I don’t feel that they were better that season – they won when they had to. They finished 1-3 in pool play at Nationals and 3-3 overall, and while we may not have fared better, the shadow of that one moment is still there. After receiving and going up 1-0 on our second try, we had one chance to break for a two point cushion but missed out. With six total possessions between both teams and the score even at 1s, the Ultimate didn’t get much better, or prettier. It mirrored the crowd. With their O getting 1 on the board, their D line rolled two for 3-1. We managed an easy O point for our second goal and then easy took a back seat to grind. Again, our D gained possession and we had one shot to tie at 3s but had no such fortune and a potential tie game was quickly a five-point deficit. Down 2-6 and having suffered two quick breaks, our O was put to task on the ensuing point and we fought off four break chances before turning it over in Virginia’s red zone, giving up a third straight break and to go down 2-7.

For an instant, the clouds parted and we managed a quick O point and our D was back on the field. Certainly, if our D could get a third try at a break we’d get one, and one could lead two. Pulling at 3-7, we earned a quick one and cut their lead to 3. As a coach, which way do you want things to go here? A quick point to keep up the pressure, maybe cause some finger pointing, or longer uglier points to keep their O on the field and your O off the field getting much-needed rest? If you are a guaranteed a break, you want it ugly perhaps, but there are no guarantees here, except the one that says you have one another’s back. Down five and the game beyond a picnic, we are now down two at 5-7 and pulling for the third point in a row and Night Train is looking to take half for the fourth consecutive point.

Freeze. Give me these 70 seconds back. Rest on the line and call timeout at ‘ten seconds to pull’; send all but the pulling D line to the shade, and following the timeout, turf the pull, concede the point and get off the field and in the shade with the others, with water and food and wet towels and music and a well-timed joke, recharge and refocus for the next 45 minutes. A three-point deficit and pulling at half is not insurmountable and after all, it was our home field. More often it’s not about the lead nor the margin you trail, it’s energy and keeping that energy. Up to that last point of half, the finals saw 12 points scored on 31 possessions. 19 turnovers in less than an hour. Seldom is it in Ultimate that you’re served an opportunity on a platter to bend it in a particular way to where you don’t suffer an earful from Frisbee cognoscenti adamant the game must be played this way at all times.

We aimed for the third break. Our D line was foaming at the mouth, fired up after two breaks. No bread was ever broken between these two teams and Virginia stewed for a year over us knocking them into the backdoor bracket in 2010, a game where the observers marked the score incorrectly and we had to win twice. A few passes into the point, we get hit with a TMF for backpacking. Virginia scored, spiked the disc and took half 8-5. The bulk of that half was squandered quarreling over what just happened instead of what was going to happen. Minutes later, it was 12-5 Night Train. We managed only 2 more in the second half; 2 points on 8 possessions. Virginia scored 7 on 9 possessions, both turns by their defense, keeping our O on the field. Overall, our O received 14x, scored 5x, and played defense 13x. Season over. Now leaning in with a certain alacrity only identifiable if you lived here long enough, the hometown crowd eventually enjoyed their picnic as the Seaweed dismissed Pleiades 15-3 in a game that was never close.

Unlike the next year when Georgetown rolled four on our three-point lead to knock us out in the quarters of another one bid region – Towson first on the scene and no filter on the schadenfreude, there was no road trip home with a 5th year player where you try and offer something, some perspective to assuage the emptiness. But what can you say? This year they departed as they arrived. All alone or in twos and with no practices to look forward to. Who is to say what might have transpired had we bent half-time and turned the game into something else? Would our fortunes have faded so quickly? I do know that the handful of fifth-year boys we had, boys who are now men and who went on to have decent open careers with Ring and the Flyers, deserved better than that, on that day. And that’s the trick to coaching: You want to win and you want so much for those trusting your authority and decision making, but often it’s not about scoring points.

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