Vancouver, baby! Worlds, here we come.
I have to admit, this turned out to be really fun and exciting and even emotional. Back last year when I knew I would be “getting the band back together”, I really didn’t even care about the results too much beyond simply wanting to make sure we didn’t embarrass ourselves. I regretted a bit that it was so many years after our peak and that we had probably missed our chance to win the division owing to our advanced age (average 40, only 6 of 31 under 37). But somewhere along the way, the magic returned, people remembered how to play, and it was just like old times.
My first venture into Masters still felt like Nationals, although with four of six teams making quarters, pool play didn’t have the same urgency to it. The most notable difference had nothing to do with the division, but was the weather. Only for a brief time on Friday was it hot and sunny, and for the first time since 1996 in Plano, we got rain. I guess the relative coolness prevented us from losing people to cramps and injuries, as we managed to finish the tournament with all of our players available (although with 31, playing time was tight for some). Equally impressive is that almost all of the vintage DoGs (average age 42) who were not presently hurt (at least five of them who may have been there if not) played.
I don’t think I changed my view of the division that much. Although 8 games in 3 days is a lot, more than the others play, I think the final is just fine happening on Saturday so the “real” divisions can have their finals on Sunday. I wouldn’t have minded moving up the final 30 or 60 minutes even though that would have meant there’d be less of a showcase due to the overlap with the Open semis (oh, and the other divs, too). The field wasn’t populated with 250 pound old men, nor was it just a contest between 33 year olds. The play wasn’t perfect, but then again, neither was it so in the other divs. Pool play was much more civil, for sure. There was almost no ho stack, and not an excess of hucking (or hoping). And once the games got going, and got close, it was just like it always was.
I was very happy with how I played. In contrast to every other tournament, I felt good from the get-go (partly due to taking a Wednesday jog with a Fartlek component to get my legs loose), and except for the start of our last two pool play games, never felt anything but. I did tire by the final, but that was the eighth game of playing virtually every O point in the tournament, 80% of those as The Man. I even got my most D time at Nationals since 2002 (1/6th of a point). I felt like I was as fast as last year, maybe even faster, although it would be hard to come up with a valid reason that would be so, what with my relaxed training and practice schedule. (I will provide one, though: I played in just as many tournaments this year, and about 50% more points. This was my old style of training, playing a lot of ultimate and demanding a lot from myself at those tournaments. Nothing trains you for ultimate quite like tournaments.) I caught about half a dozen hucks, most of them from Alex on opportunity cuts off of flow. These are my favorite, because it’s all about timing and recognition and I feel smarter than everyone else. Sometimes these will come when my defender flashes off ever so briefly to poach on an in-cut, but usually I will just be playing, with my defender fronting me from the middle of the stack, and the play will just develop such that I find myself with no help defender behind me and my man still fronting me, unaware of the change. I take a step in, then go as hard as I can deep for half a dozen steps before glancing up to see if the disc is up. Another reason I like this cut better than bolting deep in the four person play is that I am more confident that the disc will be thrown because I have already assessed the mark. In the finals, I found myself making what I thought was good long cuts several times off the called play only to find the marker preventing the toss.
As in each of the previous 17 Nationals we attended, Alex was convinced that we had the much tougher pool. This time, he turned out to be correct, as all four of the teams from Pool A won their quarterfinals games. These four teams had been awfully close in pool play, with only a meaningless last round game between us and Surly being decided by more than two points. In the other pool, Old and In The Way cruised through Day 1 outscoring their opponents 45-22 (including 2nd seed and 2006 runner-up BIGS), setting themselves up as the early favorite in the tournament.
We started off with Ironwood from Arizona, a nice break-in for us. We had “only” 27 at that point, which was still our largest roster of the year, and it gave us a chance to get everyone acclimated to the tournament. About a third to half of the team had, shall we say, significantly less experience at Nationals than Mooney, who made his record-extending 23rd appearance at the Show. Two had last played in the UPA Series in about 1996, and one fellow had played at College Nationals twice in the ‘80s. And at least half didn’t play in the series at all last year (and only four made it to Nationals, three in Open). So it was good to get our legs going, try out some D’s, and made some mistakes without it costing us. DoG, 15-6. The 3 and 4 seeds, meanwhile, had a 17-16 battle right next to us.
Next up was Mileage from Texas. We knew they had a couple tall receivers who could threaten us but otherwise we felt pretty confident, if for no other reason than we didn’t recognize most of them. I guess five of the teams had cores that were players we recognized from Open (us, Double Happiness, Rage, Boulder, and Sub Zero) plus Above and Beyond, which had a smattering of post-NYNY New Yorkers abetted by more than a few “young” guys. I had told Jeff Brown, our fretful defensive stopper, that if one of them was killing us I wanted a shot if I was feeling well. He said to remind him if it came up. I did end up covering one of them after a turnover and despite being outpositioned, felt confident that I was going to sky him on a floater. I didn’t. As for the game, I already have forgotten the ebb and flow, but I think that we established a pattern of taking a 3 goal lead then letting them back into it before pulling it out at the end.
Next up, our old friends from the Bay Area, Troubled Past. A lot of people thought of this as a finals preview. It was great to see a lot of old friends. I was in Japan with four of them (O’Dowd, Masa, Switzer, and Lippy) back in 1994 as part of a series of clinics that the Japanese federation sponsored to improve the game there. I told Masa that with their successes at Worlds last year, perhaps they will be coming over here now to give clinics. (I should probably write about that trip sometime.) The team also featured Billy and the Worm, two fellow Short Fat Guys who we tried to recruit for our team before they lied to us and blew us off, and a handful of other vets. Following the pattern of the previous game, we got up 3 before giving it back. Ten yards away from the win, I had a Forch moment at 14-13, dropping a short swing pass when I got stuck between pancaking and rim-catching. Instead of ending it and getting an extra half-hour for heckling and the beer garden, we had to play another five points. Double game point featured an exciting play, with receiving stud Alec Ewald misplaying a huck in the end zone, then burying his head in his hands (I had to laugh at that one even with what it meant), before Bickford got the block and we converted for the win. The game was remarkably low-key and friendly despite the history and the significance (I suppose that is a difference from Open Nationals).
This pretty much clinched the pool for us, requiring only that we win one of the games on Friday, and also provided a good setting for the World Series game that night. We had 11 rooms at one of the condos on the Bayside, right next to the Palm Bay Club, where we ventured over for some hot-tubbing. We got a little bit lucky finding that place as we didn’t make the reservation until the Thursday after Regionals, but the rate was good and we had all of us together, plus we didn’t have to worry about drunken yahoos on the beach.
Friday’s first game was against Boneyard from Raleigh, who would have to beat us and 2-1 Mileage to make quarters. Finally during this game the sun came out, and I applied sunblock for the only time of the weekend. We wanted to open up the rotation again after two consecutive tight games. Alex wanted to get his calf massaged by the Boston Ultimate trainer (a friend of ours who has played summer league with us) and figured he could only do it during a game, so he ran over there partway through the first half and delegated the offensive subbing to me. For the next 20 minutes, I had lines ready, switching players in and out depending on whether they were in on the D point, but the D kept scoring. I finally managed to call a line moments before Alex got back, and we scored. With nothing left to prove, I returned the reins, and we cruised to victory and locked up first place.
This set up a trap game for us against Surly, who was also locked into their position.(there could have been a three-way tie for 3rd, but Surly would have taken the second spot on head-to-head). Even though it shouldn’t matter, a loss in that game can have a carryover effect to the next round. So we started off this one treating it normally, and only after they pulled their top players and we opened up a good lead did we relax a bit. The 15-8 final score was meaningless for prediction (but good for the RRI!).
After an extra half hour break, we played our quarterfinal against Philly’s OLDSAG. No matter how big your roster is, if another team’s is bigger, you can make fun of them, and Philly’s 37 man outfit provided us some chuckles as well as 1000 post-game handshakes. There were intermittent sprinkles in the first half to go with a steady quartering wind (I wonder if they can rotate the fields 45 degrees next year so the games will be a straight cross-wind instead). The game was chippier than any of our pool play games, probably because something was finally at stake. Several calls that had opponents groaning, although I’m hard-pressed to remember any of them now except for some point blocks. We broke early to take the lead, but we were broken at 5-5 to give it back, despite an actual layout block by me. They scored upwind against our O to take half 8-6. (Technical note: if it’s an upwind/downwind game more than an offense/defense game, then the upwind break to take half only counts as half a break since there is no ensuing downwinder. Normally, if you lose the half, you have to outbreak the other team in order to win. This game, at the time, was fairly close to the crossover point between O/D and upwind/downwind, so I knew that if the D could score upwind just once, we’d be in good position, though not completely “on serve” at that point. We’d still need a downwind D break, either immediately after the upwinder or after an upwind O score.) The rain continued in the second half, and lightning soon flashed in the distance. I waited for the horn suspending play, but it did not come for several minutes, during which we managed to get our upwinder and downwinder to take the outright lead. I was happy to avoid the horn, since I figured our chances of breaking were greater in bad weather.
So, the first lightning delay at Club Nationals since I have been around. 30 minutes, plus another 17 minutes to warm up, 16 minutes more to soft cap, then an unfortunate 24 minutes to hard cap if necessary. We began trading after play resumed, and it began to look like we might trade out to the cap (we hoped, rather than gakking at double game point). But at 14-13, fate smiled on us. We got a block about 20 yards out, with two defenders bashing into each other hard enough to require injury subs. “Mooney, Greff, you’re in!” shouted Jeff Brown. But then we learned there was a foul called on the throw. “Mooney, Greff, you’re out!” Two defensive-minded replacements went in. Play continued but was sloppy, and we struggled to keep the disc moving. After a turnover near our goal line, one of our guys pulled up lame with an aching hamstring. I found myself called in, only to hear, “Jim, we need a D handler.” So I turned around, a little confused, and starting walking off, only to learn that I was supposed to fill that bill. “Eh, how hard can it be?” I reasoned. “Sure, I’ll stay near the disc.” I was surprised to see that our opponents turned down the opportunity to put in a fresh defender when the point had already lasted 5-10 minutes. I happily dodged and weaved the disc up the field. At one point, I had the disc about 20 yards out from the goal and saw a poach in the end zone but knew it would take a hell of a throw to get it there. By the time I figured out how I had to throw it, my senses had come back and I looked instead for another 10 yard pass, and a few passes later, we had the goal and the win. The game and that point in particular are as fun a one as I can remember being part of in some time, probably since the 2002 semi.
This set up a rematch against Troubled Past at 10:30 on Saturday. If we hadn’t known them before, we knew them from the 33 point outing two days prior. We had a little advantage since we had picked up Mooney, Seeger, and Lenny. The flow of the game was almost identical to the first, but the tone was quite different. Two of them in particular seemed intent on changing the game through their voices when the disc was not in play (one through incessant celebration, the other through complaining). As I said afterwards, it made it a lot less fun to play the game, but a lot more fun to win it (I said this to one of the perps and several of his teammates as I apologized for getting a little obnoxious myself, responding in kind (though to a lesser extent) whenever one of these guys got involved; they replied that they hadn’t noticed; I also chatted about it with celebration guy later over a beer at Mr. Big’s without any animosity). So, we took half by three, and it started to look like we might even pull away, but they solved us for a while and got three breaks in a row to take the lead. We got back on serve and again got into a position where it looked like we might trade out downwinders to the cap. Then DoG blinked. At 15-15, I was having a point reminiscent of the game-winner against Philly, catching every second or third pass and immediately getting off the continuation. I caught another swing, turned and threw it right to Worm. In retrospect, I think I actually intended to throw it to him, since it was the cut I was expecting, and I also saw a flash of Patagonia red moving in that direction. Luckily for me, we got it back, maybe after another set of turnovers, and punched it in. A miscommunication throwaway gave us the disc on their half of the field, and the D guys ran it in for the emotional win and a spot in the finals, back where we belong.
We had almost three hours before the final. We called Jordan, who couldn’t make it down, so our heart and soul could take part in our excitement. We celebrated a little, reminisced a little, and then began getting ready for the big game. Although DoG hadn’t been in the finals since our last win in 1999, I do think that experience helped us prepare. I wouldn’t say that I was hyperfocused and running on adrenaline, but I really paid no attention to the outside agencies at all. I heard Doug heckling Paul one point, and I vaguely remember some other Bostonians calling to me, but otherwise have absolutely no memories of the crowd or the announcers or of doing anything other than playing ultimate. The game itself was easily our most complete game. Traditionally, our best games occurred when the D was able to score most of the time they got the disc. Looking back to the famous 1995 final where we had three turnovers and won 21-10, our D actually had just an average game defensively (9 goals allowed in 20 possessions), and our O had a good but not noteworthy game itself (10 of 13), but the difference was in converting after a turn (11 of 11). And so it was in this game, although not to the same extent (don’t have the stats yet). Our O had some kinks in it at the beginning, but we were able to avoid getting broken thanks to some nice plays by Coop. Through the game, lots of people were making plays and not many were making mistakes. From the writeup, it looks like we might have only had 5 or 6 turnovers the whole game.
The O scores to make it 14, then it strikes me that I might be deprived yet again of a championship-winning goal. At game point in our first win in 1994, I tried a difficult catch on a fouled throw and biffed it. The disc returned to the thrower, swung quickly to the other side of the field, and we (not me) scored. Since then, over 9 titles, I never caught or threw the final goal. So when I realized this, seeing how we were up by 5, I was kinda hoping to get another chance. But then we got a damn D and worked it the length of the field for the title. Well, at least it was one of my teammates who scored it, I suppose.
Surly was nice enough to share beer with us after the game. We got the trophy, donated this year by Throwback, and quickly scanned it to see the record for most consecutive titles (2, by Keg Workers 2000-2001). Pictures, drinking from the cup, hanging out, etc. By the time I was ready to go to the beer tent, it was closed. Alex and I headed to Mr. Big's for some Guinness and a car bomb and to see some friends, then off to the team dinner. I remarked that for coming into this not really caring that much, it felt awfully good and I was proud of how the team came together. Everyone was in pretty good spirits. Kudos to Jeff Brown and Alex for running subs, a difficult task with that many players who hadn't played together all that much.
Now, who to pick up for Worlds next year....