Monday, November 2, 2009

I love this game...

...and in situations like this I really miss writing about our sport the way I used to. After countless texts and "ahh, you're not here" phone calls (thanks Shep), I just gotta talk shop.

Congrats to Rob and the Ultivillage crew for putting together a great show. I can't speak for the NW, because I heard poor things, but the live feed was a success in my neck of the woods despite several hiccups. Lucky for the Open division they were last to play because I think by then, everything was sorted out. I had my laptop rigged to the projector in my lab conference room and caught the finals on a 70" screen, it was spectacular.

As for the game itself, I was thoroughly entertained, but surprised. Going in, I was expecting a 17-16 barn burner much the way Sockeye and Jam duked it out back in 2004. That game had two great teams that had never been champs and I thought Revolver vs Chain would prove to be a truly emotional game where both teams gave everything they had, culminating in a Universe finish. Oh well, a writer can dream.

Instead, we saw the perfect example of what happens when the best Club team plays the best College team. What do I mean? As any elite club team knows, you have to rely on depth and assignments in this game and Chain did exactly that. Rob Barrett, Josh Markette, Joel Wooten, Asa Wilson, Zip, Peter Dempsey, Dylan, etc... all did their one or two jobs and successfully scored 15 points. What about Revolver? Well they did what a lot of college programs do, put their best 3 guys out there and hope for the best.

Many will say that the crucial turning point in this game happened right after the first half when Chain came out and scored on O and then rattled off 3 breaks to go up 12-7. However, in this writer's opinion, this turn around was brewing since 1-0, Revolver.

The first point of the game Revolver received and their glory line of Mac, Beau, and Cahill moved the disc effortlessly and scored the opening point. What happened after that? They stayed on the field. Chain received and put up an ill advised huck which Robbie D'd. Did Revolver convert? Nope. Chain gets it back works it up to 1-1. What about Robbie, Mac, and Beau? They stayed on the field and worked it up nicely, but after they scored, what happened? They stayed on the field.

As I was watching, I kept thinking to myself, "Umm, so we're just going to abandon our O/D assignments? Mike Payne is really going to go with the hype and ride his All-Stars the whole game?" And that is more or less what happened. Revolver moved things nicely for the first half, but sooner or later they were going to run into chemistry issues, mainly because no one else was playing. Halverson? Cochran? Grant? Revolver is known for their depth and after 15 first half points I barely saw any of the veterans that have actually been through a Sarasota with Revolver.

What is ironic is that in his half time interview (previously recorded) Mike Payne made a point to mention that every player was going to play a role in the Finals and in reality that was complete BS.

How did Chain capitalize? They did a great job of utilizing role players. Take Joel Wooten. Joel is known as the 2nd fastest man in Ultimate behind Kittridge and what do you think his job was? D Beau once. All you have to do is D Beau one time and you send a huge message to the other sideline. And that is exactly what he did. A huck goes up to Beau, Wooten gets a hand on it early and next thing you know Revolver is thinking to themselves, "Shit, that wasn't supposed to happen". And what does Joel have to do on the turn around? Nothing. Maybe he gets the disc once or twice, but screw it, he did his job. Let Lokke or Dempsey or Runner convert the break and they did, like 5 out of 6 times because that's their job.

It's funny, when Beau first came out, I used to describe him as the "Michael Vick" of the sport and what's funny is that he has (d)-evolved into exactly that. You have a player who has incredible speed and athleticism, but if a team builds a strategy around just that, they are screwed. Much like what the Bucs used to do to Vick back in the early 2000's, smart and athletic teams will adjust. Beau is the biggest scouting liability on the planet and Revolver just played into Chain's hands.

Which also got me thinking about Bravo. How did they use Beau? Back in 2007, their best year, rather than rest the entire offense and defense on his shoulders, they put him squarely on D and then used this incredible pick up named David Popiel to run off their deep scores. No one knew anything about Popes because they were paying too much attention to #50 and before they knew it, Popes had 5 goals and Beau got Bravo 5 crucial Ds. Brilliant!!

Anyway, Beau is an incredible player and has evolved immensely since I first saw him at SW Regionals back in 2004. However, Revolver did not need to put so much emphasis on him and Mac (the second biggest scouting liability on the planet). Eric Halverson is a gargantuan threat and he never saw the field. Same with Martin Cochran.

In any event, by the time the second half came around, I think Revolver's game plan was completely compromised. All the chemistry and synergy that had been developed over the last 6 months was out the window and what happened? They completely broke down. Miscue after miscue after miscue and before you know it, you're down three or four breaks late. Much like the College National Finals this year, I don't think Chain wanted to win this way, but when you have a team completely collapse, they were probably stoked to have the pressure off. I was very disappointed with Revolver's approach and I think it is a lesson to stick to the game plan. Much the way Sockeye abandoned their assignments when they lost to Furious at Worlds, Revolver sacrificed their confidence when they forgot what got them there in the first place.

I will say there were a lot of high points in this game however. I have seen it a lot but the way Mac uses his length and upper body strength to work the break side is incredible. He had a gorgeous up wind huck that looked like it was thrown indoors. Robbie also had a great game anchoring Revolver's O-line and he had as many great D's as picture perfect hucks. Beau also showcased his usual talents with an amazing sky-catch D over Dylan and a few deep sores.

But Chain was simply spectacular. I loved NOT seeing a single player take over because that is how you win at this level. Everybody wanted to see Zip reel in 10 layout Ds, but aside from his amazing layout score off a macked disc by Wiseman, he was relatively quiet. I already mentioned Wooten's D on Beau and another great D was Dempsey's almost callahan. You could see the frustration on his face as if he just dropped a disc on offense and I kind of chuckled to myself knowing what kind of athlete/competitor Dempsey is in real life.

I was also thrilled to see Asa Wilson finally show the Club World how great he really his. Back in college he was Black Tide's offense and at UCSD we used to always scratch our heads trying to figure out how to stop him. It was a shame to see him dodge Club Open for so long, but I was excited to see him suit up for Chain last year and I think he was Chain's best goal scorer in the Finals. He is also a class act, much the way Franchise is, and despite the fact that he played for Tide, it was tough to dislike him.

Because of Chain's run to start the second half, the game really lost a significant amount of steam so I focused on other factors, like Sammy CK and Jolian. Apparently they are both going to be in Atlanta next year and I don't even need to point out how powerful that could be. Unlike Revolver (and probably Ironside) Chain did a great job of utilizing their pick ups but not to a fault. They managed to find a balance between fresh and established talent and I think 2010 will be more of the same. Yikes.

And going in that direction, how awesome is it to see a team NOT from the Northwest win a championship? You've gotta go back to 2001 with the Condors winning their second title to see that and what's even better is that this is the first Club Title for a Southern Team, unless you count Tunas (St Louis '84). Great for Chain, I hope they do it again next year.

Team Thoughts
Streetgang - I think seeing SG beat Ironside was my personal high point for Nationals. I was actually in a Bloodborne Pathogens Safety Course when it happened but when they won, I got about a dozen texts, one from an SDSG player, and my boredom was immediately replaced with absolute elation. Too bad I couldn't show it. They had another great win over GOAT later in the tournament and I was really happy to see them get a few wins after going 0-7 the last time out. I think their slip up against Pike highlights their "newness" to the National scene. Nationals is a brutal tournament and relying on Wormser and Dollar is nice, but it won't last in a 4 day tournament. Oh well, at least they beat Pike the 2nd time around.

Doublewide - I know that Doublewide had their sights sent on Semis this year but seeing them finish 5th gave me a lot of personal joy. For starters, Kurt was suited up, limping, but suited up, and in writing my cancer article about him I learned how strong a man he is and seeing him out there was really amazing. I was texting with him back and forth on Friday night and he seemed a little disappointed with his performance which isn't surprising but it just echos his intensity and commitment to excellence. I also loved seeing Dub battle it out and take 5th because that might give them a shot at Worlds which I hope to attend with Mexico in Prague next year. If everything works out I'll get to party with my Austin Bro's like Matteo and Matty C again and maybe even meet Kurt in person.

Ironside - Much like Revolver I think Ironside's lack of success at Nationals was because they depended too much on their new personnel, but I think this was more out of necessity. In watching them at Regionals, I realized that six players on their O-line (Jimmy Foster, Peter Prial, Matt Rebholz, Jeff Graham, Ryan Todd, and Trey Katzenbach) never played for DoG, which just goes to show that this team has a lot of work to do and the loss of Forch cannot be overstated. Because Forch's heyday was before Ultivillage and because he only played in the NE, his noteriety doesn't reach as far as someone like Chase or Beau, but I firmly believe he is one of the most mentally tough players in the history of the sport. I think the best parallel example for him is Kobe Bryant. Both came out young and won championships with established teams and over the years battled with mediocrity while still being the best in the game. When time is running out and a clutch play is needed, like Kobe, Forch has ice water in his veins and he makes a huge play like its nothing. Also, like Kobe, Forch returned to greatness once team personnel issues improved, but had Forch stuck around for '09, I think Ironside would have lasted a little longer and he might have gotten another ring. It looked like Jeff Graham was his replacement this year, being the athletic underneath cutter that sent big hucks to Foster, but realistically, the swagger that Forch had will never be replaced. When he took the field he had the confidence of a man that had won the NE 10+ times not to mention a few MVP and National championships. Jeff has only won it twice and has done so only by joining DoG, not beating them. But they still have one of the deepest teams in the country and will be back next year.

Sockeye - It used to be that having a top to bottom program all but guaranteed you success in this game, but I'm beginning to think that talent transplants are giving Juniors/Feeder Teams a run for their money. Sockeye is an institution in Seattle, but I wonder if having home grown talent is enough to win. When the Fish took the Ultimate world by storm '04-'07 they did so on the back of some major pick ups and despite the fact that guys like Castine, Sharkness, and Rehder have developed well in their program, the talent flow is moving away from Seattle and I think thats the rub. Tim Gehret moving to Emerald City to win a ring was one of the last big pickups Sockeye had and as long as people like Sammy CK, Chase, and Kubalanza take off, no farm system in the world is going to get them back to the Finals. Free Agents bring playing experience that local talent cannot muster simply because they are local. Playing elsewhere gives a player so many intangible weapons and while I think Sockeye has depth for days, they are going to need something else to get back to the Finals.

GOAT - I think calling GOAT's performance at Nationals poor is an understatement and I think Toronto is doing some serious gut checking. GOAT rose to contender status in steady year to year increments but back-to-back quarters play-in games is not what a contender should be doing. Hassell's BPiG status (Best Player in the Game) is a few championships early and I think until he wins the NE Region and/or makes the Finals, that title still belongs to MG. I don't know if they simply looked past teams like Truck Stop and Street Gang, but with pick ups like Sam Kennedy and Derek Alexander, it is almost inexcusable. Hopefully they sort it out but right now they are in the same position as Bravo wondering, "What happened to us and what the hell are we going to do?"

Bodhi - 6th times a charm.

Johnny Bravo - Much the way talent pickups can help teams, losing talent has an equal and opposite affect. However, of all the teams to underperform this year, I think Bravo is in the best position. Losing Beau, Mac, Popes, Whitaker, Deaver, Chicken, etc.. is huge but to challenge Revolver the way they did and still contend sends a great message. They seem to struggle at the power pool level with back-to-back 0-2 showings and quarters play-in situations but I think that ties in with losing so many veterans. This was Hylke and Pebbles' first year with Bravo and I think with the continued success of Mama Bird, they'll be fine.

Fury - Jesus H Christ. For the generation before me, it was DoG, before them it was NYNY. However, for the current generation, there is no team better than Fury. They have 6 titles since 1999 and this was their 4th in a row. Everyone thought this was Riot's year but Matt Tsang and the rest of the Bay Area crew had other plans. Their performance yesterday speaks for itself and I do believe that their success has yet to peak.

Axis of Chase Ville - I've got mixed feelings about the mixed results. I think the husband/wife story of Chase and Anna was cute but I did not want to see the hype come to fruition. Seeing a single player make such a huge impact on a team is exciting but I think it compromises the legitimacy of the division. Whether or not Chase was actually that big of a factor is irrelevant because this championship will always be remembered with him in mind. I kind of like that Beyondors couldn't pull the same move in Masters and I think this example shows that from a competitive standpoint, Mixed is the lagging division with the least amount of parity.

Shout Outs
I've got a few shout outs to give. Congrats to my dear friend Jonny Miles for making Natties this year with LA Metro. He along with several other former Pleasuretown players have come up empty many times at Regionals and now they've got some Sarasota experience under their belts. Congrats again, I wish I could have been there to party with you guys.

I've also gotta give some love to Jeff Wodatch who left the confines of Colt 45 to play for Truck Stop this year. Congrats on taking out Ring at Regionals and good work making Power Pools and finishing 9th.

And to Korber, did you have fun at Nationals? Can you come back to us now?

I hope everyone had a great season and is somewhat healthy. Congrats to all the champions. Hopefully my broke ass can make it to Santa Monica in January for Lei Out.

just my thoughts

match diesel

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Cancer in the Clubhouse

The real kind.

When I used to hear the word impervious, I would think of someone like Kurt Gibson. Back in 2006, Florida took the Ultimate World by storm and Kurt, along with Tim Gehret, Jon Windham, Cyle Van Auken, Bill MacQueen, Brodie Smith, and Gray Kirkmeyer, redefined the term "Tournament Shape". They played close to every point of every game in the sweltering heat of Columbus, Ohio, and when the heat index sucked the life out of most flatballers, they played harder and smarter.

However, when I think of Kurt Gibson now, different words come to mind. Tenacious, unflappable, admirable, and positive are just a few and despite their meaning, these words only paint the faintest picture of the man Kurt Gibson has become.

I can remember vividly the last time Kurt was in the spot light. It was about 16 months ago at the 2008 UPA College National Championships in Boulder, Colorado. Unlike 2006, Wisconsin would come away that Sunday with the National Title, but Kurt was at the top of his game. In his college career Kurt won a National Title, played in 2 National Finals, 3 Semi-Finals, finished top 3 in the Callahan voting twice ('07 and '08), was AC Freshman of the Year in 2004, and made All-Region 3 times ('06-'08). His success also extended into the club sphere with appearances at Club Nationals with Florida's Vicious Cycle ('05 and '06) and Boston Ultimate ('07), not to mention his dominance at Potlatch in 2006 with the MLU experiment where he and fellow Florida teammate Tim Gehret lead all participants in Fantasy Points.

But what most do not know is that despite his talents and physical prowess, inside Kurt's body was an oncogenic time bomb waiting to go off. Ironically, the very genetics that helped him break into the Ultimate Elite, also dealt him a mortal wild card, a high propensity for cancer. See in Kurt's family, cancer is not a word, it is a mainstay. On his maternal side, Kurt has lost his grandfather and two of his Aunt's to cancer and what coursed through their veins was ready and waiting in his.

After graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in Economics, Kurt took a job in Dallas, Texas with IBM as a Client Representative and was responsible for selling the IBM portfolio to his Michigan territory. However, in addition to moving to a new place, fitting into a new work environment and trying to prepare for another Club Season, Kurt was strapped with something few 23 year olds have to deal with, Colon Cancer.

In early August of 2008 Kurt found himself visiting one doctor after another trying to figure out why he had blood in his stools and excessive fatigue. Eventually, a colonoscopy revealed, and later tests confirmed, Stage 3 Colon Cancer. Further, given Kurt's genetic background, the likelihood that this could be fatal, if left untreated, was 100%. At this point, surgery was imperative and with it the impossibility of competing in the 2008 UPA Club Championships.

Despite this, Kurt took advantage of his last competitive opportunity and attended the 2008 Chesapeake Open, where his team, Boston Ironside, went 7-1 making the Finals against Atlanta's Chain Lightning. However, their success on Saturday against Chain Lightning would not be duplicated, and they lost 15-11. Peripheral to the tournament outcome, after this game, Ultimate was relegated to 'rear view mirror' status and instead of returning to Dallas, Kurt got a ride up to New York with his Ironside teammates to await his September 10th surgery.

Because cancer is well known in Kurt's family, he had access to a great deal of experience regarding where and how to deal with the disease. Luckily for Kurt, one of the World's premier cancer institutes was in the back yard of his beloved Aunt Ana, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and Kurt went to stay with her in Westport, CT. This was a fitting home for Kurt, not only during his surgery, but later during his chemotherapy treatments, because he had spent many a summer at Aunt Ana's, and her home provided the perfect support structure he would need to overcome such a deadly obstacle.

Due to the severity of his diagnosis and family history, it was decided that Kurt's entire colon was to be removed. The surgery would require a 7 day stay in the hospital and kept him from eating for 2-3 weeks. This resulted in a loss of 25 pounds, bringing the weight of his 6'2" frame under 150 pounds. To make matters worse, doctors found cancer cells in 2 lymphnodes adjacent the colon, which is frightfully close to a death sentence for any cancer patient. This left Kurt with only one option, chemotherapy. Despite this terrible news, Kurt was determined to remain independent and decided to undertake his chemo treatments back in Dallas.

Beginning in mid October of 2008, Kurt went through a barrage of chemotherapy treatments that included Oxaliplatin, Fluorouracil, and Leucovorin. Briefly, these treatments occurred bi-monthly and consisted of a 6-8hr administration on Day 1 followed by a slow drip over the next two days. To carry out these treatments, Kurt had a mediport installed right above his heart which allowed him to avoid continual needle injections in his arm.

At first Kurt seemed to handle things well and was able to work during this process and side effects of the chemo treatments were minimal, mainly fatigue. However, as the treatments wore on, Kurt found it harder and harder to handle the duress alone. What is also worth mentioning is that not only was Kurt battling his own demons with Colon Cancer, but his other Aunt, Vivan, was in the final stages of her 3rd bout with cancer, a fight she ultimately lost in November of 2008. Eventually, after 7 treatments, the physical and emotional strain, coupled with the fact that Kurt was all alone in Dallas, broke him and he ultimately followed the advice of friends and family and moved back to Connecticut in January of 2009.

At this point, chemotherapy side effects worsened to not only fatigue, but a loss of sensitivity in the extremities, making daily activities, such as dressing one's self, immensely difficult. He also developed cold sensitivity in his hands, forcing him to wear gloves constantly. In addition, he also experienced constant flu like symptoms and vomiting, leaving him weak and vulnerable. In speaking with his Aunt Ana regarding this experience, she told me that these moments were the toughest to witness because Kurt seemed very aloof and distant. The wear and tear on his body left him quiet and inactive, and all she could do was remind him that this was the treatment not the disease. It also goes without saying that as an athlete, being in such a state was more than a little disheartening to both his pride and his self-confidence.

However, if Kurt were to beat this beast, he would have to will himself. Focusing on the pain, the odds, or the anguish would have meant certain death, and in order to remain alive, Kurt would have to keep his spirits up and stay motivated. Moving to Connecticut allowed Kurt to surround himself with those that loved him, but love and support come in different forms and Kurt would need a voice in his head that would not be afraid to point out his weaknesses and force him to overcome them.

To fill this particular role, Kurt turned to his college coach and mentor, Kurt Dahlenberg. Dahlenberg is an Ultimate legend in the Southeast and has been a part of the Miami Refugees since their inception back in 1984. As a player he had the opportunity to represent his country at the 2004 World Ultimate and Guts Championships in Turku, Finland by winning the 2003 UPA Club National Championships (Masters). Dahlenberg also coached some of our sports finest in Jacob Goldstein (CUT, SubZero, Ironside), Jasper Hoitsma (Ozone Pilots, Slow White, Ironside), Colin Mahoney (Brownian Motion, DoG, Tandem, Ironside) and Neale Mahoney (Brownian Motion, DoG, Bloodthirsty) while they were at Northfield Mount Hermon. He also had a brief coaching stint with Carleton in 2005.

In 2006, Tim Gehret approached Dahelnberg about coaching Florida and despite driving 5 hrs each way from Miami to Gainsville, Dahlenberg led UF to a National Title, 2 Finals appearances, and 3 Semi-Final births in just three years. Apart from developing some of the first zone defenses ever seen in Ultimate, I believe Dahelnberg's legacy resides with the fact that it was his training regiment that prepared Florida for their romp in 2006 and his 128-7 record with Florida marks one of the most incredible runs in College Ultimate History.

However, aside from all of his Ultimate accolades and achievements, two of Dahlenberg's most important attributes were: 1) He himself was a cancer survivor (Melanoma) and 2) He knew what Gibson needed. Dahlenberg is not known for his subtleties and despite the fact that many would object to his methods, he knows how to get the job done, on and/or off the field. In speaking with Dahlenberg for this article, I realized quickly that he is exceptionally vigilant and perceptive, yet painfully direct and blunt. No one likes to have their weaknesses highlighted, especially when they are relevant, but both Kurts knew that if progress was going to be made, if Gibson were to ever see the field again, he would have to push himself, perhaps harder than he ever had before.

Six days a week Dahlenberg was on the phone with Gibson, probing and prodding, forcing Gibson to talk when he wanted to do anything but. Tough love is not easy for anyone but Gibson became like a son to Dahlenberg and he knew that if he could use Gibson's competitive nature to keep him motivated and positive, there would be no stopping #20.

And there was no stopping to be had. After 6 months and 12 rounds of radical chemotherapy treatments, Kurt maintained his positive attitude and finally beat back his cancer. As he articulates on his cancer blog, keeping a positive attitude was what kept him alive. In discussing his experience with him, Kurt told me that his success was simply "mind over matter" and that battling cancer and surviving chemotherapy is "all mental". His Aunt Ana also reinforced this message, telling me that throughout the process, Kurt's unwavering positive attitude was incredible to witness, especially in spite of the odds and the loss of his own flesh and blood. Perhaps 'impervious' is not the wrong word to describe him.

From his initial surgery on September 10th, 2008 up until his final chemo treatment at the end of March 2009, Kurt lost excessive weight, became brittle and weak, and lost a family member to the same disease. In spite of all of this, his mind set never wavered and he ultimately succeeded. However, because he had been inactive for more than half a year and his body was all but striped of life, a new battle was just beginning.

When I asked Kurt to describe his playing shape before and after his cancer battle, he could only chuckle and say, "frustrating". Here you have a player that once ran unrelentingly from Round 1 on Saturday through the hard cap of the Finals on Sunday afternoon. At this point however, running even a single mile was an incredibly arduous task. Much like his struggle with cancer, this fight against himself was going to require painstaking diligence and an inexorable positive attitude.

It was at this juncture that Dahlenberg's presence was possibly the most valuable. In trying to regain his playing form, Gibson began taking walks with his Aunt Ana and slowly worked his way up to jogging. However, because of the immense drop off in strength and endurance, Kurt would need outside help to keep him motivated and on track. Because Dahlenberg had been so instrumental in preparing Kurt for competitive play, he naturally assumed the role of coach and mentor during this new battle against himself. Dahlenberg would offer target mile times and stretching routines on a weekly/daily basis, not to mention a few choice words of 'encouragement' when needed. Dahlenber's rigorous Football-esque approach to Ultimate would become invaluable in this latest endeavor and despite the fact that it may have been strenuous and demanding, it kept Kurt's hopes alive.

Another lesson Dahlenberg had to offer was that of friendship. When Dahlenberg told me about his melanoma case, he articulated that the relationships he had developed in the Ultimate community were his rock. Despite the fact that many of his supporters in time of need were former competitors, Dahlenberg felt that keeping his spirits up depended to a large degree on these flatball friends.

In reflecting on this and the overall support he received from his friends and family, Kurt knew that he would need local support if he ever wanted to play Ultimate again. It was for this reason that he decided to play with Doublewide in Austin, despite the tempting offer to play with Tim Gehret again on Seattle's Sockeye. He told me he just wanted friends and teammates nearby and that is exactly what he got.

Doublewide is the most elite Ultimate Team in the state of Texas, and despite its base in Austin, Dub has a strong Dallas contingent, mainly made up of former players from the University of North Texas, which is in nearby Denton, Texas. In describing his experience with his new teammates, Kurt told me that "the Doublewide guys are great" and given my own experience with the Texas crowd, I am inclined to agree with him.

The challenge of getting oneself into shape after the off-season is common to most of us, but given the Fall and Winter that Kurt had to endure, such a battle is more difficult than I can articulate here. Suffice it to say that everything from sprinting to jumping to overall endurance had to be re-attained day by day and each day Kurt's positive attitude would be tested against the frustration of playing eons behind his usual self.

In researching Kurt's comeback, I contacted Mike "Tank" Natenberg, one of the captains of Doublewide, and asked him what it was like to witness Kurt's resurgence. For starters, Tank told me that "We quickly learned that Kurt is an ubber-competitive dude. It's interesting because it doesn't come out until you see him at practice and in the huddle. He only knows winning, and doesn't believe losing is an option." This doesn't come as much of a surprise and it is fairly obvious that the persistence he exhibited during his cancer battle would be put to work on the field and at the track.

A turning point that Kurt shared with me came in May of 2009 when he told me he had his roommate drop him off 3 miles from their home. At this point, running such a distance was quite a daunting task, but Kurt knew he had no other option than to succeed, lest he sleep where he stood. During this run he began to shout at himself, demanding success. Kurt described the situation as a "football coach yelling at his players" and although he may have looked crazy, he got himself home.

The following month Kurt took advantage of an offer to play with Sockeye at Cal States, even though he was nowhere near 100%. This playing opportunity was the first he had since Chesapeake the previous August and although his physique was not what it once was, it was a chance to shake off the cobwebs and continue the journey back to his glory days. At this point Dahlenberg warned Gibson to be wary of his groin and hamstrings because of his inactivity and unfortunately for Kurt, his hamstring would become just another problem in a series of setbacks.

Be that as it may, rather than try to be an out of state player and continue with Sockeye, Kurt committed himself to Doublewide. I was curious to know what Kurt's assignment on the field was for Doublewide and this is what Tank had to say about it:

The past 3 seasons Doublewide has switched to a definitive O and D line with a few players that can play both ways if there are chemistry or slump issues. We initially thought Kurt would play on the O line and help out the D line when good match ups came up. At CoCup, Kurt's first tourney with the team, he was more comfortable playing D. At CoCup we utilized him on the D team in the first half and then mostly O in the second. It seemed to work pretty well.

From the looks of things, Doublewide has certainly asserted themselves as a contender this year. A year ago they went 2-5 at Colorado Cup with 3 DGP losses (Revolver, Bravo, and Truck Stop) and were 0-6 at Labor Day with 2 more DGP losses (Sockeye and Pony). However, in 2009 they have reached the finals at both Colorado Cup and Labor Day and are 18-3 going into the series with big wins against Revolver, SubZero, Furious, PoNY, Bravo, Jam, Madison, etc...

When I asked Tank what Doublewide's goals were for the series, he told me "to develop and maintain strong team chemistry in order to play our best friz at the end of the season". The consensus seems to be that this Doublewide team is the best in its history. What exactly that means, however, is anyone's guess. When I asked Kurt the same question, he felt at least quarters, and perhaps semifinals, was a strong possibility.

But life has a way of kicking us when we're down and unfortunately for Kurt, his hamstring would not be the last of his comeback injuries and he was thrown another challenge at Labor Day. In Doublewide's 13-8 victory over Vancouver's Furious George, he was coming back on a huck and when he jumped to grab it, he came down badly and broke his fibula. I cannot begin, nor will I try, to understand the frustration he must have felt but given his track record, I am sure he will find a way to overcome this obstacle. The tough love that Dahlenberg exhibited throughout Kurt's progression once again manifested itself and he told me that he has a "pink pair of shorts for Kurt if he wasn't playing at Nationals".

Regardless of whether or not he can suit up for Nationals, I do know that his presence alone has benefitted Doublewide. Tank told me "[Kurt] has shown me a whole other level of competitiveness and confidence. The energy and swagger he brings to the field rubs off on his teammates in a positive way". Perhaps the impression he has left on his teammates will help Doublewide repeat their success over Chain at Regionals next month.

One last question that I had for Tank regarding Kurt was "What is something about Kurt on and/or off the field that most folks probably do not know?". This question was rooted in my own personal interest in Kurt, not only as a player but as a person, and Tank's response did not disappoint:

I think when the ulty community sees great athletic ulty players we are sometimes quick to assume that they are just naturally talented. In Kurt's case, he is definitely talented but a lot of his success is based on the training and preparation he does before the tournaments. He is the last one stretching at our practices. He is running his track workouts at 5:30 in the morning with teammates to avoid the texas heat and get the most out of his body. In other words...he has a great work ethic and expects it from his teammates as well.

and he's pretty good at flip-cup although he has never beaten a team I've been on. :-)

In putting this project together, I have been amazed with the people I have come across. As Tank alludes to, before I talked with Kurt, I just assumed that he was on another level when it came to physical talents and abilities. However, his real talent lies within his mental strength, which we all have within us, and I think any/everyone can appreciate and take something from Kurt's example. I was also touched by the interaction I had with Kurt's Aunt Ana. The losses she has had to endure are beyond words and the energy and positivity she exudes in the face of such misfortune are astounding. Moreover, even one of the photographers I utilized for my pictures is waging his own war with Chemotherapy (Hodgkins Lymphoma) and yet he still manages to work and contribute to the Ultimate community.

I want to thank all those who contributed to this piece, especially Kurt Gibson. This topic is immensely sensitive and I appreciate the opportunity to cover such a story with the grace, emotion, and professionalism it deserves. Our sport almost lost one of its stars, but luckily (for Doublewide at least), he has once again returned to the field.

I haven't written much this past year but I decided to come out of my slumber for this piece because cancer is a very important issue. Despite it's severity, however, it is likely overlooked in the Ultimate community. Most of us are young, well to do, healthy people that think we are invincible, especially against something like cancer. However, as any ultimate player will understand, we are not exempt from such a disease and actually are more than likely to cross paths with something like skin cancer because of the massive amount of time we spend in the sun. In discussing Dahlenberg's own cancer story with him, he told me all of his friends went and got checked out in light of his ordeal and I hope this article resonates the same way.

I asked Kurt's Aunt Ana if she had a message for those lucky enough not to have dealt with cancer and she told me "Never overlook a symptom. Get yourself checked out if there is something amiss. Early detection can and will save your life." In addition, I think Kurt's example of positive thinking sends a great message, not only for battling cancer, but in dealing with life's challenges as well.

Lastly, my main reason for putting this together is because of the unfortunate story of my friend Protik Mia. Earlier this year he was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer and at this moment is dealing with some of the harshest treatments and prognoses cancer has to offer. Peripheral to the fact that he gave me the opportunity to play at Kaimana last year and babysat me while I was there, he is an amazing person and has been a powerful force in every ultimate community he has been a part of. He and his wife Becky have been updating his condition on Pro's Blog.

In following his story, the only thing more powerful than the cancer that is threatening his life, is the courage and dignity with which he has carried himself. I was fortunate enough to spend a few special days with Pro, Becky and their two beautiful children and this blog post is for him.

just my thoughts

match diesel

Monday, May 25, 2009

It's like I know what I'm talking about

Carleton wins Nationals, Florida doesn't make the show and Will Neff wins the Callahan....check.

Other Comments:
Texas - Sorry Franchise, I did what I could.  At least the Quarters monkey is gone.
Stanford - Welcome back.
Colorado - Central Crossing Stadium is not your venue.

just my thoughts

match diesel

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Stephen "Franchise" Presley for Callahan

For any Ultimate writer, April 27th, 2009 was one of the juiciest days in our sport's history. Arizona's romp in Vegas last February was a big one, as was Furious' 0-3 showing at Nationals back in October of 2007 but from Oregon to Colorado to Minnesota to Texas to North Carolina, last Sunday proved to be one of the most compelling days of Ultimate that I can recall and I think we are all still feeling the after affects.

However, rather than being filled with elation and excitement, the Ultimate community seems to be wrapped up in a lot of negativity with feelings of rage and/or embarrassment. Oregon's disqualification has stunned us all, not only because of the amazing lack of judgement, but also because I think we are all curious to know what kind of ripple effect this will have. The last time I can recall a single Ultimate event making it on Deadspin was when Beau jumped over David "Runner" Flock at Southwest Regionals back in 2006 and we all know what kind of lasting impact that had. The pursuit of credibility in this game took a major hit this past weekend and what's worse is that Oregon is such a great program. Had this been a smaller school or a non-UPA sanctioned tournament, no biggy, but having such an established team do this...yikes, I don't need to say anymore.

And then there is Florida. I don't think I have ever seen such a hateful backlash on RSD, but in all honesty, Florida set themselves up for it. I'm sure they thought boner checks and taunting highlight clips were funny and what not, but now they will get no sympathy from the faceless masses. It is hard to feel sorry for a program with two National title game appearances, a National Championship and a Callahan award winner in the last 4 years, but I think the one thing to take from this is that it seems that outside a few incidents at Florida Warm Up and RSD, Florida actually isn't that bad. They may have asked for poor spirit scores at Nationals last year, but in all seriousness, their bark is much worse than their bite. I also liked what Dar had to say about the situation, especially "they are just college kids -- if it's the worst thing that ever happens in their lives, they're a very lucky bunch in my opinion".

Despite the fact that the two biggest stories in the sport right now are not what I would call "feel good", a lot of amazing things did happen this past weekend. Carleton has played as well as billed and de-throned Wisconsin from the Central Region after a three year term. Cornell continued with their stellar season by taking the Metro East and could earn a 1 seed in Columbus, especially with Florida and Oregon out of the picture (the bar has been set Middlebury). Virginia beating Florida was epic but the real story is the fact that they made Nationals for the first time ever, not to mention took the AC. As for the Southwest, Colorado took the Region again, but my squiddies are headed back to Nationals after a 2 year hiatus, hopefully I can make it out to Ohio for the festivities.

However, the story I am most interested in revolves around the South Region and Texas' Stephen "Franchise" Presley, hence the title. When all the events surrounding Florida and Oregon came out, not to mention other topics from the other Regions, I was immediately compelled to jot down my opinions. I was hesitant though, because almost everything that came to mind was either rooted in ridicule/shame or stuff that wouldn't be all that exciting to the masses.

That is except for Franchise. Much like the competitive field at College Nationals this year, the Callahan race seems to be wide open. Last year there were several names at the top of the list but realistically, the award was either going to Gibson's skill or Kershner's hype and we all know how that ended. However, in 2009, things seem to have gone back in time. Most Callahan campaigns this year have revolved around RSD threads and in-Region opinion because in the absence of Nation-wide chatter or media coverage, there isn't much else.

As it stands now, there are a variety of contenders that could get the top spot at the podium. Jimmy Foster from Wisconsin is easily a frontrunner, and with two National Championships and a formidable Club career with Sub-Zero, he makes a good case. He's also a class act and a damn fine Ultimate player. However, much like what happened with Mark Sherwood of Stanford last year, having your team gutted and slipping from the top spot in the Region does not help in the vote department.

Rusty Ingold Smith is also another popular candidate. He was one of the only male college players invited to Team USA tryouts, which is certainly an honor, and for the last two years or so, Rusty has brought considerable spotlight down upon UNC-Wilmington. However, the Seamen didn't even make a game to go and considering the fact that they didn't leave their time zone this season, I don't think Rusty can count on a ton of Nationwide support.

Will Neff is also a possible contender, and I say this because I've been saying it for a year or so. He is an exceptional player and team mate by anyone's standards but with the Cultimate schedule the way it is, a 12-2 record at Centex and Huck Finn didn't get them anywhere near a Finals appearance. Unlike a year ago when they handed Wisconsin their first loss at Centex, a ton of Nationwide hype isn't swirling around them. Plus, Notre Dame could snatch the Region away from Magnum and that won't help Will's campaign.

I hadn't heard of him until this weekend, but Robert Runner from Virginia has definitely gotten himself some ink. Florida lost to two other teams at AC Regionals, but I think Night Train deserves the most praise because no one expected them to dismantle the Gators 14-9, much less win the Region. However, I wonder if this National attention is a bit too late. With only a few weeks until College Nationals, I'm willing to bet most folks aren't ready to cast their ballots for such a new face on the National scene.

The next name on my list is Mac Taylor and with Colorado owning the Southwest Region the last 5 years and their tournament win at Centex, I think more than enough people are aware of #40. His leadership on CU is exceptional and his exposure with Bravo is also top notch. A seemingly impervious candidate, no?

Well, personally, I think what has made Mac strong as a player, makes him weak as a Callahan nominee. In 5 years, Mac has gone from newbie to superstar but in reality, I think it has less to do with him as a person and more that he is simply the product of an amazing system. His Buff of the Week article is a great piece on his abilities and progression from never playing Ultimate to the player he is now, but in my opinion, he is just another in a long line of Mamabird greats. Mickey, Parker, Richter, Chicken, Beau, Rabbit, Jolian, Martin....there has been, and probably always will be, someone amazing from Colorado every year and Mac is just next. In the 5 years he has been with Colorado, Mamabird has taken the Region every year, made the Finals in 2007 and made Semis in 2005, 2007, and 2008, not to mention having several top 5 Callahan vote getters. But what did Colorado do the year before he came to school? They won a National Championship and Richter won the Callahan. Does this sound like Mac has made Colorado the contender they are this year? Or does it sound like Colorado has made Mac the Callahan contender he is this year?

In my mind, I think despite Mac's hype and abilities, he is just not the best Callahan candidate. He may be very instrumental for Colorado this year and will undoubtedly have a great Club career but had he not been around the last 5 years, Mamabird would have found someone else to fill his shoes, CU is just that good. This isn't a knock on his abilities, but to me, he seems like Mark Sanchez or Graham Harrell, a reasonably talented athlete that benefits from a GREAT program.

When I think Callahan candidate, I think Josh Zipperstein or Tim Gehret, two players that were at the heart of their team's success. Without them, neither Brown nor Florida would have won Nationals in 2005 and 2006. One could make the same case for Richter in 2004 and Dan Heijmen in 2007, and there is no way Arizona beats Florida, has a chance against Wisconsin and makes Nationals without the 5 year effort that Joe Kershner put in.

With this in mind, I think it is more than obvious that Stephen "Franchise" Presley should be the Callahan winner this year. Over the past 5 years, no player has been as consistent and instrumental to his team's success than #22. In the last 5 seasons, Texas has taken the South Region 5 times. They are 24-0 in that stretch and have won the Finals in everything from 15-6 blowouts to Universe point finishes. This is insanely difficult because Regionals is easily the most emotion filled tournament of the year with so much on the line and so many rivalries running rampant. But with so much at stake, Franchise has never faltered. Sure Mac has been part of 5 consecutive Colorado Regional titles as well, but they've only had 1 close game in that stretch and they had two Team USA players on that roster.

The Callahan award is not about a single season because realistically, what can a single player do in a single season? If you walk onto a National contender, what have you really done? Florida's 2006 National title took years to build. Arizona's sole shot at Nationals took half a decade of training, recruitment and focus.

While it is true that Texas has had greats like Matt "Skip" Sewell, Michael "Tank" Natenberg, and David "Salad" Melancon, the Texas alums I know all tip their caps to Franchise. A prominent Texas player once told me that Franchise was born with a disc in his hand and as such has been a standout for TUFF since his freshman year. Unlike Colorado, Texas wasn't even at Nationals in 2004, but like Colorado, they haven't lost a game at Regionals since.

Reading the recap of the Final game against Kansas was exciting but the performance from Franchise is more or less expected. In watching him the last few years with Texas and Doublewide I, and others, have come to expect nothing but greatness from him. His fundamentals, form, athleticism, and leadership are second to none and 2009 is his year.

He had his own little thread on RSD like every other Callahan nominee, and I won't waste your time discussing his talents because odds are, they are not too dissimilar from many other nominees. However, what is different is Franchise's body of work. He has been Texas' Callahan nominee for the last 3 years, he was FOTY in 2005 as well as South All Region '06-'08 and he is the only returning player from the top 5 Callahan MVP list last year.

He has also been part of Doublewide for as long as he's been with TUFF. Much like Oscar Pottinger and Dylan Tunnell, Franchise was right there with his local Club team after his first college series. With the exception of Will Neff (Twisted Metal) Franchise is the only Open College player I can think of that was at Club Nationals back in 2005, but unlike Will, Franchise hasn't missed a Club season yet. Aside from 2006, Franchise has made Nationals every year in both the College and Club divisions, meaning he has qualified for a total of 8 National tournaments in 9 opportunities, 7 of which were Regional victories. Are you kidding me?!?

However, much like any player, Franchise is not without weakness. One talking point with respect to Texas that comes up often is that they never seem to make it past quarters. In 2005, 2006, and 2007 they finished tied for 5th, losing in quarters to UCSD, Florida, and Stanford, respectively.

None the less, I think this a foolish approach to determining the merit of a team or player. For years I used to poke fun at Stanford for making Semifinals and no further, but in retrospect, I completely underestimated the value of such an accomplishment. Aside from 4 other teams in the Nation, no one else gets any further than quarters and I seemed to forget how amazingly difficult it is just to get to Nationals. We all witnessed Arizona's rise to stardom and with just one trip to quarters Kershner earned the Callahan, why can't 3 do the same for Franchise?

What is also paramount, but horribly cliche, is that unlike most of the nominees I have discussed, Franchise is not your stereotypical 6'2" COTD highlight machine. He is a 5'8" work horse who's defining moment is not the epic sky he had in the first half, but the overall tournament performance he puts together. In those god awful 5th round 17-16 scorchers with major heat, wind, and/or exhaustion going against you, Franchise hits his stride. When most college players lose focus and fail to complete their 100th break throw or stay with their man through his 11th cut of a point at 13-12, Franchise's true character reveals itself as he digs deep to execute when it matters the most. Sustained performance under such grueling conditions is the truest test of an Ultimate player's ability and when Texas has to fight Universe point after Universe point, Franchise never waivers.

And come on, the guy is on the cover of the latest UPA Magazine. A better Callahan nominee there isn't.

I remember very vividly last year when Joe Kershner was announced for the Callahan. Once Jolian, Kurt, Sherwood and Franchise had been called up, everybody knew who was #1. At that moment, the entire field in Boulder swelled with emotion and everybody, including the 4 runners up, were happy for Joe. No one was upset to see him win because everybody understood what he meant to his team and most of all to his sport.

I had the privilege of talking with Joe after he won the award and I can say with no hesitation that he was the perfect player to win the award. He was speechless, his heart filled with emotion and joy. Much like when Halle Berry won the Academy Award for Best Actress, there was no expectation on Joe's part, just sheer shock. The trip to Nationals was all the reward he needed, but the Callahan was just icing on the cake.

I'm here to tell you that Franchise is that player. No one who plays the game can deny his contribution to every team he has played for over the last 5 years and you will never find a better poster child for the sport. However, despite all his talent and success he is as humble as it gets and would receive the award with as much awe and respect as one could hope for. Unlike many elite players, Franchise doesn't really like the spotlight but rather simply enjoys the opportunity to compete.

As I write this, I can already envision the applauding crowd and feel the emotion at the fields the evening of May 23rd when his name is called. Perhaps some teams at Nationals will have a faster or a taller or a flashier player on their roster, but when Franchise wins the award, everyone's heart will swell. Every player in attendance will close their eyes and whisper to themselves, "He deserves it".

There is no better candidate than Stephen "Franchise" Presley and I sincerely hope I will be there to shake his hand when he wins.

just my thoughts

match diesel

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

District 5

Remember The Mighty Ducks? District 5 Pee Wee Hockey? Gordon Bombay gets a DUI and has to take care of a bunch of misfits that aren't the best hockey players. At one point in the movie he raises a stink because the best team's superstar, Adam Banks of the Hawks, doesn't actually live in the district he plays for. Adam actually lives in District 5 and should be a Duck instead of a Hawk and Gordon wants his talent. Coach Bombay gets fired over it, but he gets the superstar and along with some financial help, turns the Mighty Ducks into Champions.

Sound like anything in Ultimate? Well, probably not because this isn't exactly a requirement in Ultimate. I'm not sure how many people actually have to deal with this, but recently, the frustration of having in-house players not play in-house reared it's ugly head in my little corner of the Universe.

Let me explain what I mean. Let's say you live in a city that is trying to start a club team and we'll call that city Hartford, CT. You are in the Metro New York Section but you neighbor a high quality section, East New England, mainly Boston area teams. You are doing your best to make it as a program, but as I'm sure most understand, this is really challenging, especially in a non-Ultimate hub. You don't have a ton of college talent with which to draw from, but you do your best and make due with what you have. You hit the track, you train, you take a cerebral approach to the game, and hope for the best.

The first year of your existence you are a laughing stock. In the first round of the series you get rocked 11-3 by the best team in the section, you don't make the next round, and you more or less feel like every other short lived club team. But the following year, you pick up a few committed players, one amazing All-Star and sure enough you improve. You make regionals by climbing out of the backdoor bracket on Sunday at sectionals and you're stoked that you made it to the next round.

In your third year you develop some synergy and give the #1 team in the section a close call, 14-16, and take second. Now that's what I call progress. You go to regionals and even win a few games. Wow, what about year 4?

Well that's a problem. See Ultimate is not exactly a sport, it's more of a hobby because there are no contracts or money associated with the game and loyalty is conditional. You can commit as much or as little time as you want to it and you can also make whatever choices you want, regardless of what others might think/do. In essence you are only bound by your passion and likewise, are free to go where your passion takes you.

What am I getting at? See the issue with having a city like Boston near, but not in, your Section is that it has a tendency to magnetize talent. I'm not confident everyone will appreciate this, but sometimes a player finds that their talents could land them on a better team and if they are comfortable driving 2-3hrs or more to practice, talent pools can start to drain. I'm not going to get into particulars but lets just say about a half dozen or so players that have and/or could really help us out this year are all headed out of state and I can't help but feel a little frustrated.

I don't blame these athletes for playing elsewhere, they have a lot to gain by heading to Boston. Some have a chance to win Nationals this year, not to mention earn a spot at Worlds in Prague next year, and most, if not all, will be headed to Sarasota. If I were in their shoes, I'd probably do the same thing. However, I can't help but question whether or not this is good for the sport and I feel that this "out of Section" play should not be an option for players.

Connecticut has this problem in both the Open and Women's divisions but this is not the only example of significant talent playing out of Section, or even out of Region. Chase Sparling-Beckley lived in Oregon while he played for Sockeye, Kurt Gibson lived in Dallas while he played for Boston, and Gwen Ambler and Robbie Cahill are in Seattle but play for San Francisco teams.

What's also interesting is that a lot of these players leave town to play for programs that don't really need them anyway, or at least would be very competitive without them. Chase is/was amazing but Sockeye already has three Callahan winners. Ironside has two college MVP's themselves not to mention all of Boston to draw from. Fury has won Nationals the last 3 years and Worlds, in addition to having San Francisco as a talent pool. It's fairly obvious that each out of Section/Region player probably wants to suit for a great team, but I wonder if their individual gain is worth the performance hit they leave behind. Rhino misses Nationals. Doublewide continually struggles to make it to/past quarters. Riot collapses in the Club National Finals, at the hands of Gwen no less.

Still not convinced this is a problem? Not only does this situation hurt for the obvious reasons, but when amazing talent plays elsewhere, local teams develop an overwhelming sense of inadequacy. It establishes an inferior state of mind that infects current players and potential tryouts. Current players feel incredibly disillusioned because as soon as they start to succeed, they feel like it is only a matter of time before the rug gets pulled out from underneath them. In addition, they can't help but feel like a AAA baseball team because their best players take off as soon as they have the confidence to tryout for a more estbalished contender. But this isn't baseball, we are not a farm system. We are a sovereign program that gets nothing from the teams that siphon talent away from us. Ultimately, we are left feeling as though our efforts and passion for the game are simply misplaced and we are be better off hanging up our competitive cleats, switching to mixed or simply jumping ship as well.

As for potential players, the propensity to pass up said team, or half ass the process, is through the roof because they think "hell if (such and such) won't play for them, then why should I" and who's to call them out? It's not like struggling teams have a bargaining chip. In the end, the level of play suffers, frustration runs rampant, and we become spectators watching our neighbors head off to Nationals and tear it up on Ultivillage. And this completely omits the downstream affect this has on the community as a whole, ie seasonal leagues, youth programs, etc... I feel like the situation is fairly easy to understand but for those needing further clarification, read up on the Gentrification phenomenon of poor urban cities and affluent suburbs.

The UPA does recognize the propensity for players to abuse Sectional/Regional lines, however, and in 2002 laid out series guidelines with regard to this topic. As it stands now, 50% of a team's players must live in the competing Section and 75% must be in the Region. But I wonder if this is sufficient. Our sport has moved by leaps and bounds in the last 7 years and I believe much like College Eligibility requirements, Club Eligibility needs to be more heavily scrutinized.

This topic is prevalent in mainstream sports in the form of a salary cap. Some sports do things better than others, but at least there is a system in place for most American sports, ie baseball, basketball, football, and hockey. In each case, the overall idea is to keep talent form aggregating via superior economic power and thereby maintain parity. This doesn't always work because in basketball and baseball, there is simply a luxury tax to punish teams that go over the cap, but punishing a wealthy owner by making them pay more isn't exactly an ideal system.

However, in the NFL, the salary cap is a big deal. If you go over it, owners face severe penalties and contracts can be canceled. I personally believe the NFL has the most parity, but with the Steelers winning yet another Superbowl and the Phillies winning the World Series for the first time in a long time, one could make strong counter arguments. Be that as it may, all governing bodies recognize the ability for teams to horde talent and try to prevent it in one form or another.

So what am I clamoring for? What is the improvement I seek? In my mind there are two possible solutions. The first option would be to go the Mighty Ducks route and require that players live in the Section they compete in. This rule may seem simplistically fair but it would reflect the real talent distribution across the country and peripheral to a few select outliers, I am uncertain how it hurts players. However, I am very aware of my own personal bias and the controversy associated with this type of idea, or maybe just the level of talent it would affect.

The second option could be the development of a promotion and relegation system where teams move between competitive tiers depending on series results. I believe that this system would be complicated to establish but it seems to fall in line with the Farm System/Combine examples that are showing up in places like Boston and Seattle with Ironside/Sons of Liberty and Sockeye/Voodoo respectively.

Each system has their own sets of pros and cons and are each equally interesting, complicated, and un/likely to come to fruition, but I want to discuss them anyway. Lets start with in-Section requirements. First off, I believe this to be the easier of the two because it utilizes existing infrastructure, and could possibly be a stepping stone towards a promotion/relegation system.   According to the UPA:

"The purpose of the UPA Championship Series is to provide UPA members a framework for quality competition for locally-based teams and to serve as a vehicle for the promotion and support of the sport of ultimate. All levels of the Series share certain principles, but the focus changes as the series progresses from one of participation and inclusiveness to the crowning of a champion and the showcasing of the sport at its best.”

In my mind, the existing system has been utilized to establish the competitive backbone we currently utilize as Club players, but I believe in order to continue this mission, more needs to be done. As it stands now, many elite players have a loose interpretation of what it means to play for a "locally-based" team and limitations associated with "the promotion and support of the sport of ultimate" are very significant. Rather than enrich and develop Sectional programs, stagnant Regional powerhouses seem to maintain their stronghold and the competitive growth of the sport is limited.

A 50% in-Section requirement is/was a good start, but it is not good enough anymore. Hubs like Seattle, Boston, and San Francisco have some of the deepest talent pools in the country, but when they need to take players away from up and coming Sections/Regions to compete, there is something wrong. I believe in this instance, the second half of the UPA Club Series mission statement conflicts with the first in that "showcasing the sport at it's best" means sacrificing "locally based teams". Personally, when a team wins or contends for a National title with players that do not live locally, I feel immense sorrow for the teams that are left behind. I can only imagine the frustration/humiliation of facing off against "should be" team mates and when it comes to these sorts of players representing my country, well....

As for promotion/relegation, I think it is time for the UPA to come to grips with the ceiling that most club teams have to deal with. In the last 10 years, the 40 teams that have played a semifinal game in the Open and Women's division are only represented by 11 teams: Open - Jam, Bravo, Chain, Boston, Sockeye, Furious, GOAT, Condors, Pike, Ring, and Sub-Zero Women's: Fury, Riot, Ozone, Lady Godiva, Brute Squad, Traffic, Rare Air, Backhoe, Prime, Schwa, Women on the Verge. Does anyone else think that this is too tight a circle? For a parity comparison, in Football and Baseball, 40 semifinal teams in the last 10 years are represented by 21 different teams in each sport. Regardless of whether or not players are required to play in their own Section, it is fairly obvious that most teams have no shot at winning a National title and it is almost foolish to try.

Much like Div III College Nationals, creating separate competitive spheres for teams of similar abilities might be optimal, for the elite and the not so elite. Pointless sectional games will potentially be eliminated and all programs will have attainable goals to shoot for. If you have what it takes to compete at the next level, your team can be eligible for promotion and if you can't cut it in the division you are in, relegation. At the very least, more than a handful of teams will get the chance to end their season with a win and more programs will be able to play at the National level.

In the end, much like most of my ramblings, the sport needs to mature in order to maintain fairness and parity. Each policy, each regulation, each rule is in place because at some point, some one abused it and things were adjusted accordingly. Everything from picks to college eligibility to alcohol at the fields had to be taken advantage of for a rule or policy to be put into place and now I think it is time for out of Section play to be addressed. Off the top of my head I can think of a dozen or so players that this sort of policy would adversely affect, but in reality, I think it would help a thousand players I will never know and those are the ones that really matter.

just my thoughts

match diesel

Monday, April 6, 2009

Back Behind Closed Doors

I'm not certain how the rest of you out there feel, but for me, 2009 seems to be very different than years past for College Ultimate. This doesn't really come as a surprise considering how much has changed in the last year. The economy has been rocked, Cultimate has drastically changed their tournament organization and my investigative efforts in this game have more or less ceased. With this in mind, I believe that the information with respect to College Ultimate is now, sadly, back behind closed doors.

Closed doors? No, I don't believe College Ultimate is the subject of a conspiracy but I do believe that the information pipeline has dried up. Because our sport only flirts with professionalism, a solid information pipeline is a luxury not a right. If we want pictures, stories, scores, or information from a tournament, we either need to be there ourselves or have a friend hook us up. For the last few years, people like Rob, Matt Lane, Scobel Wiggins, Alex Peters, Chad Borer, Gwen Ambler, Hector, the Count, Parinella, myself, etc.. have attempted to capture the tournament experience in our own little way and bring it to the masses. For the participants, much of this information isn't necessary because "they were there" but for the bulk of the Ultimate community, UvTv,, and RSD are the only sources of data, true or otherwise. However, considering the level of difficulty associated with this kind of hobby/work, maintaining the media pipeline is not a given.

With that in mind, I feel like the game has taken a step backwards this year, as far as media exposure and fanfare are concerned. With Cultimate more or less controlling the entire regular season, it seems like the bulk of information regarding the sport is only held by a select few. Schedules and scores are only known by participating teams and organizers, and while they may be the only ones that matter, I have found it incredibly difficult to formulate any solid opinions or predictions this year.

This isn't to say that anyone is being malicious or deceitful, it's just that it seems that very little information is making it past the parking lot at major tournaments this year. Skip asked me to write about Stanford Invite a while back and I declined because I didn't really know what to say. The schedules seem to involve a lot of thought but they don't follow any sort of historical algorithm and without well orchestrated score reporter updates, those of us at home are at the whim of RSD, something I'm sure none of us enjoys. Bottom line, we are not as informed as we once were, which goes to show you that we can't take information for granted.

It was only a few years ago that Rob attempted Fantasy Ultimate at Centex and with seedings and pools posted a week or so before tournaments, discussions spread like wild fire on blogs and RSD. Vegas was always a bit weird, but pool play predictions and point differentials were discussed in great lengths, but only because the information was available.

However, without said information making the score reporter, a lot of the data associated with our sport seems to be behind closed doors, a situation that eerily resembles Ultimate of yesteryear. When I first got started, keeping up with teams was impossible. You were lucky if you caught a top 25 from the UPA every other month or so and if a tournament was on the score reporter you stared passionately at the screen until the bracket results were burned into your brain. At the time, many college players were of the opinion, "if you weren't playing, then why do you care?" but I cared and I get the feeling a lot of you out there do as well.

I'm not entirely sure how the players feel about this year, but I doubt Kansas enjoyed watching Florida bagel St. Louis. From what I've read on UCSD's tournament blog, it looks like they are ok with things thus far, but I can't help but feel a little disappointed with the level of discussion this year. It just seems like there is not a whole lot to talk about.

I mean lets take a look at a major talking point every year, the Callahan. Can anyone give me a clear candidate? Has anyone been talked about much this year? Last year Joe Kershner's hype lasted from February to May, not to mention guys like Jolian Dahl, Kurt Gibson, Mark Sherwood, and Stephen Pressley. Mac Taylor has been talked about off and on the last few months, but Colorado has been anything but consistent and with a clear drop off in discussion this year, a bunch of red on your score reporter page does not help in the voting process.

Personally, I think Brodie Smith is easily the front runner. I mean who else is playing better than Florida? And better yet, who is known to be playing better? I thought Will Neff would runaway with the award this year but I get the feeling people are a bit indifferent at the moment. Rob doesn't seem to be as active as he once was and Cultimate TD's haven't done the best job articulating their tournament structure to the masses, so it is hard to even know who the best teams are, and this is coming from a NUMP member.

A year ago, I was at Centex balls deep in the game but everything I saw and discussed made it online faster than I could sober up and jot down my drivel. I can remember Reid Koss with his iPhone updating scores and Dale, Skizip and Rob scrambling around trying to get round by round coverage online for UvTv.

However, this year has come and gone and I've only got a handful of talking points. Hector had a nice little piece about two Wisconsin Women (Courtney Kiesow and Georgia Bosscher) but active player/writers like Ryan Thompson have been anything but vocal. I mean The Pulse hasn't been updated in almost a year. Michigan has gotten on the blogsphere as have a few others but consolidated discussion seems a bit absent. I suppose this just goes to show you how difficult it is to stay active as a writer in this sport. Passion will get you far but it does run out once the cleats are off. It just gets hard to stay motivated when winning isn't on the table.

I can't help but think that the economy has something to do with the situation. Last year I bought plane ticket after plane ticket and now I look back and scratch my head thinking "How did I afford that?". I had some help from some supportive family members, but I can't help but feel like the game has suffered from tough times.

Bottom line, all of this has me a little scared. I really enjoyed following the game, not only for my own personal interest, but because it kept people paying attention. With constant dialog and discussion, whether it be rooted in 100% objective fact or just rumors, we pay attention and where there is attention there is scrutiny. This year's Nationals will have two huge changes (potentially) and I wonder how a lack of discussion will affect things. Four more teams will be at The Show but without a lot of chatter this year, I feel like no one even really knows/cares who is on the bubble.

In addition, the whole Active Observer idea is a great one, but I wonder if it will come to fruition. I know that Florida is a big fan of them but having Virginia and Middlebury decline observers in the Finals at Easterns shook my confidence that AO will be voted for this May. These two teams are not what I would call Nationals powerhouses, but having teams make these types of choices is a little disheartening. I'm not certain why they went this way, but I wonder if other programs would have done the same. Active Observes seem to be an important form of scrutiny but with a clear drop off in 3rd party analysis this year, I wonder if AO will disappear the way fanfare has this season.

For those that followed things last year and for the last few years, I think it is pretty obvious how inconsistent exposure in this game is. With this in mind, I now appreciate how unoriginal people like myself are. At Club Nationals I met this old school Ultimate guy that was brought on as a videographer for Rob. He was telling me about how he filmed Club Nationals back in the Ken Dobyns' days and he was telling me that they had announcers/commentators. This came as somewhat of a surprise to me because I thought live commentary for Ultimate was a relatively new concept, but apparently it has come and gone and come again, as has tournament discussion, online magazines, and general media exposure. I know that the UPA was looking for a permanent media director which would be nice but with the volatility of UPA positions, I wonder if this is just a pipe dream. In any event, a stable media entity would undoubtedly be helpful.

Ultimately, I get the feeling that fanfare in this sport is a little bit like the "1" from the Matrix. There is a steady progression of people interested in following the sport and hype/media exposure picks up momentum. We reach a pinnacle of interest but such an emotional high cannot be sustained indefinitely. Once this moment comes and goes, things cool off and because college players turn over so fast, the proverbial "reset" button gets hit. I'm as guilty as any for not fully appreciating our sport's past, but with transient "historians" instead of permanent media personnel, it's very difficult to remain informed. The information just isn't passed on particularly well, or at least not for long. After a while in the information doldrums, someone is inspired to get back on the media horse and bring the game to the latest population of college masses. He/she may believe they are conducting groundbreaking work, but in all seriousness, it's all been done before.

I get the feeling the reason behind this is simply the sport vs hobby nature of Ultimate. There seems to be a faceless, yet extremely powerful, force keeping Ultimate from becoming mainstream and while there is significant sacrifice in becoming a full fledged sport, we are currently nothing but gold fish. We see our present as something new and fantastic but in reality, it is nothing new at all. Few talking points are unique, very little is remembered for more than a few years and history undoubtedly repeats itself over and over and over.

just my thoughts

match diesel