Friday, March 13, 2009

My Second Take on Team USA

Now that team USA has been announced, I thought I would discuss some opinions on each player, but first I would like to congratulate each on such an accomplishment. We appreciate your efforts and look forward to seeing you defend our title.

Gwen Ambler - Excellent!! So glad she made the team. Lets just hope she doesn't get relegated to alternate status again. I don't watch too much women's ultimate, but one image that does pop into my head when I think of it is Gwen in the Club National Finals last year against Riot. This game will remain in infamy long after I stop paying attention to the sport (sorry Miranda), and Gwen was definitely very instrumental in the victory. I know from interviewing her that she has played every position for Fury, but as a deep in their zone, she completely turned the tables on Riot and took away their long game. Gwen is also a sterling role model for all players in this sport, myself included, and I'm really happy for her.

Sammy C-K - Another great selection by Greg and the rest of the crew. Sammy is such an amazing player but I also think that he is perfect to represent the red, white and blue. My first exposure to Sammy was back in 2003 at Beware-O, a hat tournament in San Mateo, CA. He was on my team, along with Greenough, and he made a play that I still can remember vividly. A game winning trailing edge layout chest high hammer goal from Josh. I was a naive young Squid at the time and didn't really know what I was witnessing, but the guy is just plain good. He, like Gwen, is a great role model in our sport. A veteran leader for Sockeye and never the source of any sort of controversy or poor sportsmanship. I really wanted MC on the team, but I think Sammy CK is a great choice.

Cara Crouch - I know of Cara because I have a few Texas friends and they all speak very fondly of her and Tank. Apparently, the consensus seems to be that they will produce the most talented Ultimate offspring ever. I for one don't really date women in Ultimate, but I am glad that some folks are going to produce some 2nd generation talent. I also like that Texas got some love when so many players were from Atlanta, Boulder, San Francisco or Seattle.

Deb Cussen - Now that the selections have been made, I need to start getting comfortable with previous Team USA members on the 2009 team. To make me feel better, I need to remember that winning Gold is the bottom line and considering the fact that Team Canada should be a considerable challenge, we really need the best from the USA and Deb is one of them. Her experience in Germany will be very important because she is a veteran handler and generating a consistent offensive game plan will be a major challenge. She saw the field more than any other female 4 years ago, playing in 94 out of 132 possible points. She also caught 3 goals and threw for one in the 15-14 Australia pool play game and got two more goals in the Gold medal game against the Aussies. She will be quite an asset.

Jolian Dahl - From what I hear, Jolian was the best tryout in Sarasota and from watching him over the last few years, I am not surprised. He seems to be a freak athlete with the fundamentals of a much squirrlier player. I'm not sure what kind of role he will fill on USA because he was a very solid leader for Mamabird, yet seemed like a role player for Bravo. He is one of 4 Bravo Team USA members and I'm sure like every JB-er from 2007, representing the US after missing the opportunity a few years back is something each will cherish.

Kathy Dobson - I'm not too familiar with Kathy but I do know that she has been a standout for Brutesquad for the last few years as well as the coach of BU's Ozone Pilots. In college she was All Region the first 3 years they had the award (her Junior, Senior, and 1st year Grad) and she made the Finals of College Nationals in 2003 with MIT. She has also helped Gwen out with I was really surprised to see only 1 Boston Area player on Team USA, so she definitely has a lot of pressure on her to represent, but I get the feeling it'll just be another day at the office.

Liz Duffy - Once again, I wasn't too familiar with Liz before she was chosen, but in doing a little research, I am glad to see her on this very short list. For starters, she is a PhD-er like myself in Marine Biology at the University of Washington, not to mention a veteran Captain for Riot. Peripheral to Team USA, she is also representing the Red, White and Blue as a part of Ultimate Peace this April in Israel. Definitely a standout Ultimate player that will represent our country well, on and off the field.

Cate Foster - Another women's player I don't know a whole lot about but one thing I do really like about Cate is that she built herself a program at College of Charleston. One of the things I have noticed a lot among many elite players is that they have no idea what it is like to be in the trenches and don't appreciate how frustrating/hard it is to work with low numbers and shallow talent pools. Many criticize lack of organization and commitment, but they underestimate the challenges of building infrastructure. Her personality also seems to be a bonus and I look forward to seeing her do well in the coming months.

Cree Howard - Cree definitely has a lot of pressure on her with this selection because she is the only active college player on the team. I remember when Zip made the team in 2005 and he blew everyone away, both in the College sphere and at World's. I think this has the capacity to spring board her towards a possible Callahan opportunity, but Cal has only been so-so this year, which might not be enough to get her the award. Regardless, Cree is one of those privileged youths like Oscar Pottinger, who will have a full trophy case well before she is even old enough to buy a house to put it in. I am always wary how such a combination of youth and success can lead to ego issues, but considering the pool of sharks she is swimming in, staying humble this summer will not be tough.

Jared Inselman - My first exposure to Jared was at the College All-Star game in 2007. Before Nationals that year I totally thought the West would pwn because they had two Callahan winners (Richter and Miranda), Ted Tripoli and Ray Illian. However, to my surprise, the East wanted it more. I remember TG and Jason Simpson played well, but I also remember the guy with "UPenn" on his back having a great game. In reading up on him I also came across a write up about an amazing display of sprit in a hotly contested game against Sockeye at Club Nationals back in 2004. I loved reading Miller's Bill Braski-esk post on RSD about him and now with his Team USA selection, we are all curious to know if Mike's accounts are accurate. I'm hoping to see him wipe his butt with a live elk.

Beau Kittredge - So Beau made the team eh? That's interesting.

Chelsea Dengler Putnam - I first heard of Chelsea back in 2003 when she and Ben Wiggins took the Ultimate world by storm earning the Callahan Awards for Oregon. However, after finishing up school we haven't heard much from her. This isn't meant as a criticism, but more of a sign of respect because she has stuck it out with Schwa the last few years, despite a less than stellar performance at Club Nationals in 2005 (11th) and no return trips to Sarasota. She could have easily played for other programs out of state like Fury or Riot, as Chase-Sparingly Beckley and Gwen Ambler have done, but she has stayed with Portland and I respect that. I'm glad that she has this chance to showcase her talents at the World's level and I bet she is as hungry as any to earn gold for her country.

Jonathan Remucal - It's funny, I know of several players from the CUT class of '98, Roger Crafts, Sam Rosenthal and Mike Caldwell, but Jon Remucal never came up on the radar. I assumed that most Bay Area talent was either Cal, Davis, Santa Cruz or Stanford and it was a nice little bit of information. Regardless, this must be an amazing year for Jon. He started playing with Jam in 2005 and despite the fact that guys like Bart, Gabe, Idris, Safdie, Jeff Eastham, Kevin Cissna, and Damien Scott get a lot of attention, I'm sure Jon has done his part to finally earn a ring. Getting an additional opportunity like this must be a great feeling and I'm sure the honor is one he will take with great humility and respect.

Steven Roussie - I don't know a ton about Rouisse but I do know that he has been involved with Boulder ultimate for a decade. He was Mamabird's Callahan nominee back in 2001 and had 6 fantasy points (2 goals, 4 assists) in the National Finals against CUT that year. He is also from Amherst, MA and was a guest Counselor at NUTC back in 2004. I find it interesting that such a veteran was chosen over younger Bravo standouts like Richter, Tripoli, and Mac Taylor, but I suppose that is just a testament to his abilities. If I had to guess, he will probably fill the leadership role that guys like Namking, Deaver, and Kubalanza did four years ago.

Gabe Saunkeah - I remember when Gabe was an undergrad at Cal and since 2005 he has been a solid handler for Jam. However, one of the most striking examples of his abilities came to me during a game he wasn't even playing in. Last year in Sarasota, Gabe went down with some sort of injury, in Semifinals against Bravo I believe, and was unable to play in the Finals. During the Finals, I was in the crow's nest watching the game and reading off emails that were being sent in during the live broadcast. On more than one occasion, players like Nick Menzies and Oscar Pottinger (both from Furious), emailed in asking about Gabe's playing status. Given the fact that Jam has so much talent to pay attention to, I overlooked his absence, but apparently Furious' D-line didn't, a clear sign of well deserved respect.

Adam "Chicken" Simon - After playing pickup with/against Chicken the last month or so, I'm not surprised at all that he made Team USA. His skill sets are very diverse and there isn't much he can't do on the field. He can cut, play D, handle, the works and I think it will be very easy for Greg to integrate him into the Team USA game plan, not to mention the other team he coaches.

Dylan Tunnell - In taking a look at the roster, it is pretty obvious that Team USA is going to be hugtastic and Dylan is no exception. He is such a moose and much like Sammy-CK, Beau, Jolian, Jared and Seth Wiggins, he will be a tough matchup. I'm not surprised Dylan made the squad and given the effort he has put into Georgia and Chain Lightning (not to mention NUTC), it is nice to see him get this opportunity. However, I have two concerns with respect to the big guys on Team USA. 1) Will all of them make the team? You can't have an entire team of downfield players can you? I wonder if Bart, Jon, Chicken, Gabe, and Steve benefit or suffer from being a bit smaller than these guys and I wonder who's official spots on Team USA are safer. 2) Can this collection of monster athletes be sewn together just right? Team Canada's men are all over the place with smaller scrappy players guys like Oscar Pottinger and Alex Hughes as well as guys like Hassell and Ouchterlony who are taller and more graceful (well Hassel, anyway). I'm sure Team USA will be no different in the end, but it will make the alternate selections all the more interesting.

Bart Watson - Like Deb Cussen, I was a bit put-off by having former members on Team USA, but Bart is a very good choice. As far as I know, he is the only college player to make it to the College Finals with two different teams (Stanford 2002, Cal 2004) winning in 2002. In addition, he has been a staple for Jam since at least 2003 and his most recent title is just an indication of the determination and commitment he has as a player. Off the field he is equally respectable as a PhD student in Political Science at Cal. He made a fine US representative in 2005 and 2009 will be no different.

Alicia White - I was stoked to see Alicia White on the tryout list, not to mention the "made it" list for the same reason I liked seeing her win Gold in Vancouver, she's a fellow UCSD alum. Her last year as a Psycho was my first year as a Squid and I remember very clearly that she was heads and shoulders above everyone else. Now that she has a few rings/medals, it makes the awe I felt back then all the more real and I am really proud of her. Plus, she was always nice to me and let me into the RIMAC gym when I'd forget my ID.

Seth Wiggins - Like Sammy CK, my first exposure to Seth was at Beware-O in '03 and it wasn't pretty. I remember Greenough warning us about his antics before the game and in looking over at the sideline, I got the impression that he was just another cocky jock. However, over the last few months, my opinion of Seth has changed dramatically. He has been very friendly the few times I've met him and despite being on the other side of the Furious/Sockeye rivalry, was very reasonable and objective when we've discussed the finer points of the game. Like the Boulder group, it is interesting to see who made it from the Team USA/Sockeye crowd, and I'm sure he is ready for another shot at Gold.

Closing Thoughts
The next step in the process for Team USA is the selection of the 13 players that will go to Worlds and the 7 that will not. I know it sucks being an "alternate" but I suppose the main thing to keep in mind is that out of the hundreds of applicants and 80 tryouts, you were chosen. Such an accolade is something each of these players will carry with them the rest of their careers and while it might not get them a medal or a ring, there are literally thousands of players that would gladly be so lucky. As I have stated before, this honor should be met with a great deal of humility and respect and I think we will get nothing less. The selection process has been so intense this time around and everyone involved knows what is at stake.

Yeah and Yale won High Tide....siiiiick.

just my thoughts

match diesel

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Baseball and Ultimate, Steroids and SOTG

Several times on this blog I have discussed how Ultimate and Basketball are similar but this time I would like to draw some parallels to Baseball.

For a few years now there has been a lot of discussion regarding spirit of the game, referees, observers, etc.. and despite the fact that this topic has inherent worth, things have gotten fairly diluted and now every time I see a SOTG or Refserver titled post on RSD, I just role my eyes. With that in mind I thought I'd try to put a slightly different spin on the topic as well as discuss Ultimate in a way I haven't before.

One of the ways I like to analyze Ultimate is to correlate it with sports that have much more scrutiny associated with them and recently I discovered a parallel between the steroid issues in Baseball and SOTG/Ref issues in Ultimate. I read this article on and not only did it reinforce some opinions regarding the Great American Pastime, but some connections to Ultimate began to emerge. The opinion I am referring to is this "self-righteous/above the influence" thought process that some people in some sports have. In essence, the idea that a person can perform or compete in a sport and not fall victim to the temptations and short comings that "lesser" sportsmen succumb too in the absence of rigorous rule enforcement. Despite what many may believe is true, in my opinion, this is a complete fallacy. We are all human and given the opportunity and lack of vigilant authority we can and will buckle under pressure, it is just a matter of circumstance.

Baseball and Ultimate
In my mind, SOTG abuse in Ultimate and steroid abuse in Baseball are quite analogous. In the case of steroids and Baseball, the issue first began to surface when some very suspect characters came forward or were accused/tested positive for performance enhancing substances. Not surprisingly, the stereotypes associated with muscle bound roid-raged jocks was prominent with some of the first steroid casualties. Players like Jose Cansaeco, Ken Caminiti, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds were the first to be scrutinized because they were either too big, too good, too shady or some combination of each. In this case, the steroid debate was easy to articulate but sadly, one could stuff it in a drawer because these characters represented extreme cases of substance abuse and most people assumed they were outliers.

Much like this, abuse with regard to SOTG in Ultimate was very easy to identify and write off early on. I'm not going to name names, but I'm sure over the years we can all think of opponents or fellow team mates that had suspect or sloppy playing practices and despite the fact that we either hated what they did and/or wouldn't play in a similar manner, we could disregard them as being poor sportsmen. Perhaps they were inexperienced players or bitter old "has beens", but in either case, their transgressions were ignored because they either didn't matter as players or would snap out of it eventually. We were comfortable with the system and assumed the general body of competitive players weren't abusing the rules.

However, in Baseball, as home run records were being eclipsed and free agency became more and more prominent, the expectations and money associated with players drastically increased. Players were breaking records and signing $252 million dollar contracts, but such things came at a price, one's integrity. Steroid use started to show up (or always was) amongst Baseball's most treasured players and because the business is so valuable, pharmaceuticals like Balco began generating/distributing performance enhancing substances that didn't have obvious side effects and/or weren't easily detectable, such as HGH. Then, because there wasn't a rigorous system of testing, the temptation to exploit the system was massive. Pressure came from all sides: fans, competitors, owners, the press etc... and even players like Alex Rodriguez, Rafeal Palmero, Miguel Tejada, and Andy Pettite were abusing. These weren't jacked out monsters or ego maniacs. They were just ball players trying to compete, but just like Canseaco, Bonds, Caminiti, and Clemens, they broke the rules.

I'd like to say that Ultimate is different, but it isn't. There was once a day when the game moved at a snail's pace relative to today and with a fraction of the teams and commitment level, SOTG was probably all that was necessary to keep the game clean. There may have been a few outliers here and there that took a few liberties in order to win, but they were in the margins, at least I hope so. But just like Baseball, things change. With constant pressure to expand and expand, the number of teams competing has ballooned to several hundred in every division, a number that dwarfs team totals as recently as my first year playing.

In addition, with things like Ultivillage and Cultimate, the importance of the game has exploded. Not only are players hitting the gym 5-7 times a week and competing year round, but we as followers are watching highlight clips and discussing the game world wide. A sport that had a small following of hippies some 30 years ago has now become a lifestyle and everyone from students to professionals to families are involved.

But just like free agency and money, these kinds of benefits come at a cost. With so many people emotionally invested in this game, with so much pride and glory on the line, the level of scrutiny has not kept up and it is now clear (to me at least) that liberties are being taken at the highest levels by the best players. Maybe this comes as no surprise, but much like the steroid issue, the integrity of the game is at stake. With players sacrificing so much to succeed in a game that has become so competitive, rule enforcement is of the utmost importance. However, despite our efforts to maintain a self-officiated systems, National Champions, Gold Medalists, and Callahan winners are getting away with rule breaking and much like steroids in Baseball, continued neglect of this issue is the worst possible insult to the game.

An Ugly Realization
Before I went to Boulder last year I wanted to re-watch the College Finals from 2006 because I figured Florida and Wisconsin would meet again in the Finals and I wanted to see the '06 game again. This was a great contest between two of the best teams in the history of our sport but the piece of footage that jumped out at me had little to do with the actual rivalry between Wisconsin and Florida, and more to do with just how apparent rule breaking in this game is.

For those of you without the patience to sit through the 45 minute video, take a look at the final goal of the game, or better yet the replay at 42:10. Tim Gehret hits Kurt Gibson with a beautiful 30 yard hammer in the back of the endzone for the game winner. The Cinderella Story is complete, Florida is a first time National champ and not only are they National champs, they went something like 55-1 and Tim Gehret got himself the Callahan Award in the process.

But hold the phone, take a closer look at TG's feet. Look at his pivot foot, travel! Such an infraction may seem trivial but given the stakes of this particular game and the fact that this was the game winning assist, I couldn't help but think, "What if Ben Rothlisberger had stepped over the line of scrimmage when he hit Santonio Holmes in the Super Bowl?" Maybe it doesn't affect Ben's throw but I bet you anything a yellow flag comes out and voids the touchdown. The same could be said for Tim's hammer, but it wasn't because it really wasn't anyone's job to look.

The biggest goal of the entire year and he traveled and not only did he travel, he took a huge step to get a difficult throw off, i.e. the travel DID affect the play. To make matters worse, he was the best player on the best team and he broke the rules and got away with it. Maybe not on purpose, maybe he would have had no problem taking it back or apologizing or admitting it, but he did it none the less and reaped the benefits. But because our system of self-officiating has holes in it, much like the steroid policy (or lack thereof) in Baseball, players can and will take advantage.

Now one could make the argument that Wisconsin simply blew the call, but blaming the Hodags for missing this does not give me any solace and it just highlights the idea that future abuse like this can, and probably will, occur. I actually commend Wisconsin's defensive focus and given the gruelling conditions in Columbus that day, asking a player to play and remain so vigilant at the same time is unfair. A foul call, a strip, a stall count, these are situations where players interact directly and therefore spirit plays a factor, but in a situation like this, the simple lack of observation is abused and I believe the integrity of the game suffers.

In addition, one could also argue that steroid abuse in Baseball is an active choice and it appears that Tim's travel was unintentional, making him the source of unfair criticism. However, it is a slippery slope to plead ignorance and I believe Tim's culpability lies with the fact that he was attempting such a difficult throw. A breakside hammer is devastating in a man to man defense setting and keeping a sturdy pivot foot is one of the only restrictions a player must follow in a windless situation. Tim benefitted from sloppy execution and rather than being taken back, the goal was recorded and the game was over. Perhaps if it had been a slight toe drag on a back/forehand huck or not an assist (much less a game winning assist), the situation would be different. Never the less, the circumstances of the play speak for themselves and at a moment where scrutiny should have been at its peak, the integrity of the game was tarnished. What's funny is that despite the fact that this may seem like a meticulous critique, I am confident that a player of Tim Gehret's caliber would rather have had a whistle blown and had to score legitimately than win because of a lack of vigilance.

And what is paramount regarding this play is that this was the game that made it to TV. This was the game we used to showcase Ultimate to the rest of the World and the last play, the game winner, was a text book example of just how antiquated self-officiating in Ultimate is. How can we inspire people to pick up a disc when the very best that play it are able to take advantage of a flawed system? This wasn't a pickup game or a contest involving inexperienced players. This was one of the biggest games in our sport's history with two of the best college teams ever, facing off in the National Finals. Yet when the stakes were this high, when so many people were watching, when so much was on the line, the rules were broken and what's worse is that no one even noticed. When I saw this, I was embarassed to be an Ultimate player.

What is also worth mentioning is that I do not blame Tim Gehret or anyone else that commits a violation here or there, nor do I blame players for making suspect calls in tense game situations, I am guilty of both. Actions like these are simply an affirmation of one's humanity, their lack of perfection, it would be unreasonable for me to expect anything else. However, what I can expect, for both Baseball and Ultimate, is a rigorous system of rule enforcement that keeps a watchful eye on all of it's participants. What is the point of a rule if record breakers, MVP's, and National Champions break it? What kind of example, as a country that invented each sport, are we setting by tip toeing around such a blatantly obvious problem? MLB and the UPA have their work cut out for them, and it is up to the leadership of each sport to fortify the integrity of each game.

Action Taken
To address the steroid situation, MLB investigated performance enhancement abuse in Baseball with the Mitchell Report. Much to their dismay, not only were steroids abused in Baseball, the problem was everywhere. More players were using than anyone could have imagined and what was even more alarming was that if you could get a player to answer a question honestly, they'd tell you that steroid abuse wasn't all that rare or uncommon. What a black eye for the sport.

The equivalent to the Mitchell Report in Ultimate seems to be the Ultimate Revolution, a rigorous investigation on the UPA’s part with the purpose of evaluating the game and seeing where it could be improved. Topics from regional lines, to College Nationals bid allocation, to a more active role for observers, were discussed and there are plans through 2012 to utilize the information uncovered. I’ve already discussed a 20 team College Nationals format on this blog and am more interested in active observers.

To begin the implementation process, the UPA scheduled several experimental tournaments that will allow players to get a feel for what active travel and up/down calls from an observer will be like. Ultimately, there will be a vote sometime before Nationals involving qualified teams to determine whether or not they want this sort of role for observer at College Nationals. The vote will require a 60% supermajority, which could prove to be a sizeable percentage, leaving me with the fear that despite all the information available, there is still a chance that nothing will be done with regard to these sorts of rule abuses.

Much like with steroids in Baseball, despite the evidence and work being done, the power of the data has yet to actually be utilized. Alex Rodriguez has tested positive for steroids and self-officiating has been abused by the game's best, but neither MLB nor the UPA has proven to their constituents that one day things like this will not occur, or at least given us any confidence that such a goal is even possible. A vote seems like another bureaucratic hurdle against a more fair and strict system, but hopefully, the UPA members that are privileged enough to vote on this matter will see things my way.

With this in mind, I am posting this article on the eve of The Stanford Invite, one of the the most prestigious tournaments in our sport, and one of the tournaments on the experimental schedule. Considering the fact that most, if not all, of the 2009 National Qualifiers will be at this tournament, this is one of the most important weekends of the year. Their exposure to the possibility of active observers can and should give them the knowledge they will need in a few months when voting on this issue occurs. I for one hope each and every player is paying attention, because much like the Conference 1 issue, this is a vastly important decision that will be made by some of our sports youngest and most inexperienced participants.

Personally, I think, much like the instant replay issue in Baseball, a vote is simply unneeded, just implement active observers. Democracy is a great system but it isn't always necessary and can sometimes be inhibitory, especially when the voting population doesn't have the best interest of the sport in mind. Perhaps some, even most players (Ultimate and Baseball) want change, but I get the feeling that some may not. I doubt most players want to be guinea pigs and while they care about the sport at large, they care more about their own personal agenda. Once again, this is simply an articulation of their humanity and self-interest but such things present problems when objective and enlightened decisions need to be made. Luckily for us flatballers, the opinion regarding active observers seems generally favorable so I am optimistic about this vote and unlike baseball, I believe change can and will happen.

Closing Thoughts
I have a lot more to say with regard to this topic but it is difficult to articulate objectively and in a professional way. What I will say is that on practice fields and sports complexes across the country and world, we teach and play a game that is self-officiated. We all see the difficulties associated with this sort of approach, but we try and work around them. However, the paradox of our sport continues to rear it's ugly head. We cannot ignore the fact that this game has evolved into a lifestyle and as such we need to modulate our way of playing it. Without strict rules, abuse will occur and neglecting it just shows a complete lack of respect for the game. Our situation is no different than the issues with Steroids in Baseball, or even the current economic crisis. When so much is on the line, when there is so much to be won or lost, 3rd party observation and regulation is imperative, otherwise how can we trust the end result? How can we be sure our reality is strong and stable? Anyone's illegitimate success will ultimately lead to everyone's legitimate sacrifice.

I also believe that as we move in this direction, the distance between self-officiating and just plain officiating continues to shrink. It appears that the dam maintaining Ultimate's historic roots, preventing it from becoming mainstream, springs a leak once in a while and the bottle neck pressure has shifted once again. I remember a time when eligibility was a huge concern and now it is active observers. What will be next? And despite all our intelligence is there any way we can make progress without sacrifice or struggle? Probably not, but hey, remember it's just a game.

just my thoughts

match diesel