Tuesday, August 12, 2008

I love McDonald's french fries. On road trips they're one of my (many) guilty pleasures. Piping hot and salty, regardless of where I am in the country I know what I'm getting when I place my order. That's a little funny to think about, really. Stick any dufus behind the fryer and they can make french fries as tasty as someone three states away. Plug in a dufus, get delicious fries. So, what's the secret?

There is no secret. It's not the dufus, it's the system. McDonald's fries taste great regardless who made them because McDonald's has a great system that works, for all its employees, regardless of where they are.

So what am I trying to say? I just got done watching the Youth Club Championships, and saw a lot of great talent there. But a lot of that talent will go to some college and die out, be extinguished among a field of mediocrity, or never reach its full potential. The best teams in the country, with perennial successes, reach that pinnacle not because they're relying on the best players to come to their school, but because they take those players that come to the school and make them the best they can be.

Mr. Seattle Defensive Captain can think we're cocky and arrogant because we came with merchandise to give away and to present ourselves as players and alumni from a successful team, but speaking for the two programs I know most about, Colorado and Wisconsin, their success is driven by their ability to find the smallest talent in every one of their players and expanding it to its maximum.

This sport is growing exponentially in high school. Being a player on a good YCC team no longer translates into immediate success in college. The level of play jumps dramatically, and without knowledgeable and experience leaders, players are left stunted in their ability to grow their skills.

When we won in 2003, Charles Kerr called Wisconsin "the faceless army and Hector" (he signaled me out not for my skill, but because when you've got corn-rows and dark skin you stick out in Wisconsin). The facelessness of Wisconsin has only increased, and most teams don't know the bottom half of the team. But it's this bottom half that does the legwork, squeezing turns out of their match-ups and showcasing Wisconsin's depth while their studs hold down the other teams' stars. But for those kids in Blaine this weekend that feel like they're holding the Golden Ticket to college disc, consider my friends:

Parker Krug, Richter, Muffin, Shane Hohenstein, Andrew Brown, Beau, Drew Mahowald, Mac Taylor...these are all names now, and if you're anyone in this sport you should know all of them. And not a single one was a HS stud. Some never even played before getting to college. But they chose a school with people that saw their talent and coaxed it out using proven and tested methods of training, development, and mentorship between veterans and rookies that allow them now to be some of the most respected names in club ultimate, bitching people you'd otherwise bother for an autograph.

It's the system. CU has one. Wisconsin has one that's been in constant evolution and refinement, demanding the most from its players and doubling their investments in return, and for all the hard work it takes, no one regrets their efforts at season's end. No one. That's why they seem cocky to you, and arrogant, because they tested themselves against the most gruelling training they could and finished. What happened at Nationals after that was the reward of their brow sweat. And if it comes off as swagger, so be it. They survived. They won. They've earned it. You wouldn't understand.

And every season, in September, it's available in Madison to the 25 dudes who want it most. Don't be angry if you don't make it; it takes more than flair to be the best. And if you don't believe me, maybe next time a Hodag is trying to talk to you about the program, just ask them. They know all about the system.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Let's put this weekend into perspective.

The Olympics started in China amid 15,000 performers for the opening ceremonies, almost absorbing the news that Russia and Georgia were pushing towards war. Completely overlooked were the deaths of both Bernie Mac and Issac Hayes. With the weight of this international and national news, two tiny events were picked up by our small community: Saturday's live webcast of the World Ultimate Championships and the 2008 Youth Club Championships in Blaine, Minn. I, intrepid and curious newsphile that I am, was on top of all of these events, but I'll talk only about the last two.

The often-lagged webcast of the Open finals had been pushed back a few hours, enough for Sub Zero to finish their practice, dip into Lake Nokomis, and head to Andrew Brown and Dan Heijmen's place for a large-scale viewing. While we found the constant refreshing a bit annoying, there was no doubt that we were witnessing a giant leap for disckind, an offering worlds better than sitting in front of RSD constantly pressing F5. We were able to watch plays moments after they happened, and watch Grant and Roberts score goal after goal. Nasty. Most of us Zebros watching were leaning pretty hard towards one team, but we cheered for great plays both ways. Aside from the lag, the only other constant annoyance was Match, especially toward the end.

Having just read his Best Experience of My Life post, where he puts two fingers up in the air to the haters and lets off his King of the World rant like a journalistic Leo Dicaprio, it's hard not to find him at least remotely likeable. Certainly his energy for the sport is to be commended, and one might even be able to forgive the fact he talks like he know everything about us, when in his commentary it was painful to see the discrepancies between actual knowledge and what he'd like you to think he knows. One might. I guess for those who know nothing about what happens in elite Ultimate, listening to someone who's trying to convince you they know it all is as close as you're going to get, and you'll take it.

The Blockstack dudes did a great job, and our crowd got a big kick when Muffin sent a typical Morfinesque email to them while the game progressed and had his every talking point discussed on the air, followed by my email with similar results.

Things that occured to me during/after the game:

  • This was Chase's last game as a Sockeye, perhaps his last in competitive Open. We'll probably see him from time to time on a Carleton Lovefest mixed squad and such, but Ultimate's GPiG (greatest player in game) from '04 is gone. Big loss for the quality of the division. Strangely reminded me of laying down rhymes for Miranda at Chicago Tune-Up while he listened many years ago. I'll miss you bud.
  • I've never been very superstitious, but fuck it. The Curse is real. I thought for sure USA would win convincingly, but I forgot about Kubalanza. It's real. Right now there may be some readers scratching their heads wondering if I forgot Sockeye won this past year with Kubalanza in it, but that didn't count as I will soon explain on this blog.
  • Canada's offense was dominant, very chilly and possesion-driven considering the elements. Certainly moreso than Seattle's. But now Furious has to adjust to the series without its out-of-providence players. Alexander and Hassel were a huge part of the offensive production, and now Furious will have to fill the gap with someone lacking their talent.
  • Did USA overlook Canada after Furious' finish in Sarasota and the Buzz Bullets' victory at the Dream Cup? Magic Eight ball says SIGNS POINT TO YES.
  • Sockeye must adjust to losing Seth Wiggins, Chase, and who knows who else calling it quits. Plus, somehow bounce back from a loss none of them expected. Furious has to shed valuable rigers and still perform as they did. Right now Bravo is looking poised to rise from the chaos, and Boston certainly feels like they are ready for a title run with Graham healthy again. Chesapeake is going to be sick next weekend.
  • If the DVD copy of the finals features the commentary we all heard watching live, there's no place far enough for Match to run from Sockeye's fury. He let them have it in the second half and shat all over them. When those dudes hear what he had to say I can't imagine they won't hunt him down and tear out his fingers and larynx.
After Sunday's practice up in the Twin Cities, my vehicle drove to Blaine to catch the YCC finals. Our primary reason was to recruit studs for Wisconsin, letting the high schoolers know we care, we're well funded, and Patagonia has given us the same sponsorship package as Sockeye. Talking to them about the trust fund that is growing in the hopes of one day paying for all playing expenses for players, about our Hodag Love scholarship to one player a year, and noting that UW-Madison is the 9th best public university in the country, with tremendous research facilities and some of the best schools in Business, Medical School, and journalism, to name a few.

Turns out all you have to do is approach these kids wearing Hodag gear and handing out business cards and you have a captive audience, waiting to have their egos stroked with the words, "We'd love for you to come to Madison." Aside from the few that we approached directly and gave discs to, I began to notice a small peripheral crowd of teens hoping to be approached and pampered, waiting in the wings. While the current 'Dags in my car talked to specific players, I watched the boys' final, which Pittsburgh was winning handidly. Things I noticed or overheard:
  • Some Seattle parents were complaining on the sidelines about Pitt's Alex Thorne (I think that's his name). He had flown to Blaine with his father on the redeye from Vancouver, having just played in worlds. The Seattle parents felt some agreement by the USA juniors team had been broken, as 7 of Seattle's team stayed behind after worlds and Alex made a push to help his team win at YCC. Gripes about his parents being loaded were verbalized.
  • I was given some backstory to the Pittsburgh team. Apparenly the core of the team has been playing together since elementary school, and had always fallen short of winning the major Junior tourneys. When they were up 13-9, I began to cheer them on in hopes they might not falter in the last crucial points. I was beginning to see them tighten up in their playing. I specifically chose #19 on Pitt, a playmaker for them who carried himself with an air of superstardom (tragically ahead of its time). He was playing nearly every point, and played every point from 13-9 till the end. I began to notice his fatigue and wanted to make sure his head was still where it should be.
Sadly, it wasn't. The play that I look back on as the shift in momentum was a short backhand pass into the endzone by #19, thrown a bit too rushed, slightly behind, but still certainly catchable. It would have been the goal to put them at game point. Instead it was dropped. 19 stared with wide eyes, a look of "how could you just have dropped my pass." It came right after a spectacular catch he'd made on the goal line. Seattle quickly transitioned and scored the goal to bring it within 3, and the whole time 19 still can't get over that drop. He begins to play as if several of his teammates owe him and his skill something, rather than focus everyone in and emphasize team-wide execution (some lessons are learned too late in life). Amid his disbelief (and a play-of-the-game catch on a hammer over 19 for a crucial goal by a Seattle player), his team begins to crumble with quick-finish throws that don't pan out, and Seattle storms back to tie and take their first lead of the game at 14-13, hard to 15. Pittsburgh finally coughs a pass that works to tie and force double game point, but though the wind isn't hard it's enough to make it upwind for Pitt. Seattle calms in a way Pitt should have done 5 points ago, and marches to the goal line and calls a time out. 19 on the mark, flailing wildly. I am trying to get him to take a step off and force a backwards pass to break up their play. A chippy foul, upheld by observers too weak to do much this game (the offsides by both teams were egregious and uncalled), and after the disc check, the Seattle thrower punches it into the open side for the score and the tournament. Comeback (or massive choke) complete, 15-14.

High school Ultimate at this level is fun to watch. Good throwing mechanics, but poor throwing decisions, alongside great defensive efforts but immature field awareness leads to great plays and bids all over the field. It may not always be executed well, but it's damn exciting. I said goodbye to my Colorado friends in town for the tourney (shouts out to Nick Arnaud and Patrick Jones) and got in the car for the drive home to Madison, thinking about Bernie Mac.