Wednesday, May 20, 2009

On our way

The time is nigh. With half the team already en route, we depart from downtown Madison feeling good about everything. I'll write more tomorrow after we've arrived if I can find an internet connection somewhere.

In the meantime, come along on the trip with me here. My musings will be reactionary and reflective, and I'll keep all the alumni abreast of the events going on between the lines, the things you won't be reading about on the Score Reporter.

Safe travels and good luck to everyone. Walk hard.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

You. 5th year player. Nationals begins in 3 days; Your college career ends in 7. Has that reality sunk in yet? Of course it has. I doubt anything other than that reality has been on your mind lately. So, how long have you been freaking out then? A couple of days, a couple of weeks, or have the last several months come crashing down upon you? For most of you, the school year has indeed ended – graduations and commencements come and gone – and the only thing left is to figure out summer employment plans… and win a championship. Yet, in the rush of college life – sometimes the reality that this segment of your life is finishing goes unnoticed. Do these 5th year seniors realize that their college experience has ended? Nope.

This is the first time in the 6 years that I have been a part of the Hodags, in which I have not seen a 5th year player break down to tears during a team huddle when realizing that it was their last College Regionals or Nationals. Usually it's a captain or officer, who is overcome with emotion upon realizing just how much the team means to him. I vividly recall Dan Miller and Jimmy McMurray choking back tears when they tried to articulate what the team actually meant to them. I remember Dan Heijmen’s teary long-winded speeches, Rebholz’s moment to collect himself, and Rodrigo breaking down when the moment of realization came – all of these reflected in their dedication to the program.

And that is what Wisconsin does to its ultimate players. It makes them care. It goes so far as a sense of identity. Ultimate is not something I play – Ultimate is who I am. No wonder Wisconsin consistently turns out dominant programs – the players just care more. However, so far this season, no graduating senior has addressed the team in such a manner. Either the 5th years are especially good at controlling their emotions or it hasn’t quite hit them yet. As hard as it was for me, as impossible as it was, I hope this year's crop can push those thoughts out of their minds for at least one more week. It will be over before they know it. I have seen the 5 super seniors of the Hodags grow, develop and mature into stud players – and now I will have to watch them – like the many before them – learn to deal with life without college ultimate. Departing from a college team of your best friends is no easy feat. It's a death in your life. Your teammates will move away, your camaraderie and everyday interactions will fade to memory, and you will eventually need to cope that fantasy land is over and real life begins. But one more summer of fun can’t hurt anything…

Musings by 2007 Callahan Winner Dan Heijmen

One aspect of the Callahan discussion that I don’t think has been given enough attention is the fact that Jim Foster, while being the Hodags go-to player, is also their coach. This write-up isn’t meant in any way to diminish the accomplishments or talents of any of the other front-runners for Callahan (Mac, Stevie, Will) but to say that these players have all benefitted heavily from having a coach. I know from playing against the three guys I mentioned above that they are studs on the field and command the respect of their teammates and opponents. I have seen Mac, Stevie and Will do amazing things on the field and know that they are leaders in the huddles and most likely have a strong influence on their team’s strategy/personnel/ line calling etc.

What I do want to talk about what its like to be a player/coach on a top-level ultimate team. Let me just say from the start that it’s really f-ing hard. Even with the support of your teammates having a responsibility to your team in two different facets takes a high level of patience, focus and dedication, especially if you are able to continue to play at a high level. On the Hodags we know that the player who takes the role as the “senior captain” is sacrificing quite a bit. Having been in that position myself I was almost crushed under the pressure of having to be a playmaker on the field while retaining my responsibility to coach and run the team. The transition b/w being the junior captain (i.e. first year captain) to senior captain (second year) was a jump I wasn’t fully prepared for during my last year of college ultimate. Knowing that Tom Burkly, my senior captain in 2006, was gone scared the shit out of me. I was entrusted with a team that had just come off an incredible season that came up just short of a national title. The pressure was on us to deliver a championship. Due to this weight, my play suffered severely the first half of the 2007 season. I played (what I consider) the worst game of my ultimate career in the finals of Vegas (a universe point loss to Florida,) as a direct result of feeling like I had to “be the guy” while trying to coach, call subs, change strategy etc. I was lucky enough to have guys around me during that game who picked up my slack (Jim Foster for one, had an incredible game, highlighted by a ridiculous sky of Kurt Gibson off some trash I threw into the end zone), but in the end the loss was on me and my inability to successful function as both a player and a coach.

Throughout the season I knew that I wasn’t playing at the best of my ability b/c I was so focused on the rest of the team. Sure I could lock in while a point was being played, but being in that mindset throughout the game is not a luxury you have when you’re responsible for gauging all the different factors of a particular point/game/day/tournament or season. Having this sort of responsibility on a college team, whose goals are so high, is incredibly challenging. Its not like in Club where you can count on the majority of your teammates knowing where they should be and what they should be doing. And with the premium the Hodags have always placed on developing younger players, the distraction to a captain’s individual game can be huge. I don’t mean to imply at all that Jim is doing it all on his own, or that the other Hodags aren’t doing enough. In my time as a captain with the Hodags I had an amazing support system during my last year which included Matt Rebholz, Dan Miller, Muffin, Matt Scallet, Jack Marsh and yes, Jim Foster. I know Jim has the same. These players made up the leadership core of the team and we got together often to discuss strategy, personnel, schedules etc.

But come tournament time, a lot falls on the shoulders of the senior captain, in this case Jim Foster. He has been entrusted with a team that has won back-to-back national championships, but that has lost many of the familiar faces that made them up. As was mentioned in Jon Gaynor’s recent post: gone from last year are 5th year players like Shane Hohenstein, Drew Mahowald, Matt Rebholz, Will Lokke, Muffin, Kevin Riley, Chris Doede and Seth Meyer. Each of these players was invaluable over the past two seasons. The strong, vocal, experienced 5th year presence is perhaps not as evident this season compared to seasons past. Yet look at what Wisconsin has accomplished so far this season. Perhaps not the dominant regular season from the past 3 seasons, but a guaranteed top 4 seed in what has been the craziest college ultimate season we’ve seen for the last 6 or 7 years. He has molded a team comprised of the most inexperienced players the Hodags have had since the turn of the century into one of the few teams with a shot to win nationals.

And despite what you might think about the top programs in the country, it is not easy to stay this good from season to season. Especially when the knowledge and responsibility is not embodied in a coach who has been there year after year, but actually passed down from player to player, each season interpreted and implemented slightly differently. That Jim has been able to individually have the season he’s had is nothing short of remarkable. It is a testament to his focus, his determination and his love for his Hodags. I get razzed quite a bit from former teammates for throwing around love like this, but it is true for us. That’s why we scream Hodag Love before games/after games/after practice/and whenever we get together. That’s why Hodags play like they do and that’s why Jim can scream, “We’re the fucking Hodags” in a huddle and it has an immediate response. It is an amazing thing to be a Hodag: To be part of something each season that is incredibly unique yet so clearly connected to the teams of the past, and I know that captaining them has so far been the privilege and honor of Jim’s life. We take it pretty seriously in Madison.

And despite the frustration that I’m sure sets in for Jim from time to time, wishing that maybe for a game or a practice he could forget being a captain and just play, he knows its worth it. Sure it makes the losses harder to stomach, but the wins are that much sweeter. And if you’re lucky enough to make it to Columbus, and to watch the Hodags the play, you’ll see them play with an intensity that is unmatched, spurred forward by their leader. The best and most valuable player in the country: Jim Foster.