Thursday, February 17, 2011

I've been following Lou Burrus' writings at Win The Fields as he discusses several reasons why referees aren't the panacea to Ultimate's ills, and I certainly agree. He mentions in two different posts the strongest points I have for continuing our current observer system, but having the observers perform the duties as they're prescribed.

The first point he addresses is the time between when a call is made and its resolution. I am in favor of the observers giving some time for players to work out an understanding of the play in question, but in my opinion observers have shied away from stepping in when it's clear the disagreement between the players won't be resolved. This can start with all players keeping in mind that in many contested fouls, a call/contest response is acceptable. But observers, perhaps afraid of being too large an influence, have developed a neutered style where they'll sit back and, only after minutes have been whittled away, step in and make a call. The observers need to be ready with a ruling, then interject and either rule one way or send the disc back.

Secondly, I am all for observers wielding team and personal misconduct fouls with greater frequency as a way to dissuade players and teams from forcing stoppages of play with bullshit calls and fouls to dictate the pace of the game. Right now the threshold for TMFs and PMFs is so high that only egregious violations seem to merit them. While observers have in the last year been more generous with TMFs, I don't think it's been enough of a change yet.

Lastly, as I perused some write-ups from Warm-Up, I read this breakdown of teams on No-Look Scoober, where the writer Stonewall Jackson conflates some heated intra-teammate talk with "issues being a unified squad". He goes on to write, "In one instance, negativity seemed to go over the top, past teammate to teammate heckling when members on the sidelines expressed their discontent with some turnovers colorfully."

I couldn't disagree with this more. It goes without saying that the writer was nowhere near the fields, or even Florida, during the tournament, but there wasn't a single instant all weekend where I thought any Hodag went over the top in criticism of his teammates and, had I felt that was the case, there would have been immediate and significant consequences for doing so. This Hodag squad is fantastic; I couldn't be more happy with or proud to coach them, and each of them would go to the limit of their abilities to help any of the others. If teams are looking at our unity as a possible place to get an edge or incite divisiveness look elsewhere, because you'll be wasting your time. If there's one things the Hodags have never lacked, it's strength through unity, and indeed our most common cheer, and the bedrock of our team philosophy, states it. Hodag Love.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

After two days of rest to allow the knots and tightness to dissipate, the Hodags reconvene tonight at their winter lair, the Shell. With a long list of things to improve on but not much opportunity to touch on those that require discs, we can only turn our focus toward the one thing we have control over: team-wide fitness. Tonight Jerrybomb sets about as taskmaster to the team's athleticism. In his tenure as team fitness coordinator he has established himself as an efficient trainer with a splash of sadism that his civilian acquaintances, unfamiliar to the rigors of competitive Ultimate, don't get to see.

I drift now to moments on the sidelines this weekend whenever a call was made, in our games or otherwise, that nullified a score or big play made by one of the teams. Mostly I think of all the incredulity and snark that comes out of the mouths of players too far away to see any part of the play with clarity, or senseless noise coming from players who didn't see what happened at all.

It seems now we're at a moment where everyone provided with vocal chords claims as their right some permutation of best perspective; where every call's legitimacy is argued if it goes against your team; where even the worst calls a teammate can make are upheld as manifest truth.

It reminds me of a moment in Steven King's The Stand where the survivors of a biological apocalypse, after enjoying a period of camaraderie and tight communion, begin to lock the doors in their Boulder, CO homes as the size of the settlement swells, and distrust once again takes root within the cracks of unfamiliarity.

On the heels of the UPA (oops - USAU -old habits die hard) announcing that membership has reached an all-time high and junior memberships have now surpassed those of adults, I'm wondering if we're losing some of that closeness that allowed self-officiation to thrive, that community which allowed each of us as players to leave the doors of our trust unlocked during games.

At the captain's meeting this year at Club Nationals, there was nary a peep about the future of referees in Ultimate - quite the opposite, the corporate line from CEO Tom Crawford and everyone else who spoke from headquarters stressed the future of the sport as predicated on self-officiation as the keystone in the arch of selling points the USAU is using to push Ultimate to a wider market.

And I don't want you to get me wrong - I love self-officiation in this sport. But it's been my experience lately that the familiarity between players nationwide has diminished as our numbers have grown, and now the hardest thing to find on the field the moment after a contentious call is civility, and players with unsubstantiated opinions and no desire to base them on any hard reality sprout like uncontested weeds from the green of the pitch and sidelines. If our civility holds its current decaying trajectory, we're going to need to modify our rules eventually to allow for more observer empowerment, and not because self-officiation is dead or impossible, but because new generations of players simply aren't putting in the effort necessary to make it work. Trust and democratic spirit within a game are as difficult as any upfield break or off-handed sky, but while the latter two bring instant glory and praise, the former two affect the game with a subtlety not immediately tangible. It's only during the handshakes between teams, at the end of a long and hard-fought game that both felt was called fairly, that their true value comes to light.

It's my responsibility, and a primary focus since taking the helm of the Hodags, to make sure this team enjoys and promotes a style of play that is aggressive, intense, and competitive, but also fair, honest, and full of the sportsmanship that Spirit of the Game upholds but has hardly cornered within our sport. For the Hodags and teams nationwide, the challenge remains.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

We returned from Florida with 9 games under our belt, 6 victories, 3 losses, and for my part, one hell of a shirt tan. Most importantly, as we boarded a giant team flight on AirTran back to Wisconsin we had a long list of things we needed to work on for these next three weeks, before the Hodags once again board a plane and head to the opposite coast for the Stanford Invite.

We arrived at the field complex of the University of Southern Florida on a morning that could have been warmer. With our breaths barely visible at our faces and the thermometer pushing the bottom 40s, teams warmed up in full pants and jackets, and hands were kept warm between drills within the heat of our crotchspace. UNC-W coach Tully Beatty complained that, aside from the fact it wasn't raining, the weather had not improved on their long drive southward. The Hodags were happy to feel even the lightest touch of warmth though, and we set about getting our legs ready for the weekend.

We began round robin play with the host team. My concern was our rusty throws would be an even bigger disadvantage playing against home field, and true to form our defense's O had trouble converting. Our legs carried us though and we were able to generate many turns. Our O-line looked sharp however, and carried the half without a single break to its detriment. When the second half started, our D finally got its throws together and we eliminated casual turns. The result was rattling off several breaks and taking the game 13-7.

We had a brief break before playing Cornell who, despite having made semifinals of Natties last year (can't believe it!), came with maybe 13 pairs of legs to this tournament. It was the 2nd game for both teams, but they were already looking tired, and by this time the D squad was humming along. Despite the efforts of a few astute throwers on Cornell, their defense was unable to generate any breaks all game and we took it in hand 13-6.

Our next game against Virginia was the first real test. We went into halftime with a lead that felt comfortable, and when our O-line was finally broken our defense was too lax to respond. A few sloppy points in a row by our O-line, and suddenly we found ourselves down a point neediing to tie. The game evened at 10-10, then we broke to take advantage, and traded to the cap, with our team receiving tied at 11s. The hard cap had come on, and with only 5 minutes until the start of the next round we scored to win on double game point. There was contention, however, as Virginia was unaware that we'd been playing under hard cap for the last two points (they scored to tie it at 11s, forcing the final point), and they complained. There was nothing to be done with tournament director Cyle Van Auken looking on, and as they bitterly asked him, "what more can we do?" he answered them deadpan, "keep track of time."

Here I'll interject that while it is each team's responsibility to do so, I understand Virginia's frustrations. There was no loud horn indicating soft or hard cap, and teams were left to manage time themselves. And normally, I would have talked to someone on the other team to ensure that both teams know the situation but this was our first tournament, and I'm becoming comfortable with my own duties, and in the moment it didn't cross my mind. So, apologies to Virginia, but that's how it goes. Keep track of time.

I'll also mention that the amenities for this tournament were what amenities.

Two port-a-johns, 200m away from the fields, both out of toilet paper by the second round. These boxes of filth were brimming beyond their capacity by the 3rd day, and attempting to deuce at the fields on Sunday became a challenge in careful placement, lest you bottom out too soon and find yourself with no place to go. Only at a tourney with no women's division could you even hope to get away with this. The captain's meeting consisted of a USF player clearly in over his head rattling off rules that he thought were right (he was proven wrong later, his stated 1TO/half + a floater became 2TO/half by the end of the tourney), and the trainer was available whenever we didn't need her. She was contracted to arrive after the start of rounds, and left before the end of the day, along with whomever was taking care to fill water jugs. Not that you can ask for much with a low tourney fee, but I think as a sport we need to get used to paying a little more and having, at bare minimum, a trainer present ANY TIME players are running on the fields, and bathroom facilities that can withstand the copious fecal production 9 teams generate. Just sayin'.

Our final game was against Colorado to end Friday's play. They took it to us fairly well, capitalizing quickly on unforced errors by our O-line. We hardly played our best game, and a couple of breaks in the second half by the D gave us confidence going into Saturday that we could generate goals against any offensive line, however our O-line execution faltered in the second half of the day and we needed to address those struggles. We had drops and throw-aways that are unchacteristic for this team, but with wind playing with the disc's path and edge, our lack of experience outside showed when we played against teams with more aggressive defenses. The day closed with food, and a delicious couple of Bell's Two-Hearted ales for me and Scotto back at the tourney.

Saturday showcased the Florida weather we expected, with not a cloud in the sky. Perhaps it was that distraction that caused us to lay an egg in the first game, or perhaps Harvard's junky 3-3-1 gave our team fits as we faced the first zone of the season. The cutters downfield failed to attack the poaches aggressively, and instead languished behind the cup playing it as a true zone, which allowed the Red Line ample time to switch and clog lanes. Despite several opportunities to bring the game back into the fold, it was the O-line who ultimately folded and we lost 13-8.

This loss put our backs to the wall, needing to generate at least one victory and looking down the mouth of a Sunday that held CUT and Florida, our two biggest rivalries (Colorado being the other). I've called our team young, and having had CUT and Colorado hand it to us at MLC in the fall, and then faltering at the end of Friday vs Colorado, and laying an egg vs. Harvard, we reached a point of crisis. Are we as good as we think we can be? The short answer is not yet, but our potential is essentially limitless at the college level, and the second half of Saturday bore that out.

Our offense put together its finest effort in a classic game against CUT, with neither team blinking in a staring match that lasted until 9-9, when we finally got our first break, then piled on 3 more to take the game 13-10. The game began as contentious as our games always do, but by its end both teams were letting their hard effort do the talking for them. The exhilaration of this victory buried any disappointment in the loss to Harvard, and we carried that momentum directly into our game against Florida an hour later.

Florida is still Florida. They're still just a few players deep, but they're good players, and Troll Sullivan and Alex Hill anchor a team that would otherwise not chart in the Illboard Top 20. But the team is lacking the strength they've had in role players elsewhere, and their one-dimensionality proved their undoing. While other teams might struggle against the Florida image, to us it's always been a rallying point, and our O-line cutters had a field day with a downfield defense too soft to generate pressure against them. Florida basically waits until you make a mistake, and then tries to force something deep to or from Sullivan. Alex Hill plays the role of comic foil and looks to establish power position for himself and Cole as often as possible. Against a Hodag team hungry and smelling victims, it wasn't often enough. We won easily 13-9.

It's not everyday you can beat CUT and Florida within 2 hours of each other. Although too early in the season for either win to mean anything substantive, what we did learn is that we're as real as we thought we could be, and that despite our youth we have a lot of positives working in our favor. We also proved to ourselves the power of an engaged and vocal sideline; a lesson crucial for a team of this size and age. With everyone following the play and communicating to teammates, defense downfield suddenly seemed like a group affair. This lesson, and the confidence it provided, will have to remain with us for the rest of the season if we mean to accomplish the goals we've set for ourselves.

Sunday came with the best weather of the weekend, though not our best play. A young UNC-W team kept it close against us during the first half before surrendering too many breaks on unforced (and forced) errors, and despite some tit-for-tat calls early we ran away with it in the second half 13-7. Meanwhile Colorado lost to a fired-up Virginia in the field next to us, with the game going to the end of the round. Perhaps someone on Night Train finally brought a watch.

We secured a spot in semifinals against CUT, and never took it for granted that this game would be a tougher challenge than our first battle against them. The offense didn't have their best game though, and despite the defense generating turns we weren't able to convert on many of them. Lowlights included 5th year captain Ben Feldman joining an illustrious line of Hodags (2007 Callahan winner Dan Heijmen among them) that have caught a gorgeous pass in the red zone and immediately spiked the disc, before realizing they were well outside the endzone. In this case Feldman's elbow spike placed the disc about 10 yards out. Such was the nature of the D-line offense, coming close to a few breaks but not able to finish, and we lost the game to a fired up (and Grant-less) CUT squad, 13-7. The rivalry remains heated.

CUT took that victory and piled on top of it a complete game against Mamabird in finals. Norden does a lot of the heavy lifting for CUT on the throwing end, and Julian seemed like he was at recess downfield, running around unopposed and catching everything thrown his way. A well-earned victory for CUT over Mamabird 14-12, and for those keeping track, the Central remains the strongest region, or most top-heavy, nationwide.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Follow the Hodag twitter feed, along with the twitter account of the other 8 teams at the Leagevine website for Warm-Up, A Florida Affair.

The 'Dags are en route to the airport as I type this, office full of students stuffing their faces with the a la carte offerings of the high school deep fryer. I'm finding it's taking all I have to focus on the school work here and not the sun and ultimate awaiting us tomorrow.

Our schedule for the weekend:
Friday -
10am vs South Florida
noon vs. Cornell
2pm vs. Virginia
5pm vs. Colorado

Saturday -
noon vs. Harvard
2pm vs. Carleton Poopstains
6pm vs. Florida

Sunday -
8am vs. UNC-Wilmington
10am placement games and semis
12:30pm Finals

Rivalries everywhere. I love the round robin format. At this early juncture, it gives everyone plenty of games. It also makes every game carry weight, not only in victories, but also point differential. Every point counts, literally, because you never know when you'll need to win by one more or lose by one less to come out on top of some convoluted tie that is settled by point diff. We're aware of the stakes and we need to play with them in mind. See you down in Florida, where I will be tweeting from my account occasionally and the @hodaglove account will be active with updates.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Yesterday the Hodags swarmed the McClain Center for our final cleated practice before A Florida Warm-Up.I had spent the previous three hours in the library of my high school beginning the 3-part mediation between two rival gangs, represented by students at my high school and another in the city, in an effort between the school, the police department's anti-gang unit, and neighborhood intervention groups, to squash the beef between them. Tempers between the two gangs had flared earlier last year, culminating in the murder of a former student from here as he relaxed during a smoke break outside his workplace. Now, the police were seeing the same level of activity they'd noticed before that murder, and little fights and shit-talking were escalating just as they had then, and the three nights of talks are efforts by a wide range of concerned adults to broker a loose truce before things again get out of hand.

These were the thoughts in my mind as I drove downtown toward practice, and they were locked in step with me during my warm-up jog around the Shell's 200m indoor track.One of the blessings of a positive, high-energy activity like Ultimate (or any sport, for that matter) is its ability to clear your mind of things otherwise too heavy to shake before bed. After two miles of jogging, my mind, like a stiff and sore hamstring, finally released and the endorphins put me back where I wanted to be, excited and anxious as we prepared for the season's first tourney.

The focus was squarely where it needs to be for a team locked indoors during the harshness of winter: throws and touches. We approached the first half of practice they way we will our Friday morning warm-up, building speed, intensity, and demand of skill throughout the drills we executed. Although the winter months can sometimes lead to indoor fatigue, and sloppy and distracted play, the team knows that each minute in McClain is precious, and veterans kept the pace flowing. Although our ability to account for wind indoors, where every throw is unadultered, is next to impossible, by emphasizing crisp throws and sure hands we're able to at least prepare our minds and hands for the speed of the game.

And the best part is that this team has speed in spades. We're fast. That extra gear was on display as we moved to the second half of practice, which consisted of scrimmaging between the offensive squad and our defense. Although we looked a bit rusty at times, everyone approached each point as an opportunity to win their match-up, and our defensive aggression shone through. Colin Camp set the tone early with a full layout D on a huck that reminded me of Charles Woodson's diving effort that cost him his left collarbone in the Super Bowl. Colin paid only with some skin off his knee, and the team responded to his example. Although only a sophomore, Colin is already showing national-level superstar caliber, and it's these little inspiring plays like his that this team rides and requires for momentum.

Faces were exhausted and layers of jerseys soaked in sweat when 12:15am arrived, but everyone felt better about our readiness going into this weekend. We're going to be rusty, and our throws in wind will feel like we're learning to walk all over again, but our team is athletic and more importantly, determined. Can't wait.

For a nice study in contrast, take a look at today's weather in Madison, WI vs. Tampa Bay, FL.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

The damnedest thing about writer's block is that it doesn't stem from a lack of things to write about. Writing requires you to summon the energy necessary to relive the memory, and revisit its emotions, and that process is exhausting. It's kind of like why I haven't gotten around to watching Hotel Rwanda or Blood Diamond yet; I want to, but I know I'll be spent when I'm done, and I'll do it later when I have some more energy, ok?

In my absence Muffin's stream of conscience, like kudzu, grew outward without check and my blog has become an ill-kept garden. The links need weeding and pruning, the masthead a dusting, but mostly I just need to sit down and with the regularity of a drip irrigation system water the keyboard with my words. Yet that takes time, and the catch-22 I'm in is that while I am doing a lot I'd love to write about, the time required to do those things leaves little for their writing. And this being a new year, I toss my resolution to take time to write into the ring, there to rest with everyone else's.

So, aside from it generally being agreed upon that I'm on of the coolest people at my high school (by both fellow staff and students), I've been getting caught up in some Ultimate. I am the coach of the Hodags for the second year in a row, I reprised my role as counselor at Next Level, a camp for high school players, and I also completed my second year with Club as its captain, and we returned to Natties, for my 11th straight appearance. It's been a great experience, with a lot of learning along the way, and I'll entertain the thought that some of you voyeurs out there might be interested in reading about it.

Now, the Hodags are a week away from the first tournament of the spring, Warm-Up, A Florida Affair. We've been busy here in the taiga, alternating digging ourselves out of snow drifts and working out. This year's team returned 18 players from last year - a larger number than many other team's total rosters. Still, an overwhelming number of them were hard-nosed role players from last year. Our success this year will be predicated on these players emerging past their comfort zones and filling out into larger roles.

The departure of both of last year's captains, Matt Crumb and Jake Smart, along with losing the anchor of our offense, Callahan nominee and former captain Evan Klane, left a void at the top of the leadership. However, we have a crop of juniors and seniors that have been hungry to fill these places, and the emergence of Zach Alter and Alex Simmons as trailbreakers has made the transition easier.

Our main challenge has been dealing with the invernal elements. Practice time is at a premium here at UW-Madison, with excellent facilities but armies of club teams fighting for indoor time at the McClain Center. We again took a full roster this season, expecting attrition (but not so early in the season - we've already lost one player we were counting on), and what we need most now is time to play the sport and get used to each other. With Mardi Gras falling later than usual this year on account of this year's liturgical calendar, it conflicted with the Stanford Invite. It was a hard decision to pass up on Mardi Gras, considering that having won the money for like 8 years in a row now they should just rename it Mardi Gras Presents: The Hodags, but we have few opportunities to travel to the west coast and we had to take the one that fit us best.

We find ourselves again this year a young team, with more true freshman than in several years, but our athleticism has increased and our Sophomore/Junior classes are stellar. Provided we're able to put all the pieces together, we will again find ourselves competing against the best teams in the country for a shot at the national championship in Boulder, my second home, come Memorial Day.